I will preface this post by saying that I may be inquisitive but also not to be mistaken for a scholar. While I have read extensively on this subject, it was done in more of a hobbyist’s manner than as a serious scholarly feat. So, take everything I say here with a grain of salt. I’m discussing my own beliefs and ambivalence, not making an indictment against other people’s faith or telling anyone else what to believe.
That being said- I’m not sure I believe in Hell. The concept of a loving and embracing God that has kept me in my faith seems at odds with the idea of eternal condemnation. Ever since childhood I’ve struggled against the idea that people I have come to care for might be condemned to eternal punishment simply because they have not “accepted Christ”. This internal struggle has only intensified as I’ve seen more and more people rebel against the faith because of the intolerance and cruelty of self-professed Christians. Why would God punish the victim for the wrongs of the abuser? Why would God condemn a man to hell that left his faith because he was sexually abused by a Priest?
At some point I saw a History Channel special about Hell, and one of the scholars said that “historically speaking, Hell as we know it is a recent invention”. That statement both baffled and horrified me, because I’d been taught to interpret a lot of Old Testament verses as references to Hell. So that’s when I decided to start doing a little research of my own.
Here is an interesting article I found online about possible interpretations of Biblical passages as references to Hell. I will sum it up by saying that several words that we now translate as Hell could refer also to “the grave”, “death”, or “punishment”. One of the words we now translate as Hell originates from the Hebrew word Gahenna which refers to a valley were bodies were burned. The stench and smoke were easily representative of punishment and agony. Tartarus and Hades are also interpreted as Hell, both of those words being references to a mythological afterlife.
The simple truth is that the Bible never spells things out in plain language, it never says, “accept Christ as your personal savior or you will burn in Hell”. I didn’t become a Christian out of fear of punishment, I did so because I felt drawn by God and I want to love him, I want to life a life exemplary of Love and Sacrifice, and what better way to do so than by emulating Christ himself? I don’t believe it is healthy for a person’s primary motivation to be one of fear.
Historically fear has been a great motivator. Fear was easily used by the Catholic Church in the dark ages as a way to keep the populace under control, plus it yielded a great deal of cold hard cash as people tried to buy their way out of retribution. I find it hard to align myself with a belief that has been so misused.
I will end by saying I’m really not sure what I believe when it comes to Hell, I just know that I cannot allow the thought of punishment to be so central to my beliefs. I know that I love God, and I serve him. I know that when I minister to others I want to do so out of love, not motivated by guilt that if I do not convert them they will burn in Hell for an eternity. I have a certain amount of peace with my own ambivalence.
I don’t need to know everything with certainty. I know that God is Love, that’s enough.