Hi and welcome back! After I ran that post about how my fear of Hell got burned out of me one night, some folks wanted some more info about what I learned about Hell afterward. It’s been a long time since we talked much about Hell, so I thought that sounded like a marvelous idea! Let’s start today by asking exactly which Hell Christians want us to fear in the first place. Because as we’ll see, that question is very, very far from settled.
Hell, as a Belief in Christianity.
Most of us know the boilerplate belief in Hell as presented by toxic Christians:
If we refuse to comply with these Christians’ demands till our deaths, then their loving, merciful god will do a complete 180 to become an implacable, unthinkably cruel and evil judge. He will set the ghosts of all disobedient people on fire to burn forever. During this time of torture, there’ll be no reprieve, no mercy, no relief, and no end to it, according to these Christians.
The only way to avoid this grotesque fate, they tell us, is to believe with all our hearts that these Christians’ imaginary friend is real AND ALSO that he is totally loving and merciful. In addition, for the rest of our lives we must completely obey all orders from these Christians’ leaders.
(If we just can’t summon real belief in such ludicrous, manipulative twaddle, though, our gracious judges and aspiring lords will usually accept our full 100% compliance. Ain’t
they— er, their imaginary friend — nice that way?)
However, it is extremely important to note two things here.
First, many Christians reject Hell as a belief. To the great distress of the most toxic leaders in Christianity, Hell-belief is not universal. Not even close to it. In fact, Pew Forum gives us some statistics from their 2015 Religious Landscape Study. Those stats indicate that not even all evangelicals, who tend to think (mistakenly) that the Bible is literally true and accurate in all ways, believe in Hell. When we work our way down to the mainline Christians and Catholics, we’re looking at like 40% of Christians not buying into that manipulation tactic.
Second, Hell-believers tend to soften their stance considerably when it comes to their loved ones. I don’t have statistics on this, but I’ve seen it so many times that I think it must be common even in fundagelicalism. Suddenly, the cruel and vicious Mad Blood God of the Desert (MBGD) takes all sorts of extenuating factors into account.
Their tribe might not approve at all of this grace, but love speaks louder than cruelty.
It always has.
Hell as a Cultural Construct.
A while ago, we looked at Near Death Experiences (NDEs). One of the most remarkable aspects of NDEs is their near-universal tendency to reflect a person’s cultural cues about death. Even NDE enthusiasts must admit that this is so. A Native American’s NDE will differ quite a lot from an East Indian’s NDE, and both will differ from a fundagelical child’s NDE. Really, NDEs don’t share a whole lot of commonalities.
And neither does the afterlife in cultures around the world, past and present. For a very long time, people barely had any conceptualization of the afterlife at all. They just thought we dissolved into dust and were gone (which is actually what happens, so good on them). That’s why the Ancient Egyptians were so buggy about embalming, in fact: they thought that their afterlives would last only as long as their physical bodies did — and those bodies needed to be recognizable as them. (To which one must say: oops, that didn’t go so well.)
Different religions had, of course, vastly different views of the afterlife. They also had very different conceptualizations of how one arrived at that afterlife, what one did while there, and how long one stayed there. In Ancient Egypt, people thought that if they passed a test in the Hall of Two Truths, then they went to Osiris’ fields to work for him. If they failed the test, however, then a demon devoured them — and that was that.
Ancient Greeks had three places where they thought the dead went — generally. Really good people went to Elysium. Very bad people went to Tartarus. Others went to Asphodel Fields. The gods punished bad people in Tartarus, but it was dark more than nasty.
And the ancient Jews who gave rise to Christianity were all over the map on their thinking about the afterlife. Some groups thought there was no afterlife. Others went in for re-embodiment of the soul into another body. Others still went in for a sort of Heaven-and-Hell arrangement.
More Hell Visions From Around the World.
The idea of Hell certainly caught on well with Christians, once someone introduced it to them. However, their version competed against a lot of others around the world.
Aztec Mythology (Americas): They thought the dead journeyed to a neutral afterlife called Mictlan. The journey took about four years and involved a series of difficulties.
Bagobo Mythology (Philippines): Everyone goes to one land, called Gimokodan. Before spirits get there, they must bathe in “a dark river.” It strips away their memories.
Hinduism (India): An absolutely astonishing number of Hells called collectively Naraka. Each featured their own bizarre punishment. After punishment, the souls involved get reincarnated. Very few people are stuck there forever.
Mayan Mythology (Americas): All people went to Xibalba, a city of tests and traps. (Bet they enjoyed that river flowing with pus!) If they couldn’t outwit the tests and traps, they’d die forever or be humiliated forever.
Slavic Folklore (Eastern Europe): The afterlife was called something like Nav. It wasn’t particularly Hellish, though.
Swahili Mythology (Africa): Hell, called kuzimu, is for those who didn’t obey the correct doctrines. Instead of being taken up by their ancestors, such people wander the earth as disembodied spirits.
Taoism (China): Hell, or Diyu, is extremely complicated, bureaucratic, and based on atonement. More like the Catholic notion of Purgatory than anything else.
Yoruba Mythology (Africa): No Hell per se. Good people live in a nice place, while bad people must dwell in a confined one.
Zoroastrianism (Near East): When people die, they cross the Chinvat Bridge, or Bridge of Judgment. Bad people find the bridge narrowing too much to travel safely — and a demon eventually drags them into The House of Lies, which is sorta like Christianity’s Hell. However, good people cross easily, and a nice spirit leads them to The House of Song. There, they reunite with Ahura Mazda.
Hmmmm. Wait just a minute here…!
The Evidence for Any of This Stuff.
None whatsoever. To be more specific:
Not one believer from any of these religions has ever produced any evidence whatsoever to support the notion of any afterlife at all, much less any specific version of any afterlife. Nor has anybody ever produced a single shred of evidence supporting the notion of some sort of sentience for humans after death, which is one of the many prerequisites for afterlife-belief.
(We’ll talk more about the many nested assumptions that go into Hell-belief specifically. But for now, we’ll just put a pin in that topic. It’s a big’un, and I want to give it room to frolic.)
So every one of these afterlife concepts contains exactly the same amount of evidence, which is to say none at all. And yet they are all so different! Many don’t even really differentiate between pleasant and unpleasant places for souls to inhabit. Those that do often involve huge physical or intellectual tests rather than judgments of people’s behavior or beliefs. Very few feature punishment at all, and only one version of Hell seemed to last forever — but only for some people.
To me, it’s obvious that afterlife conceptualizations are cultural in nature — just like NDEs are. People make these afterlives up, and they make them up with stuff from their own culture’s tapestry of knowledge and wisdom. That’s why they’re all so different.
So…. Which Hell, Then?
If you’d been born into a Mayan or Aztec family, you’d be prepping for the tests of the afterlife.
If you’d been born into an ancient Chinese family, you’d be trying to avoid Diyu.
Zoroastrian? You’d be afraid of falling off the Chinvat Bridge.
Be glad you’re not an Ancient Egyptian and don’t need to be saving up for a really good mummification and burial. Not enough money? Oops, your soul dissolves eventually.
And in every one of these cases, you’d think all the other versions of Hell/afterlife, including the modern Christian one, sounded downright weird, if not silly.
Indeed, as I learned about different religions after my deconversion, I had to conclude one thing above all:
The literal only reason Christian-influenced people fear Hell is because that’s what our culture talks about and presents as an option. There’s no more reason to fear it than we have to fear the Chinvat Bridge or Mictlan.
If you’re not scared of those other afterlives, then just remember that Hell sits on the same exact shelf they do — and that this shelf is located in the fiction section of the world’s library.
NEXT UP: A brief segue into an absolutely cringey bit of dishonesty from our favorite liars-for-Jesus, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Oh my word, this was so bad, even for them. When we’re done with that, we’ll return to Hell — because I’ve got a lot to say about it. This ride has only just started. See you soon!
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