Almost in tears, a young man shared his coming out story in a PFLAG meeting I attended one night. His parents agreed to come with him, sharing their side of the experience, as well. But in the middle of the young man’s emotional story, his mother blurted out, “I just don’t want you to go do hell!”
As more events of the story unfolded, it soon became apparent that neither the mother, nor the family was particularly religious. Yet, the concept of hell had them in their grip. Yelling at, berating, and condemning their son’s sexual orientation was driven by the belief that he must be saved from the fires of hell, even if they weren’t exactly sure what that meant, nor felt their own behavior would lead them there.
To be clear, the word hell is found nowhere in the original text of the Bible. In fact, it wasn’t even a word until around 725 AD, when it first appeared in Old English, at the time of the Anglo-Saxon pagan period. Even then, it meant the “netherworld of the dead,” or that mysterious place where dead people go.
According to most Biblical scholars, the entire idea of what happens after someone dies has always been vague at best when it comes to Biblical interpretation. The Greek word, Hades, was used to translate the Hebrew word, Sheol. While Sheol meant grave, Greek mythology says that Hades was the lord of the underworld and ruler of the dead. It’s easy to see how Greek mythology co-mingled with Biblical interpretation at the time, adding a new theological dimension.
A 2014 poll of Americans revealed that, among those who identify as Christians, 72% believe in heaven and 58% believe in hell. Of course, those numbers are higher in certain Christian sects over others. For example, 88% and 93% of evangelical and historically black Christians, respectively, believe in heaven. Conversely, 82% of both groups believe in hell. The doctrine of hell has been a staple in evangelical theology since the inception of evangelicalism in the late 1700s.
Yet, again, there are no direct references to hell in the New Testament. Ghenna is translated 11 times as the word hell in verses such as Matthew 5:30, “It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell,” but Ghenna was an actual place. It was used as a perpetually burning garbage dump and believed to be where abusive kings sacrificed their children in the fire. Jesus’ audience knew exactly what he was talking about when he referred to Ghenna. They would have been lost on the notion of hell as a place of eternal torment. The Jewish faith had little concept of an after life, let alone one of perpetual torture.
The Apostle’s Creed, written nearly 400 years later, says Jesus descended into hell, though the Bible makes no reference to this at all. Many denominations have removed this line from their recitation of the creed. Still, the idea and theology of hell grew over time, particularly with Dante’s Inferno, published in 320 AD, which was part of his poem, Divine Comedy. Dante put visual context around demons and hell, which have been used two millennia later to describe and define evil in all its glory. Many faiths, hundreds of years later, have consequently developed a hell-centric theology.
While researchers found that people who only believed in heaven were happier than those who believed in hell, paradoxically, “It turns out that hell has a stronger effect on negating happiness than heaven has on improving happiness,” sayresearchers Shariff and Aknin. UCLA Professor, Daniel Treisman, found that after controlling for other factors, there is a strong relationship between religious beliefs and fear. But what affect does a belief in hell have on the way we treat other people?
While there isn’t peer-reviewed research to answer that question specifically, anecdotally we see the consequences through hundreds of recent “religious freedom” bills, which seek to limit or remove civil rights from “non-believers.” Leaders in this movement point to their fundamentalist view of the Bible, warning of God’s wrath if “those people” receive equal human treatment. Other believers refuse to feed the sinners, sell them flowers and cakes, and offer them human kindness.
In a 1960s message, Evangelist Bob Jones Sr. told his congregation, “When you run into conflict with God’s established order racially, you have trouble…You produce destruction and trouble, and this nation is in the greatest danger it has ever been in in its history.”
Franklin Graham has repeated that sentiment many times of late, though his nihilistic fears are now directed toward the LGBT community instead of African Americans. The Christian Post quoted Graham as saying, “As a nation we are found lacking because of sin and disobedience to God’s Holy Word…I fear that our end will be near.”
Bishop Carlton Pearson says in his book, The Gospel of Inclusion, “Before I awakened to [a] broader hope, I would look at non-Christian ‘unbelievers’ as hell-bound, anti-Christ rejects hated by God – and, by association, hated by me.” Pearson goes on to say, “If you perceive God to hate someone enough to execute and torture him in hell forever, then in your subconscious you will devalue and hate the person as well. Given the opportunity or provocation, you will act out that hatred.”
We continue to see this through the words of preachers like Roger Jimenez, pastor of Verity Baptist Church who proudly, and arrogantly, said his only regret of the Orlando shootings is that more gay people didn’t die. Furthermore, the evangelical support of xenophobic, racist, sexist and hateful presidential candidate, Donald Trump, speaks volumes about the fears driving leaders of the evangelical Christian movement.
This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post
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