On Hell, part 1, or The Evolution of an Evil Notion

Don’t you just love Hell?

What’s not to love, really?


Although various Christian thinkers over the ages have written that one of heaven’s joys will be getting to watch the suffering of the reprobate in Hell (eg. Tertullian, Aquinas, Jonathan Edwards among others – perhaps picking up on Paul’s thinking in Romans 9:22-24 and running with it), many Christians today are largely about as happy with Hell as most non-Christians.

Most Christians would be glad to be rid of it, as a doctrine, and statistically, many seem to have done just that.  But biblically, it is difficult to get rid of it completely.

It can be difficult to track down the ‘biblical perspective of hell’, since the underlying words which may, or may not, be translated in that way vary, and so the relevant dataset will thus depend in part on translation decisions.

The Jewish concept of the afterlife developed over time, following the interactions of the Jewish people with various other groups.  New Testament readers will be aware that the Sadducees, who only held to the Pentateuch, did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, whilst the Pharisees did. The Jewish concept of a final judgement developed during the Exilic period, when the exiled Jews encountered the Zoroastrian dualism of heaven and hell, and a final judgement.  This is clear enough on a chronologically-sensitive reading of the Old Testament.  It’s perhaps unsurprising that the eschatologically focused Zoroastrian vision fit well with the Hebrew people whose nationalistic hopes lay in tatters, and so it was readily adopted and integrated into their theological framework.

Further nuances occurred in the intertestamental period, through Hellenic influence on Jewish thought.  All this belies the suggestion that such an important concept was delivered through divine revelation.  On the contrary, it reveals itself as a derivative amalgam which gained in memetic fitness over time, and indeed continued to evolve post-biblically.

For those Christians who want to hold on to the Doctrine of Hell, many have continued this time-honoured tradition and undertaken to reinvent it.  Some have limited it in time – annihilationalism or conditional immortality (or even an eventual universalism).  Others have shifted it in scope, from retributive justice to something else – typically God’s “honouring” an unbeliever’s decision to reject him.  This is the classic “God’s-only-giving-unbelievers-what-they-wanted-all-along” argument.  When in fact what most unbelievers want is some vaguely decent evidence (ideally without requiring a middle-man delivering the message) that God exists at all.

All of this is to discuss only the thoroughly human origins of the concept, and is to say nothing regarding the ‘content’ itself of the Christian concept of hell – which should be the subject of another post, considering its significant moral and logical problems.

So here’s is some Gospel News: hell is demonstrably a human invention, for which there is no good evidence of its existence in reality, and no good reason to hold to such a monstrous idea.  Indeed, there is good evidence to view it as merely a relatively late innovation when considered from within its own scriptural context.

There is no hell. Now that is Good News.

7 thoughts on “On Hell, part 1, or The Evolution of an Evil Notion

  1. I find the idea of an all loving god who likes to perpetually torture at least 90% of the human population laughably incongruent.
    That said, I really miss the idea that one day I will get vindication for my beliefs and lifestyle 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maybe I’m remembering through the silver-misted lens of history, but I was never really comfortable with the idea that everything ‘ought’ to be ‘put right’ in the end (though yes…the idea is a comfort in its own way, to be sure).
      Why should anyone get their eschatological just desserts necessarily?
      Mmmm, eschatological desserts – sounds delicious.


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