April 13, 2015

A Brief History of Eternity

by Clint Archer

VGTH coverThis is a snippet from my book A Visitor’s Guide to Hell. The book is meant to help unbelievers understand (or believers explain) why Christians believe in Hell, and what the Bible teaches about it. Here’a snippet, followed by a link to a video clip promo of the book (comments about my mongrelised accent will be deleted!!)

 

A History of Hell

As far back as recorded history takes us, in any and every culture that bothered to write down their beliefs, Hell has haunted mankind. It is not my intention to give a history of how the doctrine developed in literature, art, and religious belief systems. Others have done a fine job of that.

But frankly, learning about what different religions believed as well as how and when those doctrines evolved is not as fascinating to me as the fact that they all hold certain aspects in common. Here is a brief sample of some recognizable religions conceive as Hell. See if you can spot similarities.

  • The Jews know it as Sheol, a word referring broadly to the grave, or the realm of the dead, and more ominously as Gehenna, named for a fiery garbage dump outside Jerusalem where trash burned day and night, including discarded carcasses of diseased animals, and maggots bred unhindered.
  • The Greeks believed that in Hades—the underworld populated by departed souls—there was reserved a compartment of frightful torment for those who had somehow displeased the decision makers in their pantheon of mythological gods.
  • Islam’s Quran describes the place of eternal incarceration of infidels, namely Jahannam, as comprising a blazing fire and an dark abyss.
  • Ancient Egyptians averred that those whose lives were deemed unworthy of a blissful eternity were simply annihilated.
  • Mayans feared the nine-level realm of Xibalbá, including the lower dimensions that were ruled by tormenting spirits.
  • The Aztecs anticipated a frightening world of prowling jaguars, eternal darkness, and hostile mountains.
  • Celts called the haunted realm of departed and unsettled spirits Uffern (as in the word related to furnace).
  • Slavs named it Peklo.
  • In ancient Asian religions names like Gimokodan and Naraka were employed. Even in the understanding of reincarnation a sentence of suffering is executed by a type of “hell-on-earth” demotion to a lesser life form, say a rat, or worm, or almost as dreadful, a Dalit (lower caste human).

Whatever the moniker assigned to the penal state, certain themes are uncannily congruent: a place or realm that was physically undesirable (either too hot or too cold for comfort), dark or otherwise aesthetically dissonant, populated by evil spirits that torment those who end up there, and tragically inescapable. Most recognize the sentence is a result of violations of the accepted values, as irreversible once deceased, and as terrifying enough to instill dread.
Positively stated, the purpose of the doctrine seems to be to encourage commitment to the religion’s system of avoiding Hell at all costs. Or put more bluntly, and at the risk of sounding glib: the doctrine is meant to scare the Hell out of you.

Why on Earth do people believe in Hell?

The doctrine of Hell is an undeniably universal concept. In fact, only those who dismiss all religion altogether can have a world view with no Hell. And in the history of humanity the belief that there is no after-life whatsoever is an extremely young and statistically marginal view. Atheists are outliers on this issue. Why is that? What is it about people in this life and on this planet that needs Hell?
The answer is that there is something instinctual in human beings that undeniably acknowledges that some behavior is good and some bad.

The NT puts it this way in Romans 1: 19-20 “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”

In other words, God has hardwired people with the innate knowledge of what He considers to be right and wrong. A highly educated military general and a primitive tribesman both know that in any culture at any time, the unprovoked torturous murder of an innocent baby, to take one deliberately stomach-churning example, falls squarely into the easily recognized category of evil. No one can do that and claim an excuse of ignorance. We know there is right and wrong, and for the most part we can discern the difference.

And furthermore, even without revelation from God, our brains are geared to be consistent. So, you can’t believe in good and evil, right and wrong, and concurrently accept that people can do whoever they want with no impunity.
Injustice causes cognitive dissonance in our brains, like an unfinished melody, or like a movie where the bad guy escapes. This explains why readers relish the Count of Monte Cristo and the revenge Dantes systematically wreaks on each of his enemies who conspired to take all that was precious to him—something in us resonates with the villains getting what they deserve.

The doctrine of Hell is one that is not only clearly and incontrovertibly taught in the Bible, but it is a doctrine demanded by practical, philosophical, and theological necessity.

Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.