This essay is written in response to email asking “What do Christian Deists believe about hell?” “Hell” is often defined as a place where human souls are tortured forever by fire because these persons failed to accept some particular religion during their time on earth.
The idea of “everlasting torment in hell” was well known in Zoroastrianism many centuries before the “Christian Era” and eventually spread to other religions including Christianity, Islam, and some parts of Judaism.
Deists believe that every idea must be tested by human reasoning. No idea can be accepted just because someone said it or wrote it in a book. The idea that God would torture anyone forever in “hell” fails the test of reason. If this idea were true, it would mean that God is so cruel and sadistic that no one could love or respect a God like that. The idea of everlasting torment in “hell” is truly an insult to the goodness of God.
Some claim that the idea of hell as a place of everlasting torment comes from “the Bible.” The “Bible” refers to the Hebrew Bible (erroneously called the “Old Testament” by Christians) and the New Testament. Since this claim is frequently made by trinitarian Christian preachers, let us examine this claim.
The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) makes no reference to “eternal torment” in “hell.” In the Hebrew Bible, the words “sheol” and “hades” simply refer to “the grave” or “death.” In fact, no theory of “life after death” is found in the Hebrew Bible. The psalmist prayed, “For I am thy passing guest, a sojourner, like all my fathers. Look away from me, that I may know gladness before I depart and be no more (Psalms 39:12-13).
During the two centuries before the Christian Era, some Jews began to accept the belief of life after death but others did not. The debate between the Pharisees (who believed in life after death) and the Sadducees (who did not believe in life after death) is seen during the time of Jesus, as reflected in the New Testament. Those Jews who believed in life after death saw this as a time when righteous Jews would be rewarded in “heaven” and wicked persons (especially foreign oppressors) would be destroyed in hell.
In the New Testament, the Greek word “gehenna” is always translated “hell.” I will explain the meaning of “gehenna” later in this essay. The Greek word “tartarus” is used only once in the New Testament and is translated as “hell.” The Greek word “hades” usually refers to “the grave” or “death,” and is often left untranslated as “hades,” but it is sometimes translated as “hell.” The writer of the New Testament book of “Acts” uses the word “hades” to mean “the grave” in referring to “the resurrection of Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption (decomposition)” (Acts 2:31). This statement is attributed to Peter, so this apostle did not view “hades” as a place of punishment.
In the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), the word “hades” (translated “hell”) is described only one time as a place of everlasting torture (Luke 16:19-31). In this instance, the writer of Luke tells a story about a “rich man” suffering eternal torment in “hell” because he neglected the needs of a poor man named “Lazareth.” However, the purpose of the story was not to describe “hell” but to express the writer’s anger at Jews for refusing to accept the Christian claim that Jesus had risen from the dead (verse 31). This story of the “rich man and Lazareth” obviously did not come from Jesus whose alleged “resurrection” had not yet occurred in the story of Jesus’ life. Of course, when “Luke” wrote his gospel, he knew of the “resurrection” and used it to condemn the Jews for their unbelief.
The idea of hell being a place of everlasting torment comes primarily from the book of Revelation in the New Testament. This book was written during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian (81 AD – 96 AD) who claimed to be divine and insisted on being worshipped. The Christians who refused emperor worship were subject to persecution and execution. The writer of the book of Revelation wrote his book to encourage Christians to remain firm in the face of persecution, and the writer envisioned a time when God would punish the Roman emperor (called the “beast”) and the “false prophet” (who promoted emperor worship), along with the “devil” or “Satan.”
The writer of Revelation envisioned a time when “the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (Revelation 20:10). Then the writer envisioned a judgment day, “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and the books were open. Also another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead in them, and all were judged by what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and if anyone’s name was not found in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:12-15).
The writer of Revelation uses the Greek word “hades” (the grave) to describe where the dead must await a judgment day on which “the Lord” decides whether a person receives eternal life or is “thrown into the lake of fire” (called the “second death”) to be “tormented day and night for ever and ever.”
The New Testament book called “Second Peter,” written by an unknown writer in the second Christian century, uses the Greek word “tartarus” (which is translated “hell”) to refer to “pits of nether gloom” where the God would “keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment” (Second Peter 2:4-10). The New Testament book called “Jude,” also written by an unknown writer, claims that persons who “acted immorally and indulged in unnatural lust” would be kept in “eternal chains in the nether gloom until the judgment of the great day” (Jude 1:6-7). Both “Second Peter” and “Jude” refer to the story of the angels (Genesis 6) whose lust for human females led to the angels being cast into “nether gloom” to await judgment.
The writer of Revelation envisioned the coming of a “new heaven and a new earth” and he heard a voice saying, “Behold the dwelling of God with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things are passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4).
No doubt, the writer’s vision was an encouragement to those Christians who had seen their friends and relatives “beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and the word of God, and who had not worshipped the beast (emperor) or its image” (Revelation 20:4). But it must be recognized that the writer’s view of “hell” comes from an alleged personal mystical “vision” that has no verification. The vision tells us more about the anger of the writer toward the Roman persecutors than it tells us about “hell.”
The idea of “hell” as a place of unending punishment and torment has been expressed by others whose anger reflects a sadistic tendency by envisioning a time when Christians would enjoy seeing “unbelievers” suffer. The prominent Catholic Thomas Aquinas declared, “In order that nothing be wanting to the happiness of the blessed in heaven, a perfect view is granted to them of the tortures of the damned.” The famous Protestant preacher Jonathan Edwards wrote, “The sight of hell’s torments will exalt the happiness of the saints forever, it will give them a more lively relish.” No rational or compassionate person would share Thomas Aquinas’ or Jonathan Edward’s beliefs about “hell.”
Preachers of trinitarian Christianity have used the threat of “hell” to coerce persons into thinking that God is going to send their souls to this “eternal torment” if they do not believe that Jesus died on a cross as a sacrifice to appease the wrath of God. This idea that Jesus died as a sacrificial offering to God came from Paul of Tarsus. Jesus said that God desires no sacrificial offerings (Matthew 9:13; 12:7; Mark 12:32-33) but desires that we have “mercy” (kindness) and love toward each other.
In the religion of Islam, the book called “The Qur’an” (or Koran) is filled with repetitive threats of eternal punishment in “the Fire” (hell) for “infidels” (unbelievers).
Considering the great emphasis that trinitarian Christian preachers put on “hell” in their sermons, most persons are surprised to find that the word “hell” seldom appears in the New Testament. In fact, the word “hell” never appears in the gospel of John, nor does it ever appear in any of the letters of Paul.
In the New Testament, the Greek word “gehenna” is translated as “hell.” In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the word “hell” (gehenna) appears only twelve times.
The word “gehenna” refers to the “Valley of Hinnom” near Jerusalem where once child-sacrifice had been offered to the god “Moloch” by the Hebrew king Ahaz (II Chronicles 28:3) and by the Hebrew king Manasseh (II Chronicles 33:6) who burned their sons as sacrificial offerings. At a later date, the Valley of Hinnom (gehenna) was the city’s refuse dump where rubbish was burnt. It is easy to see how “hell” (gehenna) came to be described as a place where the “worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48) but a refuse dump is a symbol of “destruction,” not a symbol of unending torment.
What did Jesus believe about “hell?” What did he envision “hell” to be? Most persons are surprised to find that Jesus referred to “hell” (gehenna) on only four occasions. Let us examine those references.
In Matthew 5:21-22, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults (says ‘raca’ to) his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool (moros)’ shall be liable to the hell (gehenna) of fire.”
In the statement above, Jesus appears to be teaching that an action, such as killing a person, originates from negative feelings, such as anger, toward others. Such feelings are ultimately destructive to the person who holds these feelings. Jesus advises that a person get rid of these negative feelings by becoming reconciled with the other person (verses 23-24).
It is interesting to note that while Jesus said that using the abusive language “You fool” (moros) makes a person “liable to the hell of fire,” this is the very word (moros) that Jesus, himself, used when he was angry at the scribes and Pharisees, and called them “You blind fools (moros)” (Matthew 23:17). I guess this supports Jesus’ view that he was not perfect (Mark 10:18). But I do not think that Jesus went to “hell” for his offense.
Jesus’ next reference to “hell” (gehenna) comes in Matthew 5:27-30 in reference to adultery. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell (gehenna). And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell (gehenna).”
The above statement seems to be based on the same theory that a person’s action (in this case, adultery) begins in a person’s thoughts. Then Jesus seems to suggest that a person should do whatever is necessary to prevent one’s thoughts from leading to an act of adultery. Jesus was well-known for using hyperbole (exaggeration) to make his points in his teachings. The idea of plucking out one’s eye or cutting off one’s hand to prevent an action is clearly a hyperbole.
It is interesting that Jesus refers to the “whole body” going into “hell.” If we remember that under the Mosaic law, adultery was a capital offense (Leviticus 20:10), perhaps Jesus’ statement was a warning that the “whole body” may be executed if one’s thoughts led to an act of adultery.
Jesus’ next reference to “hell” (gehenna) is found in Matthew 10:28-31:
“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell (gehenna). Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will. But even the hairs on your head are numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
This same teaching is recorded in Luke 12:4-7:
“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has power to cast into hell (gehenna); yes, I tell you, fear him! Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten by God. Why even the hairs on your head are numbered. Fear not, you are of more value than many sparrows.”
The two references above were apparently intended to encourage Jesus’ followers to stand firm in the face of persecution and physical death at the hands of human persecutors. The view expressed in these verses is that the threat of physical death may cause fear, but it is far worse to be disloyal to God who can “destroy both soul and body in hell (gehenna).” Apparently, Jesus viewed “hell” (gehenna) as meaning the total loss of life.
Jesus’ next references to “hell” (gehenna) are recorded in both Mark and Matthew.
Mark 9:33-37; 42-48 is as follows:
“And they came to Capernaum; and when he (Jesus) was in the house he asked them (the disciples), ‘What were you discussing on the way?’ But they were silent; for on the way they had discussed with one another who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve; and he said to them, ‘If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”
“And he (Jesus) took a child, and put him in the midst of them; and taking him in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.’. . . . Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; if is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell (gehenna) to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell (gehenna). And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell (gehenna), where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched. ”
Matthew 18:1-9 is as follows:
“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them, and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’
‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary for temptations to come, but woe to the man by whom temptation comes! And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell (gehenna) of fire.'”
As you can see, the verses quoted above, warning against causing others to sin, are similar to the verses warning against thoughts that lead to murder and adultery. No one can take seriously the idea that a person’s eyes, hands, and feet cause a person to sin. Jesus is using hyperbole to press his point that a person should do whatever is necessary to avoid sinning or causing others to sin. Again, Jesus uses “hell” as a symbol of total destruction of life.
Next, Jesus uses the word “hell” (gehenna) in lashing out with fury against the “scribes and Pharisees” in the 23rd chapter of Matthew:
Jesus said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you traverse sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell (gehenna) as yourselves (Matthew 23:15).” And two verses later, Jesus calls the scribes and Pharisees “blind fools” (moros) which, according to Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:22, makes Jesus “liable to the hell of fire” for such an offense.
In Matthew 23:29-34, Jesus said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Fill up, then the measure of your fathers, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell (gehenna). Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town . . .”
In the above verses, Jesus is condemning the Jewish scribes and Pharisees for what Jesus predicts will be persecution of Christian missionaries in the future. Of course, the writer of Matthew was already witnessing such persecution by the time these verses were written. So this prediction comes with the 20/20 hindsight of the writer.
In summary, the New Testament describes only four occasions on which Jesus referred to “hell” (gehenna), as quoted above. These references indicate that Jesus viewed “hell” as being a permanent and total loss of life as most clearly stated in the phrase, “destroy both body and soul in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Other statements attributed to Jesus in the New Testament appear to confirm this. “Enter the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14).
In Jesus’ day, it was commonly believed that each person would be finally judged by his or her deeds. Those who were compassionate and helpful toward others would obtain eternal life, but those who were indifferent to the needs of others could be sent “to the eternal fire” (Matthew 25:31-46). Jesus, who was a man of his times, apparently shared this view but Jesus rejected the idea that “hell” would be a place where persons would be “tormented day and night for ever and ever” as described by the writer of the book of Revelation (Revelation 20:10). Jesus viewed “hell” as meaning the total destruction of both “body and soul” (Matthew 10:28).
Although Jesus made a few references to “hell,” he did not answer the question, “How bad would a person have to be in order to totally “lose his soul?” I doubt that anyone would agree that calling someone a “fool,” or looking lustfully at a woman would deserve such a penalty.
Now, back to the question: “What do Christian Deists believe about hell? Certainly, Christian Deists do not believe that God tortures people in “hell.” If God did that, no one would have any respect for God. It is ridiculous to think that a loving God would torture people.
In this essay, I have quoted the teachings attributed to Jesus in regard to “hell” but a Christian deist is not required to believe what Jesus believed. We can certainly agree with Jesus that God does not torture people in “hell.” But some Christian Deists would not agree that anyone’s life ends in “total destruction” or “annihilation.”
Matthew Tindal, the Christian Deist who wrote, Christianity As Old as Creation, in 1730, would be considered a “universalist” because he believed that God would not punish a person except to reform him/her. Tindal wrote, “It was for the sake of Man that He (God) gave him Laws, so He (God) executes them purely for the same reason, since upon His (God’s) account, He can’t be the least bit affected, whether His Laws be, or be not observed; and consequently in punishing, no more than rewarding, does He act as a Party, much less an injured Party, who wants Satisfaction, or Reparation of Honour. And indeed, to suppose it, is highly to dishonor Him, since God, as He can never be injured, so He can never want Reparation.”
Tindal continues, “Do we not bring God down to ourselves, when we suppose He acts like us poor indigent Creatures, in seeking Worship and Honour for His own sake; nay, do we not cloath Him, who hath neither parts nor passions, with the worst of our Infirmities, if we represent Him as an ambitious, suspicious, wrathful, and revengeful Being?”
Tindal adds, “If we dare consult our Reason, it will tell us that Jealousy in point of Honour and Power, Love of Fame and Glory can only belong to limited Creatures; but are as necessarily excluded from an unlimited, absolutely perfect Being, as Anger, Revenge, and such like Passions; which would make the Deity resemble the weak and impotent part of our Nature, rather than the noble and generous.”
Tindal states that God “acts purely for the Good of His Creatures; and the effects of his Justice, they never extending to Annihilation, must not only be for the Good of others, but even of the Persons punished; because God, whose Love infinitely exceeds that of mortal parents, chastises his Children (and all mankind are alike his Offspring) because He loves them, and designs their Amendment: and the Reason why God in Scripture is said to be Love, must be because all his Acts, by what Name soever you call them, are Acts of pure, impartial, and disinterested Love.”
Tindal writes, “All Punishment for Punishment’s sake is meer Cruelty and Malice, which can never be in God; nor can He hate any thing He has made, or be subject to such Weakness or Impotence as to act arbitrarily, or out of Spite, Wrath, Revenge, or any Self-Interest; and consequently, whatever Punishment He inflicts, must be a Mark of His Love, in not suffering (allowing) his Creatures to remain in that miserable State, which is inseparable from Sin and Wickedness.”
Finally, Tindal adds, “As God’s infinite Goodness appears in the Sanctions as well as the Matter of His Laws, so His infinite Wisdom knows how to adjust the Punishment to the Offense; that it may be exactly fitted to produce the desired Amendment.”
Some may view Matthew Tindal as overly optimistic regarding the reforming affect that punishment may have on human beings, but his view challenges us to recognize that the power of God is far greater than we can imagine, so Tindal’s view remains a possibility.
Another view of what happens to a person who fails to live as God intends for us to live comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson, the philosopher, writer, and former Unitarian minister. Emerson believed that God does not punish anyone but we, in effect, punish ourselves to the extent that we violate God’s natural laws.
Emerson expresses his views in his “Divinity School Address” which he delivered to the Senior Class at Harvard Divinity School on July, 15, 1838.
Emerson spoke on the subject of “virtue.” Emerson said that a person’s heart and mind should be open to the sentiment of virtue. According to Emerson, “The sentiment of virtue is a reverence and delight in the presence of certain divine laws” that enable a person to know the good that “he ought” to do.
Emerson said, “The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul. These laws execute themselves. They are out of time, out of space, and not subject to circumstance. Thus, in the soul of man there is a justice whose retributions are instant and entire. He who does a good deed, is instantly ennobled. He who does a mean deed, is by the action itself contracted. . . . Its operation in life, though slow to the senses, is, at last, sure in the soul. By it, a man is made the Providence (action of God) to himself, dispensing good to his goodness, and evil to his sin. . . . Benevolence is absolute and real. So much benevolence as a man hath, so much life hath he. . . . . While a man seeks good ends, he is strong by the whole strength of nature. In so far as he roves from these ends, he bereaves himself of power, of auxiliaries; his being shrinks out of all remote channels, he becomes less and less, a mote, a point, until absolute badness is absolute death.”
Emerson continues, “This sentiment (virtue, or goodness) is divine and deifying. It is the beatitude of man. It makes him illimitable. Through it, the soul first knows itself. It (shows) the fountain of all good to be in himself, and that he, equally with every man, is an inlet into the deeps of Reason. When he says, ‘I ought;’ when love warms him; when he chooses, warned from on high, the good and great deed; then, deep melodies wander through his soul from Supreme Wisdom. Then he can worship, and be enlarged by his worship.”
In Emerson’s view, the affects of “good deeds” and “mean deeds” on a person’s soul or personal existence are immediate. It is not a matter of being judged in the future. Justice comes instantly as life in the soul increases or decreases, depending on how we choose to live each day.
Perhaps Emerson answers the question that Jesus failed to answer. Bad deeds diminish life in the soul by degrees, until “absolute badness is absolute death.”
A Christian Deist must use his or her own observations, experiences, and reasoning in determining one’s own beliefs, but we can discard the theory that God tortures human beings endlessly in a place called “hell.” A person can believe in “everlasting torment in hell” or a person can believe in a good God, but a person cannot believe in both. I believe that God is good.
April 11, 2002