Fear Hell — and God? USA TODAY OPINION
By Oliver Thomas Posted 8/7/2011 4:34:09 PM
What happens when you die?
People have been wrestling with
the question for as long as we've been people. And though
Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and others have tried to eliminate
some of the mystery from what lies ahead, the truth is we're
all speculating. Not even the pope or Billy Graham has been
given an advance tour of the other side.
Faith. Religion. Spirituality. Meaning. In our
ever-shrinking world, the tentacles of religion touch everything
from governmental policy to individual morality to our basic
social constructs. It affects the lives of people of great
faith — or no faith at all. This series of weekly columns
— launched in 2005 — seeks to illuminate the national
The Egyptians, Greeks, Romans all had elaborate beliefs about
the afterlife. We're no different. Right now, a book is burning
through America's churches that has put the issue back front
and center for many. The book —Love Wins— by Rob
Bell challenges the traditional Christian belief in a place
of eternal punishment. Damnation.
Most Americans still believe in hell. A 2009
poll by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life put the
number at 59%. A 2005 Fox News poll put it at 74%!
Ask these folks why they cling to such a decidedly medieval
notion, and they will tell you: Because the Bible teaches
it! And if we're talking about the King James Bible, they
are right — at least on the surface. But dig into the
languages in which the Bible was actually written —
Greek and Hebrew — and things get murky.
Nowhere in the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament)
is the abode of the dead described as a place of eternal punishment.
Rather, "Sheol" as it is sometimes called, appears
as a shadowy, dreamlike place where all people — good
and evil — are destined.
One Old Testament writer has this to say: "Whatever
your hand finds to do, do it with all your might for there
is no activity or planning or wisdom in Sheol where you are
going." Not my idea of a Shangri-La, but certainly better
than everlasting fire.
Even Jesus gets misquoted here. Clearly, Jesus
taught that there would be a day of reckoning. In the 25th
chapter of Matthew's Gospel, he paints a disturbing picture
of it. "I was hungry and you didn't feed me. Naked and
you didn't clothe me."
But the Greek word that is often translated
"eternal" (aionos) — whether it is used to
describe punishment or life — is better understood as
a word of quality, not quantity. Punishment is only "eternal"
(in the way that Americans understand that word) in the sense
that it could be final.
Not what Jesus meant
Nearly every reference to "hell" that
comes from the lips of Jesus is a mistranslation.
The word translated as hell by the King James Bible is the
word "Gehenna," literally "the valley of the
sons of Hinnom." This notorious valley on the south side
of Jerusalem was once the site of pagan sacrifices, including
child sacrifice, and had been cursed by the prophets of Israel.
By Jesus' day, it served as the garbage dump. It was a foul,
noxious place where dogs roamed and fires burned. Jesus seized
upon this vivid imagery in his sermons. He urged people to
repent (literally "change your mind"), lest they
end up in Gehenna (i.e. the garbage dump).
He could just as easily have told them to repent
or they would wind up throwing away their lives.
Rob Bell makes the case that turning Jesus into a purveyor
of hell-fire and brimstone religion stands his gospel on its
head. After all, Jesus taught that God was loving and merciful
— more loving and merciful, he insisted, than a human
Equally fundamental to Christian, Jewish and Muslim beliefs
about God is that God is a God of justice. A bedrock principal
of justice is that the punishment must fit the crime. We don't
impose the death penalty for speeding tickets.
Now, I'm a pretty decent parent, and I'm married
to an even better one. I can guarantee that if one of our
daughters turned out to be a murderer, neither of us would
respond by setting fire to her. We wouldn't torture her for
a second, much less a trillion years. (Reality check: A trillion
years is a mere droplet in the ocean of eternity.)
Yet millions of Americans are laboring under the heavy psychological
burden that if they don't believe the right things about God
— or "accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior"
as Evangelicals like to put it —they will burn in hell
Several questions cry out for a response. Why
would we worship a God like that? And, perhaps more important,
what kind of people — and, consequently, a nation —
does that make us?
The answer to the first question is simple:
fear. Fear is a horrible motivator for human behavior. It
can cause us to do all sorts of wild things. If we really
believe that unorthodox beliefs will lead people to everlasting
torment, you begin to understand things such as the Crusades,
inquisitions, witch hunts and, yes, jihad. Muslims, too, believe
in a place of everlasting torment. Forgive me if it sounds
circular, but irrational fears are scary.
The second answer is less apparent though no
less disturbing. I suspect that a deep-seated fear of God
lies behind much of the neurosis — if not actual psychosis
— that we see in the world today. No person is as sick
as a person who is sick on bad religion.
So the hornet's nest Bell kicked over with his
little book is one that affects us all. Because the kind of
God Americans worship affects the kind of people we are. If
that God is unjust when doling out punishment, it's likely
we will be the same. If folks don't measure up to our standard,
then, off with their heads.
Though we may speak of such a God as loving — and as
his devotees think of ourselves in a similar fashion —
deep down, we know it's a sham.
Oliver Thomas is a member of USA TODAY's
Board of Contributors and author of 10 Things Your Minister
Wants to Tell You (But Can't Because He Needs the Job).