Alternatives To A Fiery Hell

Whether or not God wants to torture you is not the issue, that God will torture you is! If you do not please him in this life, if he does not deem you acceptable to him, then you are going to face the Alpha and Omega’s eternal retribution in the next life. Should you die in an unsaved condition, you are going to face the unchecked wrath of an infuriated, emulous God who will stop at nothing to make sure his enemies pay for their crimes against him. So says the Bible, particularly the New Testament of our ”loving Lord and Savior,” Jesus Christ.

Ten thousand centuries will come and go, and not one day in Hell will have ended. In the amount of time it takes a new universe to expand and collapse, not a single evening in the furnace of Hell will have gone by. In Hell, you’ll have nothing to do, and nothing to think about except your past and how you were nothing but a terrible disappointment to your creator. In addition to all the unceasing and unspeakable pain you’ll be feeling, you will have the added despair of knowing that the life you lived in the flesh was completely in vain. You will be fully awake to experience a nightmare above any nightmare you ever experienced while alive. And just when you think you can’t take anymore, an eternity of suffering awaits you still.

At least, that was the traditional view of hell. For totally understandable reasons, this view is losing out in popularity. You can attend some churches for 30 years and not hear a peep about Hell. People are ashamed of this merciless idea. They are ready for something new, for what modern apologists think is a better take on Hell. They are championing the acceptance of what they consider to be a more merciful form of Gehenna, one that is more easily seen as being in tune with a warn and loving Jesus with outstretched arms and a great big smile.

I am convinced that the doctrine of an eternal Hell has always been what makes more infidels out of men than any other bestial ideal of scripture. It makes the God of the Bible a villain like nothing a Hollywood producer ever brought to life on the big screen. Christian apologetics are asking you to just forget what every unrefined country Catholic, Baptist, or Pentecostal preacher ever told you about Hell. Just listen to these new oracles of the brotherhood! This is not really a new view as much as it is revitalized for the likes of the educated minds of today. Many defenders of the faith, like J.P. Holding for example, tell us that the fires of Hell are figurative, and so is the actual suffering experienced.

During my preaching years, I was a part of debates on the nature of Hell that were quite entertaining. Some of these spats came down to preachers affirming that hell contained “a spiritual form of fire that tortures sinners eternally,” or “some sort of spiritual pain in another dimension that Jesus described as physical burning.” Others went the traditional route, “Real fire await sinners in the next world.” So according to this view, I guess god established that spirits would retain some form of a nervous system that enables them to feel pain sensations even when they are disembodied?

Old and problematic as this belief was, it should be said that some preachers still fervently maintained that it was correct—sinners are literally barbequed each day! This is not an exaggeration! I once had a preacher woman from a holiness church in Alabama hand me a tape which she said detailed the recordings of a spirit journey into Hell to describe its horrors firsthand. She stated that at the end of each day in Hell, souls are “burnt to a crisp,” after which time they are again made whole, only to have the process start over and over again for all eternity! Very sadistic thinking, I must say!

If what modern apologists say is true, centuries of learned gospel preachers have been dead wrong in affirming the reality of such a place. These contemporary Christian thinkers tell us that the suffering experienced in hell is just suffering in the mind (in the spirit mind) of a deceased unbeliever. As he passed into eternity, his body died while his spirit (and therefore consciousness) lived on, but now his soul was separated from God into the “blackness of darkness” of the absence of the Almighty (Jude 1:13). This creates misery all by itself, and this likewise alleviates God from actually creating a Hell or inflicting pain personally. God just made sinners immortal as he has all human beings, and they chose to live in such a manner as to make God separate himself from them so that his righteousness would not be compromised.

This might sound a little nicer than the traditional view of a fiery Hell…at first. Upon further consideration, the position meets a quick and brutal end. Of all the dying and struggling theological positions out there, this one actually makes you feel sorry for modern Christians as they face the embarrassment of having a god who openly approves of torture by example. There’s really no way to water it down, though theists try like keeping afloat in quicksand.

For starters, this position denies some pretty plain scriptural language that seems to teach a literal place of torment (Luke 12:4-5). While good arguments can be made for a hell with figurative fire, it is undeniable that Luke 16:19-31 portrays the existence of a place of real suffering, the kind we were used to in our living bodies. If this is not the case, then the writer of Luke woefully misrepresented the facts—under inspiration of the Holy Spirit no less! But regardless of the presence of fire, we need not get bogged down in disputed details. The scriptures teach some form of suffering of the ungodly beyond the grave.

Regardless of the how, the God of the Bible still makes it clear that he wants disobedient souls that will never be redeemed to stay around for eternity and be miserable. Sure, it wasn’t his original will for them, but he doesn’t feel for us sinners enough to actually deliver us from all possible suffering. God decided that it was fine with him if we suffer for a lifetime of mistakes no matter how sincere those mistakes may have been in their making. We infidels are headed to a place of agony to grope in the darkness of damnation. Our unending groans for mercy will not cause him to have pity on us and deliver us from the merciless condition we will be in. It would just be too much for him to put the sinner out of his misery, to blot him out of existence when he dies!

God has declared that “there will be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust” (Acts 24:15), and “them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). God may have wanted all to be saved, but since they “chose” not to be, he is pleased to see them suffer unimaginable pain. The fact that he can stand by and watch as some of his children endure endless centuries of anguish, anguish a man or woman could not possibly deserve from a single lifetime of bad deeds, is what makes him a hideous, indescribable presence. To call him an exceedingly cruel cosmic tyrant makes him sound much nicer than he is! It whitewashes him, in other words.

Getting an unbeliever to accept the concoction of hell is the hardest thing for a believer. The problem for the Christian is that they are always better, kinder, and more compassionate than the deity they serve. They would never dream of leaving even a small animal to die a prolonged death out in the street, much less suffer forever, and yet they are compelled to defend their God’s employment of this indefensibly merciless treatment of the unsaved. He knew when he created man and gave him an “immortal soul” that this would forever seal the fates of sinners to an eternity of unspeakable miseries. He went right on with our creation anyway.

The search for truth is not without its ironies, however. In this case, the irony catches the believer off guard; this new perception of hell is an even more fiendish one than the traditional fiery view they are trying to get the whole world to abandon. It is not difficult to think of how the nature of each person’s “hell” would be distinct and varying according to one’s spiritual vices.

Advocates of this "more compasionate" view tell us Hell's suffering would be in the mind, the result of being away from the light of God, presumably feelings of loneliness, shame, hopelessness, and perhaps other agonies. So we could surmize that one who lived a life of pride might suffer an eternity of humiliation, and a person who belittled his fellow man with verbal abuse and degradation would forever be ridiculed as he ridiculed others. I suppose the same would be true for those who lived lives committing rape and murder. They would mentally experience for eternity the hurt they caused others. This would be directly in line with the Bible's teaching that we reap what we sow according to what was done in the body (2 Corinthians 5:10). Or would this be a fear-based mental Hell? While we’re considering alternatives to the fiery Bible Hell, we might as well get creative and go a step further. Why not a personal, Freddy Krueger-inspired Hell where we face our worst fears, and not just spiritual vices?

My earliest fears of hell did not consist of fire at all, but of being confined to a featureless bright white hallway that goes on forever in two directions. It is small and narrow, has no doors or windows, and has no places to sit or lay down. The punishment was to walk forever, enduring loneliness. It wasn’t until a certain sincere but misled family member I loved took me aside and told me, “Joe, there will definitely be some flames in hell, so you better not use the Lord’s name in vain!” that I began to be afraid of the fire notion. Someone else might have a fear of worms, or spiders, or being torn apart by a huge centipede, in which case they would mentally suffer such things in their minds. This type of hell would be incomparably worse for each individual than one standard hell for everyone. So if either of these derivations describing the “real” Hell are true, then Hell is not really a place, just a sort of mental/spiritual/psychological software that automatically downloads when we die to put together for us the worst torture possible in the afterlife!

Picture a man strapping you down to a chair and attaching a device to your head. It probes your brain to find out where your worst fear lies. When it finds your weakness, it exploits it, subjecting you to the most heightened level of misery conceivable. I fail to see how such an intellection would be any more merciful than Dante’s description of a hell with pits of fire and horned demons, punishing naked and tormented souls, buried in pits of dung and boiling blood! Regardless of the details of exactly how it is administered, suffering is suffering and torture is torture no matter what form it takes.

At the base of all this terror is the fact that none of this can be called justice by any stretch of the imagination. No one, not even the devil himself, could be worthy of truly eternal suffering. Eternal torture is worthless. It does not bring about correction or rehabilitation. It is no means to an end. It does not serve a practical use, like governments applying torture to terrorists to get them to divulge the location of weapon of mass destruction. It is nothing but a cruel and vindictive invention, like the cold, germy, sharp, steel instruments found in the basement of a psychopath.

Hell is a purely brutish payback perpetrated by a powerful barbarian who rules the skies with an easily bruised ego. The slightest thing pisses him off. He runs around with his giant war hammer, scaring the crap out of everyone, but amazingly, he wants to make friends! He is surprised when people run from him and see him as an evil ogre. He apparently doesn’t understand why intelligent, decent people want nothing to do with him. No one likes a bully! But now the bully pretends to be compassionate; he throws everyone for a loop by creating the greatest contradiction anyone ever saw; he sends his son to bring a supposed message of peace and mercy, but should you reject his son and his message, the barbarian father again pulls out that trusty war hammer and takes care of business the old fashioned way! Just like a true bully, you don’t have a choice in the matter! You have to befriend him…or you get the war hammer!

A two-bit numbskull might even realize that this logically destroys any real “choice” that God assures us we have. We are told that God only sends those to Hell who have chosen to go there, but this is just ridiculous. I could offer you the “choice” of a million dollars or cancer, but a halfwit would understand that such a choice would not be a very good one! I wonder why respectable, knowledgeable Christians don’t see this problem?

This reminds me of a certain Simpson’s episode where a cult worshipping “The Leader” comes into Springfield and indoctrinates the whole town into following him. When they put the people into their convent and people start to express the desire to leave, they say, “You are free to leave at any time.” But the moment they try to leave, the person is met with attack dogs and spike pits! The God of the Bible is every bit like these funny cartoon caricatures of some of his followers, offering unbeatable hope and bliss on the one hand, and misery and torture on the other.

The doctrine of Hell will never be compatible with a merciful deity. A nice, smiling preacher in a suit, writing smooth articles, trying to make the position sound refined and graceful won’t work. Taking literal fire out of the picture will not do it either. The smallest fiber of common sense tells us that we put a sick dog out of its misery. We don’t torture it because it bit us on the leg. Hell defies decency, civility, morality, compassion, and sound judgment. I am glad to see modern Christians becoming ashamed to profess belief in it.



Anonymous said...

I am just thankful that I didn't have a religious upbringing where I was threatened with torture in order to make me obey the will of either a god, or my parents.

John W. Loftus said...

For Christians who say they are not motivated to obey God because of the threat of hell and who claim instead they obey God simply because it's the right thing to do, here's a question:

If God said you should murder and rape and steal or he would send you to hell, would you do what he commanded, or not?

tga said...

"I wonder why respectable, knowledgeable Christians don’t see this problem? "

Simple: they are blinded by their faith! Truth, logic, reason, and evidence can never go againt faith. In fact they re-inforce the faith, and the more improbable a faith is, the more virtuous! How perfect is that?

Excellent essay by the way.

SteveJ said...

Plenty here I agree with.

For what it's worth, the New Testament is not at all consistent in portraying Gehenna (hell) as a place of perpetual suffering. Many more texts teach either annihilation or universalism than teach "never-ending torment." And the Greek, Platonic notion of an innately immortal soul is at odds with about 99.5 percent of the New Testament.

The first-century idea of Gehenna took varied forms in the Jewish thought-world. Some saw it as temporary, others as endless. Plenty of Christians in the early centuries dissented from the "endless" perspective, including Origen, Clement of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa. These men, whose native tongue was the same as the original New Testament, maintained that all would eventually be redeemed by Christ. Even Augustine, himself a staunch believer in an eternal hell, admitted that many Christians in his day rejected such a view while "not denying the Scriptures."

As an eschatological prophet, Jesus' message was full of warnings about the impending doom of Jerusalem and the temple. For a long time, I've suspected that many of the "hellfire" texts (actually, there aren't that many in the NT) were references to the conflagration about to be kindled by the Roman war-machine -- not references to an ongoing, post-mortem punishment.

Still, the majority opinion in Christendom is the one you criticize in this essay. So Christendom and its preachers probably deserve what you're dishing out here.

adam said...

Praise the Lord for his infinite knowledge and desire to beat the shit out of the evil ones! This stuff just makes my head spin I swear. I have a friend who says that he is free to "do whatever he wants." Referring to Paul's statement that "all things are lawful, but not all are beneficial." No matter how hard I try to get it through to him that he actually does not have the free will to do whatever he wants without the risk of eternal damnation, he persists. Whether the early church believed in a literal hell or not, as you pointed out, evangelicals are stuck with some sort of eternal torture and they are getting less and less comfortable with it. The way I see it, believing that others will go to hell in order to be able to believe you will go to heaven is the most selfish thing a person can do. The fact that they accept this doctrine in effect validates it, at least in their own minds; thus creating a literal hell in a sense. Christians need to boycot this vindictive god, they need to see him for what he is; a tyrant.

SteveJ said...

> ... evangelicals are stuck with some sort of eternal torture and they are getting less and less comfortable with it.

That's true. They obscure it with phrases like "separation from God." In this, they prove that (1) they really don't believe in the traditional hell, or (2) they do believe it and show themselves the most uncaring of people by veiling it in euphemism. After all, what if a killer tsunami were ready to destroy a coastal town but the people who knew about it merely dropped ambiguous warnings (e.g., "separation from dryness"). That would be a terrible omission.

Christians should either proclaim it with the plainness of Dr. Edwards or denounce the idea altogether. (I urge the latter.)

Joe E. Holman said...

"Separation from God"...sounds so eloquent and non offensive, doesn't it?

This way they don't have to face the really ugly issues their opposition puts forth!

Eric said...

They can't escape it, much like they cant escape their history. How much longer do we have until they feel shame and regret over taking the Bible seriously?

I'm glad they feel regret and shame for this belief, though it wont fix 1500 years of tyrany (spiritual and political). I think hell would be most effective if it were simply Room 101 in Nineteen-Eighty-Four.

Here is the object of hell: To provide believers with a feeling of superiority, as well as a silly attempt to scare the crap out of non-Christians and snare them.

Ever hear of Hell House? Here it is, straight from the horse's mouth:

Anonymous said...

I find it interesting to compare the concepts of hell in Christianity and in the supposedly more primitive Zoroastrianism -- which seems to be where Christianity got the idea, as they did their idea of Satan, since neither is similar to Old Testament teachings.
To quote the best collection of Zoroastrian materials on the web:
"Hell is a temporary place of suffering for sinners after death. When evil is finally defeated (at Frashegird), the souls of sinners will be released from hell, and will be purified by the ordeal of molten metal. They will then join the congregation of God and the saints."

This is from

More material on Zoroastrianism can be found at the Internet Sacred Texts Archive -- I'd link to it, but two links in one post can set off comment spamming protections. I'll post that link in another quick post.
Prup (aka Jim Benton)

Anonymous said...

That link to the Sacred Text Archive is

It isn't just a collection of 'holy books' but a vast variety of commentaries of all sorts. (Even the complete works of Shakespeare, a fascinating comparison of the treatment of LGBT people in various religions, a collection of sources for Tolkein, a series of pieces on UFOs, and, since we mostly discuss Christianity here, collections of Gnostic texts, the CONFESSIONS of St. Augustine, writings of early Church Fathers, Luther, Milton, and even William Miller, John Nelson Darby (who invented the idea of the 'Rapture), Mother White, etc.
Definitely something worth knowing and supporting (see the note at the front, and since my budget doesn't permit me to contribute this is my way of helping this valuable resource stick around).
Prup (aka Jim Benton)

EJ said...

Eric that Hell House article cannot possibly be real can it? They can't possibly beat people for not going along?

Am I missong the joke?

Joe E. Holman said...

Landover Baptist is a satirical attack on Christianity. It is not real, but do yourself a favor and read over past articles of the site for a good belly-laugh! It's unbeatable! Sadly, there are a few churches that ARE like that!


Eric said...

EJ: I really dont know if "unrepentent souls" are assaulted, but why have medical waiver forms if they arent? It is scary I know. I can imagine this becoming real (a real torture house with real prisoners and real observers) if they gain totalitarian power. I am afraid: Not of Hell, but what the psychological, political, and social consequences that the Hell House entails. Have you ever heard of a homsexual raping a chicken? I know a few and none of them are into bestiality. The power of lies is truly distressing.

Eric said...

I think its real: I looked at the forums and news, though some of it appears to be fake, the forums are especially convincing. I do wish it were fake...

openlyatheist said...

Landover Baptist is indeed some good satire.

The Hell House projects are unfortunately dead serious. See Richard Dawkins' documentaries: The Root of All Evil?, for a better look.

paul said...

Good article Joe.

It got me to thinking how death wipes out lots of notions about God, like love, mercy, gentleness. But it also kills the idea of free will (Calvinists don't read this). I guess free will also becomes a thing of the past once you die because of course most of us would change our minds if we could, given the new input. C.S.Lewis seems to grapple with the whole hell thing in "The Great Divorce." He can never quite bring himself to describe hell in biblical terms, and poses the question at the end of his story of whether hell is eternal. He seems to maintain that freewill exists after death and people still choose hell even when there.

Eric said...

Paul: Someone once said, "I'd rather rule in Hell than serve in Heaven."

What's also very interesting is "who decides who goes where? On what criteria?" If the Pope, James Dobson, Falwell, Robertson, and other right-wing theo-megalomaniacs go to Heaven, then I would much rather go to Hell.

The concepts of Heaven and Hell from thereon in become very, very messy, and the fascists and intolerants are thus revealed through their futile attempts to disguise their wishes while talking about Heaven and Hell in public.

I'm still not sure about Landover Baptists: The site did look like a half-assed tabloid magazine (akin to Sun and National Enquirer), but the forums were off-putting.

The Hell House concept, unfortunately, is very real. This past Halloween there was a story on a Hell House on

Anonymous said...

God is not only merciful, he is also holy. God being merciful often can confuse people into believing; god would never create a hell and send his children there. Well, I am here to tell you that HELL is real and god does not send you their, your sins do. When you sin, you are transgressing an infinite God. If you do not accept the free gift of forgiveness by an infinite God, you must serve an infinite punishment. You do not get into heaven by not sinning; only Jesus Christ ever lived a sinless life. Anyone, including you, can reap a free ticket in heaven. According to John 3:16 “For Gold so loved the world, that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him, shall not perish but have everlasting life”. That means know matter how much you screwed up your life, you can still go to heaven and avoid a literal hell. Just because you say to yourself, “Well I do not believe in that” will not save you. People thought they could choose to quit smoking at anytime when they started were wrong. Please accept Gods free gift by praying this prayer with me. “Jesus, I know I have sinned and lived a sinful life, and screwed it up. Please come into my life and make me free from sin. Please forgive me god, I need you.” If you have sincerely just prayed that, you are now my brother or sister in Christ. Welcome to my family. God bless you

The Spoonman said...

So, what you're saying, Anonymous is that god created man, gave him "free will" despite withholding the concept of good and evil from him. He then tricked him (and his descendants) into a lifetime of slavery by sending the serpent into the garden to trick Eve into eating the forbidden fruit. After a few thousand years (according to your misguided timeline), he felt bad, so he sent down his son to be tortured and hung from a cross so that we could be saved from the mess he created in the first place?
Wouldn't it have made more sense to just get rid of hell and the concept of "sin"?

Seriously, do you even believe this wackiness or are you just posting because you have nothing else to do?

Kurian said...

I think there is an element of truth in the belief that sinners would go to hell, a fiery inferno, where the fire never subside! What it really says is that unenlightened souls, or souls that do not achieve spiritual liberation in this lifetime, would reincarnate again and again in this world. This world is the fiery hell!

Einstein postulated that matter and energy are interchangeable. More accurately, matter and energy are one and the same thing! The equation E=mC^2 expresses that idea. So, what we experience as the material, physical world is actually a sea of energy, a fiery hell!

According to Indian philosophy, this world is a sea of consciousness, a sea of 'knowing'. "Tapas" is the process of world creation. "Tapas" means heating in addition to other meanings such as mediation, contemplation etc.