Out From Under the Umbrella

playing in the rain

Freezing Out Hell, Part the First

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This talk of the fear of hell reminded me of this scene from Friends.

I used to be terrified of the thought of Hell.  Whether it was fiery or not, whether it was dark or not, I did not know.  I just knew I was afraid – to the point of panic attacks – of the thought of eternal punishment.  I’ve mentioned this before, but I had to first face and dispense with my fear of that torture before I could even begin to objectively look at any evidence of whether any of my other beliefs were true or not.  Fear is scary.  Fear is a powerful motivator.  It doesn’t make the things we fear real any more than monsters under the bed or in the closet.  We can even know in our rational minds that there aren’t any such things as monsters but that doesn’t make the fear go away.  At least not at first.  Fear causes us to do irrational things and think irrational thoughts.

Having written and talked extensively about having to give up that fear of hell in order to undo the years of indoctrination I’ve been subjected to and that I subjected myself to it occurs to me that I’ve never written about how I accomplished this feat.  It wasn’t easy. It was probably the hardest doctrine to rid myself of.  Even still every now and again I get this little adrenaline push when I think about the fact that there’s the possibility, no matter how remote, that I might be wrong.  But I cannot and will not allow fear to rule me.

My panic subsided quite a bit when I got it through my thick head that hell was manufactured to control people.  Christianity, itself, solidified this doctrine.  If Christianity is built on Jewish thought then just where the hell did this idea come from?  Certainly not the Old Testament. What better way to get people who wouldn’t convert and conform to do so?  Where the law fell short fear took over.  The doctrine of Universal Salvation is not a new concept.  It is but one of a number of doctrines that Christians have battled over since the beginning of Christianity.  No consensus is reached on the matter.

From Judaism 101:

“The place of spiritual reward for the righteous is often referred to in Hebrew as Gan Eden (GAHN ehy-DEHN) (the Garden of Eden). This is not the same place where Adam and Eve were; it is a place of spiritual perfection. Specific descriptions of it vary widely from one source to another. One source says that the peace that one feels when one experiences Shabbat properly is merely one-sixtieth of the pleasure of the afterlife. Other sources compare the bliss of the afterlife to the joy of sex or the warmth of a sunny day. Ultimately, though, the living can no more understand the nature of this place than the blind can understand color.

Only the very righteous go directly to Gan Eden. The average person descends to a place of punishment and/or purification, generally referred to as Gehinnom (guh-hee-NOHM) (in Yiddish, Gehenna), but sometimes as She’ol or by other names. According to one mystical view, every sin we commit creates an angel of destruction (a demon), and after we die we are punished by the very demons that we created. Some views see Gehinnom as one of severe punishment, a bit like the Christian Hell of fire and brimstone. Other sources merely see it as a time when we can see the actions of our lives objectively, see the harm that we have done and the opportunities we missed, and experience remorse for our actions. The period of time in Gehinnom does not exceed 12 months, and then ascends to take his place on Olam Ha-Ba.

Only the utterly wicked do not ascend at the end of this period; their souls are punished for the entire 12 months. Sources differ on what happens at the end of those 12 months: some say that the wicked soul is utterly destroyed and ceases to exist while others say that the soul continues to exist in a state of consciousness of remorse.

This 12-month limit is repeated in many places in the Talmud, and it is connected to the mourning cycles and the recitation of Kaddish. See Life, Death and Mourning.”

I found the same thing at Aish.com in an article entitled, Hell No, We Won’t Go.

Jewish thought on the afterlife is compared to the seats in a stadium.  How close one gets to be to God is directly related to how righteous they’ve been – not what god they worship, not who they are, not what doctrine they’ve believed.   In fact Judaism sounds relatively close to Humanism. The Torah is all but silent on the notion of an afterlife.  Why?  Because the Jewish perception is that God is more concerned with what kind of person one is, how well they’ve lived their life, in this life and not particularly what one has believed.  For a religion that should have built on Jewish thought Christianity seems to have taken Judaism and turned it on it’s head, making more requirements of a believer, not less.  Gentiles were never expected to exclusively worship Yahweh.

Again, from Judaism 101:

“Some people look at these teachings and deduce that Jews try to “earn our way into Heaven” by performing the mitzvot. This is a gross mischaracterization of our religion. It is important to remember that unlike some religions, Judaism is not focused on the question of how to get into heaven. Judaism is focused on life and how to live it. Non-Jews frequently ask me, “do you really think you’re going to go to Hell if you don’t do such-and-such?” It always catches me a bit off balance, because the question of where I am going after death simply doesn’t enter into the equation when I think about the mitzvot. We perform the mitzvot because it is our privilege and our sacred obligation to do so. We perform them out of a sense of love and duty, not out of a desire to get something in return. In fact, one of the first bits of ethical advice in Pirkei Avot (a book of the Mishnah) is: “Be not like servants who serve their master for the sake of receiving a reward; instead, be like servants who serve their master not for the sake of receiving a reward, and let the awe of Heaven [meaning G-d, not the afterlife] be upon you.”

So for me, the beginning of putting the book on hell in the freezer went back to the beginning.  What was the original thought on what fate lie ahead for the wicked.  I had no idea that Jews were so accepting of other faiths.  As Christians this is not what we are taught.  After all we were taught that the Israelites wiped out entire populations precisely because of their idolatry.  But is this so?  These thoughts would indicate otherwise, would they not?  I guess we’ll see…

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44 thoughts on “Freezing Out Hell, Part the First

  1. Ehrman: “The Invention of Heaven and Hell”

    “[…the idea that such places exist were not the original ideas of Jesus and his followers, but were later developments among Christian thinkers in later times. And since these ideas did not exist at one point among Christians, and then later became very much Christian ideas, then in that sense, SOMEBODY came up with them (or lots of somebodies), and that would involve their “invention.”

    Yeah — these creeps (church fathers) knew what they were doing. They may have not have known the neurological mechanisms involved, such as it promoting increased gray matter volume in the amygdala (fear, negative emotions), but they observed the results.

    Now we have a study showing that this kind of fear causes stress hormones that shrink (atrophy) the hippocampus. The Duke University study found atrophied hippocampus in those who said they were “born again”. The hippocampus resides in the limbic system and plays important roles in the consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory and spatial navigation.

    The reason I can become so passionate about the inhumanity of fundamentalism is that we now have evidence that atrophied hippocampus is found in Alzheimer’s patients.

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    • I plan to get into more about the evolution of the doctrine of hell in my next post.

      Because of it’s extreme divergence from Judaism, on which Christianity is built, it does seem a new development. It’s as if Christianity developed a new religion altogether, all the while claiming not to have. Why would the Church Fathers(who were Greek and Roman, by the way) lay claim to know more about Yahweh’s thoughts than his chosen people?

      Odd, as John put it, indeed.

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      • “Why would the Church Fathers(who were Greek and Roman, by the way) lay claim to know more about Yahweh’s thoughts than his chosen people? “

        Exactly. But Christians are not taught to think critically. They are taught to not question; to not doubt; to fear punishment and eternal damnation. So they become like Gary — puppets — with others manipulating the strings. They are indoctrinated to the point that they pretty much function from their limbic system rather than the frontal lobes (higher thinking), therefore they can’t see that they are indoctrinated.

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        • Who the hell can think straight when they’re scared out of their wits? It’s just not possible.

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          • Quite true — and we have lots of studies that confirm this. Navy Seals are mentally trained (their brains are rewired) to bypass their limibic system (amygdala) and go straight to the frontal lobes. This is an excellent demonstration on how fear affects the brain.

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      • Ruth, I don’t think it is as if they started a new religion, that to me is what they did.

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  2. It’s such an odd concept: hell. I find it hard to comprehend how its still even spoken about in the US.

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  3. Hi Ruth and all,

    The denomination that I am still a member of (United Church of Canada) does not believe in this concept at all. In fact, I think all the ministers we’ve ever had avoid any scriptures that mention this word. I’ve heard many clergy state, “We don’t believe in scaring people into doing good things”. So I never had to wrestle with that doctrine. In fact, when I hear other people talking about it, my thinking goes along these lines, “Well, I plan to be cremated and have my ashes scattered; just what will be left to burn??”

    Honestly, the whole concept belongs with Hallowe’en scenes. . .imagination on ghoulish steroids. Adults who foist this negativity on their children? Emotional abuse, in my opinion. .how awful.

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    • I like the Jewish concept of this life and the World to Come: It’s about being the best version of you that you can be; the concept of doing good because it’s the right thing to do. It makes much more sense than just getting one’s belief’s right. What difference does that make in the big picture? None.

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      • Yes, I really like that idea as well. It makes the most sense – just doing the best you can do because it’s RIGHT. uh huh. The ‘don’t be an asshole’ rule is a good one, too. 🙂

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        • When I first started all this research and looked into Jewish beliefs and why they don’t believe Jesus was Messiah I contacted a Jewish Rabbi. As he explained these concepts to me and I began to understand the reasoning, I still wanted to believe in Yahweh even though I was seriously doubting Jesus. I asked him about converting to Judaism and he laughed and said he didn’t understand why any gentile would do such a thing! Having studied more I understand why he would say that and why Judaism isn’t out trying to make converts.

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          • I can only speak for myself, but I always figured if the Jews don’t believe Jesus was the Messiah, there’s a very good chance that he WASN’T. Honestly, there’s just so much open to scrutinization that (and this is what happened to me) if you do any amount of digging at all, the whole business just collapses. I guess that’s how I ended up with the, “Just be nice to people” mantra – I still believe in goodness, charity, and fellowship. I just don’t think you need to be ‘religious’ to do those things.

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          • Nope. Not at all. And apparently neither do the Jews which also complicates matters for Christians. Where did this whole idea that people must convert to Christianity come from? Not from Judaism. They never have tried to convert people unless said people were to be absorbed into their tribe(think Israelite conquests). This was to keep Jewish nationalism alive – not because there was a problem with other faiths.

            From my understanding the Jews are not monotheistic in the way we(Christians) think of monotheism. They did not necessarily believe that there were no other gods, but that Yahweh was specifically their God. I plan to expound on that more.

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    • Hi Carmen,

      Former member of the United Church of Canada here. 🙂 I was born-again at age 13 in a United Church bible camp on Lake Erie in Southwestern Ontario. It was the summer of ’69 as I like to say. Hell had everything to do with my accepting Christ as my Saviour.

      Many of my camp counsellors/leaders were the teachers of the born-again concept which had everything to do with hell. Some became higher-ups in the church. Now perhaps their theology evolved over time and of course we had the big split several years ago but there are people in the church still today who are every bit as literal thinking as I was in the Baptist environment I ended up in and raised my family in.

      I don’t share to be argumentative about it. Just to share. My born-again, hell-fire days started in the United Church of Canada.

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      • So, was the split in the United Church of Canada relative to this literalism? Is that the reason there was a split. I can see that being the case, but I’m unfamiliar with the United Church of Canada.

        I did know that hell had a huge impact on your life and, still does to some degree.

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        • The split was over homosexual ordination. In that way they took the Scriptures literally.

          I have my salvation prayer written down somewhere. As you know and have read, I took it all to heart, trusting that what I was hearing was true and that those I was hearing knew what they were talking about.

          The part of my prayer about hell (without looking it up) went like this: Jesus these people tell me that unless I ask you into my heart I’ll go to hell when I die. I love you Jesus. I want to be with you when I die. I don’t want to go to hell. Jesus forgive me (a conscious awareness at the time that I was bad but I didn’t know in what way – this all had to do with being born into sin – we are born sinners), I repent, come into my heart. I accept you as my Saviour.

          It all started there Ruth. *sigh*

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          • It’s so strange how people’s experiences can be miles apart even within the same organization.

            Just based on everything you’ve said to this point I got the feeling that our youth experiences weren’t all that much different. I can remember going to church camp and hell being a pretty central theme. Since it’s so widely accepted it’s just matter-of-fact. You die and go either to heaven or hell.

            I never even consider any other options or that hell might not be all I was taught that it was or even remotely what I was taught that it was.

            Yes, the sinner’s prayer…’I am bad and you are good, oh Lord. Without you I am nothing. Forgive me for my transgressions, etc.’

            I really don’t know, and wouldn’t even hazard a guess at how many times I actually prayed it. I never could trust that I meant it enough.

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      • Hi Zoe!!
        Perhaps here in Nova Scotia the doctrine got ‘watered down’?? ha, ha. That’s funny because I ‘grew up’ in the Baptist church (until I got married) and Hell was certainly present in the sermons there! Since I’ve spent the last 36 years of married life in the United Church, the Baptists are a distant, spooky memory (the Baptismal ‘tank’ in the front of the church – eerie!)

        I think of Hell now as a completely alien concept; it plays absolutely no part in my theories of death. I think I will die – like every other living thing. That’s about it.

        Thanks for sharing! Oh, I just did the Math – I was 12 in the summer of ’69. We’re a good age. . . .:)

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        • I left the church at age 16 for Baptist waters.

          There was a Jesus movement that swept through the church around that time and the youth were swept along with it, the older teens and 20 year olds and they caught the younger ones in the net.

          I’ve got a story and probably wrote about it at one time too about that “eerie!” tank. Scared the h e double hockey sticks out of me when I first saw it. I wish I could say they are a distant memory but it all got locked down nicely in my long-term memory.

          Baby Boomer! 🙂

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  4. I find it odd that Christianity is not accepting of other faiths, when Jesus clearly stated that upon being accused of being evil when driving out a demon that a kingdom divided against itself would crumble. This, written to be coming directly from Jesus himself, completely opens up the acceptance of other faiths that also drive out ‘evil’.

    Yet, the religion which focuses on being centred around Jesus seems to completely miss the boat on this point made by their main character.

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    • I have often thought that, myself. But then Jesus also reportedly said that people would preach, teach and drive out demons in his name and he would say, “depart from me for I never knew you.” That seems to suggest there’s a greater heart of the matter than just driving out evil. As if it’s is possible for a house to be divided.

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      • Ah yes, that passage (Matthew 7:21-23) kind of comes across to me as the people who Jesus is shunning were doing such things for their own personal benefit in mind. It also has them putting the focus on having done it in Jesus’ name, which also comes across to me as Jesus basically saying not to use him as an idol.

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        • The Holy Spirit didn’t lead you into the same understanding as me? Curiouser and curiouser. 😉

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          • With the riddles that Jesus wraps his teachings into, and the conflicting decisions made through history by God the Father, shouldn’t one expect the Holy Spirit to have a mischievous side of its own? 😉

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  5. Ruth, perhaps I should have read this post before I responded to your latest comment on my blog. Sorry, I didn’t.

    You suggest “that hell was manufactured to control people.”

    Seems a bit cynical to me. Oh, don’t get me wrong: I think some people (specifically fire and brimstone evangelists) have done just that. But is that the origin of the concept of Hell?

    I think powerful rulers have also utilized religion to attempt to control their subjects. But I doubt that is the origin of religion.

    I tend to think the true source of the concept of Hell had its origin in our innate sense of justice, and that those who don’t live according to the principles of justice are worthy of punishment. To those who believe life is a grand morality play of sorts, the concept of Hell makes sense, I suppose, when coupled with the doctrine of the immortality of the soul.

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    • Ugh! I should have clarified and thought it was implicit in what I wrote that I was speaking of eternal damnation of the fire and brimstone kind. Don’t think that the concept of that began in evangelical America for one minute.

      No, on the other hand, I was specifically in this post going back to the origin of hell, which is Gehenna. Of the three Abrahamic faiths, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, only Christianity subscribes to eternal damnation. Both Islam and Judaism favor some sort of “purgatory” though that is not what they call it.

      In Judaism, specifically, Gehenna is not a literal burning but a burning of shame when standing before Yahweh one realizes their shortcomings. Some people will not even have to experience Gehenna because they will immediately repent, while others depending on their wickedness, which I’m going to presume is their lack of repentance will spend up to 12 months in Gehenna, or shame, when they are purified.

      In summary, while I still don’t even believe in Gehenna, I was using these facts to show that an eternal hell is a relatively new development.

      I will agree that the concept of hell, the Gehenna kind, had it’s origin in our innate sense of justice. The eternal fire and brimstone kind I believe had far more insidious beginnings.

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  6. When I first started to allow myself to question it to, what struck me was that God told Adam and Eve they would die.

    Die.

    Not go to Hell.

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    • Well, one would think that if eternal reward and punishment played such a huge part of belief or disbelief that Yahweh would have made that part of the Torah. Instead Jewish thought on the matter is that for every transgression, depending on severity, a person loses some of their portion in Gan Eden, or paradise. Their portion is how close or how far they are from God.

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  7. So Judaism is about life here and now unlike Judaism 2.0 and 3.0 which are cults of death.

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  8. I, too, suffered from the indoctrination of hell for many years after leaving the church. One of the things that finally gave me release was all the research I did for my book (I have an entire chapter devoted to the subject).

    Something I discovered from my studies is that modern Jews (as you quoted above) often have a different outlook on the afterlife than the Hebrews people of the OT.

    The early Hebrews looked at it as a shadowy place known as sheol (grave, pit, abyss). All who died went there. There was no segregation between the righteous and the unrighteous. In later years, however, as they suffered at the hands of their enemies, they began to divide sheol into levels with the “most wicked” being sent to the “depths of the pit.” However, there is no suggestion of postmortem punishment.

    It was the influence of the Egyptians and the Zoroastrians that created not only the belief in hell, but of its leader as well. Also, the later apocalyptic writings played a huge role in its development as a valid location (e.g., Book of Enoch).

    It’s really sad so many Christians live with this underlying fear of where they will spend eternity. In my book, I ask the question: “Why do we spend our time on earth always keeping an eye towards what awaits us in the afterlife? NOW is the only time there is.”

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    • Thanks for commenting and sharing your research, Nan. I, too, had the impression that any notion of hell is a relatively modern concept, as DougB noted; maybe part of an innate sense of injustice that crooks and good people all wind up in the same place. I think our sense of wanting people to pay for corruption is the biggest motivator.

      It isn’t, as is pointed out on both the Jewish websites I linked to, that there was no sense of an afterlife, but that sense the Torah is pretty much silent on the issue that it’s left up to the imagination. And oh, what imaginations we have!

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  9. A history professor shared this skeptical little ditty that became widespread shortly before the emergence of protestantism:

    As soon as the coin in the coffer rings
    The soul from purgatory springs!

    As to how the doctrine eternal torture appears in an offshoot of Judaism (which lacks it) – typical of religious development. The new doctrine improves the old story showing the superiority of the the new divine figure to the old one. Contradistinction to the old story occurs while it is yet useful as a basis because of the widespread understanding and acceptance of the old story. One small instance of this is the healing at Bethesda. You will search Jewish scripture in vain for the Jews having a healing pool. But the Greeks did. The healings were attributed to Asclepius. The new story does the old story one better by virtue of the ailing person not even needing to bathe in the pool, so Jesus one ups Asclepius. These things happen ad naseum in the Judo Christian sacred writings. Jesus is made to be superior in endeavors similar to those of Moses, Elijah, Odysseus, Jonah, et al.

    The new (testament) version of god is more to be feared because of the more horrible prospect of eternal damnation. By those writers at that time, this was seen as an improvement. Are we not advised to work out our salvation with fear and trembling?

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    • New and improved, huh? That’s a matter of opinion. 😉

      “Turn or burn, it’s the newest thing going!”

      Good to see you in my neck of the woods, exrelayman.

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  10. My second blog post was along these same lines. I also had panic attacks when thinking about hell. It was really very traumatic for me. And when I think about being wrong, I also get that adrenaline feeling. To me it feels like a roller coaster feeling, that big drop. I am still working on not having such a physical and emotional reaction to the thought of hell. It just goes to show how deep religion goes to control others.

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    • Thanks for stopping by and for commenting, Kara!

      I know of people who continue to have these symptoms for years after logically refuting the notion of hell. I still have them every now and again but they do seem to become milder and milder. Hopefully they will completely vanish in time.

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  11. Well said Ruth and loved the video. LOL! I read somewhere that FEAR is False Evidence Appearing Real. Our church taught us that heaven and hell is here on earth. I was never bothered with stuff like that and never had that fear. Guess it must be because I was raised in fear and quickly learned only I can overcome it by standing up for myself and not allowing anyone to break me or take me down.

    I always thought I had a fear of clowns until I saw the movie IT that was written by Stephen King. I love horrors. Anyways, then I realised I don’t fear clowns, I just hate them. Did like the movie and the clown though. LOL!

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    • Yes, I’ve heard of that teaching about hell. Of course, there were Bible verses to back up a literal heaven and hell. But then there are Bible verses to back up the “here on earth” version, too. Anybody can pretty much make that thing say whatever they want it to. 😕

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