Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Mythbusters: Hell is Fabricated

It's time to dust off my blog and write another post. I return once again to the subject of hell.
Given that the subject of hell is what kickstarted the intense examination of
my faith, I think it's appropriate to return once more to it. This is brought on
largely by the 4 part series on hell being preached at my church. Although I
have disagreed with the minister on most of the points he makes, I have
appreciated being drawn back into a topic I have largely set aside, which has
been mostly, though not entirely, resolved in my mind.

I'll be devoting a post to each of the sermons preached. He has styled each sermon in mythbusters
fashion. The first myth to be busted was "hell is fabricated." He
rejected the idea that "hell was invented by preachers trying to scare the
laity into obedience". Perhaps preachers didn't invent it for that
purpose, but it is of interest to know that both ancient Greek and Roman
writers stated that polititians had precisely that motive in mind when they
created myths to keep the populace under control. In "Histories,"
Polybius writes,"Were the state made up only of wise men, it would not
have been necessary to cultivate this belief, but since the multitude does not
know what it wants, does not reason, and cannot contain its desires and
passions, it must be checked by invisible terrors and suchlike pageantry."

My minister supported his position that hell is real by quoting scripture where Jesus speaks of hell. It's true that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record Jesus speaking of hell, of
eternal damnation where the "worm does not die, and the fire is not
quenched" (Mark 9:48). In Matthew 25:41, Jesus recounts the sentencing of
the wicked by the King at judgement,"Then he will say to those on his left
hand, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil
and his angels."

However, supporting the doctrine of hell simply by quoting Jesus without regard to the culture in
which Jesus grew up, the historical development of the belief in hell, what the
rest of scripture says, and the authenticity of Jesus' sayings on hell is to
ignore the bulk of material which might shed light on the matter.

The earliest books of the Old Testament not only contain no references to punishment in the
afterlife, but they also contain no references to a life after death. Later
books, such as Isaiah, mention the good receiving life after death (Isaiah
26:19), and destruction for the wicked (Malachi 3:14, Jeremiah 31:40 ) but only
Daniel, written perhaps as late as 165 B.C., describes eternal torment for the
wicked (Daniel 12:2-3). Much of what is written about eternal punishment during
the second temple period comes from non-canonical works, such as the Book of
Enoch. At the time of Jesus, Jewish sects such as the Pharisees and Essenes
believed in an afterlife, while the Sadducees did not. The Jesus of the gospels
appears to view himself as an observant Jew, so it would not be surprising if
he did believe in eternal punishment, given the cultural milieu. There would
also be strong psychological motives for belief in an afterlife where a
reversal of fortunes could be granted. The Jews had long been awaiting a
Messiah to free them from oppression and restore their blessings. If a
this-worldly restoration appeared unlikely with the weight of the Romans upon
them, perhaps an other-worldly restoration would be possible. If Jesus spoke on
eternal damnation, would he be saying anything new, or merely echoing the
sentiments of his time?

While the Jesus Seminar gives a black bead to the sayings of Jesus on hell, meaning they are unlikely to be an authentic quote, I'm not certain how much this matters. To me, the
historical development of hell both within Jewish culture and surrounding
cultures as well as the apparent influence on neighboring religions on each
other is an indication that hell is a human construct that evolved with the
changing experiences and needs of the people.


  1. I often wonder if there had been no volcanoes would there still be a concept of Hell in the center of the earth?

  2. I'm of the impression that the concepts of Heaven and Hell came from filling in the gaps. You've got verses like Genesis 25:8 and Genesis 49:33 where a dead person "was gathered to his people." Then you've got 1 Samuel 28 where Saul contacts the dead Samuel via a medium. With those kinds of passages, it is only natural to speculate what else happens when you die. Mix in the harsh reality of wicked people sometimes prospering and good people sometimes suffering, and it isn't hard to make that conceptual leap that the dead are waiting around for some kind of final judgement.

  3. Doug B,
    Interesting thought. I need to expand my reading to the development of hell in areas other than the ancient near east.

    The Wise Fool,
    There's certainly alot of psychology going into beliefs about the afterlife.

  4. When I lived in India and Japan I collected several religious cartoon books aimed at children. I have copies of fantastic cartoons from both Hindus and Buddhists with graphic images of Hell to scare the shit out of kids. We all do this crap. How else is a child suppose to learn to be good and stay in the faith? (Sarcasm)

    1. I actually wasn't aware that Buddhists believed in a literal hell. :( Are there no religions without hell? I'd like to see those cartoons. That would be an interesting post.

  5. Suggestion: you might want to add: something like @ so-and-so to your comments because when I get them in my e-mail I can't tell who you are talking to.

    Last night I looked for those booklets, but could not find them. I must have tossed them over the years or they are hiding in a box in the basement. But trust me, common day Buddhism in Asia is very different from the rarified stuff you see in the West.

  6. Thanks Sabio, the reply function just appeared in my blog and I used it without realizing I still needed to add the recipient's name to my comments. I'll do an "about the author" section as I have time. Thanks for the suggestion by the way.