Hell on Earth

On September 11, 2001, official records indicate that nineteen hijackers of Arabic origin caused the fiery deaths of 2,967 people in four separate airplane crash incidents in the U.S.

In the coming days, weeks, months, and now years, stories have circulated indicating that these men may have carried out their actions in part because of a religious conviction that they held regarding what their reward would be for sacrificing their lives in martyrdom for their cause. The conviction some or all may have held was that, immediately after their physical death, they would be ushered into the Islamic version of Heaven, a paradise where they would enjoy unimaginable pleasures—including having 72 beautiful young virgins at their disposal at all times.

In response to this information, some Americans took a grim pleasure in passing around “jokes” about what happened when these hijackers woke up and found themselves not in a lush paradise, but being lashed by tongues of fire, and with no virgins in sight.

The obvious implication of these jokes is that these fanatics would not be in Heaven, but in an ever-burning Hell, where they would spend eternity enduring torment, rather than enjoying the pleasures for which they had hoped.

However, a question seldom addressed by any Americans, in the media or even in private discussions, is—

What happened after death to those other 2,967 people
who died in the tragic series of events of that day?

 

Avoiding the Unthinkable

The notion of the Afterlife is something that even many “practicing Christians” seldom if ever think about. Even in situations such as the 9/11 tragedy, they tend to focus on the enormity of the physical tragedy and avoid thinking about the spiritual ramifications of the situation. Perhaps this is because they subconsciously realize that focusing on the topic may lead them to some very uncomfortable, painful, and perhaps even terrifying thoughts.

For, you see, most churches teach that in the instant after death, the soul of every person must be immediately sent permanently to one of two destinations, Heaven or Hell. All true Christians go to Heaven. There they will have unlimited joy in the presence of God, and will be eternally happy. All other people go to Hell. There they will be totally cut off from God, as well as from all of their loved ones who ended up in Heaven. They will be consciously and constantly in pain and suffering and mental anguish permanently, with no relief throughout the eons of time.

So what would the average minister in such a church really believe happened to those people who died a horrible death in the fiery infernos of the plane crashes? He would be convinced that instantly some, the ones who were true Christians … probably a minority, according to many churches … went to Heaven to be with God. And the rest? They immediately found themselves in another fiery inferno, in torment in Hell—in the company of the very men who sent them there by their nefarious actions in the physical world!

Such churches teach that the souls of all who have not met the qualifications taught by the church go immediately to Hell. And they will be tortured there forever. It is important to note that someone does not have to be a viciously evil person, such as a serial rapist or murderer, to be sent off to Hell according to this set of beliefs. And just because someone was a gentle, selfless humanitarian, that doesn’t guarantee him a position in Heaven. From the point of view of many churches, everyone is subject to this instantaneous decision of destination based on their knowledge of a certain set of beliefs of one particular religious group, and how they reacted to that knowledge.

And here is something that surprises many people when they first discover it: According to the teachings of most churches, there is no “special dispensation” of any kind made for those who never even heard of the Bible or Jesus, let alone those who never heard of the denomination itself. If such a person dies, they are believed to go immediately to Hell.

Nor is there any such dispensation for the sincere person who wants to know about God, but is so confused in life, by all the conflicting claims made about religion, that he never seems to be able to sort through them all and make a decision what to believe. He sees so many different, competing televangelists on TV who assure him that by getting on board their own idiosyncratic system of belief he will be assured of God’s favor. And so many competing religious zealots come to his door offering to teach him about their interpretation of the Bible. He realizes that they can’t all be right, but finds he is totally unable to decide which one really is. Thus he too will be on his way straight to Hell when he dies.

What does this mean when applied to the situation on 9/11?

For those honest enough to face the teachings of their own denomination, in many cases it means that they are required to believe that perhaps a very large proportion of those 2,967 “innocent people” who died that day immediately went to the same place as the fanatics who caused their deaths! And those people will be suffering the same fate as those hijackers—physical and mental agony for all eternity.

How widespread is this type of belief? Here are a few brief quotes from doctrinal statements of a variety of religious groups.

It is impossible to describe the glory and splendor of heaven and the terror and torment of hell. … Knowing that this is the horrible end awaiting the wicked, the Assemblies of God is strongly motivated to win the lost before it is too late. (Assemblies of God)

We believe that glorious and everlasting life is assured to all who savingly believe in, and obediently follow, Jesus Christ our Lord; and that the finally impenitent shall suffer eternally in hell. (Church of the Nazarene)

We believe in the bodily resurrection of the dead; of the believer to everlasting blessedness and joy with the Lord; of the unbeliever to judgment and everlasting conscious punishment. (Evangelical Free Church of America)

The moral progress of the soul, either for better or for worse, ends at the very moment of the separation of the body and soul; at that very moment the definite destiny of the soul in the everlasting life is decided. … The Orthodox Church believes that at this moment the soul of the dead person begins to enjoy … the life in Paradise or to undergo the life in Hell. There is no way of repentance, no way of escape, no reincarnation and no help from the outside world. (Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America)

The Southern Baptist Convention may be more blunt in their public statements about this topic than most:

http://www.religioustolerance.org/hell_eva2.htm

“Concerning Hell:

The SBC 1925 statement referred to Hell only indirectly: “Those who continue in impenitence and unbelief are in his sight wicked and are under condemnation. This…will be made manifest at the judgment when final and everlasting awards are made to all men.

Their 1963 statement referred to Hell directly: “…Jesus Christ will return…to the earth; …Christ will judge all men in righteousness. The unrighteous will be consigned to Hell, the place of everlasting punishment.

The committee’s year 2000 recommendations propose that the 1963 wording be retained. Hell will remain a place of eternal torture without any relief.

The Southern Baptist Convention Home Mission Board conducted a study in 1993 which estimated how many Americans have had a born-again experience. They concluded that 30% of adult Americans have been “saved” and thus are going to Heaven; the 70% remainder are destined for Hell.

The percentage of Canadians who are going to Heaven are presumably much lower, because of the relatively small numbers of Fundamentalist and Evangelical Protestants in that country — probably about 8%.

This final statement, when applied to the 9/11 situation, would indicate the possibility, according to Southern Baptist estimates, that 2,077 people who died in that tragedy were then thrown immediately into a much worse tragedy—a never ending one, in an ever-burning hell.

In the company of the hijackers who sent them there!

Bringing Hell Home

Does the average member of a congregation affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention group really believe this? Does the average member of the Assemblies of God, the Evangelical Free Church, the Church of the Nazarene, and many other such groups really believe that many if not most of the people who died that day are actually now being tortured in Hell in the company of the hijackers who caused their deaths?

And of course this is only one example of recent news stories of the deaths of large numbers of “innocent people.” What about the 275,000 or so who died in the wake of the gigantic Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004? Most of those deaths were in nations with huge numbers of people who have never heard any version of the Christian Gospel.

Does the average member of those churches above, and others like them, really believe all those people suffered and died in the waters of the Tsunami, only to be instantly cast into a maelstrom far worse … endless waves of flames in Hell?

And to bring this question of Hell much “closer to home”: Do all of these people really believe that every one of the 6.5+ billion people on Earth today who die without understanding how to become a Christian are going to an ever-burning Hell the moment they die?

If they do believe this, then it may be relevant to ask:

Exactly how much of their time, energy, money, and efforts
are they sacrificing to reach as many people as they can
with a clear message of how they can avoid this terrifying fate?

In a modern American religious landscape dotted with megachurches that may sport a Starbucks Cafe’ and a health spa down the hallway from their splendiferous sanctuary, with a million dollar parking lot outside, this doesn’t seem to be an unreasonable question.

If you have been troubled or perplexed
by the teaching that a mass murderer
of “innocent people” can doom his victims
to an ever-burning hell, right along with himself,
just by taking their lives before they have had
an opportunity to “know Jesus,”
you are encouraged to join me on this blog taking
a
closer look at this teaching
in the light of the words of the Bible.

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Chewing on Chicklets

If you are old enough to have gone on road trips in the 1960s and 70s, surely you remember them. You couldn’t miss them. Every smelly gas station restroom … the kind where you borrowed a key, connected to a big wooden paddle with MEN or WOMEN scrawled on it, to get into the rickety door to the outside bathroom … had them. They were lying next to the sink faucet soaking up spilled water and soap. Or on the windowsill amidst the cobwebs and dead flies. Or lying on the floor, blown around every time the bathroom door opened. Or maybe even on the top of the toilet paper holder in the stall! (Talk about a “captive audience”!)

“They” were Chick Tracts.  Little pocket-sized booklets printed on cheap paper with a single bright color on the front setting off the black and white printing.

Inside each short booklet (about 24 pages usually) was a single, short story illustrated in comic-book style. And what bathroom reading material they made! Their pages were filled with graphic illustrations of … Sex! Drugs! Rock and Roll! Every sordid, sleazy side of life.

The whole purpose of these little “Chicklets” (as I have decided to dub them … short for “Chick booklets”) was to share an aspect of what their author/illustrator, Jack Chick, believed to be the Gospel of the Bible. The Chicklet was a piece of bait, easy to chew, to get people to the end of the story where they would be presented a choice to accept or reject Jesus as savior. A number of topics were addressed in the series, such as homosexuality, Roman Catholicism, evolution, and abortion. But the hottest Chicklets that most folks remember are the ones that ended up with the protagonist tortured by demons and tossed into an everburning hell—or barely escaping such a fate by saying the Sinner’s Prayer.

Like the ending of this masterpiece.

The main character is pronounced clinically dead after an accident, gets a taste of hell, revives in the hospital morgue, and calls for a chaplain, who leads him to the Lord.

His description of Hell is vividly illustrated in an almost Mad Magazine style.

He was obviously in a holding tank, for then a big door opened and he was shown his ultimate fate.

This Chicklet had a happy ending, after the chaplain led him in the Sinner’s Prayer, and his ultimate destiny immediately became heaven. Many of them didn’t end so cheerily.

Although I’ve used the “past tense” in talking about Chicklets above, I was shocked to find in recent years that Jack Chick is still around. In fact, he has a website for his Chicklets, is still writing and illustrating new ones, and has sold over 400 MILLION of them since he began churning them out in 1961. Since I haven’t seen one in a restroom in over thirty years, I can only suppose that the more “modern” methods of distributing them target other venues. At least in the US … they are printed in many languages and are distributed even in third world countries, and I can still imagine them in ramshackle bathrooms there. From what I read on the Web, lots of folks in the US distribute them along with candy on Halloween. And the website even shows you how you can “imbed” digital versions of the Chicklets on your own website. It also has a whole section on creative ways to use the tracts in daily evangelism, including this list of suggestions for how to use them while out shopping:

  • Hand a tract to the cashier
  • Leave tracts on the shelves in the stores
  • Place tracts in the dressing rooms
  • Place a tract in the pockets of the clothes
  • Hand tracts to the passengers on the elevators
  • Leave a tract next to the handrail on the escalator
  • Place a tract under the windshield wiper on the cars in the parking lot

So Jack Chick’s version of the fate of every person in the world and throughout history who does not embrace his personal version of evangelical Christianity continues to be very influential in the world. And his graphic description of what that everburning Hell is like is equally influential.

But is it biblical? Seek as I might, I’ve never found any description in the Bible of a place where “ugly, hideous, smelly” creatures laugh at and hurt those who have recently died. I have seen such things in fancier art than Jack Chick’s though.

Jack Chick has spent quite a bit of his publishing career attacking the Roman Catholic Church. Thus I have to admit it is almost humorous that he seems to have gotten his inspiration for what he no doubt thinks is his most effective evangelistic work NOT from anything in the Bible, but rather from the art of medieval Catholics!

No, the Bible says absolutely nothing about demons … smelly or not … torturing people in Hell. Just like many other aspects of the “popular culture” version of the afterlife both inside and outside Christian circles, people have been deceived for two millennia about what the Bible actually does have to say about the topic of Hell. And the deception has not come from atheists—it’s been promulgated directly by people who consider themselves dedicated, zealous Christians.

By the way, Jack may even have had some other influence over his hellish drawings besides medieval art. The Back from the Dead Chicklet shown above has a copyright date of 1982. That means he really could, as I am suspicious he may have, drawn a bit of inspiration from modern popular culture. For when I first saw these scenes …

… they immediately reminded me of another scene I’d seen.

Obiwan Kenobi didn’t call the denizens of the Cantina on Mos Eiseley in the first Star Wars movie smelly, but hideous and ugly works for me. As does “wretched hive of scum and villainy.”

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Where Are They Now?

A feature that often shows up in celebrity magazines like People is one that focuses on “where are they now?” in reference to some actor or cast of a movie or TV show. Readers love knowing what happened to the cast of shows such as Gilligan’s Island or Father Knows Best after the shows went off the air. Did the performers go on to continuing  careers in film, did they end up on drugs or in jail, did they have famous children who followed in their footsteps?

And then there are musicians and home-spun humorists. Let’s try a “Where are they now?” quiz. Where are these famous performers now?

Will Rogers, Hank Williams, Johnny Horton, Jimmie Rodgers

Well, if you believe the old Tex Ritter song from 1961, these deceased fellows are all in “Hillbilly Heaven,” making beautiful music and laughing together. Click here to hear Tex croon, “I dreamed I was there in Hillybilly Heaven. Oh, what a beautiful sight.”

Let’s try another similar “Where are they now?” quiz. Where are these four performing today—or tonight?

Bobby Darin, Jim Croce, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin

Well, the Righteous Brothers speculated in 1974 that they were sharing the spotlight on stage in “Rock and Roll Heaven.” Click here to hear Bill and Bobby explain that… “If you believe in forever, then life is just a one-night stand. If there’s a Rock and Roll Heaven, well you know they’ve got a helluva band.” 

Obviously there is not a lot of heavy theology in these songs. Heaven just seems to be where the souls of people whom many folks admire for their talent end up after they die. Even people like Hendrix, who evidently in his private life was notoriously sexually promiscuous, a mean drunk, an abuser of a variety of illegal drugs… and abuser of women.

Fictional Hillbilly Heaven and Rock and Roll Heaven are a long way from the Heaven of the Bible. The Bible reveals a real Heaven—and a real Hell. If you believe that they really exist, and that they are destinations for the souls of humans, then let’s try another “Where are they now?” quiz. Where do you think each of the following are right now?

Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Anne Frank

It certainly should only take a brief moment for most Christians to conclude what fate God decreed for Hitler, where his permanent destination was immediately after his death in 1945. Surely the soul of a vicious, hate-filled, maniacal man largely responsible for a devastating World War, and for the deaths of perhaps 6 million innocent Jews and millions of other innocent people, deserved a prime spot in an everburning Hell the moment after he died. Maybe he even had a whole legion of demons assigned to torture him forever and ever!  Not only did he cause great suffering to vast numbers of people, but he blasphemed God. He once said, “We do not want any other god than Germany itself. It is essential to have fanatical faith and hope and love in and for Germany.”

It might take some a moment or two more to decide about Joseph Stalin. His legacy as vicious Soviet dictator isn’t quite as commonly known as Hitler’s reputation among people born in recent decades. But just a quick Google search would make it clear how many millions of people were caused great suffering by his regime—such as through deportations to the most inhospitable portions of Russia like Siberia—and killed outright in massive purges of his perceived enemies.

Stalin also blasphemed God. “Stalin followed the position adopted by Lenin that religion was an opiate that needed to be removed in order to construct the ideal communist society. To this end, his government promoted atheism through special atheistic education in schools, massive amounts of anti-religious propaganda, the antireligious work of public institutions (especially the Society of the Godless), discriminatory laws, and also a terror campaign against religious believers. By the late 1930s it had become dangerous to be publicly associated with religion.” (Wikipedia article: Joseph Stalin)

Thus most conservative Christians would soon have no hesitation in assuming God assigned his soul at his death in 1953 to a torture cell next to Hitler’s in the deep recesses of an everburning Hell.

Two down and one to go.

Where is Anne Frank, the young girl who died at age 15, and who chronicled the two years her family hid from the Nazis in a diary that is one of the world’s most widely read books? The diary ends when the family was betrayed in 1944 and all dispersed to concentration camps. Anne suffered terribly, and eventually ended up in the infamous Bergen-Belsen camp. She died there of typhus in March 1945, just a month or so before Hitler died—and barely a month before the camp was liberated by British troops.

Wait. How can this even be a question? Surely someone couldn’t suggest that the moment after this tortured young girl died her soul went to the same place where Hitler soon would arrive! Surely someone couldn’t suggest that after being tortured for just several years by the decrees of evil men she would end up in a place where she was destined to be tortured forever and ever with far more painful suffering … by the decree of God Himself?

Not only could “someone” suggest this—the theology promoted by most conservative Christian denominations actually requires belief that this is so. You see, most such theology insists that each human being has an “immortal” soul that is conscious from birth … on out into eternity. The moment a person dies, their conscious “soul” must immediately be assigned to one of two places—Heaven, where they will experience joy and bliss for eternity starting immediately, or Hell, where they will experience grief and suffering for eternity starting immediately.

The theology insists also that no “sinner” can go to Heaven. Yet at the same time, the Bible insists that every single person who has reached the age of conscious decisions IS a sinner and chooses over and over to sin. Those sins may be “small” ones such as stealing a cookie from the cookie jar, or “large” ones such as causing the death of six million people. But when all is said and done, ANY sin will keep the individual out of Heaven. Thus the only way to be assigned to Heaven is to have personally, deliberately, accepted Jesus Christ as Savior and come under the blood of His sacrifice. That makes the sinner righteous in God’s eyes, and he can be admitted to Heaven. Anyone who has not done so by the time of their death has no other option than to be assigned instead to Hell—where the punishment for sin is not just temporary, but never-ending throughout eternity. There IS no “door number three” that people can go through to some alternative destination other than these two.

What does this have to do with Anne Frank? Anne was not a Christian. She was Jewish. In fact, records indicate that her family were “liberal Jews,” who didn’t even follow many Jewish traditions. She may never have been introduced even casually to any of the claims of the New Testament. She likely knew nothing about Jesus Christ. If knowing Christ and accepting Him as Savior is the only way to avoid torture in an everburning Hell, then the honest conservative Christian who believes this brand of theology has NO choice but to believe that Anne Frank indeed is suffering in Hell right this moment, along with Hitler and Stalin. And will suffer for eternity. EVEN IF she never had a chance to consciously choose or reject Jesus Christ.

Is this REALLY what the Bible itself teaches? Must I believe that innocent, persecuted, lovable, talented little Anne Frank was consigned by a loving God to eternal torture because she was a sinner who didn’t know she could be saved by the blood of Jesus? Even though she wrote at one point, “And that’s why I’m so grateful to God for having given me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and to express all that’s inside me!” In other words, she even had some sort of personal if nebulous concept of God, and a gratitude toward Him. But for the average conservative Christian, the theology of their denomination insists that this is not enough. No, there is no choice but to insist that Anne is in Hell suffering at this very moment.

Of course you seldom hear anyone in Christian circles discussing this aspect of the belief in Hell. It is, in some ways, a “dirty little secret” that is only mentioned when absolutely necessary. For it is SO abhorrent on the face of it that it is viewed as possibly shaking people’s faith in the Bible. Most modern sermons and articles on Hell just focus on mentioning the drunkards, the serial murderers, the rapists, the pathological liars, and the filthy, lecherous old men who will end up there.

Nationally-known Pastor Rob Bell of Mars Hill Church in Michigan has recently questioned this way of understanding what the Bible says about the afterlife. A firestorm of criticism by other Christian leaders has greeted his new book on this topic, Love Wins, which challenges some cherished theological notions. Bell seems to have found out the hard way that, in some circles, the quickest way to find yourself consigned to an everburning Hell by some Christians is to suggest maybe there isn’t an everburning Hell! “Heretics” who entertain such a notion are viewed by some as heading straight for the lowest reaches of Hell, perhaps even deeper than where Hitler and Stalin are confined.

This blog is the result of my own studies of over forty years about the topic of Hell. I long ago came to question some of the same things Rob Bell has begun questioning, although perhaps for different reasons. This blog will explore some of the fascinating answers I have found right in the pages of the Bible. And it will compare and contrast these answers with factors from the fields of history, psychology, sociology, and human systems of theology which I am convinced have led erroneously to the popular conception of Hell that has such a grip on the minds of the vast majority of mankind.

Where do YOU think Anne Frank is right now?

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