Opinion Columns & Blogs

Augustine did us no favor with his depiction of hell

We have several delightfully hellish phrases in English: “Oh, hell!” “The hell you say.” “It’s a hell of a lot of work.” And of course: “Go to hell.” However, none of them have anything to do with an everlasting fire of punishment. Nor should they.

The idea of a physical fire burning a spiritual soul forever is an oxymoron only religious fundamentalists could conceive. But conceive it they did, and they proceeded to infect millions of innocent minds — especially children’s — with this horrifying spectacle of what awaits people who die with “sin on their souls.” And, of course, they based their fire and brimstone sermons on their English translations of sacred scripture.

One hundred ten times our English Bibles use the word “hell” as a translation of either Sheol (or Tartarus) in Hebrew or Gehenna (or Hades) in Greek. Neither place is the hell of our evangelistic sermons. Sheol is a dark place to house everyone’s ghost (nephesh) after death. There was no distinction between good ghosts and bad ghosts in Sheol, and no fire either.

Gehenna, however, was a fiery pit. It was situated right outside the Dung Gate in Jerusalem and was used to sacrifice children to the god Moloch. The fire of Gehenna became one of the symbols of death. The other symbol, of course, were the worms or maggots in the open grave. The Prophet Isaiah combined both symbols in the last words of his book (66:24): “their maggots will never die; their fire will never go out.”

This same symbolism is quoted by Mark (10:44-49) (and 86 more times in the New Testament) where Jesus says it’s better to have no hand or foot or eye that causes your downfall rather than to enter into Gehenna (death) intact, where “the worm does not die and the fire does not go out.” Again, it’s pure symbolism.

I remember as a child sitting in a Catholic “mission” (Protestants would call it a revival) where the missionary priest preached on hell and damnation for over an hour. The picture he painted was so real I could feel the fire. I knew for sure I was going to hell and I’d never get out. The fire would be unbearable and never stop burning me. I would beg God to rescue me but he would turn away and say: “Too late!”

I have already written how frightened my wife was as a child, thinking that her father, who refused to go to church, was certainly going to hell. She built a ledge over the flames where she could huddle next to him for all eternity. John G. Kelly Jr. called this child abuse, and I agree.

I think we have to blame the great St. Augustine for this. Sixteen hundred years ago this Christian theologian and philosopher had tremendous influence on the development of Western Christianity. His two most important books that all of us had to read in seminary were: “City of God” and “Confessions.” I was very surprised to see that Billy Graham — in his 742-page autobiography — doesn’t quote Augustine; I know Billy used this theologian in his sermons.

Augustine, for all his brilliance, was a literalist. Maybe it was his dependence on Neo-Platonism and his rejection of the colorful Hebrew culture, but he completely missed all the metaphorical references in both the Old Testament and the new, which he read in Latin — not in Hebrew or Greek.

Combine that with Augustine’s guilt-ridden conscious (he had lived a raucous, sexual life before his conversion) and we find eternal hellfire breathing out of each nostril. He had a deeply damaged view of God’s love. To him, eternal punishment was the primary function of the divine being. One of the early church fathers, Origin, had written about “universal salvation” and Augustine viciously tore him apart for his ridiculous tenderheartedness. Thanks to Augustine, we now find ourselves in one hell of a spot.

OK. That’s my opinion. I know my literalist critics, who read their Bibles only in English, will have other ideas and opinions and I respect that. However, I cannot respect the damage that Christianity — thanks to Augustine and others who followed him — has done to millions of people with this literal misinterpretation of Sheol and Gehenna.

However, I learned long ago that I cannot argue about religion or politics; I can only lean back in my chair, sigh, and say, ‘Oh, to hell with it!’