I don’t believe in Hell, so I don’t believe anyone is ‘‘going to Hell.’’ How can they— if it doesn’t exist? I’ve said it before; preached it many times, but I say it again because it’s worth repeating. Because a notion of Hell as a place of eternal torment is ingrained at the root of cultural Christianity, and it leads to bad religion and bad theology and bad behaviors.
Why don’t I believe in hell?
- It’s not in the Bible— not as Hell came to be understood in the world today.
- It contradicts the very nature of God. If God is love, there can be no Hell.
- If grace is true, no one, no one, is punished for all eternity for their mistakes while on this earth a few decades.
The modern concept of Hell as eternal punishment is not in Scripture.
Our English translates the Old Testament Hebrew word “Sheol” or the Greek word “Hades” as Hell. “Sheol/Hades” are words that mean the place of the dead where all who die go. In Hebrew teachings, there was no eternal punishment, so there was no lake of burning fire. Ancient Hebrews did not conceive of an afterlife- certainly not one of damnation by God.
Our English translates the New Testament word Hades (the place of the dead) as hell. We also translate the name “Gehenna” as Hell. I’ve told you before about Gehenna. In ancient day, it was a valley where Israelites sacrificed children. The ground was deemed cursed by innocent children’s blood spilt, so it became a pit outside of Jerusalem where the animal carcasses and garbage was dumped. A fire burned there— smoldered all the time— to consume the rubbish and carcasses. Gehenna was a place outside of town— outside the community— outside the safety of the city walls— beyond the communal fellowship. “Gehenna” was used as a metaphor— how horrible it would be to live beyond community— apart from God.
Neither Jesus nor Paul or any of the authors of scripture conveyed the notion of a burning lake of fire where evil or unrepentant people suffered for all eternity damned by God. But by the time the scriptures were translated into English (in the 14th or 15th century) the Hell myth had such strong roots that whenever a translator saw “Gehenna” or “Hades”, he translated it as “Hell.” The notion of eternal damnation of one’s soul became a prime motivator for church growth and power. For along with the threat of hell, the church offered the only way out. The fires of hell grew hotter and the anguish grew more miserable with each passing generation then Dante delivered the church her greatest gift, The Divine Comedy.
In The Divine Comedy, Dante takes the reader through three realms of the dead: Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. The poet has developed places for every type of person, allowing him to editorialize about people’s actions in the world of his day. In the process, he creates vivid scenes of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Those, then, became the basis for virtually all of the artistic depictions of hell in the middle ages and our modern conceptions of a hell with demons, torment, and fire. It is said, “If the church created hell, Dante and Milton furnished, decorated, and populated it. The church was delighted with the horrific images that would frighten the flock into submission and encourage conversion through fear, so it adopted them although they were not biblical.
Progressive biblical scholars have dismissed the notion of Hell for a long time, but when a popular evangelical pastor, Rob Bell, did so and caused quite a fuss. Now, even the Pope is in agreement.
Pope Francis said:
“Through humility, soul searching, and prayerful contemplation, we have gained a new understanding of certain dogmas. The church no longer believes in a literal hell where people suffer. This doctrine is incompatible with the infinite love of God. God is not a judge but a friend and a lover of humanity. God seeks not to condemn but only to embrace. Like the fable of Adam and Eve, we see hell as a literary device. Hell is merely a metaphor for the isolated soul, which like all souls ultimately will be united in love with God.”
Hell isn’t in the Bible. It isn’t compatible with a God who is Love. It doesn’t fit with the notion of Grace. There is no lake of burning fire for all eternity— and Dante’s demons and gruesome creatures of the underworld are not images of hell — but there are other images…
There are images of five slain police officers surrounded by flowers and their crying children and widows.
Images of black men lying on the ground their blood seeping out in widening pools of racist death.
There are images of Paris and Nice where vacationers and joyous crowds were mowed down like weeds in a vacant lot.
Images of Orlando where 49 lives were cut short — and fear flamed high in the hearts and souls of gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender people across the country.
Images of Turkey with people in chaos spilling into the streets.
Images of a million refugees searching for a home and a toddler washing up on a foreign beach.
Images of a hungry child, an exploited teen. Images of poverty, and disease and domestic violence. Images of polluted oceans and whales slaughtered, oil-slick birds and forests vanished.
Images of hatred and greed, and arrogance and bigotry and terrorism.
Images of the Hell — not from God’s creation, but our own.
If there is no Hell of eternal damnation to which the church holds the keys, why be here? If church doesn’t scare the Hell out of you in order to sell you a get out of Hell free card, then why wake up on Sunday — why give your money — why share in the work or mow the lawn or come to the meetings?
It’s not out of fear of a God of Love that we gather in this place.
It’s not out of fear that we will go to Hell if we don’t gather in this place.
We gather not to be IN the church — but to be the Church. We gather to remember who we are and whose we are. When the culture tries to tell us otherwise, we gather to celebrate the gift of life and the beauty that exists even beyond the images of Hell that flash across our news screens. We gather to hold one another in the hard times — when images bombard us and pain overwhelms us. We gather to work for justice —when we know things aren’t right — aren’t as they should be. Because we know, where two and three gather, or two and three hundred, can make a difference in the hells we have wrought.
We gather to come together to sing and pray and serve and claim peace and hope. We hope in knowing that as long as there is one heart of love in this world, there is a God. For God is LOVE, and it is this divine love that lives in you and you who live in it.
May it be so.