Mark Rants & Raves

Digressions into a variety of topics about the world.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The purpose of "hell"

We all have our own belief systems. That's fine. I'm not trying to change yours, rather to examine why a concept such as "hell" exists.

Some history

So where did a concept of "hell" come from? The English came up with the word "hell":
Hell comes to us directly from Old English hel. Because the Roman Church prevailed in England from an early date, the Roman—that is, Mediterranean—belief that hell was hot prevailed there too; in Old English hel is a black and fiery place of eternal torment for the damned.
The Greco-Romans called hell hades:
The god Hades... received the underworld for his realm... The realm he rules over is also called Hades. Hades is the enemy of all life, gods, and men.
The Hebrews called hell sheol:

The word Hell, in the Old Testament, is always a translation of the Hebrew word Sheol...By examination of the Hebrew Scriptures it will be found that its radical or primary meaning is, The place or state of the dead.

Muslims refer to hell as Jahannam:
Islamic eschatology is concerned with the Qiyamah (end of the world) and the final judgement of humanity. Like Christianity and some sects of modern Judaism, Islam teaches the bodily resurrection of the dead, the fulfillment of a divine plan for creation, and the immortality of the human soul; the righteous are rewarded with the pleasures of Jannah (Paradise), while the unrighteous are punished in Jahannam (a fiery Hell, from the Hebrew ge-hinnom or "valley of Hinnom"; usually rendered in English as Gehenna).
You can read more here.

Motivations

So, why do some (actually most) religions believe in hell? Lets try to enumerate some possibilities:
  • Guilt
It's easier to keep kids in line, people coming to church, revenue streaming in, ... if you have a hammer to hold over people's heads. Somehow though, all the televangelists and other "preachers" do what they want and then claim that God will forgive them when they're caught. But you better not do as they do!
  • Revenue
Yes, churches/synogogues/temples are businesses that must have income to survive and grow...not to mention the power that goes along with riches. And the cleric/pastor/priest is paid by the congregation - are you really going to tell me they want to live frugally as Christ/Mohammed/... did?

What if people aren't paying enough attention? Get the big "hell" stick out to whip them into shape. It is so seriously deranged ... I've actually seen people fighting over very expensive spending decisions (read power) in a church while these same people don't care that the church is homogenous race-wise, won't lift a finger to help others, and fight against letting homeless families use the church as shelter until they can get back on their feet (what if they steal something?! Oh my!).
  • Writings
The Bible, Quran, Talmud, and other religious publications certainly mention hell is some form or another (hell, hades, gehenna, ...). OK, hell is mentioned in religious publications -- who do you think writes these? Human beings! They're people, just like you and I, with all the weaknesses and failings. And I know, before you flame me, that some believe that this was spoken from God and written directly down. If that's true from 1, 2, ... centuries ago, why can't it be true today?! Why do believers so vehemently attack books such as Conversations with God? Can't God talk to someone today, just like (s)he did centuries ago?

If we just look at the Bible for a minute, the numbers of mentions of the three different words for "hell" has changed over time . And these were actual places, like where they literally dumped Jerusalem's garbage.
Lets be honest. Isn't it just possible that the concept of hell is used for well-meaning reasons and doesn't really exist? What should we think of a God that would want us to suffer for all eternity?! I don't know about you, but my God isn't like that! WWJD (WWMD, ...)? He wouldn't allow this for his children IMO.

There are groups that do not believe in hell. E.g., Buddhism views life as a struggle to "do better" - to overcome our shortcomings and aspire to be better people; there is no hell in Buddhism, which is one of the reasons that I associate most closely with Buddhist thinking (and this from someone whose father was Catholic and mother was Baptist and who has been to Methodist and other "organized" religions over the years). For a Buddhist, "hell" is basically torturing yourself by the results of your bad acts; happiness is increased by doing loving, welcoming, positive acts.
I hesitate to call Buddhism a religion since most Buddhists don't consider themselves a religion, but rather a way of life..in fact, Buddhist temples are frequented by people that claim they are Catholics, Protestants, agnostics, Jews, Muslims, ...
If you still believe in hell, what is your answer for someone who hasn't met your criteria through no fault of their own? E.g., if you think you have to accept Christ as your savior, what about primitive tribes in Africa that have never heard of the Bible or Christ? You would honestly sit there in your pompous righteousness and judge that these people would burn in your "hell"?! Unbelievable.

I do understand that without moral constraints, chaos would ensue. Some have postulated that this is a fact and is a contributing factor in the downward spiral of civilization. I just prefer to take the positive motivation of Buddhism over the negative threats of most other belief systems. On a regular basis over the centuries, including the crusades and the recent "cartoon" riots, religion has been involved in many, many horrific events. How ironic.

As I said when I started, if you believe in hell, that's your business. I do not choose to accept that concept for myself. Reasonable, logical debates to the contrary are welcome along with justification.

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5 Comments:

Blogger alland said...

Well let me first make it clear that I am responding to this blog as a Christian who does believe that Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior and died on the Cross to forgive me of my sins. With that said I do believe that each of us will live eternally either in Heaven or in Hell.

Mark has made reference to a couple of websites that try to give definitions on Hell. The problem with these sites is that they do what so many typically do when trying to discredit or dispute the Bible. They cherry-pick the verses, take the verses then out of their context, and finally impose a literal meaning on top of the words. You can't do that. Not with any literature. If I were to tell you right now that I have been writing all day until my arm fell off each and every one of you would know that I did not literally loose my arm. It is hyperbole. I have tried to convey in a more emphatic way that I am tired from all the writing. And that is exactly the literary style that the writers are using in the Bible when discussing Hell. Hell is not necessarily this literal meaning of the gnashing of teeth or lakes of fire, or etc..It is plainly the separation of man from God and His love forever. Yet to drive home the significance of Hell the writers typically will use more emphatic terms to make the point.

Now to the motivations.

As for Guilt I would not argue at all that there are some people out there that would use circumstances or positions of influence to intimidate or guilt others into following their message. But let me take it into another direction and state that many times what might be considered as guilting others could simply be the hard cold fact that you are being told that there is one and only one way to God and that is through Jesus Christ. And depending on the tone by which this message is being conveyed it could be very much construed as “Guilt”.

As for Revenue I think everyone would agree that any establishment is required to use money to pay its bills. However to make a statement implying that pastors and the like are simply out to make as much money as possible and could not be content with a more frugal lifestyle is a very reckless statement. It could very easily be equated to a racist like statement whereby one takes their personal view of a few and then superimposes that view on the larger group with very broad conclusions made. [I am not saying anyone is racist. I am simply trying to make a point.].

And let me make one final point about money. Being a Christian is not a one to one correspondence to being poor. You can be a Christian and be wealthy and also be competitive and driven to succeed. Everything in this world is God’s and we are simply stewards of all these items. If I am blessed with being wealthy then it is my responsibility to use that money to further His word and to help others to the best of my ability. We should all be aware that we came into this world with nothing and we are going to leave this world with nothing.

Now on to the last Motivation, writings.
In this section I want to concentrate on the referenced book “Conversations with God” by Neale Donald Walsch. First let me make it clear that I have not read this book. What I have done is researched the author and analyzed excerpts of the book. There is no problem with each of us talking with God but typically we would do so on a personal and private level. As a Christian I strive to have a very strong relationship with God and I pray and talk to him on a daily basis. What I don’t do is take my conversation and then claim myself to be God and then distort and again take Biblical Scripture out of context simply to make a point. This is one of the many things Walsch does. I have added a couple of links myself for you to read on your own.

http://www.equip.org/free/DC675.htm
http://www.christiancourier.com/penpoints/nealeWalsch.htm
http://www.apologeticsindex.org/w21.html

I would like to add one more motivation which is missing in my opinion. That motivation is Love. Could it be possible that there are actually individuals out there who truly are concerned with our eternal well-being so much as to want to really discuss with us the very serious reality of Hell. Now how they deliver their message may determine whether we positively or negatively react to what they say. But none the less their intentions are pure and based on love.

Now finally to answer the question about whether or not tribesmen in Africa would be condemned to Hell for never hearing about Jesus?
First, people are not condemned to Hell for not believing in Jesus. Rather we are all already condemned to Hell by our sinful nature. Therefore the real question should be how can a Just God save any of us from Hell. And I believe that all of us are born with an innate goodness and conscience for good. Therefore if these tribesmen continue to follow that light and are good people then by the grace and love of God they will be in Heaven. The same goes for those of us that have been blessed with knowing the Bible and understanding that Jesus is the one and only way so if we continue to follow the light of Jesus and are faithful then by God’s grace we will spend eternity in Heaven and not Hell.

Allan

12:25 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Allan - I appreciate your post. You had many good things to say and I would characterize the overall tone as welcoming and respectful. This is in contrast to many whom I believe are more judgmental and "holier than thou". That said, I thought I'd talk to a couple of things you said:

"we came into this world with nothing and we are going to leave this world with nothing"
I understand your point, I'd only add that we do leave an impact and take life experiences with us. Hopefully, we all grow in our lifetime mentally, emotionally, and spiritually (note that spirituality does not require an organized religion to achieve).

"these sites is that they do what so many typically do when trying to discredit or dispute the Bible"
My view wasn't that the sites' goal was to discredit anyone's religious writings, but rather to expound upon facts from history. Sorry you took them that way.

"there is one and only one way to God and that is through Jesus Christ"
I have a problem with this attitude. This is exactly what has happened many times over the centuries: you're wrong and I'm right (and often, "and I'm going to force you to accept my way"). This kind of thinking IMO leads to things like the recent "cartoon" riots - such exclusionary thinking that one way is the only way and anyone that disagrees is an "infidel" or "goy". I used to work with some orthodox Jews and some of them looked at anyone that did not believe what they believe as poor, lost souls. How pompous! I choose not to look down on others (and that is what this attitude does).

"to make a statement implying that pastors and the like are simply out to make as much money as possible ... is a very reckless statement"
This is putting words in my mouth. However, if you look at the history of, e.g., the Catholic church, you will clearly see an organization that has wielded a lot of political power, often not in a good way. Much of this power was in the form of wealth (money, land, ...). There are also religions that set fairly high "minimum" tithes. And I personally have attended churches that were very focussed on money - e.g. a big drive to buy an expensive pipe organ (the church already had one...guess a better one - for a lot of money - was more important than many other more worthy ventures).

"“Conversations with God” ... let me make it clear that I have not read this book. What I have done is ... analyzed excerpts of the book"
This is phenomenally ironic, given your earlier point about people taking writings out of context! You have done the same thing! I would highly recommend that you read the book before you pass judgement. Smear sites are going to spin "quotes" to make a point. You're doing yourself a disservice to read posts from people that have an agenda. When reading, stay open to the idea that we all have some godliness in us. And, as I stated in the original post, why is God restricted to speaking to men thousands of years ago? Can't this happen now?!

"discuss...the very serious reality of Hell"
That is your belief and you are welcome to it. I do not believe God would have a "hell" for her children.

A couple more things for you to think about:

- If accepting Jesus as your savior is your definition of the "truth", what are you telling the billions of others?! They are wrong?

- Hopefully you would acknowledge that men are fallible. Men are the writers of all things religious. And I know that God could make it "perfect". Why would she do that in some ways and not others? Why bother with concepts like free will if not a single misconception could creep into thousands of pages of writings? And even if they are "perfect", they are still imperfect words and sentences read by imperfect people! That in and of itself injects "errors" or at least misconceptions. Certainly, you realize that the Bible wasn't written in English originally. Do you think all people working on translations do a "perfect" job? Do you think all readers perceive and understand the meaning perfectly?

Again, I want to thank you for your post. I got some things to ponder out of it. Hopefully you can have an open mind to see if others have valid points.

Mark

9:18 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Check out Afghan judiciary says won't bow to convert pressure:
"Afghanistan's judiciary will not bow to outside pressure over the fate of a man who faces the death penalty for converting to Christianity, a judge dealing with the case said on Thursday. ... Death is one of the punishments stipulated by sharia, or Islamic law, for apostasy. The Afghan legal system is based on a mix of civil and sharia law."

Unbelievable what people do in the name of religion and God.

7:37 AM  
Blogger alland said...

Why Jesus is the Way?
Ok let me break this down.
I will discuss what I believe to be the 5 most followed religions of our world placed into three grouping:

1. Atheism (No God)

2. Theism (One or more gods)
Judaism
Islam
Christianity

3. Naturalism (Pantheism: God is in us and we are in God.)
Hinduism
Buddhism

Now I would argue that all participants of these groups have to a certain degree exclusionary points of view. They each have their own belief of Truth. With that said we all may be wrong about truth but we can’t all be right. Truth is truth. It is not subjective and it is not valid simply because the masses say so. It is above us all.

Those in the Atheistic and Theistic group, though polar opposites, believe in an Objective Truth, an absolute truth. However those in the Naturalistic group do not. They believe that the path or journey is at the personal level. It is more based on emotion and feeling instead of objective reasoning. Therefore it really falls under the category of moral relativism. You do what you want to make yourself happy or enlightened and I will do what makes me happy or enlightened. And because of that philosophy there is really no single truth and those in this group can not complain or second guess any of the rest of us because of what we believe.

Now as a Christian I am fully aware that statements such as “Jesus is the only way” are exclusionary statements. However instead of interpreting these words as arrogant maybe it should be viewed as the Christian simply feeling so strongly that they are speaking the Truth. If I were a doctor with the only cure for your life-threatening disease you would want me to share it and it would be my obligation to share it.

Also as a Christian it is not my responsibility to pound the Bible at you and try and convert you. However I understand that some Christians may be over zealous in their approach. But Jesus never told me to convert anyone. I can’t. We are simply messengers. It is up to the Holy Spirit touching your heart. That is it.

There are essential doctrines that must be accepted and followed by individuals and churches to be considered Christian. Therefore if these essentials are not followed by a church or even a faith that claims to be Christian then they are not.

1. The Bible is the authoritative word of God.
2. We affirm the existence of a Triune God, or one God in three distinct persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit)
3. Man is both a physical and spiritual being who is created in God’s image.
4. Jesus Christ, who is fully God and fully man, was sent to save us from our bondage to sin.
5. We recognize the church as God’s ordained institution headed by Christ.

Now the crux of the above five statements hinges on point one. Because if this can be proven then the other points are proven due to the fact they are discussed in the Bible.

So it should be understood that the Bible is a historical document and if it is subjected to the same tests we perform on other documents for authenticity it proves itself far superior to all other ancient writings.

The New Testament was written in Greek between 50 AD and 100 AD. There is something like 5000 Greek manuscripts and some estimated 25000 more copies. Now for a contrasting example, there are about 7 of Plato’s manuscripts in existences with about a 1300 year gap between the original writing and the copies. Also with all these manuscripts of the New Testament scholars through out time have verified the consistency among all the manuscripts. And also don’t forget that large portions of the New Testament were written by eyewitnesses.

As for the Old Testament once the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1946 these manuscripts dated approximately 1000 years earlier than any other existing Old Testament manuscripts and they were virtually identical.

And there continues to be more and more archaeological findings which strengthen the authenticity of the Bible. Therefore if we hold the Bible to the same standards as other writings of history it clearly stands all tests.

1:39 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Thanks so much for a well-thought-out reply. I do understand your beliefs. Some points to consider:

* All languages are imperfect means of communication. Even if God did recite the words of the bible perfectly and they were written down verbatim, they are still subject to interpretation by everyone that reads them (and that doesn't even take into account translations).

* If God talked to men thousands of years ago, why can't she talk to men more recently? Is it that the messages by recent writings don't fit well into the concepts derived by men from earlier writings?

* Why can't people that are "right" accept that others see things differently. I don't need someone to "save" me from my "disease" or definitely not kill me for apostasy or some such abomination in the name of someone's view of "god".

* As I said before, ways of life like Buddhism are not exclusionary like most "formal" religions. Buddhists accept people of all religions. You will never find a true Buddhist saying someone is going to "hell" or killing someone because they believe something different.

Bottom line: I'm fine with you believing what you believe. And it's alright if you don't accept what I believe. I still say no loving God would have "hell" (other than the misery we inject into our own lives).

10:27 AM  

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