I had an argument with a Christian last night in which I was told that my reference to Hell, which I regard to be one of the worst features of Christianity, was an “interpretation,” and, moreover, that I can’t know what Christians think. Let me take up the second claim first, a claims sometimes rendered, “You don’t know what’s in my heart.” This is a favorite argument of racists, as if being a racist is determined by what one thinks of himself and not what he believes and how he acts. The same applies to being a Christian but in reverse: with racism, you don’t get to deny you’re a racist while embracing racist beliefs and practices; with Christianity, you don’t get to say, “I’m a Christian” and then deny the core elements of your faith. I’m not giving anybody the wriggle room to escape their responsibility in these matters.

The fact is that the New Testament is full of references to Hell. In 2 Thessalonians 1:9, which has historically been considered to be one of Paul’s epistles, in which case it was written some three generations after the alleged birth of Jesus and therefore represents the earliest Christian writings (Paul’s epistles), putting the notion of everlasting destruction and eternal alienation from God at the beginning of Christian thinking. The verse: “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” It has been supposed more recently that 2 Thessalonians was probably written four to six generations after the alleged birth of the Christian messiah. If you are among those who put distance and authors between 2 Thessalonians from 1 Thessalonians, then Mark, widely believed to be the earliest gospel (probably written four to five generations after the alleged birth of the Christian messiah, and forming, along with perhaps a second common source, the basis of the gospels of Matthew and Luke), gives us chapter and verse 9:43: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out.”

Hell is discussed elsewhere in the New Testament, as well. For example, in Revelations 21:8, the author writes, “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur.” (This book was probably written approximately four to five generations after the alleged birth of the Christian messiah.) Then there’s Matthew, who seems particularly keen on scaring the crap out of people with the idea of Hell. Matthew 10:28: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Matthew 13:42: “They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Matthew 13:50: “and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Matthew 25:41: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’” Matthew 25:46: “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew was probably written four to six generations after the alleged birth of the Christian messiah.)

One does not get to say that Hell is a product of my interpretation of the Christian scriptures. Hell is a central construct in Christian theology and appears in the earliest Christian literature, the very text deemed canonical and divinely inspired. If you believe the authors of the gospels had access to Jesus’s words, or were inspired to accurately reflect his views, then the fact that Matthew 10:28 is directly attributed to Jesus himself gives you no room for interpretation. If you believe you can be a Christian simply by saying you are, well, then have fun with your own self-satisfaction. But it doesn’t impress me at all.

Sure, you can rationalize Hell. You can say that it is not there to scare us into loving God, but that salvation is a gift from loving God to provide a way to escape Hell. There’s a downside to this view. It means that Hell is a place that exists independently of God – not a place created by him to scare you – and that, while God does not have the power to make Hell go away, he does have the power to save you from going there if an only if you sign your life over to him. God says, “I will save you from eternal torment if you love me.,” God says “If you don’t love me, sorry, there’s nothing I can do. You will burn.” Some all-powerful deity you got there. So full of love for his creatures. And if you object to me quoting God, remember, I have as much authority to do so as anybody else.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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