Issue #1 – Hell

Welcome to the first ever issue of The Allowed! We’re starting off nice and light, with a little-known and uncontroversial idea that most people have no strong opinion about.

Only joking. Today we’re talking about Hell!

The purpose of this website is to look at a whole range of topics, beliefs, and ideas in detail, to see where they came from and to take them apart (also I wanted an excuse to draw pictures). The belief in Hell and eternal damnation is widespread and deeply ingrained in Christian culture, and it’s also one of the biggest things that caused me to rethink a lot of my personal faith and beliefs. So I guess it’s a good place to start!

I grew up in a small church environment, the kind where you are completely free to have your own beliefs (as long as they don’t disagree with the group). ‘Free thinking’ wasn’t really a big part of it. Growing up in that environment, one of the signatures of our worldview was that there is a real, physical place called Hell, and everybody who doesn’t fulfil a certain set of criteria (specifically in my tradition, believing in Jesus and accepting his forgiveness, mixed with a little bit of good works) is going to have an eternity of horrific punishment there after they die. 

This idea fascinates me. Where did it come from? Is there actually any proof that Hell exists? Did the people who wrote the Bible actually believe in it? It’s pretty intriguing, to me at least. Maybe I’m just a strange person.

Except that according to surveys, I’m not. One selection of opinion polls collected here shows that between 54% and 85% of Americans believe in a physical Hell. Obviously it depends on who you ask, but whichever way you twist it, there are a lot of people in our 21st-Century world that still profess to believe in a literal place of fire and brimstone where bad people go when they die.

I had a few questions. How could so many good people say they believed in this? And why were people so desperate to keep a hold of this idea? What would happen to a good person who never heard of the Christian faith? What about a devout Muslim or Buddhist or Atheist who lived with integrity and passion for what they believed to be true? How could Heaven possibly be paradise when you knew that people you loved were burning in Hell somewhere? And if people really believed in Hell, why weren’t they all going full-on-non-stop-24/7-street-preacher-crazy to try and save their friends?

I couldn’t match the idea of Hell with the idea of a loving God, so I pretty much ignored the issue. But eventually I had to admit to myself that things didn’t make sense.

So, it’s the perfect candidate for a good old taking apart. Lets get into this. 

——————————

My first idea of Hell looked a lot like the image below (I told you there’d be pictures) :

Hell #1

This is probably familiar to most of us as the traditional view of Hell used in countless books and films and television shows (my personal favourites being #1 : the South Park version where the devil is in a relationship with Saddam Hussein; and #2 : Futurama’s robot Hell where the robot devil and his demons perform extravagant musical numbers). This image of fiery lakes, strange and creative torture by demons, and an overruling lord called Satan, is probably the Hell that most of us picture when we hear the word.

Actually, even in my church growing up, I was taught that this was kind of dumb and silly. Instead, I remember being told that Hell was a lot more like this picture : 

Hell #2

Yep, don’t worry children, Hell isn’t that silly cartoon-ish place you see in the movies… that’s just stupid. Actually it’s going to be eternal darkness and loneliness, where all you can hear are the far-off screams of the other inhabitants, and you are removed from any real contact with another person… oh, and by the way there’s still fire, it’s just going to be invisible. And this will last FOREVER! 

Pretty terrifying stuff. Possibly even worse than the first version.

But also interesting! And right at the start we have found at least two different versions of what Hell looks like. Which made me wonder how many others are out there? 

The answer is a lot. In fact, Hell is not an original Christian idea. It’s been around for way longer than that. It’s shared by many religions, both modern and ancient. Let’s take a look at a few early examples : 

#1 – The Ancient Persians // The Chinvat Bridge & The House of Lies

hell #3

In the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism, when you die you must cross a narrow bridge spanning their version of Hell, the ‘House of Lies’. At the far end of the bridge stands a woman; if you have lived a righteous life, the woman appears beautiful, but if you have lived an immoral life, she appears to you as an ugly old hag. For those unlucky people, the bridge would tip them sideways into their punishment – and this is really one of the most gross Hells there is, as you are forced to eat corpses and various bodily fluids, as well as suffering the intense loneliness described in ‘pitch black Hell’ above. 

The good news is that it’s not forever. Eventually you will be set free to be reunited with all the good people who crossed the bridge successfully (which I imagine would make for some pretty awkward parties).

#2 – Babylonian Mythology // Irkalla

Hell #4

In ancient Babylon, Irkalla was the place all people went after they died, regardless of how they had lived. It was a pretty hopeless idea of the afterlife, and was similar in some ways to the Jewish idea of ‘Sheol’ (more on that later).

To get to Irkalla, you have to pass through seven gates, and pay toll to each of the seven gatekeepers, usually with a piece of clothing. Basically it’s like strip poker without the cards, and you always lose. I have no idea what use the gatekeepers had for so many clothes. 

When you finally arrive in Irkalla, naked and probably quite tired, you just kind of decompose and eat dust for a long time. It’s a bit lacking in imagination to be honest, so let’s move on to … 

#3 – Viking Hell // Helheim

Hell #5

Being a good or bad person didn’t really matter too much to those crazy old Vikings. Instead, their version of Hell is reserved for anybody who doesn’t die a glorious death in battle. So if you are boring enough to die of old age or sickness, it’s down to Helheim for you. The biggest difference between Helheim and most other Hells is that it’s freezing cold instead of burning hot. Also it’s guarded by an impassable river and a monstrous hound called Garm. 

Which makes me wonder, if the river is already impassable, is the hell-dog necessary? Oh, those crazy extravagant Vikings! You’ve got to love them.

#4 – The Aztecs // The Road to Mictlan

Hell #6

To the Aztecs, Mictlan is the place where most people go when they die, and it’s morally-neutral and not particularly nice. But the journey to get there is a Hell in itself; a four-year long treacherous journey over raging rivers of blood, through massive deserts, and between cliffs that grind together. There’s also freezing winds carrying knives, jaguars, and a yellow dog who helps you on the way (it’s not clear how the dog helps, or why he’s yellow).

In other words, it sounds like an awesome video game, and is therefore my Favourite Hell Ever. 

We can see from just these few examples that the idea of an eternal place of punishment after death, while containing many variations, is a pretty universal theme that’s been around in some form for thousands of years. It’s definitely not unique to Christianity, and actually pre-dates it by a long shot.

These various ideas of Hell and fire and punishment seem to have influenced and gotten tangled up with the Christian religion. What I want to do in the rest of this post is untangle the two and see what we’re left with.

Let’s start with some word study! YEEAAAHHH!

——————————

Hellvolution

The first thing to come to terms with is that whenever you read a Bible these days and see the word ‘Hell’, you should immediately rid your mind of any connection with the fiery scary devil-Hell that jumps to mind. That’s because there are actually four separate words in the original languages of the Bible that people translated into one English word ‘Hell’ (as we shall see later on). ‘Hell’ as we think of it today wasn’t a popular concept back when the Bible was written.

Let’s take a closer look at those four original words.

#1 – Sheol (Ancient Hebrew) 

Any time you read the word ‘Hell’ in the Old Testament (the first part of the Bible, or the Torah in Jewish culture), this is the original word. Sheol is an ancient Jewish concept, and described the place where everyone went after death. It didn’t matter if you were Hitler or Mother Theresa (the go-to examples of good/bad people), Sheol was where you ended up.

It was also believed that in some circumstances the dead in Sheol could be contacted by the living; there’s even a Bible story where a witch brings back a dead prophet called Samuel to give some advice to the King. (This story always confused me as a kid, because it seemed to go against what I heard in church about Heaven and Hell, and even against other things I read in the Bible. Now I see it as another example of the way that cultures and belief systems change and evolve over time, even within the Bible… which actually makes the Bible more interesting to me. More on that in another post.)

Later in Jewish history (in the period between 500BC – 70AD) new ideas about the afterlife were developed, but at the point of the Old Testament writings, the idea was this one place for all the dead (where they were known as ‘shades’ which is a pretty cool name). Hell as we think of it today did not exist in the thinking of the Old Testament Jews. This was a big idea for me to grasp, and the complete opposite of what I’d always been taught in church!

To get a better idea of the concept of Sheol, you can compare it to the second word, which described a very similar idea – 

#2 – Hades (Ancient Greek)

This was the Greek name for both the underworld where every person went after death, and the god who ruled over it (awesomely voiced by James Woods in Disney’s Hercules). The word ‘Hades’ appears ten times in the New Testament.

Hades and Sheol are actually very similar ideas, from two different cultures and languages. Again, there was no moral/immoral divide; it was simply the place that everybody went after death. 

#3 – Tartarus (Ancient Greek)

This only appears once in the Bible, but it’s also super cool because it’s an example of the Biblical writer directly referring to Greek mythology. In the ancient stories, Tartarus was the deepest dungeon of Hades, used as a prison for the Titans and a place where the wicked were tortured. (Good place to mention here that I think Greek mythology is pretty freaking cool too.)

So why is it so cool that Tartarus is in the Bible?

Because it shows the cross-pollination of ideas between cultures. If you have a Bible nearby (check the top desk drawer if you’re currently in a hotel), you can see it for yourself at 2 Peter 2:4 (although it will most likely be translated as ‘Hell’ or the ‘lower hell’ – those damn cheeky translators.)

Here’s a version with the original word still in there (the Weymouth New Testament)

“For God did not spare angels when they had sinned, but hurling them down to Tartarus consigned them to caves of darkness, keeping them in readiness for judgement.”

It’s a reference to another ancient piece of Hebrew writing, 1 Enoch, in which God is said to be the god of Tartarus, where he imprisons rebellious angels. It sounds strange to us in our modern culture, but it fits right into the world of ancient thinking about the gods and the underworld. This is an example of Greek mythology directly influencing the Biblical author.

While we’re on Greek mythology, it’s interesting to note that it was Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher and one of the most influential thinkers behind Western culture, who introduced in 380BC the idea that moral people were rewarded after death, while immoral people were punished and tormented. (See the ‘Myth of Er’ that concludes his Republic for more on this.) That idea has influenced the entire world, including Christian beliefs, for centuries.

The fourth word is the one you’ll see the most in the New Testament, and also seems to cause the most disagreement, so we’ll need to go a bit more in-depth here.

#4 – Gehenna (Ancient Greek)

‘Gehenna’ is the word most often translated as Hell in the New Testament (although it still only appears 12 times). 

Gehenna is real. I mean that it was the name of an actual, physical place outside of Jerusalem. ‘Gehenna’ is the Greek version of the Hebrew word ‘Ge Hinnom’, which literally means ‘Valley of Hinnom’. 

Want to see what Gehenna looks like today?

by Ester Inbar, available from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:ST. [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s a lovely place! So if someone in Jerusalem today tells you to ‘go to hell’, they probably just mean ‘have a nice day at the park’.

But what about back then? Well, Gehenna had kind of a dodgy history. And by dodgy, I mean ‘burning kids alive as sacrifices to an evil god’. Pretty dark. Specifically it had a reputation for child sacrifice to the pagan god Molech, who I guess wasn’t that nice of a guy.

There’s another theory that Gehenna was used as a kind of rubbish dump where all the trash of the city was burned, in a constantly blazing fire that was later used for cremation; but I couldn’t find much evidence to support this idea, as interesting as it is.

Either way, the point is that Gehenna would have been completely known and familiar to everyone who heard about it back then. It probably had dark and unpleasant connections in their minds, but it was still a real place that everyone was aware of. Later, a mystical/Orthodox tradition of Gehenna began to develop in Judaism, and it became a way of talking about a kind of purgatory, or ‘waiting-room after death’, where you are intensely aware of all the bad stuff you’ve done in your life. In this tradition, the longest a person can remain in Gehenna is 12 months, which is not even close to eternity.

So, this word seems to be the very early starting point for the current popular version of Hell, but it’s still a long way off from the fires and eternal punishment and demons and massive red goat-man of today. 

Let’s sum up what we’ve learnt so far. The Bible, which we may imagine to be full of warnings about Hell and damnation, really doesn’t talk about it much at all; and never in the terms that we tend to think about it today. The Old Testament never mentions it, and the New Testament mixes Greek mythology with some dark imagery about a site of child-sacrifice (and even then not very often).

There is one other part of the Bible that has been especially influential in the development of the Hell idea. It’s the trippiest, weirdest, most open-to-interpretation Biblical book we have, and is known as…

Revelation

This would be an awesome piece of work to do a full article on, because it’s basically batshit crazy. It’s also one of the most widely debated and discussed portions of the Bible, and has inspired everything from beautiful paintings to the ‘Left Behind’ novels to heavy metal album covers.

Surprisingly it wasn’t even included in the Bible until 419AD. It was the last book to make the cut, and even then not everybody accepted it as canon. Some churches still reject it today, and doubts have resurfaced again and again over whether it really deserves to be part of the official Bible. 

Why all the debate and doubt, you ask? Well, maybe this simple picture illustrating some of the stories of Revelation will answer that question.

Hell #7

Yep, this is the book written by a guy called John about a crazy vision he had one day, where he saw (see how many you can spot in my incredible work of art above) : the four horsemen of the apocalypse, a mountain falling into the sea, angels blowing horns, all the souls of the dead kept under a chair, a leopard with seven heads, a pregnant woman being chased by a dragon, AND most importantly for our current discussion ……. a lake of fire. 

Here’s the part of his vision concerning that lake of fire : 

“And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever… The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.”

OK, so this sounds more familiar. The lake of fire is probably the most Hell-like imagery you can find in the Bible, with the devil getting thrown in, and all the dead getting judged and chucked in there too. But it seems to me that people have blown this out of proportion a little bit.

Firstly, as we’ve already said, this book wasn’t even in the Bible until 400 years after Jesus lived, and even then there wasn’t full agreement on its inclusion.

Secondly, even if you accept it as an important book, this is all based on one man’s dream! Even if the vision was real and accurately recorded, it’s packed full of metaphor and imagery and context and background, and to me is in no way a literal picture of what he thought was going to physically happen in the end of the world. I mean there’s a dragon for frigs sake! As much as I wish every day that dragons were real, I don’t actually believe in them.

There are endless ways of interpreting the book of Revelation, developed in different cultures over almost two millennia. Maybe we’ll look at them sometime. But it seems to me to be shaky ground to build a whole afterlife belief-system on.

However you see it though, this definitely seems like a step forwards in the evolution of Hell as an idea. Now we need to leave the Bible behind for a while, to see what happened next.

—————————–

The Apocalypse of Peter

This is an important step in the way people thought of Hell in the centuries after the time of Jesus. The Apocalypse of Peter is an early piece of Christian writing from the 2nd century. And it’s totally mental. 

It basically describes Heaven and Hell as real places where people are sent after death, and you can see how the ideas in it have stuck in our culture; 

Heaven was super-white (in every sense of the word), covered in flowers, and everybody sang choral prayers together.

Hell, on the other hand, was super-dark and contained a variety of creative punishments, one of the hallmarks of popular ideas of Hell ever since. Some of those punishments included;

– Blasphemers being hung by the tongue

– Money-lenders standing knee-deep in a lake of poop and blood.

– Lesbians have a hard time in this hell. They are forced to climb to the top of a cliff, are thrown from the top, and have to continue this cycle endlessly. 

– The worst punishment by far, and this is actually pretty freaking sick, is for women who have abortions. They stand up to their neck in a lake of blood and gore collected from all the other punishments, while the spirits of their unborn children torment them. There’s no way I’m drawing that.

As we’ve seen before, these weren’t all original ideas. Many of the ideas in The Apocalypse of Peter were taken from pagan sources, and came from Homer, Plato, Virgil, and other traditions. This seems important to me; Hell is kind of becoming a hodgepodge of traditions and horror stories from various cultures and times. 

The crazy thing is, some people thought this book should be part of the Bible. Imagine if Christians were reading this in their Bibles every week and hearing it preached from the pulpit. How freaking scary would that be? People are serious enough about Hell as it is. Luckily that never happened, and the book was actually banned from being read in certain churches. 

But the damage was done. It wasn’t the only Apocalypse going round, and it wasn’t completely original, but it is a perfect example of the kinds of writings that were appearing to develop the idea of Hell within the Christian religion. 

There’s an important question to ask here; why was the story of Hell even developing? What’s the use of spreading a gradually-worsening idea about a place where everybody who doesn’t behave in a certain way goes when they die? Well, I’m sure you can guess the answer.

—————————–

The Fear Motivator

At this point in the story I’m going to bring in some guest speakers from the past to explain why the idea of Hell is quite useful. Some of these quotes (and they are all real quotes) are going to get a bit dark, and so for that reason I’m going to insert some cute kitten pictures to lighten the mood.

First off, here’s Polybius, an ancient historian, talking about the idea of eternal torment (this was long before the Christian idea of Hell had evolved) : 

“Since the multitude is ever fickle, full of lawless desires, irrational passions and violence, there is no other way to keep them in order but by the fear and terror of the invisible world; on which account our ancestors seem to me to have acted judiciously, when they contrived to bring into the popular belief these notions of the gods, and of the infernal regions.”

And here’s the famous Greek geographer Strabo, again talking about an earlier idea of eternal punishment ; 

The multitude are restrained from vice by the punishments the gods are said to inflict upon offenders, and by those terrors and threatenings which certain dreadful words and monstrous forms imprint upon their minds…These things the legislators used as scarecrows to terrify the childish multitude.

Here’s the philosopher and historian Seneca;

Those things which make the infernal regions terrible, the darkness, the prison, the river of flaming fire, the judgment seat, etc., are all a fable, with which the poets amuse themselves, and by them agitate us with vain terrors.”

According to these great thinkers, the idea of eternal punishment has been used for thousands of years to keep people restrained and law-abiding and under control. It’s interesting that all these quotes date from before Christianity started talking about Hell, yet they seem to be talking about the same idea. Punishments inflicted upon offenders, the infernal regions, terrors, the darkness, the prison, the river of flaming fire, the judgement seat; all images that we still associate with the Christian Hell today.

So then the Christians get on board with Hell and develop it over the next couple of thousand years. And boy, do they let their imaginations run wild. Some of the biggest influences on the popular concept of Hell were famous works of fiction; the great poet Dante’s ’The Divine Comedy’ and ‘Inferno’, and John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, both brought incredible imagination, ideas and imagery to the concept of life after death, with purgatories and circles of hell and the most awful kinds of punishment imaginable. 

And the church jumped right on board. The following quotes are from some famous church leaders from the past few hundred years, and as the darkness is going to increase, so I will increase the cute-cat level to maximum.

Here comes the German theologian Johann Gerhard to start us off…

“The Blessed will see their friends and relations among the damned as often as they like but without the least of compassion.

What kind of brain-washing would it take for a person to see their own dear mum burning in Hell and just shrug their shoulders and go ‘meh’? 

But more than just a lack of feeling, the famous Thomas Aquinas took it one step further; 

That the saints may enjoy their beatitude more thoroughly, and give more abundant thanks for it to God, a perfect sight of the punishment of the damned is granted them.

So, for Aquinas (a very influential thinker in Christianity), the good people in Heaven will have a constant view of Hell, and will actually enjoy themselves more because of it. That’s kind of like going on holiday, realising your hotel backs onto a massive building site, and being excited about it. Except a billion times worse, and all the builders are getting squashed and having their arms chopped of by monsters with chainsaws and stuff. How does that possibly make for a better time?

Here’s a lovely bit of prose from the 17th century author and cleric Jeremy Taylor; 

Husbands shall see their wives, parents shall see their children tormented before their eyes…the bodies of the damned shall be crowded together in hell like grapes in a wine-press, which press on another till they burst…

Beautiful! 

Or this seriously disturbing quote from a crazy person (read this in your best Gollum voice); 

The fifth dungeon is the red hot oven. The little child is in the red hot oven. Hear how it screams to come out; see how it turns and twists itself about in the fire. It beats its head against the roof of the oven. It stamps its little feet on the floor.

Nope, there are not enough kittens in the world to lighten that one up. And at this point I get a little bit angry, because that quote is from a friggin children’s book! ‘The Sight of Hell’ was written by Reverend J Furniss C.S.S.R, and was described by one insane vicar as containing ‘a great deal to charm, instruct and edify our youthful classes, for whose benefit it has been written’. 

The book is awful. It’s full of imaginative visions of nightmarish punishment and torment and horror. And this is for children. How many people were totally messed up by reading this in their most vulnerable and crucial years of development? It just melts my brain. 

I’m not trying to paint all religious people with the same brush, and I’m sure most people would agree the book is pretty sick. But my point is clear, that the western world, led by Christianity, really ran away with itself on the whole Hell thing. 

One more quick historical stop before I wrap this up with a few personal thoughts. 

—————————–

Lost In Translation

The word ‘hell’ itself comes from around 725AD – it’s an Old English word ‘hel’ (which is itself of Old German origin) which was used to refer to ‘a nether world of the dead’. You can trace it even further back than that, to the proto-germanic word ‘halja’, which means ‘one who covers up or hides something’. In Old English, there was an expression ‘helling potatoes’, which meant to put potatoes in the ground or in the cellar (covering them up). 

You might have heard of the King James Bible – it was the third ever English translation of the Bible, and is still held up as a beautiful and incredible accomplishment of English literature. No argument there. It’s still massively popular, and according to this study is read by 55% of American Bible-readers, even 400 years after it was completed. 

Except there’s one slightly cheeky thing the translators did. 

Remember those four words we looked at earlier? Sheol, Hades, Tartarus and Gehenna? 

Well, when the translators came to those words, they decided that nuance wasn’t important when it came to life after death, and they translated every one of them as Hell. 

Yep, every single one. You won’t find any of the references to Greek mythology, ancient Jewish mystical ideas of the grave, or that child-sacrifice valley. Instead, you find Hell. And for millions of people reading their Bible, suddenly the idea of Hell seems a lot more concrete and obvious. I mean, it’s right there in the Bible! The mythology of Hell, developed over the last 1600 years, was tangled up even tighter with the Christian faith, and became stronger than ever.

I think this was kind of a big deal, and explains why it’s still such a widely held belief that people are so desperate to cling onto. I mean seriously, this is one of those beliefs that can turn the nicest people into raging Internet maniacs if you try to question it or take it away. Why are people so determined to keep hold of their Hell? 

To be fair, some modern translations are now eliminating the word Hell from the Bible, and going back to the original words. It makes it a lot more interesting to me to see the way people actually thought about death in their particular time and culture, rather than painting it over with one idea to eliminate the uncertainty. 

—————————–

CONCLUSION

OK, let’s start bringing this hefty investigation ship into port. What have we learnt? (Apart from the fact that I need to work on my drawing skills.)

What’s clear to me is that Hell as most people imagine it today is a kind of Frankenstein’s monster, pieced together from a variety of myths and traditions going back thousands of years. It really got going in the last couple of millennia when it had the backing of the Church, and has been used to terrify children and keep adults under control and in submission ever since.

The concept has been around since ancient times, and there is so much more I could get into. But to be honest, it starts getting past fascinating and into a-bit-depressing after a while. Because the whole idea at it’s core is depressing. It’s simply a very effective way to scare and control people.

As I said at the start, I was brought up in a Christian environment, and while there’s a lot I’m grateful for in my background, and a lot of good people that I love, there was also a lot of control and narrow-mindedness. I believed in Hell as I grew up, and it affected the way I lived my life in a massive way.

But here’s where my problem with Hell really comes in from a religious standpoint. Most religions that have some kind of Hell-concept basically say ‘Do this particular thing in order to avoid eternal torment.’ That particular thing varies from culture to culture – for the Vikings, the aim was to die bravely in battle. For many religions, it’s adherence to a moral code, which code also changes between cultures and over time. For some, it’s fighting or killing infidels to gain a place in Heaven. In Christianity itself, there are so many differing opinions on what it takes to be saved from Hell. Some say it’s through doing good works, others say it’s just through believing in Jesus, others that it’s a mix of the two. 

Now, let me introduce you to Old Me. This version of me has short hair, wears baggy jeans and loves some good old-fashioned Christian rock music. Old Me would cut in at this point and say – 

Hell #8

To which the present-day me would reply – 

Hell #9

Hell #10 Hell #11

At which point, Old Me would probably notice Present-Day Me’s long hair and skinny jeans…

Hell #12

My point is that whether it’s ‘following-a-moral-code’ or ‘believing-in-Jesus’, there’s still ultimately a ticklist to complete in order to avoid horrible punishment, inflicted on us by a supposedly loving God. That old way of thinking of Hell brought up a lot of questions for me. Like, what about those people who literally never hear anyone mention Jesus? What about people who grow up in, for example, an Islamic country and are raised as Muslim? What about people who hear about Jesus but in a really negative way? To those people, believing in Jesus is never even an option. But if Hell is real, they are technically getting sent there automatically. 

A few years ago I probably would have tried to ignore these questions and think about something else. But now, I kind of like the tension and problems they bring up. When you mix it with the idea that the Bible doesn’t even talk about Hell as we do today, it makes the whole concept seem a bit false to me. 

That’s not to say that there isn’t anything useful or powerful in the idea. It’s pretty clear to me that we can create our own ‘hell’ here on Earth, whether in our own personal lives or in the physical realities of hunger, genocide, poverty and war. People all over the world are talking about how we can bring an end to the hells we have created in this life, and maybe that’s something we should all be a part of in some way. 

I want to finish off with one concept of hell that I really like. It comes from an old Jewish Rabbi called Haim. 

It’s called

the Allegory of the Long Spoons

and it goes a little like this.

A man is taken on a tour of hell. When he arrives, he sees a huge feast taking place, a table piled high with the most delicious foods imaginable, and all the inhabitants of Hell sitting around. But instead of normal cutlery, they are all given incredibly long spoons to eat with, and so when they try to feed themselves they are unable to bring the spoons to their mouths. Nobody is able to eat the mouth-watering food, and so instead they sit in starving torment.

Next, the man is taken to Heaven. To his great surprise, he sees the exact same scenario as he saw in Hell; a huge feast is being held, with the same delicious foods piled high on the table and all the inhabitants of Heaven sitting around with the same crazy-long spoons.

But there’s one crucial difference; in Heaven, the people used their lengthy cutlery to feed each other, and so everyone was able to eat and be fully satisfied.

Maybe Heaven and Hell aren’t far-away mystical places, but states of life on earth today, and maybe the choice of which one we experience is up to us after all.

logonowriting

Comments : The Allowed is a safe space for people of all backgrounds who are wrestling with faith and doubt; many of whom may have had negative or traumatic religious experiences. Please be respectful and kind in any comments you make.

14 Comments

  1. November 2, 2015
    Reply

    Hey mate! Great blog! Great writing and creativity, (not that this is why you’re launching The Allowed).

    I hear you. I admire your guts, your thinking and your long hair. Not the skinny jeans. They’re girly..

    Mate, I love blogging but it rarely happens well in the UK because folk don’t engage in reading and commenting properly.

    Can I respond to your piece by asking you to summarise your thinking with three questions that you feel get to the absolute core of your complaint?

    Nf

    • November 3, 2015
      Reply

      Thanks Nick! Really appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. But don’t knock those skinny jeans 😉

      It’s not so much a complaint as my own personal wondering; I researched for a long time before writing this as I wanted to let people see some thought-through stuff and then come to their own conclusion rather than just fire out an opinion.

      Also I guess my questioning of Hell hasn’t been in a bubble, but is kind of tied to a lot of other questions about my beliefs and worldview etc, so it’s hard to narrow down just this subject without hitting a hundred other side-roads!

      But let me try 🙂
      1. As I’ve changed and thought and learnt and grown, I can’t believe in a literal place called Hell anymore. It just doesn’t fit with what I see in the world and I see no evidence to support it. And after looking into it, even if I took the Bible literally (which I don’t for the most part at the moment) I’m not convinced that Hell is a clear teaching. It makes much more sense to me as a myth that has developed over time (like I talked about in the article)
      2. The idea that a person who didn’t accept Jesus would go to Hell is tough for me to accept now. I know how I used to defend that idea, but the thought of a kind, devoted Muslim or agnostic going to eternal punishment because they didn’t believe makes that God seem petty and mean to me.
      3. I’m not convinced even that most Christians really believe in Hell. If I was completely convinced that everyone was going to eternal punishment who didn’t believe in Jesus, I should give up everything else in life to be non-stop getting people saved… embarassment and tiredness and family and fun wouldn’t matter because this is forever we’re talking about!

      Having said all that though, the purpose of setting up this site is exploration and freedom of thinking and ideas etc… being allowed to learn and grow and question without judgement… and not about pushing my personal conclusions onto anyone. It’s just where I land after thinking it through a lot.

      If I do have a complaint, it’s that I worry about the harm this kind of belief could possibly cause… the fear and guilt and control that are tied in with it through history and even today… but I’ll probably go into more of that in another article.

      Thanks again mate, great to hear from you!
      Jon

  2. Jakob
    November 2, 2015
    Reply

    I’d say that an important point of view when it comes to defining hell is to define heaven. As you said about creating our own hell on earth – that would be where the kingdom of God is absent (if I read you somewhat right) and then maybe the eternal “hell” could be defined as the absence of God. What would the world be without God? No good things, no kindness, no joy, and of course most importantly, no life at all. And maybe all these scary places described is a way of illustrating how bad things would be if God wasn’t present? Sounds like hell to me..

    • November 3, 2015
      Reply

      Hey Jakob, thanks a lot for taking the time to read and comment!

      Thought I could respond a bit more fully here on the site. I really like the idea that the kingdom of God means love, peace, kindness, life etc. and that hell is the absence of those things. Definitely I could get on board with that. To me it’s a more interesting and nuanced version of what heaven/hell could mean in real life, and maybe what Jesus was talking about in the first place.

      I think that teaching Hell as an eternal destination has meant that we focus on ‘saving’ people, making them believe what we believe, and modifying their behaviour, instead of bringing peace and joy and kindness into the world regardless of the culture or beliefs that people hold. I’m learning in the last couple of years to enjoy the variety and differences and uncertainty of different perspectives and worldviews, rather than trying to paint over them all with our set of accepted beliefs.

      I guess that’s part of the point of this site, to encourage doubt and uncertainty and exploration so that we think about what we believe for ourselves, and also to foster an openness to other peoples ideas.

      Really appreciate your thoughts mate! Hope to hear more as the site grows 🙂 Cheers!
      Jon

  3. Val
    November 2, 2015
    Reply

    I understand the old guy better than the new one, but a very interesting new man is emerging.
    Have you reached any decisions based on your study?

    • November 3, 2015
      Reply

      Hey Val! Thanks a lot for reading and commenting 🙂

      Yeah I’ve reached my own conclusions, but with an open mind and the possibility of changing it if something else convinces me. I understand the belief in Hell as I held it for a long time, but for me now it doesn’t make sense as a literal place. I guess most of the reasons for that are in the article, but it’s come after a looooooooot of thought and research and journey in a whole lot of related areas.

      I’ll write a bit about where my faith in general is very soon, but a lot of it has shifted in the last couple of years; some things I’ve come back to, some things I have no idea what I think about, and some things (like Hell) I’ve pretty much let go of at this point. Part of the reason for that is the harm and fear and guilt I’m convinced that this particular idea contains. I’m definitely open to other conclusions though, which is really the whole point of this site I guess… To encourage people’s own thinking and questioning and personal journey, and figuring out what it is you really believe.

      Hope that makes sense! Cheers again 🙂
      Jon

  4. November 6, 2015
    Reply

    Alright, Headers!

    Apols that this has taken me longer to get to that I’d first thought. It’s been on my mind, though.

    Firstly – echoing my original point – great site! I appreciate that you’re throwing things out there for consideration as something like an end-stage of your own wondering and hefty research.

    In approaching this particular comment box, part of my brain says, ‘Franks, be careful not to start off too intensely in a way that will be unhelpful or have any whiff at all of being judgmental’, but the bigger part of my brain also says that ‘the very matter of hell is full-on intense anyway so it’s pretty difficult to avoid!’. That’s cool – hopefully I’ll ‘do intense’ here in a helpful/nonjudgmental way:

    Before I go any further, I want to perhaps state the obvious by unashamedly saying that this is a big deal…a massive deal. The stuff you’re writing about, though healthy in the sense that it’s a forum for discussion and reflection, is still a matter of life and death and ultimately God’s glory in what He says in the bible. Though truth and salvation is never like egg shells or walking a tight rope in actual reality, can I humbly suggest that you tread carefully with this stuff (specifically for anyone else who knows you personally reading this for whom truth and salvation might be in experience?).

    I’m no Theologian or expert or anything like that but I do love the bible, passionately. We’re living in a day and age when the bible is treated very much like that pick ‘n’ mix thing that used to be in Woolworths – sweeties are taken and left according to personal taste; regarding the Bible, specifically in the case of doctrine and teaching, the pick ‘n’ mix analogy points to where some things are ‘too hard’ to accept. I’ll try and explain:

    I think of Jesus’ words in John 6:60 in response to the disciples who were struggling to accept His teaching about his body/blood. They were struggling to accept (cognitively/conceptually) the teaching and the inflammatory pictures Jesus was painting (within the Jewish/religious world they were in); but at a deeper spiritual level they were offended at the teaching and Jesus called them on it – “does this offend you?” (v61). Flip me…you bet it did. We have no idea how offended we can be with God even though we call Him Daddy, Saviour, Lord.

    There is much in the bible that is offensive and much about Jesus’ leadership that is offensive. At the core of salvation there is the undiluted offense for me and you that we are inherently sinful (Psalm 51:5) and separated from Him. We come screaming out of our Mummy’s tummy, utterly helpless, and yet we are inherently sinful. What a shocking juxtaposition of dependence/innocence and independence/culpability. It doesn’t get much more offensive that that. And yet it’s what the bible says; that’s what Jesus says. All of this is actually about Jesus and if He isn’t to be understood literally, as you say, then we might as well all forget it, pack up and go home.

    A COUPLE OF SPECIFIC RESPONSES:

    While the book of Revelation, as a apocalyptic form of literature, is unique in its make-up (and I can see why anyone would have question marks over the literal interpretation of the book) you can’t deduce from this genre that the broad brush strokes of the rest of the bible aren’t to be read literally – i.e. John 3:16. Though massively crazy in content I would point to two things: 1) There is amazing theological and eschatological harmony with the rest of the bible despite its unique character and content 2) We need to recognise that the subject is the end of all things and Jesus’ return as King and Judge – as such, who actually knows what will happen? If Jesus is coming again in physical form at all, if his foot is literally going to touch the Mount of Olives (Zec.14:4), then surely everything else is perfectly possible? *The point is: our point of reference needs to be submitted to God rather than what seems likely, believable or reasonable to us*. I don’t think this means being controlled in an evil way, as you say, or manipulated; from a genuine place of faith we can trust God with very difficult things while maintaining an enquiring heart (Check the believing Berean Jews in Acts 17:11).

    More specifically on this matter of hell , if I can be honest mate, I think your extensive research and thought behind this article doesn’t allow you to then deduce that hell isn’t a literal place or to cast question marks over the grand scheme of scripture because of the human tendency to not appropriate that belief into urgent mission. That’s something we’re all ‘guilty’ of but I certainly wouldn’t conclude from that the belief in hell isn’t something that the majority of Christians believe in. That said, your point is flippin powerful in that we do need to prayerfully engage in practice with the core things that we say we believe and love. It’s the old faith and deeds.

    John Piper responded very badly to Rob Bell on Love Wins, he was wrong and he apologised publicly for that, but I can see why he responded in the way that he did: he loves the Bible more than anyone else I have heard speak from it and when something (like Bell’s Universalism) confronts the truth of the Bible, for me, it’s understandable that there is a robust response. Personally I think this is also true in our day relating to issues of marriage, sexuality etc. Again, as you say, why do we say we believe in certain things and put the weight of our lives on them if, when they’re contradicted or falsified, we then say nothing? *It’s like when Phoebe convicnes Ross in Friends that Dinosaurs weren’t real*. Bro, I’d rather say too much than not say enough. In that sense, I’m wondering why more people don’t respond to your blog.

    Anyway, I’m late for a meeting.

    Let’s keep chatting?

  5. Andy
    November 6, 2015
    Reply

    Hi Jon, I think we might have met in the blogosphere before, both commenting on Nick’s blog. Wow, you’ve certainly done a serious bit of research here. And this is clearly a very big issue for you (rightly so) which touches on pretty much every other important area of life and belief. Let me make a few comments:
    1. On the issue that if we really believed in hell we’d crawl over broken glass to tell people about Jesus – that’s a very fair point.
    2. On the issue that hell has often been used to scare people into a more ‘moral’ life – that’s a fair point too. Glen Scrivener is very helpful on this point (http://christthetruth.net/2013/04/08/why-be-good-part-one/).
    3. On the issue that hell is a myth that has developed, I’d want to agree that lots of this material you’ve presented from other cultures is clearly crude and well wide of the mark, but I’d also want to ask, what if hell is real and there has been a consciousness of its reality from the days of Adam? When Adam threw God’s grace back in his face he took the whole of creation into the realm of death and decay and curse and estrangement from God. In a sense, since then there has been hell on earth from that time until this day. In many places in the world today there is a very real experience (or foretaste) of hell. The eternal state of hell is in many ways simply an intensification of this hell. If all cultures ultimately trace back to Adam (and Noah’s family) then it is not surprising that, through oral tradition, there is a (corrupted) trace of these great realities in most cultures (cf. similarly the presence of sacrifice in most religions).
    4. On the issue of whether it is not very unfair of God to require a ticklist of belief and/or behaviour to avoid hell, I’d want to question the idea of a ticklist and point to Jesus and the analogy of marriage. For me to have all the benefits of being married to my wife I had to marry her. Was that just a ticklist thing? Was it just an arbitrary thing that I had to do? Take out the rubbish. Tick. Pay electricity bill. Tick. Make some promises and sign a register so I get married. Tick. No of course not! Well it’s the same with Jesus. He is life. He IS eternal life. He is all good. Outside of him is only death and frustration and evil. He comes to his people. He goes into the lake of fire instead of them. He drinks the cup of God’s wrath that they deserve to drink. He goes through the torment and abandonment of hell instead of them on the Cross. He enters sheol and death and swallows it up from the inside. He bursts the gates of hades. He rises to New Creation life. He sends his Spirit to draw his Bride to himself. And she becomes his, one with him. She gets his name, his honour, his status, his righteousness. She has him – all good, all life. And one with him she cannot die, can only live in him forever.
    So I guess my short answer at the end of a long comment (sorry) is… Jesus. The Sunday School answer to every question but He is! Jesus is the one who talks most about the worm that will not die (picking up on Isaiah’s OT picture of the eternal states at the end of his long prophecy). It is Jesus who tells the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. It is Jesus who treads the wine press of the wrath of God (Revelation picking up again on Isaiah). It is Jesus who is so immensely precious. So immensely precious to the Father than he is full of rage at those who reject him. So immensely precious to the saints in glory that their joy will be full in his presence.
    Thanks again for your boldness in raising these desperately important issues. Praying that I would take them seriously.

    • November 7, 2015
      Reply

      Hey Andy,

      Thanks for taking the time to read; and thanks for your thoughtful comments and response to the article! I like the analogy of marriage, and I agree that hell seems to be something that has been part of human consciousness for a long time; I’m not sure if I will arrive at the same conclusions yet, but my hope is to inspire thought and question rather than to offer a definite answer, so it’s great to hear peoples honest thoughts… and hopefully on other topics I write about too.

      Thanks for the encouragement!
      Jon

  6. Michael
    November 7, 2015
    Reply

    Hey Jon,

    Thanks for your blog! I enjoyed reading it and appreciated the drawings and kittens!

    I can relate to a lot of what you say and was also taught to believe in the hell most people believe in. I have two brothers and I remember my Mom often quoting the verse about being in danger of the fires of hell if you said you hate your brother.

    In recent years I have come to think hell as a refining process where God burns away all the things in our lives that separate us from him leaving things like faith, hope, love, and the fruits of the spirit. If there is nothing left after the refining then we cease to exist. I think that if there is a separation of believers from non-believers then for believers it would simply be eternal life with God and for non-believers eternal life without God.

    I am still questioning this all the time will never get to a point in this life when I am absolutely sure of what hell is.

    • November 8, 2015
      Reply

      Cheers Michael! Thanks a lot for taking the time to read and respond. Great to hear your thoughts and experiences. I think it’s good to be comfortable with not knowing for absolutely sure, and just being open to think and change! Hope this article was helpful in some way.

      Thanks!

  7. Takwirira
    December 17, 2015
    Reply

    Hey Jon, this is a fantastic piece of writing! Looks like comprehensive research has been done and has widened my views on other things I might have been ignorant of. I love the random bits you throw in. The drawings should be part of the collection at MoMA! The kittens are a lovely touch – it’s like that green sauce at curry houses. Great comments from all the guys too.

    I hope to see you soon and perhaps we can have more chats (plural) around this subject and other things you brought up.

    Happy Holidays!

    • December 17, 2015
      Reply

      Hey mate, thanks a lot for the comment! Really appreciate people taking the time to read a long article and then write afterwards 😉
      Glad you enjoyed, and hope it’s helpful in some way. Hopefully see you around in the near future!

      Have a great Christmas!

  8. September 8, 2016
    Reply

    Dude – I’d love to hear back from you re my response to your comment?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *