Before I drop yet another "sensitive" article into the world, I'd like to add that I'm not writing these to be destructive or to garner controversy. I write on these subjects because they matter a great deal and because no one else seems to. Other people have to have seen the same things I have, but somehow they don't show up in print.
"Hell," to be sure, is a touchy subject. Millions of people think their eternal destination rests upon an acknowledgement that hell and its eternal torture are real. Some of them will almost say, "If there is no hell, there is no God." Furthermore, they believe that without the fear of hell, we would all degenerate into monsters.
Nonetheless, the truth about hell is that it began as Egyptian propaganda. I'm sure some people will be shocked by that statement, but it's true, it's clear, and we should have been told this a long time ago. (This is covered in depth in issue # 64 of the subscription letter.)
From Egypt, "hell" made its way to Greece, where it was embellished. Finally – and later than people think – it made its way into Christianity, where it has remained till the present.
When Hell Began
The earliest Near Eastern religions had no concept of hell. Instead, they had a dreary underworld, almost like a purgatory where people lived as ghosts. That's an awfully rough description, but it's the best I can do in a few words.
"Hell" was an innovation of Egypt's Middle Kingdom, after the Old Kingdom (the bosses who built the pyramids) broke down in 2181 BC. The priests needed a better set of mythologies to keep people paying their taxes and obeying the pharaoh, and this story worked. A group of texts from this period (the Coffin Texts) describe an underworld as containing fiery rivers and lakes, as well as fire demons who threatened the wicked.
The Greeks added a place called "Tartarus," a pit of punishment that existed inside the larger underworld, which was called "hades."
Neither the Sumerian religion nor the ancient Hebrew religion had any concept of hell, and later-day Judaism seldom ventures farther than an underworld. (Jesus is said to have used a version of this underworld in one of his stories.)
The modern version of hell doesn't appear in Christianity until long after Jesus's death. The earliest explicit mention I can point to is from Hippolytus (Against Plato), in about 230 AD, eight or 10 generations after Jesus.
"Jesus Taught Hell!"
No, he didn't. Again, this is carefully explained in issue # 64 of the subscription letter. Suffice it to say that half of the mentions of "hell" in the King James Bible shouldn't even be there. They wrongly translated the name Hades – the Greek god of the underworld – as "hell." Newer versions use "the grave."
The word from the scary hell passages – gehenna – was simply the name of a garbage dump: The Valley of Hinnom, where the people of Jerusalem discarded and burned their refuse. Furthermore, the word for "destroy," apollymi, means "to eliminate entirely."
And so, doctrines of hell are contradicted by literal translations. Here's a scary passage from King James:
… but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.
Literally translated it says:
… but rather fear him which is able to annihilate you, body and soul, as refuse.
Now, the scariest one:
… to be cast into Gehenna, into the fire that never shall be quenched:
Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.
"Worm," here, is actually "maggot," creatures that abound in refuse piles. And so, the verse could be translated as:
… to be cast as refuse into a pit… where maggots and fire consume all.
I invite anyone committed to the scary interpretations to get an interlinear New Testament and a lexicon and to look up the words.
It would be hard to find a worse contradiction than a God who loves everyone but who will torture most people for billions of years simply because they didn't express the right flavor of religious devotion… something they had no way to be certain about.
This belief portrays a "loving God" who is worse than serial killers. The killers, at least, have some point where they weary of inflicting torment. What kind of being is this God who will torture fathers, mothers, and children forever?
And make no mistake; people who advocate for hell are calling torture "righteous."
Hell, the ultimate terror, is the enemy of what's best within us, not its aid.
And it's true that "hell" began as Egyptian propaganda. It was a useful myth to keep the taxes flowing.
One last thought:
We can choose to see or we can choose to be blind. Choose wisely.
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A book that generates comments like these, from actual readers, might be worth your time:
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Such a tour de force, so many ideas. And I am amazed at the courage to write such a book, that challenges so many people's conceptions.
There were so many points where it was hard to read, I was so choked up.
Holy moly! I was familiar with most of the themes presented in A Lodging of Wayfaring Men, but I am still trying to wrap my head around the concepts you presented at the end of this one.
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