A fascinating study conducted by Pew Research has revealed the most commonly used words and phrases in Christian sermons in churches. To come up with this data, Pew Research gathered the transcripts of nearly 50,000 sermons posted online by various Christian churches over a three-month period during 2019. Then, they analyzed these transcripts using a special computer program.
What did they discover?
If you attend an evangelical church, you are 300% more like to hear the words: “Hell, sin, and punishment,” and variants of the phrases like: “eternal hell/eternity in hell, and lose your salvation.”
They concluded that evangelical churches disproportionately focus on the wrath of God when compared with other denominations.
The evangelical fascination with hell
When I grew up in the evangelical church, I was taught that Hell was basically a literal place beneath the earth, where those who didn’t believe in Jesus would be punished for eternity. For those who went there, it would be a place of both psychological torment — at the knowledge that they had lost the opportunity for salvation — and physical ones inflicted by Satan and his band of evil minions.
From his lofty throne, God will look down and laugh at the suffering of the damned, said the English puritan Richard Baxter. “Is it not a terrible thing,” he asked, “to a wretched soul, when it shall lie roaring perpetually … in the flames of Hell, and the God of mercy himself shall laugh at them?”
As a teenager, this was a very powerful motivator. With the threat of hell hanging over me, I was very cooperative and compliant when it came to accepting Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and savior.
I’m not alone.
After all, it’s natural for people to want things to turn out well in the end, both in life and, apparently, afterward. In fact, roughly seven in ten (72%) Americans say they believe in heaven — defined as a place “where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded,” according to another survey by Pew. But at the same time, 58% of U.S. adults also believe in Hell — a place “where people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry are eternally punished.”
Indeed, the vast majority of the world’s two billion Christians believe in the concept of heaven and hell as a place of either eternal reward, or eternal torment. In fact, when I wrote an article where I questioned this concept of hell, it was met with all kinds of sharp rebukes, warnings, and corrections by well-meaning Christians — concerned, no doubt, for my mortal soul.
You see, they all assume that their view of Hell is supported by Scripture and taught by Jesus himself. But is it? The answer might surprise you.
Did Jesus believe in hell?
Modern, mainline Christians tend to view the body and the soul as two distinct parts of the person. The body is the part you can see, and the soul is this invisible part of you that apparently lives on after you die — in either heaven or hell. Most Christians believe that the soul can be separated from the body and still carry on living somewhere.
However, the ancient Israelites had a very different understanding of the relationship between body and soul. In the Old Testament, the soul was understood as more like what we would call the breath.
When God created Adam, his life came from the breath that God breathed into him. Obviously, when our final breath leaves our body, our body no longer lives, but neither does the breath continue to exist. So, the ancient Hebrew understanding of the soul was that it didn’t go anywhere because — like breath — it was simply the thing that made the body alive. And so, in the Old Testament, there was no belief that the soul goes to either heaven or hell. That’s right, in the Old Testament, the assumption was that the dead are simply dead.
It was only about 200 years before the birth of Christ that Jewish thinkers began to entertain the idea of the afterlife. At that time in history, the nation of Israel had been oppressed for centuries by various conquering empires. And they collectively longed for a return to the glory days — the resurrection of the nation, if you will.
With an unwavering belief that God is a God of justice, they concluded that God would soon destroy these conquering kingdoms and the forces of evil that they represented. Israel would be restored to a kind of utopian — Garden-of- Eden-like — existence once more.
Over time, this view was applied not only to the nation but also to people at an individual level. Not only that, the people came to believe that the establishment of the Kingdom of God would not only come to people who happened to be alive when it arrived; it was going to come to everybody. People who had been on the side of God throughout history would be personally raised from the dead and be individually brought into this new era. That’s only fair, right?
When Jesus turns up in human history, people still did not believe that eternity involved either perpetual bliss in heaven above or perpetual torment in Hell below. In fact, when Jesus began his life and ministry, people were living with an expectation that God’s intervention was imminent — that God was about to step in, destroy everything and everyone that opposed him, and usher in a new realm for his true followers — the Kingdom of God — a paradise on earth. As Belinda Carlisle would say, “Ooo… heaven is a place on earth!”
So, you can imagine the excitement when Jesus begins his teaching ministry by announcing, “The Kingdom of God is near!” No wonder he drew a crowd! And you can sense the expectation in the disciples when they speak with Jesus after his resurrection, saying: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
While the kind of Kingdom that Jesus was establishing was, in some way, different from what people were expecting, it is evident that also Jesus believed in a bodily eternal life here on earth, instead of eternal bliss for souls — but even more that — he did not believe in hell as a place of eternal torment.
But, didn’t Jesus teach about hell?
I can hear my conservative Christian friends interjecting at this point: “Hold on a there second, but didn’t Jesus talk about hell?”
It is true that in traditional English versions of the Bible, he does occasionally seem to speak of “Hell.” For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, he says anyone who calls another a fool or allows their right eye or hand to sin will be cast into “hell” (Matthew 5:22, 29–30).
But the English word “hell” here is merely a translation of the word Jesus actually used — the term “Gehenna.” Gehenna was the name of a notorious valley just outside the walls of Jerusalem, believed by many Jews at the time to be the most unholy, god-forsaken place on earth. It was where, according to the Old Testament, ancient Israelites practiced child sacrifice to foreign gods, and consequently, it was believed that God had condemned the place.
Even so, there are other passages that may seem to suggest that Jesus believed in hell. For example, Jesus speaks of all nations coming for the last judgment (Matthew 25:31–46). In this famous parable, God divides people into two groups, with some said to be sheep and the others goats. The sheep are those who have helped those in need — the hungry, the sick, the poor. They are welcomed into the Kingdom while the wicked goats — the ones who did not help those in need — are sent to “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” At first glance, that sure sounds like the hell that many Christians believe in.
But when Jesus summarizes this parable, he does not say that the contrasting fates are either “eternal pleasure” or “eternal pain.” Rather, the opposite of eternal life is death — not torture. So the punishment — the fate of the goats — is annihilation. Okay, so it’s not nice to think about, but that was certainly the gist of what Jesus was saying. It won’t be pleasant, but it will be over in the blink of an eye.
At one point, he says there are two gates that people pass through (Matthew 7:13–14). One is a narrow and difficult path that leads to “life.” Few go that way. The other is wide and easy and therefore commonly taken. But it leads to “destruction.” It is an important word. The wrong path does not lead to torture. It leads to death.
Similarly, Jesus says the future kingdom is like a fisherman who hauls in a large net (Matthew 13:47–50). After sorting through the fish, he keeps the good ones and throws the others out. He doesn’t torture them. They just die. Or the kingdom is like a person who gathers up the plants that have grown in his field (Matthew 13:36–43). He keeps the good grain but tosses the weeds into a fiery furnace. They don’t burn forever.
Jesus famously said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16), while the apostle Paul said, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life” (Romans 6:23).
Death is death. Yet, most Christians seem to believe that death really means living forever — in the fires of Hell, presumably in a perpetually regenerating immortal body. The idea of eternal punishment in Hell can only exist through pushing the consistent meaning of words like “death, destruction, and perish” beyond their semantic limits and reading between the lines to invent concepts that are nowhere explicitly taught in scripture.
What can we conclude from all this? That Jesus stood in a very long line of serious thinkers who refused to believe that a good God would torture his creatures for eternity. He didn’t believe it, and he didn’t teach it. Period.
So, where the hell did Hell come from?
So, where the hell did the concept of Hell that we currently live with come from? Well, the idea of eternal hell was actually a latecomer to the Christian scene, developed decades after Jesus’ death and, over time, and finely honed to include the preaching of fire and brimstone. Later on, the threat of hell became a useful doctrine for winning converts and controlling the masses.
Many Greek philosophers — Socrates and Plato among them — believed in the immortality of the human soul. They believed that although the human body dies, the human soul both will not and cannot. This concept was imported and attached to Christianity by Christians who came out of Greek culture, who then reasoned that if souls are built to last forever, so must the ultimate fates of those souls. It will be either eternal bliss or eternal torment.
This innovation by early Christians actually represents an unhappy marriage between Jesus’s Jewish views and parts of the Greek philosophical tradition. It was a strange hybrid — a view held neither by the original Christians nor by ancient Greeks.
To Hell with hell
Do you know what makes me sad?
Right now, there are millions — if not billions — of people across the world who are terrified of dying because they are scared that God will cast them into a fiery pit where they will be tormented for trillions of years.
Many of them say they follow Christ, but they are not motivated or compelled by the life of Christ, or his teachings. The fact that Jesus was the preeminent teacher of love, grace and compassion is nice, but ultimately extraneous to the primary reason they call themself a Christian: To obtain their ‘get-out-of-hell-free’ card.
Love wasn’t enough to win them. So, we used fear instead.
What a tragedy.
Now, we have a bunch of ‘Christians’ who live mainly for what’s going to happen after they die. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we spent our time living for what we can do now, instead of fretting over some unknowable posthumous future?
Oh, but that would involve actually having faith in the goodness of God, wouldn’t it?!
This post was previously published on Medium.
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