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May 26, 2017 Column

A Short History of Hell

Rev. Yme Woensdregt

Two weeks ago, I looked briefly at the ancients’ understanding of the world as a three–storey universe. We live in the middle, on the earth. Above us is heaven. Below us is the underworld, where the dead go. This is how the ancients described their understanding of how the world worked, and it was largely a neutral kind of description.

But that all changed. The place of the dead became identified as a place of eternal punishment. Hades became hell. How did that happen?

It’s a complex story. Religions, like other parts of human life, develop, and the story of Hell is a good example of that.

Early Israelites had only a shadowy concept of life after death. They had no belief at all in a place of reward or punishment. The Hebrew word Sheol, which is often mistranslated “hell”, means nothing more than a place where a body is laid to rest.

Unlike the Mesopotamians (their neighbours to the east) or the Egyptians, ancient Jews had very little interest in the afterlife. For them, God’s blessings were found in this life, not in some existence yet to come.

To be fair, the Old Testament does contain a few verses that reflect the possibility of an afterlife. They are scattered here and there, but there is no consistent teaching that there is life after death.

That all began to change about 300 years before the birth of Jesus. A concept of the afterlife began to develop, which included both reward and punishment. It happened while Israel was dominated by foreign powers. It was risky to remain a faithful Jew. The penalty for refusing to bow to idols or to eat foods prohibited by their laws was death. The book of Daniel (written about 165 BC) reflects this developing understanding.

It’s not so difficult to understand that a persecuted people would begin looking for justice, something to balance the scales. They couldn’t find it on earth. Despite remaining faithful to God, they were being persecuted. They hoped that their faithfulness would be rewarded … if not on earth, then in the future.

And what of Jesus? I am convinced that Jesus was more in line with the ancient Jews in stressing the importance of living faithfully in the present age. He didn’t ignore the future. But the purpose of human beings is to live fully in the present, living compassionately and gracefully with all people, and especially with those who are less fortunate. That’s the goal of our life, and whatever happens after we die is in God’s hands.

So why is hell such an important feature for so many Christians today? Television preachers warn us regularly that if we don’t follow Jesus, we will be damned for eternity. They claim that if we don’t claim Jesus as “our personal Lord and Saviour,” we are condemned to an eternity of hellfire and eternal conscious torment.

Personally, I don’t believe that. Not for an instant. However, it has been an important feature of Christianity ever since the 11th century.

In 1098, a Roman Catholic archbishop of Canterbury named Anselm wrote a book called Why God Became Man. It contained his theory of the atonement, which is the work of Christ on the cross. His theory has carried great weight in Christianity ever since. Living in a world dominated by feudalism, Anselm pictured God as a feudal lord.

Anselm’s argument went like this. Adam and Eve sinned in the garden. The honour of the Sovereign Lord was offended. Adam’s sin was passed on to all succeeding generations through the act of procreation (this is what is meant by “original sin”). All human beings are guilty, and all must be condemned. Because we are all guilty, none of us can restore the harmony of God’s creation or satisfy God’s honour.

Nevertheless, according to Anselm, God’s honour requires some form of restitution. That’s where Jesus comes in. He is both human and divine. Born of a virgin, he is not tainted with the original sin of Adam. When Jesus gives up his life on the cross, it’s a death he doesn’t deserve. He builds up a balance of merits which can be credited to all those who believe in him.

In Anselm’s feudal society, this made sense. The king had power of life and death over those who lived in his territory. Anselm presented a God whose chief concern is justice and honour, because those were the concerns of his society and his day.

It is possible — even necessary — for us to think of the atonement differently today. It’s a different world. We understand God differently today. God is not a distant potentate who is chiefly concerned about protecting his honour. We live in an age where we know much about human nature, about the human mind and its workings, about inter–relationships, and so on.

We also live in an age of profound despair and hopelessness. Could it be that in such an age as ours, the good news needs to centre more on the loving acceptance of God of all people than on the ways in which we offend God? Could it be that hell as a place of eternal punishment no longer serves as an adequate part of our faith? Could it be that the emerging way, which focuses more on tolerance and compassion for other people, is more adequate than a highly individualistic vision which asks where I will spend eternity?

Clearly, my answer to that is yes.