Do you believe in Hell? If so, and if you’re from the Christian tradition like me, you probably believe it’s a place you go when you die to be punished for things you did while alive. A fiery place of torture worse than any you can imagine. Suffering that lasts forever and ever, and only believing in Jesus can get you out of it. Right?

Yeah, I don’t believe that. Here are my top ten reasons why.

(1) What we call ‘sins’ are just natural human traits

Deceitfulness, selfishness, coveting, idolatry, masturbation, hubris, boastfulness, hatred, lust, envy and many more ‘sins’ have one thing in common: most people do them, because they’re within the range of normal human behavior and easily explained by our biology as expressed in our genes. What supreme being creates life with a set of attributes and then demands it stop exhibiting those attributes under pain of eternal torture?1

(2) The punishment of ancestral sin is inherently unjust

If a government arrested one of its citizens, tried them and executed them for a crime their father or, worse, grandfather or, worse, some great- great- ancestor committed, everybody would swiftly cry injustice. We would immediately, instinctively and rightly object that the crime wasn’t committed by the arrested party at all, but by someone they’d never met and who merely happened to pass along their genes to the new, unwitting generation. What kind of God allows the punishment of the wrong person and calls it justice?2

(3) Punishment for the absence of belief amounts to unbelievable cruelty

Sometimes people lack belief in God because they are predisposed to analytical thinking and have not been able to become convinced of his existence. Sometimes it’s because they lack the ability to sufficiently grasp the abstract. Sometimes they haven’t landed upon the ‘right’ belief among the jungle of ideas around them. Sometimes it’s because their personalities predispose them to find peace and happiness in other religious or nonreligious movements and ideas, or because they were born in a country with another religion entirely and taught the falsehood of the Christian one their entire lives. This absence of belief in the specifics of the Christian God can be true for one of any number of reasons, but if someone lacks belief, they lack belief. What divine entity would make the truth of his existence as ambiguous as it is and then demand that people believe it under pain of eternal torture?3

(4) Eternally-wrought vengeance cannot be considered loving or just

Jesus specifically refutes ‘eye for eye’ justice, so why would the entire cosmic justice system revolve around the same, obviously inferior idea? Human societies have begun to evolve ideas of justice that are not based on vengeance. So, then, what God – especially a loving, all-knowing, benevolent one – still holds to it? Vengeance is incompatible with these characteristics of God.4

(5) Rehabilitation and restoration are more desirable results than retribution

The bible speaks of the broad road that leads to ‘destruction’ (interpreted by most Christians as Hell) and the narrow road that leads to ‘life’ (interpreted by most Christians as Heaven). But why would God want an eternity where many billions of souls suffer in anguish while the few celebrate in Heaven? What kind of celebration could that possibly be? Even as humans, we know that rehabilitation and restoration are better than retribution. What supreme being would opt for the latter? An all-powerful God would be competent enough to bring about the former.5

(6) The remnant in Heaven cannot be considered a victory

Christian theology asserts that God wins in the end. But no victory would be more hollow than managing to hold on to the faithful few while the beloved, unbelieving many spend eternity in great suffering. In any analogous circumstance, nobody would consider it any victory at all.6

(7) Hell extends disproportionate consequences for finite acts

Even if we did decide that retribution is a valid form of divine justice, it cannot be disproportionate and also just. Most Christians believe that the least of their sins would warrant Hell, all by itself.7a So a child who lies about doing their homework, for example, would be deserving of eternal torment just for that alone, rather than the punishment being, say, merely to be lied to in return.7b Not even those most committed to retributive justice would accept this utterly disproportional form of it if they didn’t feel they had to.7c

(8) Christian ideas of Hell are based on incorrect interpretations of biblical words

Scholars generally agree that both Sheol and Hades meant ‘grave’, and started in ancient Jewish belief not as a place where punishment was dispensed, but as an underworld of forgetfulness and silence.8a Yet these somehow became conflated with the Greek concept of Tarturus, which involved punishment of evil. Christians don’t believe in Greek mythology, so why do they borrow its concepts of Hell? ‘Eternal fire’, ‘Lake of fire’ and other terms are thrown around in metaphor in the New Testament, before Hades itself is thrown into the lake of fire after all the dead people are emptied out of it (Revelation 20). How can Hell be sent to Hell? It is obvious that these terms have been mistranslated. (I’ll buy dinner for the first Christian who can make sense of that verse and keep the traditional theology.)8b

(9) The idea that people are ‘choosing Hell’ is abhorrent

Christians often say that people have a choice to make between accepting Jesus’ offer of salvation or rejecting it. If they ‘reject’ it, they are thus ‘choosing Hell’ as their permanent future. The existence of this choice may be obvious to them, but most people do not conceive that there is such a choice to make. For the vast majority of people who live and have ever lived, the details, consequences and existence of such a choice is extremely ambiguous, obscure and imperceptible. They either haven’t been rationally convinced that they must consider the matter seriously, or they have barely heard of it. Everyone, upon having the truth of such a choice miraculously and unambiguously revealed to them, would immediately choose eternal reward over eternal suffering. Very, very few of us would actively choose pain and suffering in the manner that is claimed; that is an obvious truth. It is a falsehood, then, to imagine that accepting the reality of this choice ‘by faith’, out of ignorance rather than knowledge, is a virtue.9

(10) This doctrine is Christian theology minimizing its own central tenet

The central tenet of Christianity is that God sent his son Jesus to suffer and die for the sins of the world so the people of the world wouldn’t have to.10 Is this ‘grace’ enough to accomplish the transformative feat of bringing salvation to humankind? Or does the story end with, ‘If only humankind had accepted it’? Ironically, therefore, Christians who believe in eternal Hell for the unbelieving are minimizing their own Savior’s sacrifice and his power to save. Salvation of the few by blind faith is not remotely as powerful as salvation of the many by grace.

There are many more, I’m sure (for example, we could make note of the fact that, from a certain perspective, it’s very easy to see how our worst fears can combine with our ideas about vengeance and our instincts about justice and the desires of organized religion to control, giving us some other very good ways to explain belief in Hell other than its existence). But those are the first ten that occurred to me.

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1 There is much discussion about which of these are sins, of course. But almost every Christian agrees about most of these, and some would add many more to the list!

2 Some Christians do not hold to the most drastic forms of this doctrine, that we are collectively guilty because of the sins of our ancestors, or the one known as ‘total depravity’, but instead say that the sins of our ancestors gives us a tendency toward sin. This is little better. No real God is so cruel as to allow damnation for his creations because they have a baked-in tendency to do things this deity calls ‘bad’. (See number 1.) By the way, this example doesn’t include torture (let alone eternal torture), only execution, so it’s not even remotely as punitive as the doctrine of Hell.

3 Or, just as bad, demand intellectual dishonesty from people who simply haven’t been convinced? What should they do? Feign belief as though they held it? Just pretend?

4 This is especially true given some of the other reasons on this list, which point to the inadequacy of believing that people are deserving of Hell to begin with.

5 But, you may argue, rehabilitation and restoration would require the active participation and willingness of the person involved. Indeed. See number 9.

6 You may say that victory cannot be measured in numbers. But the eternal states of individuals are important, if they will exist for eternity as religious people believe. Given this, the only number that makes sense (of humans suffering in Hell for all eternity while a loving, just God exists) is zero.

7a God cannot be in the presence of sin, it is argued. This is a strange thing to be believed by people who also believe Jesus was God, since Jesus was ‘in the presence of sin’ for 33 years.
7b An eye for an eye.
7c Take Hitler, for an extreme example. He brutally slaughtered millions, out of what seemed like pure evil. But he didn’t do it forever! His ovens have long been cold, his guns silent. His actions lasted a finite time. So, even eye-for-eye retribution against Hitler would only allow us to ‘kill him back’ a finite number of times. Hell for eternity – even for Hitler – would be disproportionate punishment for his sins.

8a Hades was the Greek name for the underworld of Greek mythology and was more like the Catholic theology of limbo.
8b Some universalists believe this verse teaches that Hell will be temporary only, a place where people pay for their sins before they are taken to Heaven. I don’t care whether this is a viable way out of this theological mess or not, but it’s certainly much more consistent with the character of a loving and just God.

9 What would God be testing for, if this is how it works? Gullibility? Why would blind faith in the unseen be the value God wants to reward? If God wants to ‘test’ people, why not ask how they loved, how they cared for others, whether they treated other people with respect; the things Jesus valued? What’s so important about blind belief? It doesn’t make sense, so it’s likely to be very, very wrong.

10 In the gospels themselves we find no small print, no technicality by which the vast majority of humans will still, despite all that ‘good news’, anticlimactically end up in Hell. I suspect that later mainstream theology began to emphasize the requirements to believe as a means to ensure adherence to the new religion that appeared. Religions which emphasize adherence to rituals, rules and practices may simply survive better than those which don’t. And how will we make people adhere to our rituals, rules and practices without a consequence for not doing so?