Every church that my parents attended over the years I was growing up, were ones that preached hellfire as a matter of fact. Of course they drug me along each and every Sunday morning and evening. As teenagers in church, my friends and I were completely bored with the whole scene. We would play games on paper, during the preaching part of the services. In all of the play, we were especially devious at Christmas time. One of the songs on the must-sing list each year was the one about the angels announcing the birth of Jesus to the shepherds. We sang the refrain with exceptional vigor as the words “Noel, Noel” were sung by the “faithful.” We found it especially rewarding to change the words and sing our own version. And there, from the back pew, we would sing “no hell, no hell.” The people around us of course couldn’t tell the difference. But they wondered why, all of a sudden, those pesky teenagers were so excited about singing!
In my earlier years, as a boy of eight, I had a much different attitude about hell. Fear and trembling used to grip my soul at the old “tent meetings” my parents used to frequent. The touring preachers would come through the area each summer, set up their huge tents, hundreds of very uncomfortable chairs, and cover the grass in the aisles with sawdust as a path for the “sinners” to walk down at the end of the hellfire sermon. As they went up front to repent of their sins and get “saved,” the really ancient hymns were sung to motivate the sinners with guilt, and get them to walk down the “sawdust trail” and get “born again.” I was always disturbed inside at the songs they sang about being lowly, wicked, wretched and worthless. The one I hated most was the line where people sang “…for such a worm as I.” All of that and the fear of an eternal hellfire moved people to “come to God” in self-abasement and worthlessness, and then tearfully surrender to an external God, whose wrath was the focus of the sermon just delivered. That God was a fierce and vindictive theological entity, rather than the Loving One that Jesus spoke of in his teachings.
I often wondered why I was so bad. What had I done as a little boy that I deserved to go to a place of eternal fiery torment and be roasted in the fire that never went out? But, of course, the beatings from my father had set me up for believing that I deserved that. And, while I was tormented already by the thought that I might be in some kind of eternal fiery pain (yet wouldn’t be burned up), I was already in what seemed to me to be eternal pain. I felt all that was unjust and unfair for a boy who had only told a lie or two, or maybe forgot to do his chores, at worst. What kind of “god” would do that?
There cannot be, in my opinion, a more heinous crime than (pardon the pun) “scarring the hell out of” little kids with a doctrine of hellfire and eternal punishment. That lie, was fabricated by men of old (church theologians and preachers) just so they could control people with the fear of eternal suffering in a hell of fire. It has worked for over 1700 years.
Actually, I’ve been to hell and back several times! On a visit to Grand Cayman Island, years ago, I was curious when I saw a map that showed a place on the island named Hell. I had to go see it! There I found a post office, a gift shop, and a dive shop, but little more. It was a place of only about three or four acres with an acre of ugly, gray, jagged lava rock that presented a bleak and lifeless landscape. Then, a man dressed in a red devil’s suit jumped out from behind the rocks to welcome everyone to Hell!
There is also a small, very small, town just a few miles from where I used to live called Hell, Michigan. It has an official U.S. weather station, a few homes, an antique store called the Den of Antiquity, a party store, an ice cream shop, and a bar called the Dam Site Inn (near an actual dam). I especially love the ice cream place with its sign “Ice Cream From Hell.” And, while enjoying the ice cream, I smiled knowing that no one would ever “Scream From Hell.” The last time I drove through Hell, it was on a very cold and snowy day in January. I laughed as I recalled people saying, “It’ll be a cold day in hell…!” What I know now is that these are the only experiences I will ever have as far as going to a place called “hell” is concerned. Unless, of course, I find other places on the planet named Hell, for I will surely visit them.
But, wait a minute, you may argue. Doesn’t the idea of hell come right from the Bible? Didn’t Jesus talk about hell? Well, yes and no! Yes, because the English New Testament translations of the Bible do contain the word hell in about twenty three places. The same versions of the English Bible also contain thirty-one references to hell in the Old Testament. But to rely on any English Bible is to be led down the “sawdust trail” by the fabricators of Christian theology.
No, because of the following four reasons—
- The Old Testament was written in the Hebrew language. The truth is that there is not one word for hell in the entire Hebrew language. Jewish people do not believe in a hell of fiery torment. For them, it does not exist.
- While the New Testament was written in Greek, Jesus never spoke Greek. He spoke Aramaic. It is also true that there is no word for hell in the Aramaic language. Jesus could not have ever spoken the word “hell.” That would have been impossible. This is the greatest proof that there is no such place as a fiery hell where the non-Christians will be tormented forever. If it were true, Jesus would have taught of its reality. He didn’t. The theologians purposely got this all wrong.
- While the Bible does not teach the idea of a burning hell as eternal punishment, the Christian Church’s popes, preachers and theologians have created a doctrine of hell and punishment. This all comes out of a literal-translation mentality! The New Testament words are clearly symbolic, as we will see, and are supposed to be understood that way. This changes everything. Jesus taught his disciples to hear him spiritually and symbolically, but never literally.
- Hell became a convenient teaching of Christianity so those in charge could control the people, and at the same time, keep them feeling guilty and giving their money to the church. The Christian Church became a spiritual monopoly where they passed out “Go To Hell—Go Directly To Hell” cards. There were no “Get Out of Hell Free” cards. If one was to escape hell, it was going to cost everyone a hell-of-a-lot of false piety and, at least ten percent of their earnings which was to be tithed to the church.
The other underlying issue here is that the Bible was not written by “God.” It is not the authority for anything but make-believe theology. It was written by people who were not aware that at some future time, their words would be labeled “God’s Word” by some church councils and theologians. The so-called doctrine of “inspiration” of the scriptures is a fabrication. Sure, there is certainly some value for one’s spiritual-path-practice, in many parts of the Bible. There is no value whatsoever in St. Paul’s bragging about his wounds and his theological acrobatics, just to make sure that certain issues fit his preconceived truth-in-a-box. Some of it is just plain apocalyptic nonsense. The words of Jesus and the “wisdom” writings are my favorite parts. Little more interests me. I don’t need a “guilt trip” each time I read it—as was my experience for many years.
Many of the writers of what is now called “The Holy Bible” were quite unholy in their manipulations of the written texts as well as in their motivations for writing in the first place. Many of the books of the Bible were forged and the real authors are completely unknown. Preachers make the Bible into an authority on spiritual matters—but of course only their interpretation is the correct one. The Christian Church has been fighting for 1700 years over whose interpretations are “right” and then killing those who disagreed. They labeled those who were “wrong” as heretics. There could be no greater “sin” in their minds than disagreeing with those who labeled themselves as “right!” (See Appendix C at the end of this article for other authors who have written about all this)
Let’s take a look at the actual words that have been used to create their false doctrine of a fiery hell. You be the judge for yourself, explore further, and seek the deeper truth.
The writers and translators of the manuscripts which became “God’s Word” centuries later, put the word “hell” in Jesus’ mouth in the following places. There are ten passages in the New Testament where the word “hell” appears in the King James Version (which by historical fact is one of the most untrustworthy of all the translations available). Many of the translations today do not use the word hell in any of these places. Instead, they use the correct word which is “hades,” and it means an unseen state or world or place. In no place is there a translation of what it actually means. These ten references are listed in Appendix A (end of this article) if you want to look them up. It is also interesting that the word hell does not appear at all in the Gospel of John, and only once in Mark. If it were a real place, why wouldn’t all the Gospels agree on that? Of the hundreds of other gospels that are available, not one teaches hell-fire as an eternal place of torment.
There are thirteen places in the New Testament where another word that was translated as hell is used. Now this one is very interesting. The actual phrase that was interpreted by the KJV translators as “hell” is actually “the Valley of Hinnom” or “Gehenna.” As we will see, this is a dramatic example of the need for a symbolic interpretation rather than a literal one. See Appendix B for this list. One of these thirteen actually says “Tartarus” instead of hell. And, it is interesting that no one has ever come up with the meaning of this word.
So we have twelve left and it is interesting to see that only four of these passages actually include the words for “hell” and “fire” in the same passage. James 3:6 talks of one’s tongue being set of fire, not someone being sent to hell. Two of the passages, Matthew 18:9 and Mark 9:47 speak of one’s hand, foot or other body part offending oneself and that it is better to cut off the unruly member and enter into life (not heaven) rather than continuing with the kind of behavior that will lead one to Gehenna (not a place of eternal fire). It is here that the King James Version actually inserts “everlasting fire” in the translation. This is clearly an addition by misguided translators that were determined to make hell a reality to be feared. So actually, we have only one passage that clearly relates to our study. It includes “hell” and “fire” in the same verse. That one is Matthew 5:22 where Jesus himself is teaching about the kingdom. He speaks here about someone who is angry, one who calls another person “Raca,” which is an Aramaic word for empty-head or good-for-nothing, and, one who calls another person “you fool.” Here, anger will get you in trouble with the court. Calling someone an empty head will get you in trouble with the supreme court. Calling one a fool will put you in danger of Gehenna.
Now, what does all this mean? Let’s look carefully at the words Gehenna and The Valley of Hinnom, for here is the key to understanding that hell was always a symbolic word for feeling the torment of disconnection and separation from another person or The Divine. Where do the words for fire come from? What is the connection? Research into these meanings shows that it refers to the fiery altar where human-sacrifices took place in an area called, The Valley of Hinnom. This word is found twice in the Old Testament. See Joshua 15:8 and 18:16, and, the actual meaning is unknown. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church reveals that in the time of Moloch this was the place of human sacrifice where the fires were kept burning continually and were never allowed to go out. Thus the symbolic reference from Mark 9:48 to this man-made “fire that is not quenched”. This is a reference to an actual place on the earth, not a burning hell created by God for eternal punishment of sinners. If this were the case, Jesus would have made that abundantly clear. The truth is he did not teach that idea anywhere, at any time. He couldn’t have. Since there is no Aramaic word for hell, Jesus didn’t have the word in his vocabulary. It is also interesting to note that the founder of Christianity (St. Paul) never used any of these words and never taught a doctrine of hell-fire as a place of eternal torment by God as punishment. The reason he didn’t was because he was a Jew. That word was not in his native Hebrew language either.
The word hell is always used in a symbolic sense—never literal. Jesus warned his disciples many times not to take his words literally, but to understand the spiritual meanings of what he said. It is of far more value to listen to Jesus from the perspective he declared was the correct way to understand his words. For example, to be “born again” was not a literal second physical birthing but a spiritual self-birthing that was and is the responsibility of each person. When he said “take up your cross daily” he didn’t mean a literal cross.
There is also the sense of “fire” as the element of purification as in Mark 9:47-50. Other places, where being “salted with fire,” is found, it is again about loyalty to one another and is not equivalent to eternal damnation in any sense whatsoever.
The truth is that when I cause separation between myself and someone else, I am creating the “hell” of disconnection, whether by anger, calling someone names, or putting them down to the status of a “fool.” At that moment, I step into hell. If I do not maintain my inner connection with The Divine, I am inviting the feeling of separation from my Source and that is hell. By using words that separate my “self” from others, I create feelings of anger, sadness, and emotional pain in myself as well as others. When I use words that label and offend others, I do the same to myself. I put both of us in the place of torment because of the resulting disconnection. That place of torment is the symbolic “hell.” Hell is not a literal place. It is a state of being that is inside me. In America we are so used to living in such selfish separation and disconnection from people around us that we just don’t realize what torment we are in almost continuously.
Hell as a literal place would be an external place outside of myself. We all know that the worst pain is always on the inside of us. To create an external place of pain as a deterrent, is nonsense. Does prison keep people from killing others? Jesus was always focused on the inner reality and proclaimed that the Kingdom of Heaven is within you! He taught that “hell” is also within if that is one’s choice.
So, where did the actual word h-e-l-l come from? The only source in the history of the world that comes close to that is the Pagan word “h-e-l” which means an unseen place under the earth. Again, this is a symbolic place. Pagans didn’t hold to the idea of a hell as eternal punishment. Hell became a convenient word for the men of the Christian Church to strike fear in the hearts of people wanted to control, out of the shadow masculine desires.
Of the thirty-one references to “hell” (sheol) found in the Old Testament, all of them are best translated as an “unseen state” without any reference to a literal burning fire of punishment.
Each of us can put ourselves into a tormented state temporarily until we choose otherwise by returning to connection, forgiveness, and a loving relationship with others. Those times of pain and hopelessness feel as though they will last forever. They don’t. They never will if we return to connection. Surely, this is part of the reason that Jesus said the greatest commandment was to Love God, Self, Neighbors and even our enemies.
No one in the churches would support the idea that someone should literally cut off some body part as seen in Matthew 5:29-30. Yet, that is exactly what happened a few years ago at a Pentecostal camp-ground in Michigan. There, a man who had just heard a fiery sermon about cutting off body parts that offend, actually went out and cut off his penis. The police investigated and the embarrassment was great. In the same way, the church has no case for making hell a literal place. It is not.
One more point is vital. In Mark 9:47-50 we find these words:
“And if your eye causes you to stumble, cast it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God (within you) than having two eyes be cast into The Valley of Hinnom. For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if the salt becomes unsalty, with what will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Italics are mine.
Right here is a major part of the message of Jesus. In the Eastern culture of Jesus’ day, “salt” was always used symbolically. Everyone being salted with fire certainly does not mean that everyone is going to hell. Salt, in the Eastern mind, is always a reference to being loyal to one another. For anyone to share food with another person was to share salt. And, in their minds, to eat together meant that they were making a commitment to being loyal to each other. Even today, Eastern people will not eat with an enemy or with someone with whom loyalty is out of the question. To “break bread” together was to make same binding agreement. This was also a very important issue at “The Last Supper” that Jesus shared with his disciples. To be “salted with fire” was to be “salted” with loyalty to one another. Yet, I can recall many times in my past, when right after church people shared “The Lord’s Table” in the sacrament of Communion, they would be anything but loyal to one another.
I once preached a sermon entitled, “Pass The Salt.” I spoke that morning to an audience with blank looks on their faces. I was speaking about these same teachings from an Eastern Jesus, of whom they knew nothing.
If I become unsalty (disloyal to someone) I welcome the torment of disconnection. How do I become salty again? I regain my saltiness by choosing to return to loyalty, love and peace with all others. Hell is symbolic of separation from others and feeling separation from The Divine. Making the choice to return to fellowship and loyalty and connection takes me out of hell and into loving relationships. It is all about personal choice. I can return to connection by making a better choice, and then another, and another. Choosing to be back in harmony with others is to deliver ourselves from the hell of separation and the torment that feels like fire. Perhaps, right here, is the greatest problem within Christianity today. Instead of focusing on loving relationships and living that consistently, the focus has been on escaping some fabricated future fire. What a hell-of-a-mess this has caused.
When you lay your head on your pillow each night, know that you are part of The Divine. Lay aside all the fears of being judged and damned by “God.” You were created in the image of “God” and each breath you take is proof that you are part of the Source of Life. Ask The Divine to show you deeper truths, find you purpose for coming to the planet and keep birthing a new self continually as you grow. Above all, love yourself, love others, love your enemies and love The Divine with all your heart. It is far easier to love a Divine Being–The Spirit of the Universe, who is Love than one who threatens eternal torment.
We can never be separated from The Divine unless we do it ourselves–only temporarily. The Divine is within you! We have come from Source, we are part of that and to The Divine we are all returning. We are spirit beings who are learning from another human experience in a physical body. Our “here and now” is part of eternity. We are already eternal beings! All of us. Noel, Noel, there is no hell!
For more information on the errors of a misguided church, see my book: Liberating Jesus From Christianity, now on Amazon.
Appendix A — New Testament references for “hades”—not found in Mark (the oldest Gospel) nor in John.
Matthew 11:23—speaks of the city of Capernaum descending to hades
Matthew 16:18—spoken to Peter about the gates of hades not prevailing
Luke 10:15—same as above about Capernaum
Luke 16:23—a story found nowhere else about Abraham refusing to be merciful to the rich man in the unseen place. He claims to be in a flame as are all the rich whose riches make it very hard to enter the kingdom. This is more a picture of Old Testament legalistic responses. This is the only picture like this in the entire Bible, hardly enough to build a doctrine of hellfire and eternal damnation. This story is not in the oldest manuscripts.
Acts 2:27—a quote from the Psalms speaking of his soul not be abandoned in hades or more accurately sheol.
Acts 2:31—speaking of Jesus as above
Revelation 1:18—speaks of the keys to death and hades as the unknown place
Revelation 6:8—speaks of a symbolic/figurative rider on a horse along with death and hades following him
Revelation 20:13-14—speaks figuratively of death and hades giving up the dead in them, then speaks of death and hades being thrown into the lake of fire—not people. These are the only places where “lake of fire” is found. No attempt is made to explain what this is supposed to be. Jesus never taught this whatsoever nor ever mentioned such a possibility. Fire is also symbolic of purification and cleansing. The author of Revelation is unknown. We do know that John the disciple did not write this book of highly figurative and symbolic language.
Appendix B — Gehenna or The Valley of Hinnom (found once in Mark, once in Luke and not at all in John)
Matthew 5:22—the results of speaking badly of a brother (discussed in the article).
Matthew 5:29-30—speaks of ones eye of foot offending (also discussed in the article).
Matthew 10:28—about destroying body and soul in The Valley of Hinnom. The soul is never spoken of as being destroyed in “hell”. That could not be since people are supposed to be eternally tormented there.
Matthew 18:9—same as above
Matthew 23:15—spoken to the Pharisees, again in a symbolic sense
Matthew 23:32—same to the Pharisees about The Valley of Hinnom
(Note that it was to the Pharisees in Luke 17:21 that Jesus said “the kingdom of heaven is within you”.)
Mark 9:43, 45, 47—all about the same idea of the hand, eye or foot offending one’s self.
Luke 12:5—speaks of fearing the one who after he has killed you is able to send you to The Valley of Hinnom. This is clearly an anthropomorphic picture that is not the kind of God that Jesus knew as the God of Love. Again this place is symbolic of separation from the Divine as discussed in this article.
James 3:6—speaks of the tongue being set of fire because it is the member that usually is used in causing separation from others.
Appendix C — Books you will want to read
Original Blessing by Matthew Fox
Misquoting Jesus by Dr. Bart Ehrman
Lost Scriptures by Dr. Bart Ehrman
The Hidden Gospel by Dr. Neil Douglas-Klotz
The Complete Jesus by R.A. Mayotte