Sunday, March 22, 2015

What the Hell is Hell

The Daily Beast
by Candida Moss

Whether hell is an expletive, a coercive threat to keep naughty congregants in line, or a euphemism for a bad date, it seems that hell is thoroughly ingrained in our religious and cultural consciousness.

But this wasn’t always the case. And there are many believing theologians today who think that hell is immoral, nonexistent, or both, prompting the question: where does hell come from and why do we have it?

Chronologically speaking, hell didn’t always feature in conceptual maps of the afterlife. In the Hebrew Bible there are frequent references to Sheol, a place of shadows located physically beneath us. This is where everyone goes when they die, because people are buried in the ground. Upon occasion, Sheol opens its jaws and swallows people—a phenomenon we probably know as earthquakes, but which can in part explain why death is described as swallowing people up. Without a doubt, Sheol is a generally dismal place where people are separated from God, but it isn’t reserved for the especially wicked.

The apocryphal Apocalypse of Peter—an account of a tour of hell undergone by the apostle—describes the tortures of the wicked in excruciating detail. Dante got his visions of hell from a similar apocryphal account known as the Apocalypse of Paul.

iON on Dante’s hell

As we might imagine, not every Christian theologian has been onboard with the idea of eternal punishment. The third-century Christian teacher Origen speculated that even Satan would make it back to heaven eventually. In a recent panel at the winter meeting of the American Society of Church History, noted Duke historian Elizabeth Clark discussed the careers of English Catholic Jesuits who were excommunicated for denying the existence of hell. And evangelical it-boy Rob Bell made his name and eventually secured an Oprah-backed talk show for questioning the existence of hell.

Modern Catholic teaching stresses that hell is primarily a place of separation from God. It’s a lot fluffier and there’s good Biblical basis for this, but modern hell lacks the persuasive punch of medieval hell. After all, for atheists, eternal separation from God just seems like more of the same. Read the complete article at The Daily Beast.

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