On Wings of Angels

The English word “angel” is derived directly from the Greek word aggelos, which was used by the authors of the books of the New Testament of the Bible. Aggelos means “messenger,” and can be used either for a human messenger, or a supernatural messenger sent by God. The related Hebrew word, translated as angel in the Old Testament, is malak. It too means messenger, and can be used for human or supernatural messengers, depending on the context.

Every time a heavenly aggelos or a malak appears in the Bible and interacts with a human, that being is described as looking like a human male, and there is never any mention of wings. In fact, in a number of instances, the person with whom the being makes contact doesn’t realize that it was an angel until the angel “disappears”! The following passage would make no sense if angels all had wings …

Hebrews 13:2 Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.

How many people would mistake a being with huge birdlike wings coming out of his back as just “a stranger”?! So just where did the notion come from that angels have wings?

Since such wings aren’t mentioned in the Bible, could it be because these beings are said to “fly”? If so, and unless they fly like Superman, wouldn’t that implies that they have wings.

There are only two instances in the King James Version of the Bible where a supernatural being who is identified as a malak or an aggelos is said to “fly.” In the Old Testament, the prophet Daniel encounters the angel Gabriel:

Daniel 9:21 … while I was still in prayer, Gabriel, the man [identified in the New Testament as an “archangel”] I had seen in the earlier vision, came to me in swift flight about the time of the evening sacrifice.

The words translated “swift flight” here do not imply “flying in the sky” like a bird at all. (There are other Hebrew words used throughout the OT to definitely describe that action.) They are from a root word meaning to be “wearied, fatigued, tired out.” In other places in the Old Testament that this root word is used, it is translated as “faint.” In other words, Gabriel’s arrival was like someone pulling into a driveway after a grueling trip.

It is not even clear if the English translators of the KJV intended this term to imply “flying in the sky.” The word “flight” has long been used to indicate hurried movement. In fact, we still might refer to a criminal charged with a crime as a “flight risk,” not indicating he might specifically try to go away on an airplane at all, but that he might just hurriedly leave the jurisdiction of the court.

The other instance of the term “flying” being connected with an angel in the King James Version is in a vision in the New Testament book of Revelation:

Revelation 8:13 And I beheld, and heard an angel flying through the midst of heaven, saying with a loud voice, Woe, woe, woe, to the inhabiters of the earth by reason of the other voices of the trumpet of the three angels, which are yet to sound!

But the word translated as angel here does not appear in a significant number of ancient manuscripts … instead, the Greek word that appears is aetos, and means eagle. And thus most modern Bible translations render the passage differently from the KJV:

NIV As I watched, I heard an eagle that was flying in midair call out in a loud voice… Amplified Then I [looked and I] saw a solitary eagle flying in midheaven, and as it flew I heard it crying with a loud voice …

NASB Then I looked, and I heard an eagle flying in midheaven, saying with a loud voice … American Standard And I saw, and I heard an eagle, flying in mid heaven, saying with a great voice…

In symbolic visions, many unusual things occur, including animals—and birds—being able to speak! So it would not be surprising at all for this vision to have included an eagle with a loud voice.

This is the sum total of Bible passages that give evidence of angels having wings. There are other supernatural beings, such as cherubs and seraphs (Hebrew: cherubim and seraphim), which are specifically said to have wings. But these are never referred to in the Bible by the terms malak or aggelos. (You can read more details about these other beings, in an article on “Biblical Angelology” on my Answers About Angels website.)

But of course, these facts from the Bible have never stopped the enthusiasm of artists and writers who wanted to depict angelic messengers as having wings. They long ago absorbed the mythology of winged angels, and evidently never bothered to line up their preconceived notions with the scriptures themselves.

Or … perhaps they just didn’t care. For there is no question that the imagery of winged angels is very exciting and impressive, and makes for beautiful paintings and word pictures! A favorite theme for many is the “guardian angel” with broad wings watching over small children, shown here in sentimental artwork.

The “angel” in most of these appears as a feminine rather than a masculine being, perhaps to emphasize “motherly care.” And the wings may even subliminally evoke the idea of a mother bird protecting her young under her wings.

In the past two hundred years or so most angel art (and crafts, including “Christmas tree topper” angels) have almost exclusively portrayed angels as having pure white wings, perhaps in imitation of white doves. But earlier artists, particularly in the Middle Ages, were much more creative in their depictions.

Here is a potpourri of archangel wings from the period:

But in conclusion, the Bible has almost nothing to say about the appearance of angelic messengers. It most certainly never describes them as being winged beings–either with plain old white wings, or these gaudy multi-color ones.

And thus all the artwork and written descriptions regarding them for the past two millennia are based entirely on the imagination and speculation of humans. It’s one more sample of Popcorn Theology.

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Angels in the Limelight

Fifty years ago, the average American gave lip service to belief in angels once a year—at Christmas time. A large proportion of families, both church-goers and non-church-goers alike, had at least two angels on hand for the season. One went at the top of the Christmas tree.

This angel most often looked like a beautiful young lady in a ball gown, frequently made of white silk or chiffon or lace, and had delicate white wings, typically either of lace or feathers.

The other typical household angel came with the resident Nativity Set of figurines, and often perched on top of the stable which held the Baby Jesus and His family—or was affixed to the gable on the front of it, to give the illusion that the angel was hovering.

Although this angel’s garb was usually simpler, in line with the humble clothes of the Holy Family, and its wings might be a variety of colors, it was indeed still a female wearing a dress.

So this was the introduction to angel lore that most young children, for many generations, had absorbed. Angels were flying women who were connected in some vague way with the Christmas celebration.

As they became familiar with the words of Christmas carols, and perhaps had a Bible story book with the story of the birth of Jesus in it, they learned that an angel announced the birth of Jesus to some shepherds. Given the angel at the top of the tree and the angel on the front of the stable, most children likely envisioned a pretty lady with wings in a gown hovering over the shepherds near Bethlehem, telling them about the Baby Jesus. A choir of other pretty ladies would be hovering behind her in the sky, singing ethereally and melodiously in their lovely soprano voices.

Children who were regularly taken to Sunday School might have had this image slightly adjusted, for some Bible stories about angels make it very clear that the angels in those stories were said to have looked like men. If these young people eventually were exposed to the religious art of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, they would expand that perspective just a bit more. So that eventually, hearing the term “angel” might bring to mind either male or female winged figures.

But of course the Christmas Angels would still be those pretty ladies in the pretty gowns.

The Rest of the Year

But even though the average American might eventually have a broader concept of what an angel was, they still seldom thought of them at other times of the year. The exception to this might be in a family that was particularly pious regarding their religious faith. Some denominations, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, give more attention to angels, particularly the notion of “guardian angels” for people. In particularly dedicated Roman Catholic homes there would be religious artwork depicting angels, and the children would be taught from their earliest years to pray to their own guardian angel.  (http://www.catholic.org/prayers/prayer.php?s=54  )

But in homes from different religious backgrounds, or no religious persuasion at all, angels would have been primarily segregated to the Christmas season, brought out then to decorate the home, and afterwards tucked into tissue paper, boxed up, and placed on closet shelves until the next year.

Angels out of the Closet


But something happened starting in the 1970s. Perhaps it was a deliberate marketing scheme. Perhaps it was a spontaneous outpouring of enthusiasm for the supernatural, related to the advent of the kind of “New Age” spirituality that is unconnected to the Bible and to traditional religious history. Whatever the cause, angel artwork, figurines, posters, greeting cards, statuary, and much more started showing up in unexpected places and throughout the whole year. And by the 1990s, angels were no longer just bit players for annual Christmas displays—they became Big Business.

The traditional Christmas tree topper angels are still around, as are the Nativity Set angels. But they are now more of a nostalgia item than a vital part of the Angel Business. In many cases, the traditional figures have even been replaced at Christmas by more … ahem … contemporary versions of the same thing. Some tree topper angels no longer look like those lovely ladies.

And sometimes it’s not a lovely winged lady hovering over a Nativity scene. For instance, there’s this … “Cativity Set” with two winged, behaloed felinangels overlooking a furry version of the Holy Family:

From The Big Book of Angels  (2002)


Why are angels—and mystery—so well accepted and popular now? Only a decade ago, there were a grand total of six books in print on the topic of angels; today, they number in the hundreds. Why the sudden fascination? Three possible explanations have been suggested: First, that human history goes in cycles, as does the necessary intervention of angels. Some have suggested that angels are in fact, busier now in human affairs than they have been at other times. Even in an era when membership in some organized religions is declining, angels meet our need to encounter the divine in a direct, personal way.

A second theory is that in the last few decades, we humans have been overcome by science and technology until we feel there is no mystery left, and yet we know instinctively that this is untrue. The converse of this has also been suggested: that science is revealing so many mysteries that we need to remind ourselves there is a loving presence in the midst of it all. Have you seen the star show at the Rose Center’s Hayden Planetarium in New York City? There is no way to digest what we now know about the heavens without being absolutely floored by the enormity and majesty of it all. The same goes for what we’re discovering about human biology. The mystery is overwhelming. We need help!

Finally, it is true that we live in a world in which we’re bombarded by CNN, watching terrorists rip into buildings, seeing children starving by the tens of thousands, hearing of viruses that cannot be cured. The evil in our world is beyond our control, and we desperately need to know there is a benevolent presence beyond us that is more than a match for the presence of evil and hopelessness we see on our television screens. We need to know that, despite everything, we are loved. And that is what the angels tell us.

But these modern “angels,” for all the love they are said to spread, have most often been ripped from the context of not only the nativity story, but from any connection at all to the God of the Bible. A large proportion of them have become the equivalent of an army of Fairy Godmother-type beings, who can dispense wisdom in how to deal with all of life’s little problems, and can intervene for everyone regardless of religious persuasion (some surveys have found that more people believe in the existence of angels than in the existence of God) to keep them from harm and bring them a happy, prosperous life. They demand no obedience to any particular creed, or standard of behavior or morals. In fact, they demand nothing but belief in their existence. In exchange, they promise peace, comfort, sunshine, and an unconditional love that allows people to live life any way they please … if they only “believe in angels.”

Well, actually, “they” don’t promise any of this—for the reality is that “they” are imaginary beings. The promises come from the Public Relations efforts of the purveyors of Angelmania. It is even quite obvious that some writers who would have written books on Horoscopes, or channeled messages and advice for people from “Ancient Ascended Masters,” in decades past have switched to touting the blessings of looking to the “Angels Among Us” for guidance.

Does this mean that angels don’t exist? No, the Bible is very clear that God does have supernatural assistants and messengers called, in English, “angels.” Does it mean that angels don’t at times defend and rescue humans in times of trouble? No, for the Bible is also very clear that one of the primary missions of God’s angels is to do those very jobs.

But what is also very clear is that the “angels” of popular culture bear almost no resemblance to the nature of the angels of the Bible. They are purely an invention of the human imagination.

Angel Lore is another area of Bible-related topics that has been extensively affected for almost 2000 years by what I called in an earlier blog entry, “Popcorn Theology.” The common perception of the man or woman or child or teen on the street of what happens to a human after death, what heaven and hell are like, what angels and demons and the Devil are like—has been basically “sold” to them by mass merchandisers, not by their own careful reading of the Bible. Yes, even those who have spent most of their life attending some church every week may be surprised to find what a big bill of goods they’ve been sold in these topic areas!

In the next few NonDante blog entries, I’ll be inviting readers to explore some of the history and psychology of this angelic sales campaign. The kind of subliminal ads that sell cars by posing them next to sexy babes, and attempt to convince consumers that the hundreds of toothpastes on the market (with the exact same ingredients) really are each unique—and that you’ll have more sex-appeal by using Brand X rather than Brand Y—can’t hold a candle to the techniques that have been used to sell Popcorn Theology for the past 2000 years.

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Popcorn Theology

If you were born before 1960, it was likely a weekly ritual for you—the Saturday matinee at the local movie theater. Probably a double feature, maybe of a B-western movie with Lash Larue, and a Big Bug sci-fi flick like The Deadly (giant praying) Mantis. And in between, lots of cartoons. And with it all, LOTS and LOTS of popcorn drenched in butter.

You probably didn’t realize it at the time, but as a young child you may well have absorbed, along with the butter soaking on that popcorn,  more of what you eventually came to believe and has stuck with you all these years about “theology” –than you did in Sunday school the next morning. Wonder where most Americans first got the idea that the biblical Devil, if you could see him, would be red all over and have a pointy tail and horns? And that angels, if you could see them, would have a halo and wings? Look no farther than the popcorn-theology of the steady diet of Hollywood cartoons that most young children are exposed to. Walt Disney likely had one of the most influential, with the 1938 release of Donald’s Better Self.  It has “educated” several generations of young folks in the ins-and-outs of the tactics of the Devil and angels. It was released on VHS in 1986, and the latest generation can still be indoctrinated with its theology via the copy on Youtube.

The imagery of this film is still so memorable that Hallmark honored it with a Christmas ornament in 2009.

In the cartoon short, Donald is tempted and badgered throughout the day by a “Devil duck” (his “badder self”?) to do what he knows he shouldn’t … such as skip school to go fishing, or smoke. And by an “angel duck” (his “better self”) to resist the temptation.

But surely most people didn’t get “stuck” in this infantile view of the supernatural? Surely they eventually studied the Bible and found out that there is no “physical” detailed description of the Devil at all. And that any time an angel is described interacting with a human, there are no wings or halos in sight. (See: Answers about Angels)  No, for modern society is replete with images of red devils and haloed angels. Everyone learned their ducky lesson well!  You can even get a vinyl red devil to sit on your OWN shoulder to whisper in your ear, or both a devil and angel even more up-close and personal.

So if that’s where we first got our view of what the Devil and angels look like, where did we first get our ideas of Jesus?

Consider this:  If I ask you to “envision” the face of Jesus … is this what you see?

It has been many decades since I “believed” that the Jesus of the Bible, the Jesus of the land of Israel in the first century AD, would have looked like that picture. But to this day, if someone would ask me to envision Jesus, that exact picture is the first thing that pops, uninvited, into my mind! I immediately push it aside, because I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that he wouldn’t have looked a thing like that. But that picture has a powerful grip on a tiny corner of my subconscious mind! And I’ll bet it has the same grip on the minds of  many if not most readers of this blog.

When I’m thinking more logically, I know that THIS picture is likely a lot closer to what Jesus may have looked like.

This is a face “reconstructed” by forensic anthropologists to show what an “average” young Jewish male of the first century would have looked like. Using skulls from that time period, and the modern techniques that can often assist in identifying skeletons related to crimes, these experts have given us a more realistic glimpse into the past. Below is part of the description of the method they used. See the whole story on the Popular Mechanics website.

Reconstructing Jesus

Matthew’s description of the events in Gethsemane offers an obvious clue to the face of Jesus. It is clear that his features were typical of Galilean Semites of his era. And so the first step for Neave and his research team was to acquire skulls from near Jerusalem, the region where Jesus lived and preached. Semite skulls of this type had previously been found by Israeli archeology experts, who shared them with Neave.

With three well-preserved specimens from the time of Jesus in hand, Neave used computerized tomography to create X-ray “slices” of the skulls, thus revealing minute details about each one’s structure. Special computer programs then evaluated reams of information about known measurements of the thickness of soft tissue at key areas on human faces. This made it possible to re-create the muscles and skin overlying a representative Semite skull.

The entire process was accomplished using software that verified the results with anthropological data. From this data, the researchers built a digital 3D reconstruction of the face. Next, they created a cast of the skull. Layers of clay matching the thickness of facial tissues specified by the computer program were then applied, along with simulated skin. The nose, lips and eyelids were then modeled to follow the shape determined by the underlying muscles.

A Matter Of Style

Two key factors could not be determined from the skull–Jesus’s hair and coloration. To fill in these parts of the picture, Neave’s team turned to drawings found at various archeological sites, dated to the first century. Drawn before the Bible was compiled, they held crucial clues that enabled the researchers to determine that Jesus had dark rather than light-colored eyes. They also pointed out that in keeping with Jewish tradition, he was bearded as well.

It was the Bible, however, that resolved the question of the length of Jesus’s hair. While most religious artists have put long hair on Christ, most biblical scholars believe that it was probably short with tight curls. This assumption, however, contradicted what many believe to be the most authentic depiction: the face seen in the image on the famous–some say infamous–Shroud of Turin. The shroud is believed by many to be the cloth in which Jesus’s body was wrapped after his death. Although there is a difference of opinion as to whether the shroud is genuine, it clearly depicts a figure with long hair. Those who criticize the shroud’s legitimacy point to 1 Corinthians, one of the many New Testament books the apostle Paul is credited with writing. In one chapter he mentions having seen Jesus—then later describes long hair on a man as disgraceful. Would Paul have written “If a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him” if Jesus Christ had had long hair? For Neave and his team this settled the issue. Jesus, as drawings from the first century depict, would have had short hair, appropriate to men of the time.

An Accurate Portrait

For those accustomed to traditional Sunday school portraits of Jesus, the sculpture of the dark and swarthy Middle Eastern man that emerges from Neave’s laboratory is a reminder of the roots of their faith. “The fact that he probably looked a great deal more like a darker-skinned Semite than westerners are used to seeing him pictured is a reminder of his universality,” says Charles D. Hackett, director of Episcopal studies at the Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. “And [it is] a reminder of our tendency to sinfully appropriate him in the service of our cultural values.”

So if Jesus looked more like this swarthy fellow than like the pale, long-haired chap with the sensitive face in this portrait …

Where did so many millions of us get the idea that he DID?  The answer is in the history of that portrait. It was painted in 1924 by a commercial artist named Warner Sallman. Part of the story is described in a Christian History magazine article:

One day Sallman urgently needed to get a cover done for the February, 1924 issue of the religious magazine Covenant Companion. He wanted to do a face of Christ, but wasn’t satisfied with his ideas. Hovering in the back of his mind was a statement by E. O. Sellers, the night director of Moody Bible Institute, “…make Him a real man. Make Him rugged, not effeminate. Make Him strong and masculine, not weak, so people will see in his face He slept under the stars, drove the money changers out of the temple, and faced Calvary in triumph.” No small task! Little wonder Sallman was unable to find precisely the right idea at first.

With his deadline looming, he saw a vision early one morning of the face he must draw. He went up to his studio and made a sketch. Years later he converted that sketch to a painting–the best-known representation of Christ done in the twentieth century.

Here are more details on the Sallman Saga from a Christianity Today story.

The charcoal sketch called “The Son of Man,” which appeared on the cover of the Covenant Companion in 1924, attracted enough admirers over the years that Sallman painted an oil version in 1940. The image was titled “The Head of Christ.” For many people, this image of Jesus, composed like a photographic portrait, looked like the serene “best friend” they wanted in their Savior.

The Baptist Bookstore picked up various sizes of the lithographic image and placed it in bookstores across the South. A growing variety of products using Sallman’s painting appeared—religious instructional materials, prints, gift items, and eventually clocks, lamps, buttons, mottoes or Scripture texts, Bibles, and puzzles. Impressed by the avid public response, Sallman’s publishers urged him to produce several images from the life of Jesus using the same likeness. An enterprising commercial illustrator, Sallman studied many visual precedents used in devotional settings and produced by other religious publishers and based most of his very successful images on them, such as “Christ in Gethsemane,” “Christ at Heart’s Door,” “The Lord is My Shepherd,” and “Christ Our Pilot,” produced from 1942 to 1950.

The World War II context was equally important for the dissemination and popular reception of Sallman’s chief image, “The Head of Christ.” The Salvation Army and the YMCA, both members of the USO, handed out pocket-sized versions of the picture to American soldiers leaving for Europe and Asia. Millions of copies found their way around the world and became a fondly remembered part of the war experience for many veterans.

After the war, groups in Oklahoma and Indiana conducted broad campaigns to distribute the picture across private and public spheres. A Lutheran organizer of the effort in Indiana said that there ought to be “card-carrying Christians” to counter the effect of “card-carrying Communists.” Copies of Sallman’s “Head of Christ” were placed in public libraries, schools, police departments, community centers, and even in courtrooms. One photograph from 1962 shows Vice President Lyndon Johnson posing reverently beside a copy of the picture sent to him in Washington. Today, the portrait of Jesus is still found in both Protestant and Catholic churches, enjoys fond use among Mormons, Latinos, Native Americans, and African Americans, and hangs in Christian homes in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and Eastern Europe.

One humorous side-note to this story—note the quote by E.O. Sellers: “Make Him strong and masculine, not weak, so people will see in his face He slept under the stars, drove the money changers out of the temple, and faced Calvary in triumph.”  Evidently our image of what a Macho Man would look like has changed drastically since the 1920s/30s.  This became obvious to me when, in about 1962, I first saw Gone With the Wind, which premiered in 1939. The choice of Leslie Howard to play Ashley Wilkes utterly bewildered me. I couldn’t help but be astonished that the fiery young Scarlett O’Hara would have preferred a pale-faced man with delicate, genteel features who looked like Leslie Howard over a darkly dashing man who looked like Clark Gable.  I just cannot imagine Howard’s Ashley character “sleeping under the stars” and beating up on anybody!

The bottom line is that the “common” but very unbiblical perspective on what Jesus looked like has been almost totally crafted, not by anything in the Bible, but on deliberate, heavy merchandising of the Warner Sallman picture … and the thousands of other rip-off Jesus pics painted by copycats. It has been estimated that over a billion dollars’ worth of Sallman-Jesus “products” have been sold since he created the icon!

This is relevant to this blog’s consideration of the topic of Hell because it is my contention that an almost  identical historical process has been followed to arrive at the current, common view of Hell, both in the secular world and within church circles. It’s just been a much longer process.

We’ve been sold a non-biblical Hellish story.

Follow the history of that story in future installments of this blog.

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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:


“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
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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