Billy Graham takes on Hell!

And delivers us from evil.. Well, not quite. Here’s the question:

Why would a loving God send anyone to hell? I can’t reconcile the idea of hell with Jesus’ teaching about love. I’m not sure I even believe in hell anyway. Maybe everyone will be saved, even if they weren’t expecting it. — P.McN.

DEAR P.McN.: It may surprise you to discover

At which point I break in because he’s about to state that “no one taught about hell or warned us against it more than Jesus, and we should take his words very seriously.”

Thing is, Jesus was a Jew, not a Christian. For Jews, the end of life held the possibility of Sheol, which wasn’t that bad, all things considered. I’ll quote Rabbi Or N. Rose on this topic since I know squat. He writes that there’s a variety of thoughts about the nature of the afterlife and what’s to come in Judaism.

The subject of death is treated inconsistently in the Bible, though most often it suggests that physical death is the end of life. This is the case with such central figures as Abraham, Moses, and Miriam.

There are, however, several biblical references to a place called Sheol (cf. Numbers 30, 33). It is described as a region “dark and deep,” “the Pit,” and “the Land of Forgetfulness,” where human beings descend after death. The suggestion is that in the netherworld of Sheol, the deceased, although cut off from God and humankind, live on in some shadowy state of existence.

While this vision of Sheol is rather bleak (setting precedents for later Jewish and Christian ideas of an underground hell) there is generally no concept of judgment or reward and punishment attached to it. In fact, the more pessimistic books of the Bible, such as Ecclesiastes and Job, insist that all of the dead go down to Sheol, whether good or evil, rich or poor, slave or free man (Job 3:11-19)

The Rabbi continues with some Jewish history under the Romans and how the loss of their Temple in 70CE led theologians to reconsider why bad things happen to good people.

“Rabbi Ya’akov taught: This world is compared to an ante-chamber that leads to Olam Ha-Ba, (the World-to-Come)” (Pirkei Avot 4:21). That is, while a righteous person might suffer in this Gehinnomlifetime, he or she will certainly be rewarded in the next world, and that reward will be much greater. In fact, in some cases, the rabbis claim that the righteous are made to suffer in this world so that their reward will be that much greater in the next (Leviticus Rabbah 27:1)

It’s hard to be truly righteous, though, and only those who qualify are allowed automatic entry into Gan Eden. Everyone else, no matter how good they try to be, will wind up in Gehinnom for a year first to go through some torture of the soul and think about what they’ve done. Only the truly horrible will have to remain there, although there is debate about what happens next, eternal torture or soul destruction. Either way, it’s unfun.

Back to my point, what would Jesus have been thinking about when he warned about hell? Certainly not hell as people today think of it. The hellfire, circles of doom concept is pretty new, all things considered, and much of it the fault of translators. Earlier bible stories make no reference to an afterlife of doom even when it seems like a good time to mention it.

Back to Billy (mis)quoting Jesus (who never would have used the word “hell” at the time):

He declared, “I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him” (Luke 12:5).

When was Luke’s gospel written? Harvard House offers up some archeological findings that may link to people Luke (or whatever author, there’s debate) wrote about in Acts. It’s suggested in there that Luke was traveling with Paul by 50CE for sure and Acts was written after the Gospel of Luke. Plus, since none of the Gospels mention the 70CE temple destruction (even though Jesus predicted it), Luke has to be an early book. Personally, I think saying Jesus predicted that is like saying Nostradamus predicted Hitler; it’s easy enough to look back through history and find links to prophecies long after the fact.

But anyway, back to Billy:

But listen: God doesn’t want us to go there! If we do, it will only be because of our stubborn desire to leave God out of our lives. God doesn’t hate us; he loves us, and that is why he has provided a way for us to be forgiven of our sins and go to be with him in heaven.

Christianity has since twisted up the idea of hell to mean “the place non-Christians go” or “the place bad Christians go,” depending on when and how they broach the subject, and who they’re targeting. More often than not, it seems they’ll use it as a means of domination, fear, and control. It’s not always “Be good and come to heaven, it’s a wonderful town!” but “Be like us or else!!” It’s made worse when you see so-called Christians cheering and praying for people to end up there.

It’s far nicer being an atheist, I say. All I have to do is commit to being the best person I can possibly be and die knowing I was liked and useful as opposed to a pain the ass lazy jerk. That’s something, at least.

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