It is often touted by believers that if you do not believe in their specific version of Abrahamic deity, then you will perish forever in unending agony for your suspension of belief. Something I’ve often wondered, especially as a child, is how would an all-loving, omnipotent god be able to exist at the same time as a place of unending torment (created by that same god)? That question, while still a valid question that no apologist can give a succinct answer for, has paved the way for other questions. For example, why is the concept of Hell, a place of eternal torture, socially respectable? Why are people who hold such a primitive, distressing, and retributive view hailed, rather than criticized?
Hell, after all, is a horrifying construct. Hell is portrayed as a place of everlasting torture, where non-Christians and nonbelievers (but not Christianity’s greatest mass murderers who “accepted” Jesus, such as Hitler) can be tortured and burned eternally simply for sincerely believing the “wrong” religion. Even innocents who may never have heard of Jesus, under traditional doctrine, cannot avoid this fate far worse than death. Some believers even go so far as to smugly declare that nonbelievers deserve to be tortured forever for not having the same imaginary friend, all while relishing in this idea of eternal punishment for others.
Despite the fact that this hell would be preferable to worshiping, praising, and idolizing a celestial dictator in heaven while being surrounded by self-righteous pricks, there are other issues with this concept of hell.
First, if an eternity of unending suffering for others makes you feel comforted, then you should not be described as “righteous.” I think “immoral psychopath” is a much better fit. The problem with finding pleasure in someone else’s eternal misfortune is believing that they deserve the misfortune. Seriously, people that have beliefs in hell and the punishment for pure evil are more likely to support violent retributive policies such as capital punishment and the use of torture (Campbell & Vollhardt, 2013). People who believe in a literal Satan and Hell are also more likely to be intolerant of homosexuals and generally more prejudiced against minorities (Wilson & Huff, 2011). This makes sense when you understand the in-group bias, us vs. them, nature of religion and how determining that they (everyone that does not share your belief) are destined for hellfire makes them less of a person or more deserving of prejudice and punishment.
Second, Hell is not a biblical concept, at least not in the common depiction of hell. The King James Version of the Bible has 54 references to Hell. However, it is not the Hell that Christians preach, but they are all mostly mistranslations (or intentional ones). The English word Hell is translated from the following three words.
Tartaros/Tartaroo – “The deepest abyss of Hades”
This word is the closest resemblance to the English depiction of Hell, but it is only used once. 2 Peter 2:4 is the only location where it is used and it still doesn’t coincide with the common perception of hell because the Bible says “the angels that are there are to be reserved unto judgment”, explicitly stating that this place is for angels and with no mention of this place being reserved for man.
Sheol/Hades – “grave” or “the world of the dead”
These words simply meant a place where the dead dwell. There is no suffering mentioned nor is it understood to be an actual physical realm. If you substitute “grave” or the “world of the dead” in everywhere these words are used it becomes apparent that the Bible is riddled with mistranslations.
Hinnom/Gehenna – These words refer to a literal valley outside of Jerusalem where animal carcasses were tossed and burned. This is also the place where the Jews sacrificed children in their idolatrous days. The mention of the valley of Ben-Hinnom was usually to scare children back onto the right path. Because it was basically a garbage dump, there were always flames burning and worms (maggots) feasting on dead flesh.
With the proper etymology and translation of these words, it is easy to see that the majority of the references to hell are mistranslations. Most likely they are intentional ones, since the idea of Hell as a place of eternal suffering was added much later as a part of Christian doctrine and fan fiction. As it usually happens, artists and writers took the ambiguous descriptions of hell and transformed them into the hell we know today. In fact, there are two primary culprits responsible for the current concept of hell: Dante Aligheri with his Divine Comedy and Hieronymus Bosch with his fantastical paintings of hell.
“I have no respect for any human being who believes in hell. I have no respect for any man who preaches it. I have no respect for the man who will pollute the imagination of childhood with that infamous lie. I have no respect for the man who will add to the sorrows of this world with the frightful dogma. I have no respect for any man who endeavors to put that infinite cloud, that infinite shadow, over the heart of humanity.” — Robert G. Ingersoll
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Campbell, M., & Vollhardt, J. R. Fighting the Good Fight: The Relationship Between Belief in Evil and Support for Violent Policies.
Wilson, K. M., & Huff, J. L. Scaling Satan.