Immortality and the Origin of Hell: 4 June

Welcome also to readers from Australia, Canada, Chile, Germany, India, Hong Kong, Lithuania, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Puerto Rico, the Russian Federation, Singapore, Sweden and Taiwan. It’s mind-blowing that you have all visited. I wish I could know more about you, picture you…

Recording for Unbelievable on Premier Radio was a delight – such nice people. Stephen Cave had beforehand ordered a copy of The Lie of Hell  which had been lost in the delivery system of the flat where he had been staying. Before recording, he asked me lots of hellish questions, showing a kind and knowledgeable interest. We continued being very kind to each other in front of the mikes. I wonder if I was too kind.

Stephen Cave makes much of the secondary question about resurrection – how exactly can it / will it work? He ignores the primary question – did Jesus really walk out of his own tomb? In his book there is no discussion of the historicity of the resurrection. I said that the historical resurrection of Jesus is the main point but did not challenge Stephen about avoiding it.

I was delighted that Stephen confirmed categorically that the concept of the immortal soul was imported from Platonism and not part of Jesus’ teaching, nor of the earliest Christianity. Hell as eternal torment is built on the assumption that human souls are immortal. If not all of such souls are eternally in heaven, there must be another place for them eternally, suffering punishment for ever and ever. When we see that human souls are not innately immortal, hell as eternal torment is revealed as a lie.

Stephen Cave, the atheist / sceptic, went so far as to say that the doctrine of the eternal soul contradicts the miraculous, gift—of-God, nature of resurrection. If our souls are eternal anyway, we don’t need resurrection In order to live for ever. In rising from the dead, Jesus has done something new, started a new creation, given immortality to people who never had it before.

Other scholars have pointed to Platonism as the foreign import to Christianity leading to the distortion of eternal torment. The Zoroastriansim of Augustine’s background also contributed. Yet, for many years after Augustine, the nature of hell, the fate of the unrepentant wicked, was still a matter of debate. The ancient tradition of ‘The Harrowing of Hell’ – showing hell to be a place from which Jesus can rescue people – continued alongside and in contrast to Augustine’s concept of a hell with no end and no escape. Yet by the time of Dante, Augustine’s view had won the day. Hell’s gate proclaimed ‘Abandon hope all you who enter here.’ Hell was no longer harrowable. What had been a continuing matter of debate was now fixed hard in Church doctrine and Dante was deemed inspired by the Holy Spirit.

How did this happen? My research shows that Islam was the final influence from outside Christianity which firmly fixed the doctrine of eternal torment. Because the Koran is so certain that hell is a doom of eternal suffering, Christian theologians also proclaimed hell with more certainty. This is a new insight. Hell is a Graeco-Roman, Zoroastrian, Islamic lie. For more detail see the book.

The Lie of Hell can now be bought from Blackwells, Nottingham, Oxford and Cambridge, and from the bookshop at the London School of Theology. You can also buy it from Ladder Media Ltd either at www.laddermedia.co.uk or through Amazon.co.uk. I recommend you don’t order it from Amazon themselves. A friend tried, remonstrated several times with them for not supplying it, gave up, and now has a copy direct instead.

Roger Harper

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