Let's begin by stating upfront that I do not believe in hell. Therefore it's easy for me to be flippant about it. If you do believe, and most especially if you fear it, I understand that my joking around could be a little uncomfortable. I can set your mind at rest in one of several ways.
Some sort of place where people go when they die, an otherworld or indeed underworld, is written about in all holy books, but we're going to concentrate mainly on The Bible, because it's the book you are likely to be most familiar with, and because it is alleged to be the origin of the firey pit of eternal torture. Like my esteemed friend (see link to her blog above) I have read all of them, but I understand that's uncommon. (It is however, a very good idea, and I recommend it.)
The Bible is not a single book, of course. It is a collection of many writings from a wide time span that were agreed upon by a committee. That should be enough to suggest that there could be a flaw or two involved, but believers don't seem to have a problem with that. That there were many other old writings from that area doesn't bother them, they assume the excluded ones were fakes of some sort, I guess. That some of the included ones are difficult to understand doesn't bother them either, they just ignore those.
For she doted upon their paramours, whose flesh is as the flesh of asses, and whose issue is like the issue of horses.
But let's call it "a book", what is it a book about? Well, in the case of the Old Testament it's some creation myths, some advice to a small tribe on how to behave, and a lot of folk tales that amount to land claims for them. There are sprinklings of history, but much of it is inaccurate, and there's a lot of political commentary about the neighbours. Satire.
Myths. There is nothing wrong with mythology. It is the rich background to all classic fiction. When I first discovered the internet in 1997 I made a spectacular entrance to what was then one of the world's main social media hangouts (MSN) by announcing that the Bible was mythology. I thought everyone knew that. Ah. Being a bit "new" I had never met any religious fundamentalists before. The backlash was a bit like a tsunami, but I learned fast!
I stand by that statement, by the way. In the last 18 years I've caught up on my religious education, and nothing has changed. I am just less gauche when I discuss it. I know it's your holy book, but it's not mine. Respect? Yes, I respect all ancient writings, who wouldn't? Take it as read? No.
I know some of you think the Bible is "God's word" but you can never explain why I should accept that. Therefore I don't. Some of you don't even like the idea that it was written by lots of different people, humble priests etc, and not those whose names appear on the book. They were good writers, by the way.
No. Hell doesn't exist even though some ancient writers say it does, any more than the river Styx does. These are symbolic. That's the whole point to mythology. The message in the story is what counts, you aren't supposed to take it literally.
But I know some of you still do believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, and that God even took a hand in seeing that only the right books got into it. Yes you say, it was written by men, and collated by men, but God was in control. I really think he could have done a better job, frankly. The problem is that it's often not quite clear what it means, and becomes a matter of interpretation. Each group of people who interpret it their way believe they are right and everyone else is wrong.
I do not believe that the Bible is The Word Of God, or is any different to any other collection of mythology, and therefore what it says about hell is completely irrelevant to me.
For those of you who do, however, interpretation remains the key.
Thankfully many theologians have studied this in great depth. Literal readings of the text are no longer mainstream but relegated to the fringes of fundamentalism, or to put it another way, those who are more into the supernatural. Yes I used that word. I'm going to used the other one in a minute, but let's begin by pointing out:
Fundamentalists/literalists vascillate between requiring things to be natural, and demanding that others believe in the supernatural.
But more to the point they are superstitious. Bad things will happen to you if you do X. And so on.
Not all religious people behave like that. Not all Christians are literalists. And those I admire and respect are not superstitious at all. They are quite reasonable, in fact, and have looked at this mythology and found value in it, and see it in a quite different way. For this reason the superstitious ones look down on them. See them as "not real Christians" or not Christians at all.
For this reason I think of them as the Superstitious Elite.
So what I'm going to explain next will be of zero interest to these people. They'll probably say "Even the devil can quote scripture" (I've heard it all). But for those of you who are unaware of it, real theologians, people with the ability to read old books and understand what the writers meant, have conclusively proven that the Bible does not talk about hell at all.
Oh and yes, I said "real theologians". If the SE can dismiss sensible Christians as not real, we can all play that game. I also said conclusively proven, it's another claim the SE like to make.
Anyway, here's the skinny.
Show me where the Bible talks of hell and I'll show you where it doesn't, actually. Let's get Sheol out of the way immediately. Sheol means grave. Always did, never meant anything else. But it doesn't mean a specific grave, as we might think of it today. A single hole. No. This is a poetic word. Not only that, it was deemed to be where everyone went after death. You could think of it as "the afterlife" and indeed the Greeks translated it as Hades, from their own mythology, and the comparison between the two was therefore made. On a supernatural level it could be seen as the spirit world. It had a connotation of under the ground, somewhere dark. But it wasn't hell. That idea came much, much later.
It really isn't difficult to see how graves and dark underground worlds of spirits go together in the imagination. Think of your classic zombie tales, as they clamber out of the ground. Ghosts haunting graveyards. But this is all superstition, supernatural, mythology. Not real.
Then there's Gehenna. It is a real place. It's real name is Gai Ben Hinnom (the Valley of the Son of Hinnom) and here's a photo of it.
Terrifying, isn't it? It's in Jerusalem, and does actually contain a lot of tombs, so it is a bit of a graveyard, but it was used for other purposes in Bible times, including being a general crematorium and landfill. It really isn't much of a stretch to see how the name of this place was used symbolically to represent a concept much like the modern idea of hell.
We do it still. "Hell on earth" we say, when we describe a war zone or natural disaster. Humans still use symbolic language even after all these years. Fancy that.
So, apart from these obvious mistranslations/misunderstandings, where else does the Bible mention hell? Well, actually it doesn't. That's it. That's your lot.
The entire idea of an eternal pit of fire being a place of suffering for the wicked came later, based on all sorts of mythology from various places, but...it's not Biblical. Actually.
As I'm not a believer, you don't care about me saying that, right? But I didn't do this research. Solid modern Christian theologians did, I'm just reporting it for you.
So, next time you tell me I'm going to hell, I'll be checking out the real estate in Jerusalem, might even get my own olive tree.