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Go to Hell!

4 June 2008

People sometimes like to say that Christians stole all sorts of things from pagans, like Christmas and Easter and Hallowe’en. The evidence for that assertion is a bit shaky, and the links are indiect and rather tenuous. But where the evidence is a great deal stronger is that the Christians stole Hell from the pagans. And the links are not at all tenuous. Strange that people say so little about that.

Hell was the Germanic goddess of death, and her name and realm were taken over by English Christians as the English translation of Hades, who was in turn the Greek god of death, also sometimes known as Pluto. Whatever doubts there may be about the origins of Christmas, Easter and Hallowe’en, there can be no doubt whatever that “Hell” and “Hades” were nicked directly from pagan mythology. They were used to translate the Hebrew concept of Sheol into English and Greek respectively.

I don’t usually think a lot about Hell.

On the rare occasions that I do think about it the picture that comes to mind is a TV film of over 40 years ago, called Cold Comfort Farm, where a girl from London decides to sponge off her country cousins, and Uncle Amos, taking her from the station in his horse and trap, tells her he is a preacher at the local church, and likes to conduct the hymns with a poker “to remind them of something hot”.

The book is a humourous one, and and pokes fun at and caricatures a stereotype of the Christian understanding of Hell. And in some ways the stereotype is not far off. Many Protestants do believe something pretty close to that stereotype.

But there is another thing that comes to mind when I think about Hell, and that is what St John Chrysostom said about it in his famous Easter sermon:

Let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom hath been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon hath shone forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Saviour’s death hath set us free. He that was held prisoner of it hath annihilated it. By descending into Hell, he made Hell captive. He angered it when it tasted of his flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was angered when it encountered thee in the lower regions. It was angered, for it was abolished. It was angered, for it was mocked. It was angered, for it was slain. It was angered, for it was overthrown. It was angered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.O Death, where is thy sting? O Hell, where is thy victory? Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigneth. Christ is risen, and not one dead remaineth in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

That is something a bit different from the caricature of the Protestant view of Hell, concerning which Bishop Hilarion of Vienna and Austria, when asked to comment on the recent suggestion of Danish Lutheran theologians to consider hell and the devil a metaphor and to accept only the existence of paradise, had this to say:

The reality of the hell, its existence for sinners and even the possibility of its eternal existence don’t contradict the news of its abolition by Christ resurrected. The hell is really “abolished” in the resurrection of Christ, as it is not inevitable for people anymore and doesn’t have power over them. But those, who consciously oppose God’s will and commit crime and sin, restore destroyed and abolished hell as they don’t want to reconcile with God’s love.I’d like to stress it again: God didn’t create the hell, people created it for themselves, God destroyed and abolished the hell, but people restore it again and again. The hell is re-created every time when the sin is consciously committed and isn’t repented.

Hat-tip to Street Theologian for the link.

But Street Theologian also sparked off in me some other thoughts about hell in the comments on another post at street theologian: Appraising Liberation Theologies- Rev. R.D. Andrews. I commented on that, and referred to an article I had written on Orthodoxy and Liberation Theology. And Street Theologian said in a comment, “curious though as to whether you think it is un-Christian to tax heavily in order to re-distribute wealth”.

The Descent into Hell

The Descent into Hell

I had never thought of taxation in those terms, and it seemed to me to be confusing means and ends. I’d never thought of the purpose of taxation as being to redistribute wealth, and find it a strange way of thinking about it.  But it could hardly be unChristian.

Never mind the redistribution, think about the distribution.

The only place in the Bible that I can think of where Jesus says “Go to Hell!” is in Matthew 25:41. And what terrible things had they done to deserve that?


They had done nothing. And all the things that they had not done had to do with wealth and poverty. “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me” (xenophobia is a sin!)

And the other place where “going to Hell” is mentioned is the story of the rich man and Lazarus. And perhaps it is not without significance that one of the names for Hell is Pluto, which means a rich man.

The more I think about it the more it stands out: in the New Testament the one thing that is associated with Hell more than any other is the accumulation of wealth and the failure to redistribute it.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. 4 June 2008 2:17 pm

    Very interesting, informative post! I tried digging further in your blog to see if you had written anything on “the unforgiveable sin” but, so far, haven’t uncovered anything. Having grown up in the Christian church (and, in fact, being the daughter of a minister and getting my full measure of hell-fire!) I appreciate your homework and perspective! I’ll definiteky be subscribing to your feed!

  2. 4 June 2008 4:36 pm

    I agree with your last statement, but I don’t think it applies to government re-distribution of wealth. First, the government takes it by force, so individual citizens don’t receive all the spiritual benefit of *giving* and being generous with their money. Second, most of the money the government collects as taxes gets lost in the bureaucracy (if $100 is collected, maybe $2 of it actually goes to government services for the poor or needy). In other words, it would be a much better system if people relied on direct charity from churches, neighbors, non-profit hospitals, and community organizations rather than relying on government handouts.

  3. 4 June 2008 8:46 pm

    Succinct, well argued. Pity, isn’t it, that so many people just don’t get it, isn’t it?

  4. 5 June 2008 4:33 am

    Kristen: People are dying.
    Jesus advocates – over and over – the protection of the poor; the rich, he maintains, can care for themselves. Yet among conservatives, this always turns into an argument about protecting the rich.
    We are not just individuals – we are also societies. And we have not just individual responsibilities toward the poor, but societal ones.
    While it would be wonderful if churches shouldered the load, every church in America could double its annual budget and give half away, and it would not replace what the government does for the poor even now.
    If we are to be a moral society, we have got to expect our citizens to agree together that providing for the poor – their children, their sick and dying – is a minimum ethical responsibility.
    Taxation is not robbery. It is the way we, as a nation, work together on the challenges we face us. It is part of our covenant as citizens.
    And to we who are followers of Jesus, finding a way to care for the poor among us is a vastly higher priority than protecting the millions of the rich’s hoards. We can’t let people go sick and hungry while we fuss over the most inoffensive way to meet the need. Jesus charges us to see that it is done.

  5. 5 June 2008 4:44 am

    Thanks for this good post – it is daring, provocative, and terribly important.

    Regarding “redistribution” of income, welcome to the battle fought every day in the USA, where the supposed right to personal profit seems to exceed every commandment. I am deeply weary of our system that makes it easy and cheap for the rich to become richer, then protects the rich from bearing responsibility for the people off whom their wealth was gained. 42% of our tax money goes into defense. A very large part of that is given to the defense industry. Its executives – especially in wartime – grow rich beyond description (Mr Cheney’s stock options in his former company, Halliburton, have increased by 3000% while he’s been in office). And every dollar into their pockets is a tax dollar.
    is income redistribution.

  6. 5 June 2008 10:22 am

    I’m trying to tie up the 2 themes of this post, 1) critiquing the theology of endless punative separation aka hell, and 2) the mandate to care for the less fortunate.

    It’s not easy to do so, but it’s a bold venture. I’d like to think of this connection between riches and separation/torment a little further.

    So I’ve posted in synchronicity to

  7. 5 June 2008 12:59 pm


    The “government taking by force” suggests Stalin’s pogrom against the kulaks. It seems rather exaggerated language, to say the least.

  8. 5 June 2008 8:50 pm

    Steve — I didn’t mean to make it sound exaggerated, although I guess now that you mention it, it does sound that way. I only meant to point out that (when it comes to government redistribution, anyway) because individuals aren’t voluntarily giving out of their own pocketbooks to the poor they see, they aren’t experiencing any of the spiritual benefits of giving. Surely anyone can agree to that? The average person pays taxes out of a sense of obligation to our community and governments because it’s our duty as citizens. They do not pay taxes out of charity or compassion, which are what’s required if we are to reap the spiritual rewards for giving.

    Monte — I agree with you wholeheartedly. Most “redistribution” that goes on with taxes is actually from the working poor to the rich. It is certainly one of the most obvious ways that the government systems are broken and a clear sign that they do not function as they were intended to. That said, I don’t merely suggest that churches shoulder the load. I suggest that society shoulders the load, but through a more efficient means than its national government. Those more efficient means *include* churches, but also include community and civic organizations, charities, individuals, etc. — in other words, the more direct oversight there is by citizens and citizens groups, the more efficient the means of distribution.

  9. 5 June 2008 9:39 pm

    Though I’m not a “universalist” precisely, my study of the Bible has led me further and further from the traditional evangelical (and before that, Roman Catholic) beliefs I held regarding Hell.

    As for redistribution of wealth, I find it offensive when that is the purpose of taxation. It is indeed a sin to fail to look after the poor, hungry and neglected in society. However, whatever virtue the government might exert in taking money from one and giving it to another is doubtful, especially in that there can be no virtue in a person unwillingly (via coercion) giving money to others.

    That makes me look like a bad person who would defend the Pharisees and Sadducees, but it shouldn’t. I believe in outreach to the marginalized and oppose the overbearing role the powers play in making and then “remedying” the problem.

  10. 6 June 2008 5:03 am

    I am 100% for caring for the impoverished. However, I’d like to ask if the poor were being taken care of before the onset of the welfare state? My understanding is that the first real charitable institution was the Church. It’s not impossible for social welfare to be taken care of by private free people as opposed to monolithic government bureaucracies.

    Secondly, I’d like to ask who are the “rich” and the “poor.” Is there a criteria? I think that in South Africa a poor person is far different from an American poor person. The point is that these are not faceless classes but real individuals.

  11. 10 June 2008 7:55 am

    Concerning maintaining the poor out of taxes, I recommend an article by Father Justin.

  12. 17 June 2008 5:26 am

    Two thoughts:
    1. To Steve, my father-in-law was, as a young man, a telephone installer. Once I said something disparaging about Social Security, and he said, “I can remember when old people didn’t have anything to eat!” And told a story about working in a house where he was quite sure there was no food.
    2. Kristen: I was thinking today about the oil industry, and how its massive profits are partly extracted from people who have no choice but to give it money. They must get to work. They must eat. So here we have yet another example of a broken system that coercively re-distributes money from the masses to the wealthiest. It is capitalism at its worst or best, depending on one’s point of view.

  13. 17 June 2008 5:27 am

    To Steve Kurian, I meant!

  14. 19 February 2009 8:11 pm

    Steve, delightful insights (which is hard to do given the subject).

  15. 15 March 2011 12:45 pm

    I’ve been reading a lot of stuff about a controversy in Protestant circles about a fellow called Rob Bell and his views on Hell, and so came back to look at this, and was rather horrified. It seems that for a lot of people the question that is uppermost in their minds is not whether anyone cares for Lazarus or not. The most important thing, the overriding consideration, the first and great commandment is this: that the government shouldn’t do it!. And the second is like unto it, namely, that The government shouldn’t do it!

    And no doubt someone will point out that Barack Obama has broken both these commandments by saying that a US aircraft carrier was in Japan and he was stealing the money of American taxpayers to help the villains of Pearl Harbour who were, after all, only getting their just deserts, when God sent them an earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown to punish them!

    Lord have mercy!

  16. 25 February 2019 7:18 am

    There’s also an interesting comment in this issue here: What is Orthodox Hell? | Eclectic Orthodoxy:

    What is the Orthodox doctrine of hell? I honestly do not know. I do know what many Orthodox have taught about hell during the past hundred years or so, and I know something about what the Church Fathers taught about it during the first millennium of the Church’s history; but I cannot tell you what the Orthodox Church authoritatively and irreformably teaches about hell, beyond the fact that it is a horrifying possibility and therefore a destiny best avoided.


  1. Lazarus and Inclusion « Sound and Silence
  2. Descent into Hell and penal substitution « Khanya
  3. Hell became afraid « Khanya

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