top of page

Extinguishing Hell

Letting Go of a Doctrine of Cruelty

Listen to Najat: There is not room in the human heart

For both love and fear.

Pick one. -John Mabry, Salvation of the True Rock

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) is often cited in traditional Christian apologetics for the formulation of his “Wager.” In short, Pascal’s Wager insists that a choice must be made about whether God exists: “Let us assess the two cases: if you win you win everything, if you lose you lose nothing. Do not hesitate then; wager that he does exist.” A traditional doctrine of hell is inextricably connected with Pascal’s logic. While Pascal maintained that there was no negative consequence for believing in a non-existent God, he clearly held that failing to believe in his conception of God would bring the worst conceivable consequences of a literal damnation.

In the context of both the Wager section itself and his Pensées as a whole, however, it is clear that Pascal’s choice for God’s existence was synonymous with the choice for Roman Catholicism. As scholar A. J. Krailsheimer has noted, Pascal’s Wager is properly viewed in its setting: “For it must be recognized that Pascal is trying to persuade his interlocutor not merely to believe, but in so doing to become a full member of the Catholic Church, the body of Christ outside of which he saw no salvation.” Belief in a divinity alone was clearly not enough for Pascal—Jews, Roman and Egyptian pagans, Calvinists, deists, Arians, Muslims, and other “heretics” are condemned in his thought system.

Consequently, the traditional Protestant apologists who cite the Wager not only fail to recognize that they are on the losing side of Pascal’s bet, but also highlight one of the core problems of the Wager itself. Namely, even if one accepts the unprovable idea that there is such a thing as a literal hell (which would seemingly have no evidence outside the speculations and declarations of traditional religious people), there is an exceedingly long and varied list of opinions about what might get one there. To accept the terms of the Wager without recognizing the numerous other alternatives is to engage in the grossest simplification of options. With its lack of logical force, cowing to the threat of the Wager seems nothing more than capitulation to irrational anxieties.

Hell as Cognitive Distortion

Both cognitive and cognitive-behavioral therapies encourage the challenging of unfounded fears as a key to psychological health. The concept of hell would thus appear to be the most drastic possible form of what psychologist Albert Ellis (1913-2007) called “awfulizing”—an excessive fear of an extreme outcome even when evidence would suggest such thinking to be unreasonable. Psychologists of religion have in fact proposed that beliefs in literal hells survive not due to their plausibility, but rather because they act as a powerful negative reinforcement for behavioral control—not to mention a dark source of pleasure for those wishing for the punishment of their enemies.

There is no doubt that the threat of literal damnation presents one of the more difficult emotional challenges for those leaving traditional forms of religion. As Pascal himself noted, “Custom is our nature. Anyone who grows accustomed to faith believes it, and can no longer help fearing hell, and believes nothing else.” As it is also clear that anxiety often encourages self-interest, supports irrational thinking, and encourages timidity, fearing a literal hell seems to erode the ground of both compassion and courage. It is no wonder that some liberal theologians have suggested that hell should be viewed only as a psychological state in this life—suggesting that salvation in part means release from the doctrine of damnation itself.

The Many Paths to Perdition

For those troubled by the notion of hell, the innumerable different opinions on what causes damnation oddly seem to provide considerable relief. For the myriad condemnations are not only highly speculative, but also often mutually exclusive as well. They also expose the blunt reality that multitudes of people have spent their lives being fearful of being damned for reasons that are entirely unknown, considered to be patently false, or believed to be utterly insignificant to immense swaths of humanity. Ironically perhaps, the concept of hell also seems be the divine enactment of the most vividly and completely opposite impulse to the golden rule—a precept which is commonly held by believers to be the pinnacle of religious ethical teaching.

For those not familiar with the immense variety of beliefs on damnation, some examples of the often curious, exclusivist, and mutually opposing ideas on the subject should help illustrate the utterly tenuous position of those who claim knowledge about the fate of the imperceptible souls of dead people.

Judeo-Christian Condemnations

It is clear from both the annals of Judeo-Christian history and from modern controversies that the perceived requirements for salvation have differed widely and dramatically among the followers of Yahweh.

In centuries past, many Jews believed that Jesus of Nazareth himself was “sojourn[ing] in hell.” In one of many examples of the grotesque ruthlessness commonly found in visions of the damned, Jesus was said to share in the Talmud’s preposterous punishment of “boiling in hot excrement”—said to be reserved for all who “mock at the words of the Sages.” Blanket condemnations of Jesus’ followers have occurred as well, as seen in the liturgy of the first century synagogue: “May the Nazarenes and the heretics be suddenly destroyed and removed from the Book of Life.” Defunct since antiquity, the Qumran sect thought that only their particular their branch of Judaism would be saved. As noted by church historian Eusebius (3.27.2), the long-extinct Ebionite sect believed that salvation was only for Christians who obeyed the Mosaic Law.

Claims about the inhabitants of hell have commonly been fueled by conflicting biblical interpretations. There are multitudes of examples. In the Arian controversies of the 4th century, those who read the Bible to teach that Jesus was fully God and those who believed that he was divine in a lesser sense issued a series of mutual condemnations—thus displaying a common future pattern where “council was held against council, creed was set forth against creed, and anathema against anathema was hurled.” Christians holding that Christ had two natures have condemned those who thought he only had one—and vice versa (Sess. 5). Christians have also damned each other for not confessing that the Holy Spirit proceeded through the Father and the Son (Council of Florence, Sess. 11, para. 5)—and for not confessing that He proceeded through the Father only (no. I). While Calvinists have sometimes suggested (or a bit more than just suggested) that believing in predestination was necessary for salvation, the 1672 Eastern Orthodox Confession of Dositheus proclaimed that believers in the more radical Calvinistic doctrine of predestination to damnation were “most wicked heretics”, “subject to eternal anathema”, and “worse than any infidels” (Decree III). An Iconoclastic Council held in 754 condemned all those who venerated images of Christ and the saints—while the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 anathematized all those who refused to venerate holy icons (Sess. 1). While rigorist Protestants have often held that salvation is only for those who believe it is by “faith alone,” the Roman Catholic Council of Trent (Sess. 6, canons 6-11) and the Eastern Orthodox Confession of Dositheus (Decree XIII) both proclaimed that this teaching was heretical—with their Churches often noting elsewhere that there is strong evidence that this biblical interpretation was wholly absent from the Church fathers (ch. 8). Anabaptist William R. McGrath, in common with many of his co-religionists, taught that there were many Christians in hell who clung to a what he considered to be a weak gospel of “faith alone”:

We ignore the fact that there are undoubtedly millions of professing Christians in Hell, souls that at one time or another professed or accepted Christ as Saviour, but never submitted to him as Lord. When will we learn that it is easy to get decisions, but that the way of discipleship is narrow, and that only the disciple shall enter into the Kingdom of Heaven?

Although there are now no Donatist Christians, the once-thriving North African sect believed that it was the sole ark of salvation. Eastern Orthodox believers proclaimed in the 1583 Council of Constantinople that salvation was only possible in their Church—and also that those who used unleavened bread for the eucharist, or who believed in the purgatory, or who held that the pope is the head of the Church, or who followed the common Gregorian calendar (!) were all under condemnation. Believing that they were following the teachings of many Church Fathers like St. Augustine (IV.1, 2, 18) and St. Cyprian (no. 6), Roman Catholics once believed that only those subject to the Roman Pontiff could be saved— and that no one, including the repentant, the extremely pious, nor even martyrs could be saved unless they died as a full member of the Roman Catholic Church (Council of Florence, Sess. 11, para. 13). Early Anabaptist Christians during the Reformation, fueled by the intense persecution they often suffered at the hands of Roman Catholics and other Protestants, commonly believed that only their number was destined for heaven. As Christian historian Walter Klaassen has noted:

Like their contemporaries in other Christian groups, Anabaptists were pretty certain that all other groups would inherit not the kingdom of God but his fierce wrath for their intractable stubbornness in rejecting the truth that they the Anabaptists had found (p. 4).

Unusual and surprising threats of damnation are actually quite common in Christian history. The 2nd-century Montanist sect claimed that to reject the prophetic pronouncements of Montanus, Prisca, and Maximilla was “to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit: Luke 12’s ‘unforgiveable sin.” While traditional Muslims are often criticized for requiring women to wear the hijab, a 3rd-century Christian work called the Acts of Thomas declared that women who did not cover their heads would be strung up in hell by their hair. The Synod of Antioch in Encaeniis in 341 excommunicated any refusing to celebrate Easter on a specific date (can. 1). St. Jerome (347-419) thought that the rich were bound for the underworld, warning wealthy believers that “you with all your gold will be received into Gehenna.” The 4th-century Catholic bishop Eustathius held that anyone who got married would go to hell. Unknown to many Protestants, the Council of Chalcedon in 451 condemned all who denied that Mary was the Mother of God (Sess. 2 & 5), while the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 cursed all who denied that Mary was a virgin until her death (Capitula, no. 2). Despite his supposed charism of infallibility, the 7th-century Pope Honorius was specifically condemned by the Third Council of Constantinople in 681 for believing that Christ only had one will instead of two—and interestingly, the prominent Protestant apologist William Lane Craig (b.1949) also would appear doomed by this declaration. The Roman Catholic Council of Trent condemned all those who did not accept the Apocrypha as part of the Bible (sess. IV). Some “Kings James Only” Protestants have claimed that whose producing modern English translations “will not get to heaven”—further claiming that those using such translations “are not his disciples, and don’t know the truth, nor are they set free.” While Christian slaveholders were condemned with “anathemas and excommunications” during the American Civil War, the 4th-century Council of Gangra anathematized anyone who taught slaves to run away from their masters (can. 3). The Emperor Justinian (c.482-565) condemned anyone who believed in pre-existing souls, universal salvation, or that resurrected bodies would be spherical in shape! Anabaptists have often considered believer’s baptism essential for salvation, claiming that infant baptism was the “highest and chief abomination of the pope.” In contrast, Eastern Orthodox believers have traditionally held that baptism is necessary for the salvation of infants (Decree XVI). The Roman Catholic Council of Trent, while agreeing that baptism was generally speaking required for salvation, cursed the rebaptism of adults as a grave heresy (canons 5, 10-14). Surprisingly to many modern believers, the lending of money with any interest was commonly held to be a damnable sin in both the early and medieval Church. (Verses such as Ps. 15:5, Exod. 22:25, and Luke 6:34 were classic prooftexts.) In his thorough “condemnation and damnation” of Martin Luther, Pope Leo X strikingly noted that Luther’s grave errors included his belief that the burning of heretics was “against the will of the Spirit” (no. 33). In their push to win converts, early Mormon Christians once claimed that their faith was the only way to heaven.

Unconfessed mortal sins have long been considered damnable in the Roman Catholic tradition—although the list of such grave transgressions have often seemed inconsistent or lacking a sense of moral proportion. Until fairly recently for instance, Catholics considered those choosing cremation instead of burial to be guilty of mortal sin. The Roman Catholic Baltimore Catechism of 1891 lays out a litany of other such sins including missing mass on a Sunday or other holy day of obligation, not going to confession at least once a year, not receiving the Eucharist during Easter, getting married by a non-Catholic minister, engaging in deliberate drunkenness, denying any article of the Roman Catholic faith, believing superstitions, and committing suicide. While the use of contraceptives is well known to be a mortal sin in Roman Catholic theology, Protestants also once standardly considered the use of birth control to be wicked behavior and a sign of false faith. As Protestant Reformer John Calvin shows in his discussion of Genesis 38:10, the Christian path to damnation has often shifted with the passage of time:

Deliberately avoiding the intercourse, so that the seed drops on the ground, is double horrible. For this means that one quenches the hope of his family, and kills the son, which could be expected, before he is born. This wickedness is now as severely as is possible condemned by the Spirit … . When a woman in some way drives away the seed out the womb, through aids, then this is rightly seen as an unforgivable crime. Onan was guilty of a similar crime, by defiling the earth with his seed, so that Tamar would not receive a future inheritor (no. 10).

In startling contrast to some of these more trivial “mortal” transgressions, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant believers once commonly believed that slaveholding, torture, and capital punishment for heresy were licit or even righteous activities. As Roman Catholic author John T. Noonan has aptly noted in a discussion of “unknown sins” of the Christian past, the faithful have at times supported beliefs and behaviors that were later determined to be damnably wicked:

By the unknown sin … I mean acts which were not known to be sins; acts for which no vocabulary existed to denominate them as sins; acts participated in by upright men and women, by popes and dedicated members of religious orders and canonized saints; acts now regarded with horror as the blackest kind of affront to the human person and among the most serious derelictions of duty to God, whose image is the person.

As a final observation, it is instructive to consider that many Judeo-Christian believers have thought that the more extreme views of hell as a place of eternal torment were profoundly erroneous. While the Hebrew Bible has divergent views on the subject, many of its books suggest that the place of the dead is a gloomy and shady realm called Sheol. Jehovah’s Witnesses, though quite conservative Christians in many respects, understand Scripture to teach that the unbelieving dead simply pass out of existence. Excommunicated Amish Joseph Joder (1797-1887), like other universalist Christians, wrote that traditionalist teachings about an eternal hell were not found in the Bible and were simply a distortion of its teachings. Likewise, church father Origen (c.185-c.254) also entertained the idea of universal salvation, suggesting that perhaps even Satan himself would eventually be saved. Anglican C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) described hell in terms of a bleak and dismal realm instead of a torturous inferno. Modern Eastern Orthodox believer Alexandre Kalomiros has explained that most Christians have gravely misunderstood the afterlife and that hell is simply the pain of receiving God’s pure love by those who hate him. He even noted that God “never returns evil for evil, He never takes vengeance. His punishments are loving means of correction …. They never extend to eternity.”

Wrath in World Religions

For those whose life experience has revolved around a single sectarian perspective, it can be difficult to come to grips with reality that the followers of other religions are often quite convinced that only members of their particular faith communities can be saved. Likewise, other religious groups have their own different catalogues of “unforgiveable sins” and “heresies” that can be very foreign to Judeo-Christian sensibilities.

For instance, the Hindu Scripture known as the Garuda Purana claims—among many other things—that those who destroy shrines, throw bodily refuse into fires or ponds, make weapons, sell their hair, or do not worship gods like Shiva and the elephant-headed god Ganesha will “certainly go to hell.” The Jain Scripture known as the Sûtrakritâṅga claims that those who kill any living being— even bugs and other pests—will be grotesquely tormented for long periods (ch. 1:4-5; ch. 2:24). The Mahayana Buddhist scripture known as the Lankavatara Sutra asserts that meat-eaters “go to the most horrifying hell” (ch. 8, no. 11). Aztecs once believed that all were damned except warriors killed in battle, women who died in childbirth, those struck by lightning, and those who were drowned. In an example that shows that the Protestant concept of “faith alone” is not entirely unique among world religions, the monk Nichiren (1222-1282) consigned to hell any Buddhist who relied on the nembutsu prayer and believed that salvation was by grace through faith in the Amida Buddha. In the ancient Roman religion, those who despised or dishonored the Roman gods were thought to be condemned to unending sufferings in Tartarus (Bk VI: 535-627). Zoroastrians, who hold that hell lasts for thousands of years, have traditionally believed that those who wash in springs or bury corpses instead of exposing them on a “Tower of Silence” are doomed. They also commonly hold that only devout followers of their “Good Religion” would be saved from damnation—holding that “The souls of impious Zoroastrians and of all nonbelievers go to hell.

The Qur’anic view of hell has the same sorts of graphic tortures common to other world religions (e.g., Sura 22:19-22) and contains statements that suggest that an afterlife of torment awaits nonbelievers (Sura 3:85, Sura 5:72, Sura 40:70-72). Even though there have been a vast number of different groups in Islam, many Muslims have further insisted that a proper sectarian affiliation is necessary for salvation. For instance, Sunni and Shi’a Muslims often generally argue that only their particular group of believers has the possibility of avoiding hell.

In a last example, the Taoist Scripture known as The Divine Panorama asserts that “Those who are disloyal, unfilial, who commit suicide, take life, or disbelieve the doctrine of Cause and Effect” (i.e., karma) will be “handed over to the everlasting tortures of hell” and suffer a series of outrageously brutal torments. While doubters are often painted with a dark brush in religious faiths (and “non-worshippers and sceptics” are predictably promised their own torments), there seems to be good reason to think that those who resist such common attempts at religious fearmongering and manipulation are in fact answering a higher calling.

Three Tools to Extinguish the Fires: Humility, Honesty, and Compassion

Even if we assume that there is indeed an afterlife, humility would appear to require an acknowledgment of our incapacity to make reliable judgments about it. While this meditation has focused on claims about hells, there are of course a great number of other posited postmortem realms of existence as well. Heavens, Paradises, and Pure Lands are common ideas. Many Christians, including C.S. Lewis (Letter 20), have believed in Purgatory. While on the wane in recent years, Roman Catholics taught for centuries that there was a realm of limbo for unbaptized infants. Eastern religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism are well known for their belief in reincarnation, where all beings can go through innumerable realms and states in the karmic cycle. While the human propensity for error is often given as a reason for faith, a more humble approach would suggest that the immense human proclivities for delusion very much apply to religious belief as well. In the words of astrophysicist Carl Sagan, it is in fact “[p]recisely because of human fallibility” that fantastic claims require firm evidence—and why strong subjective feelings have no necessary correlation with correct belief. The Greek philosopher Socrates (469-399 BCE) provides a wonderful example of how humility can foster peace of mind on this general subject. Often referred to as the principle of Socratic or “simple” ignorance, Socrates held that he was wiser than others only because of his capacity to admit his own ignorance. Aptly for the topic at hand, Socrates specifically applied this perspective to human fears about the afterlife:

Surely this is the objectionable kind of ignorance, to think one knows what one does not know? But in this, gentlemen, here also perhaps I am different from the general run of mankind, and if I should claim to be wiser than someone in something it would be in this, that as I do not know well enough about what happens in the house of Hades, so I do not think I know ….

A central part of nearly all secular and religious codes of ethics, honesty seems to urge a frank admission that the evidence for literal hells is seriously lacking. Hell cannot be located by the senses or by any scientific experiment or equipment. There have been vast differences and stark contradictions among believers about whether there are multiple hellish realms or just one (or none), whether hell is hot or cold, which particular supernatural beings rule there, whether it is eternal or just lengthy in duration, which types of deeds or alleged blasphemies or heresies will get one there, and even if different planets have their own different hells (109, 137). It thus seems to be fear and flawed thinking—rather than reason or evidence—which have caused the proliferation of beliefs about literal postmortem realms of torment. As one psychology text pertinently notes for this discussion:

Cognitive therapy perceives psychological problems as stemming from commonplace processes such as faulty thinking, making incorrect inferences on the basis of inadequate or incorrect information, and failing to distinguish between fantasy and reality.” Within this framework, doubting dubious ideas about hell may be seen as a path for lessening mental suffering through a more thorough personal honesty.

As a final thought, it may be helpful for those still troubled by the concept of hell to think of its dismissal not just as an act of humility and honesty—but of compassion for oneself and others as well. Fears of hell have caused considerable, observable anguish in so many human lives already afflicted by life’s common struggles and sufferings. As Charles Darwin (1809-1882) noted while considering the supposed fate of many of his own loved ones, the doctrine of hell is better viewed as not just a downside of “good news” about a future heaven, but rather as “a damnable doctrine” of cruelty in the here and now. In the words of the American orator and freethinker Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899), simple kindness is among the most powerful reasons to let go of hell:

Think of the lives it has blighted – of the tears it has caused – of the agony it has produced. Think of the millions who have been driven to insanity by this most terrible of dogmas. … It is a great pleasure to drive the fiend of fear out of the hearts of men, women and children.

It is a positive joy to put out the fires of hell.

For further sources and the original version of this meditation, see Chapter 2 of The Contemplative Skeptic.


About the Author

A former Protestant seminarian and ex-Roman Catholic, Barrett Evans is an agnostic who has retained a fascination with non-supernatural contemplative practices. He holds graduate degrees in divinity and counseling from an evangelical seminary and an undergraduate degree in history from Davidson College; he has also taken graduate coursework in religion at Wake Forest University. His book The Contemplative Skeptic is an exploration into the benefits of combining doubt with a non-supernatural, contemplative way of being.

The author’s personal story can be found at American None: “Doubt and the Good Life

bottom of page