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What is Hell?

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Dante's Inferno has always been an interest of mine. It is almost like the finale of a long-running and popular sitcom, where all the famous figures from ancient history, the Bible, and Greco-Roman mythology make cameos. When people think of Hell, they often think of Dante's epic. Giant flames and torturous procedures prepared for the most vile of sinners. But is this what Hell really is? Is this what the early Christians thought it to be? Or are we taking Dante's Inferno a little too seriously?

People often imagine Hell as a giant sizzling barbecue where the physical bodies of the damned roast forever. Like many things popular, it’s wrong. Modern people seem to view hell as Dante viewed it, instead of how the early Christians viewed it: as a state of shame.

This is not some modern rendition of the doctrine of hell, seeking to put a liberal spin on Christianity to fit our contemporary sentimental feelings. No, this the rendition of sociological and anthropological studies of the ancient world, seeing how ancient people thought, acted, and talked. This is what the scholars think.

It would help us in our understanding if we were familiar with the honor-and-shame culture of the ancient world. In our modern Western world, when we do something wrong, we feel guilt. But in the honor-oriented culture of the ancient world, they felt shame. The shame culture was all about what others thought of you. Attaining honor (where people have a positive view of you) was the greatest quality one could have. Consequently, acquiring shame (where people have a negative view of you) was the worst quality one could have, even worse than death and physical suffering. It is difficult for us to understand this culture, because we live in the 21st century West, where the individual reigns supreme and we don't care what others think. But in many parts of the world, this kind of collectivist shame culture still exists (like in some parts of Asia for example. Think of the cliche mantra of the theatrical warrior shouting "You have dishonored my family!") This was the world Christianity grew up in, and we have to understand this if we are to understand Christianity.

In short, when the early Christians spoke of hell, they spoke of it with a mindset of shame. The same words that other ancient people of the era used to describe shame (like "gnashing of teeth" "weeping" and "burning") are the same words the early Christians and Jesus used to describe hell (e.g. Matthew 8:11-12). It’s more of a state than a place; a state of incredible shame in the presence of ubiquitous and incredible Honor (God). When we seek to understand Christianity's doctrine of Hell, we have to learn how the early Christians in the first century understood it. Stop looking at our modern depictions and Dante's descriptions, and start looking at the first Christian communities!

Hell is not a giant oven with physical torture, but rather a state of shame. After choosing out of your own Free Will to distance yourself from the ultimate Honor (God), you have thus shamed yourself. God is not a cosmic torturer. Hell is simply a state of shame you put yourself in, not a torture chamber that God throws you in.



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