College Term Paper on How To Escape From Hell
“What the Hell is Hell?”
A Multi-Disciplinary Term Paper about Hell
Rogers State University
Professor Johnny M. Kirk
June 24, 2011
According to a survey cited by Greg Garrison in USA Today (2008), 54% of Americans still believe in hell. I would contend that within the walls of “Christian” churches the number is much higher. Of course believing in hell alone, or not, does not disprove, nor support its existence. Each individual has to look within and decide personally what they choose to believe.
Born in central Oklahoma, in the “buckle of the bible belt”, the subject of hell was a main staple of the Pentecostal society I was entrenched in. Willingly attending church five times per week (eight during many revival months), I heard more sermons on the subject of hell than most. It was a “given” that most of God’s children would burn in hell forever, and many within our small congregation would “fall short of making it to heaven”. It never occurred to me that the minister screaming behind the pulpit was in error. After all, wasn’t he “God’s man” with a message holy and unfiltered?
In retrospect, worshiping a capricious God must have been troubling on a deep sub-conscious level. However the social constructions that surrounded my young life did not questions the discrepancies of a God who asked us to love our enemies, but insisted on subjecting his to the worst possible eternal torture. Social constructions, according to Steve Bruce in his book Sociology, A Very Short Introduction, are strengthened by group solidarity. Bruce states “social constructions are viable only to the extent they are shared. Fabrications they may be, but, if everyone believes them, then they are no longer beliefs; they are just ‘how things are” (Bruce, 2000, p. 27). And so it was with the dogma surrounding my faith, the “reality” of an eternal and literal burning hell, was simply “the way things were”.
Bruce contends those refusing the popular opinion of a solidarity group are rejected and seen as “mad” (Bruce, 2000, p. 28). This societal pressure and fear of rejection undoubtedly keeps many in their “spiritual closets”, fearing “coming out” would prove devastating. As a volunteer chaplain who recently came out against the absurd logic of a loving God who is infinitely worse than Hitler (Hitler actually gassed most before burning), I know all too well how rejection feels. My conscious forcing me to disassociate myself with my former church and chaplain organization, I was condemned as a heretic and lost dozens of friends.
This threat of becoming ostracized by friends and family is usually enough to limit discussions about hell. According to thinker and historian Alan Bernstein in his article “Thinking about Hell”, those in our western culture “who unquestionably accept [hells] existence, on faith, the subject is rarely open to debate. To those who reject the notion of hell altogether, it is an aspect of religion that they have successfully overcome, like some childhood fear” (Bernstein, 1986, p. 78). It has been my observation, if one chooses to remain a part of mainline denominations that believe in hell, he or she has to remain silent or risk excommunication. In my personal experience, my chaplain mentor welcomed me to be a part of his church on the condition that I never bring up the subject of hell. I graciously declined, needing to embrace a church that also embraces my beliefs.
For me, until recently, hell was always a given. Hell was something that existed and was real, end of discussion. There was no need for me to apologize for God. After all, he was God and could do as he pleased. I did not particularly like the idea of hell, but that was not my concern. Like many others, I never allowed myself to utilize my “God-given” conscience and think for myself. The cognitive exercise of thinking is not exactly what I am referring to, rather a critical analysis of a given scenario. Authors Gillian Butler and Freda McManus in their book Psychology, A Very Short Introduction (2000), puts it this way; “thinking is not, psychologically speaking, synonymous with conscious deliberation”. It is however, “using your head” involving deductive, inductive and dialectical reasoning. “Dialectical reasoning [for example] is the ability to evaluate opposing points of view and to think critically so as to determine what is true or false or to resolve differences. . . .Experience, feelings, and inclinations are amongst the many psychological factors that interfere with our ability to think with an open mind. . . . [with] our feelings and memories [placing] measurable limits on our powers of reasoning” (Butler, G., & MacManus, F. 2000, pp. 45-48). In other words, having heard hundreds of sermons on hell before adulthood, something only as powerful as truth through critical thinking, could press through my brainwashed fog. As it turned out, cultural experiences would eventually lead me to truth, as I allowed truth to develop within me.
At age 45, in the fall of 2008, I began working on my Associates degree in Liberal Arts through TCC, Tulsa. Sensing a long term calling towards a career involving chaplain or counseling work, I simultaneously began to train as a hospital chaplain through Healthcare Chaplains Ministry Association (HCMA). HCMA is a fundamental, evangelical organization that required me to “wholeheartedly approve” their yearly statement of faith, which included belief in “eternal punishment of the unbeliever”. In 2008, this was the standard protocol for my belief system so I signed on in agreement.
Without pursuing work as a chaplain, I probably would have failed to challenge my fundamental belief system. Through TCC, I became acquainted with pictures of history, portraying millions who had never heard of Jesus, most having lived and died before the story became popular. My theology at the time had convinced me these millions were endlessly tortured in hell, even though they had never heard the “gospel story”. God began to reveal these multitudes as special individuals that he cared about, instead of the disregard masses I had often carelessly envisioned. Thankfully, my TCC experiences were also teaching me how to think critically, a relatively new experience at this point. Working two afternoons per week as a volunteer chaplain within a dialysis center setting, I began to become compassionately involved with the patients on a personal level. Within a few months, the link between a perceived physical place called hell and the physical and mental hell these patients were going through became apparent. For example, there seemed to be a correlation between the unresolved, extended grief of losing a child and renal failure. In several cases, the deep concern that the adult child who had died was currently burning in a literal hell was obvious. It was this lack of peace represented by these Christian patients that caused me to question the concept of hell. As Christians, we were instructed to somehow possess love, joy, peace and tranquility. Within the context of imagining loved ones squirming in endless torment, this is an impossible paradox.
Dr. Boyd Purcell in his book Spiritual Terrorism (2008) quotes Dr. Lewis Whaley who confirmed suspicions similar to mine. Dr. Whaley describes spiritual terrorism concepts as being “mind-altering [with] life-harmful consequences. . . .[Whaley quotes] As a physician, I can validate [Dr. Purcell’s] understanding of psychopathology which holds that whatever affects the mind affects the body and whatever affects the body affects the mind. The anxiety which fear-based religion, or any other factor, generates has the potential to depress the human immune system, affect every organ, and impair bodily functions” (Purcell, 2008, preface p. vii). Bishop Carlton Pearson in his book The Gospel of Inclusion (2008) contends that the concept of hell is the “most destructive concept on the planet”. Bishop Pearson refers to charismatic leaders who hold “their congregations in a grip of ignorance and terror”, using a religion that is paranoid, illogical and schizophrenic (Pearson, 2008, p.272).
This hellish hypocrisy, which is seen predominantly by thinking outsiders, probably started with good intentions. According to John Arnold in his book History, A Very Short Introduction, (2000) “what people intend to do, and what the outcomes of those intentions actually turn out to be, are not often the same thing (Arnold, 2000, p. 83). Many do not realize that hell, as we know it today, is mostly pagan theology incorporated by the early church in an effort to control the ignorant masses. Unwilling to trust God with perfect justice and the ability to reconcile all to himself, the church thought it best to seek an alternative means of control. According to Funk & Wagnall’s (2009) “the third century Christian writer and theologian Origen and his school, taught that the purpose of punishments was purgatorial and proportionate to the guilt of the individual. Origen held that, in time, the purifying effect would be accomplished in all, even devils; that punishment would ultimately cease and everyone [eventually] restored to happiness”. Origen’s doctrine was condemned by the church in 553 with eternal punishment becoming characteristic of both the Orthodox as well as the Roman Catholic Church (Funk & Wagnall’s New World Encyclopedia, 2009).
Perhaps our unwillingness to forgive others is the reason we require a hell some 1500 years later. For, if everyone is eventually going to be reconciled to God (NIV, Philippians 2:9-11, I Tim 4:10); then we would have to learn how to love our enemies, bless them that curse us and do good to them that hate us, praying for those who despitefully use us (NIV, Matthew 5:44). We would also need to understand and love those we consider the unworthy and deviant’s of society. Perhaps this would require too much work on our part; therefore we cling to the concept of hell. Unfortunately, believing we are somehow better than others, while failing to love and forgive, places us in hell on earth. May God remove the hell within us with the fires of his consuming love!
Arnold, J. H. (2000). History: a very short introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.
Bernstein, A. (1986). Thinking about Hell. The Wilson Quarterly, 10(3), Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
Bruce, S. (2000). Sociology: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Butler, G., & MacManus, F. (2000). Psychology: a very short introduction ([Reissued]. ed.). Oxford [etc.: Oxford University Press.
Garrison, G., (2009, August 1). Many Americans don't believe in hell, but what about pastors? - USATODAY.com. News, Travel, Weather, Entertainment, Sports, Technology, U.S. & World - USATODAY.com. Retrieved July 22, 2011, from http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2009-08-01-hell-damnation_N.htm
“HELL” (2009). Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia. EBSCO. Web. 20 July 2011
New International Version. [Colorado Springs]: 2011. BibleGateway.com. Web. 20 July 2011
Pearson, C. (2008). The gospel of inclusion: reaching beyond religious fundamentalism to the true love of God and self. New York: Atria Books.
Purcell, B. C. (2008). Spiritual terrorism: spiritual abuse from the womb to the tomb... S.l.: Authorhouse.