/ 1 April 2024

God edition: Why I reject the hellfire doctrine

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Shot to hell: An unknown artist, c 1840, depicts hell in the painting Purgatory as a place of eternal torture. Photo: Heritage Art/Heritage Images/Getty Images

If people who call themselves Christians explored the origins of the Bible, they might, like me, start to question a fundamental doctrine that causes dissonance for believers and helps atheists along in their arguments.

That a loving God could throw his children — believers who err from the path of righteousness and the billions of people who have ever lived but have never heard the “Good News of Salvation” or have rejected it — into the eternal conscious torment of a burning hellfire to be tortured forever is nonsensical. 

Breaking free from believing this fearful fate of the masses has been one of the most liberating experiences of my adult life. It is right up there along with breaking free from the vicious rollercoaster ride of narcissistic abuse and control. Those who have experienced this will understand the joy and peace that follows.

I know that I will upset many people for rejecting hellfire doctrine, not least those closest to me who cling to the concept, but only because they have been blinded, indoctrinated by centuries of clergy passing down the myth from generation to generation.

What I have come to consider as my spiritual awakening started with me praying out loud — yes, I am still a woman of strong faith and belief in God’s Son Jesus Christ — for God to “remove every lie I have ever believed in my life”. 

That was almost five years ago, and I am still deconstructing the doctrine I previously believed and do not pretend to have all the answers.

What followed was the reading of the book Raising Hell by Julie Ferwerda, a former Baptist who set about investigating the origins of the doctrine of hell. In so doing she uncovered how things have been taken out of context and how the meaning of certain words in the Bible had been altered to suit the promotion of the hellfire doctrine. For example, the word eternity means “an aeon” or “age”, indicating separate finite chapters of time rather than the “forever and ever” of eternity spouted in modern doctrines. 

And words used for hell actually refer to the place of the dead in the original Hebrew and Greek language. 

Sheol or Hades simply means the grave and Gehenna is a historical place in the valley of the Sons of Hinnom in Jerusalem where rubbish used to be burned.

I loved how her online book is freely available and has hyperlinks to online Greek and Hebrew dictionaries, allowing readers to investigate her discoveries and not expect us to simply take them at face value.

Probably what stood out for me, as someone who at the time still held on to the infallibility of the Bible as God’s spirit breathed word and instructions to mankind, was the fact that the Old Testament, the longest segment of the Bible, makes no mention of a place of burning hellfire and torment where God punishes the wicked and the unjust for eternity, with no chance of escape, forever. 

Neither does the Jewish religion, in which Christianity proudly holds its roots, refer to the hellfire doctrine.

I will tell you that what I discovered (for those who already see the light because they allowed their minds to question in the first place and avoid indoctrination this is trite) is that the hellfire doctrine originated in Greek and Roman mythology. This portrayed Hades or the underworld as a realm of punishment and torment for the souls of the dead. As Christianity spread it encountered these existing beliefs, which influenced the development of Christian beliefs about the end times and the afterlife.

This doctrine was inserted into Biblical texts, which were originally documents and letters the apostles wrote about Jesus, and then church councils of men — such as the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE and the Council of Ephesus in 431 CE — played a role in shaping this doctrine by affirming certain writings as canonical. These fallible human councils decided which texts and documents would form what we know today as the “infallible word of God”, or the Holy Bible, as it is known in Christian circles. 

Augustine of Hippo, one of the most influential theologians in the history of Christianity, made significant contributions to the development of the doctrine of hell. 

Early Christians had not held the doctrine of “burning hellfire” because these are incongruent with the nature of a loving God who Jesus expressly embodied and taught us how to live. He taught us how to love and be kind, good, forgiving and merciful to everyone, even those who persecute and hate us. He did not condemn anyone, not drinkers, prostitutes, murderers, nor adulterers.

Rather, the Christian Universalist view, as it is known today, was predominantly held during the time of the early Church. This was the belief that God would reconcile and save all of humanity in the end.

The hellfire doctrine is man-made and used to control people, as several ancient rulers have agreed and as it still happens today. Think marriage with few divorce options, and the giving of 10% of one’s income to the church, another highly questionable practice when interrogated in its historical context.

But we have been taught in our churches over the centuries, from generation to generation, that we must believe every word, every “jot and tittle”, because not to do so is to question God and to doubt.

The Bible says “The wages of sin is death” and not eternal conscious torment. So, something does not add up; there are too many contradictions.

I have come to understand that everyone will ultimately be with God as He will become all in all and will reconcile all things to Himself in Christ.

“Just as in Adam all die, so in Christ all shall be made alive.” Jesus is, after all, the “second Adam”.

Perhaps organised religion, the Christian church, is the most responsible for turning people away from believing by unwittingly preaching a God of vengeance and wrath who will throw souls into hell rather than sharing His true heart of love, forgiveness and reconciliation of all people to himself. 

I am not saying these believers are not sincere, but I have come to believe that they are sincerely mistaken.