The Mouth of Hell. From the Hours of Catherine of Cleves, 14th century
The door of the room has never been opened before since first she set her foot on that red-hot floor. Now she sees the door opening. She rushes forward… “Look,” she says, “at my burnt and bleeding feet. Let me go off this floor for one moment, only for one single short moment. Oh, that in this endless eternity of years I might forget the pain only for one single moment…” Oh, that you could hear the horrible, the fearful scream of that girl when she saw the door shutting never to be opened any more. The history of this girl is short. Her feet first led her into sin, so it is her feet which most of all are tormented.

This and similar stories appear in a series of fourteen books by Joseph Furniss, written for children in the 1860s. The most popular, The Sight of Hell, sold millions: that is to say, millions of parents bought them for their children to read. They wanted their children to believe a fate like this was a real prospect, and reflect on it.

On Monday I’m giving a talk on Hell. I’m not sure whether it will cause more distress, or shock, or laughter, but my research has made me feel all these.

Why is it so important, to so many Christians, to believe that some of us, after we die, are going to be punished for eternity? What is it about us that makes so many determined to insist on it?

Couldn’t the punishments be for just a limited period? No, that would be Purgatory, not Hell, and Purgatory isn’t in the Bible.

Could the punishments be commensurate to the harm our sins caused? But we are very very sinful indeed. Anyway there is a backup: Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin. You and I are responsible for the greatest sin of all, Adam’s eating of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Think you weren’t there? We were all ‘in’ Adam at the time.

To believe people suffer in the afterlife is easier for those who believe in evil gods as well as good gods. In the traditional Zoroastrian system there are two creator gods, a good one and an evil one, and hell (though not eternal) is to punish obedience to the evil one.

In Jewish-Christian Islamic theology, with just one god who is good, evil is usually attributed to the gift of free will to humans (and possibly to demons, but that’s another debate) so there is no reason for God to be surprised or shocked by our behaviour.

Christians did not always have the Hell we have now. In the New Testament ‘Hell’ translates either Hades, a boring place of the dead where nothing happens, or Gehenna, Jerusalem’s rubbish tip. Matthew, though, believed in divine retribution, the idea that justice demands punishments. Revelation expresses the intense emotions of the persecuted, longing for their persecutors to suffer every conceivable agony. For a more forgiving God, read Luke.

Hell reached its apogee in the three centuries from the fourteenth century to the seventeenth. This era was a time of repeated plagues. Death was all around. Church walls and altar panels depicted Christ summoning the saved to Heaven and sending the damned to Hell. As well as the art, the literature of the period had a great deal to say about who would be eternally damned, and how.

If God was so terrifying, there was an obvious question: is there anybody else up there? The devil could hardly be worse. Keith Thomas, in his Religion and the Decline of Magic, describes the findings of a seventeenth-century witch-finder, John Stearne, who

remarked that many witches had been drawn to the Devil ‘by some sermons they have heard preached; as when ministers will preach of the power of the Devil, and his tormenting the wicked and such like’. Ignorant people were seduced by Satan ‘coming to them, and asking them, “How do you think to be saved? For your sins are so and so... And you heard the minister say that I will torment you. Give me your soul... and I will free you of hell-torment”‘.

Thereafter Hell declined in popular belief. It was as though the implications were sinking in. A popular eighteenth century preacher told his congregation:

If my words strike fear into you, they also do the same to me. If my speech terrifies you, it is only after I myself have been terrified.

The stories by Joseph Furniss, like the one quoted above, sound to me as though his own fear was his driving force. His books were simply printed versions of talks he had given to children. How could he stand in front of a class of children and terrify them like that? I suspect that he himself was already terrified.

Why believe in Hell today? From my reading of the literature I think I can see four reasons – or motives.

  1. Intense hatred of adversaries. When Revelation fantasises about after-death punishments of persecutors, it does what people have done all through the ages. There is nothing particularly Christian about it; on the contrary the example of Jesus suggests the opposite.
  2. Retribution. A more general belief that justice demands punishment is also common. It seems to have its roots in instinctive retaliation and the desire for revenge. In modern penal systems retribution is less popular than it once was. Some argue that this is what punishment should be about, others that it should be about deterrence or reform. Retribution can be thought of as the opposite of forgiveness; at any rate, eternal punishment doesn’t sound like the act of a God who loves or forgives.
  3. Fear. The terrified terrify others. In this emotional sense, once belief in Hell has been established it perpetuates itself.
  4. Tradition. Since the Reformers and Counter-Reformers were so committed to the eternal torments of the damned, church leaders today often feel obliged to defend their views. Hell becomes what ‘we’ believe. To me, as a liberal theologian, this is the most morally inexcusable reason for believing in Hell. For goodness’ sake, I want to shout, pay attention to what you are doing to people!

I do not know how many Christians today spend their lives terrified of their fate after death, but preachers of eternal damnation are still around. In my view, nothing could be further from the message of Jesus.

‘Do not be afraid, for you have found favour with God’, said the angel to Mary (Luke 1:30).

‘It is I: do not be afraid’, said Jesus to the startled disciples as he walked on water towards them (John 6:20).

‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified’ said the angel to the women at the tomb (Matthew 28:5).

Do not be afraid. Fear makes us self-centred. It uses up our emotional energy. When we are confident that there is nothing to fear, we find it easier to open out to others, empathise with them and reach out to them in love.

You can listen to my talk, 'Why is Hell so much more fun than Heaven?' here or read the full text here.