Christian beliefs in heaven and hell are not what Jesus taught

In two previous posts (here and here), I examined the prevalence of belief in heaven and hell across the world and in the major religions. Less than half of Christians in developed countries say they believe in hell, and only a slight majority in heaven. The USA is the major exception, with over 80% of Christians saying that they believe in heaven and in hell. Here I examine the extent to which the Christian belief in heaven and hell as places of reward and punishment after death are supported by either Biblical texts or the teachings of Jesus.

All 31 uses of the word “Hell” in the King James Version of the Old Testament are translations of the Hebrew word “Sheol”.  Sheol in the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) is a place of still darkness which lies after death. The first mentions of Sheol associate it with the state of death and a sense of eternal finality. The generally brief mentions of Sheol seem to describe it as a place where both the righteous and the unrighteous dead go, regardless of their moral choices in life. The references can usually be interpreted as either a generic metaphor describing “the grave” which all humans end up in, or as representing an actual state of afterlife (Wikipedia).

Views on hell and the afterlife vary in Judaism, as in the Hebrew Bible. They range from belief that physical death is the end of life, through to an afterlife in Sheol, where humans descend after death. There is generally no concept of judgement or reward and punishment attached to it, though some Jews believe that many humans in Sheol have intense feelings of shame about their misdeeds and this constitutes suffering which makes up for the bad deeds.

This is quite similar to the conceptualization of hell in the TV series Lucifer, where people are trapped in hell loops of their own making out of shame and guilt, and that is the only torture going on in hell.

According to my analysis of the World Values Survey and the European Values Study (see here), Jews have the lowest prevalence of belief in hell at 38% among the major religions. Belief in hell is even lower at 32% for Jews in developed countries.

What does the New Testament have to say about hell? The New Testament was written in Greek with a smattering of Aramaic mixed in. Translators are often faced with words which don’t have an exact equivalent in a modern language, and the use of “hell” as the translation of several words varies quite substantially across various translations of the Bible. Here is a comparative table for selected versions from this source which I haven’t checked fully for accuracy. I have checked the count for the King James Version (KJV) against several sources, and they agree that “hell” is referenced 23 times in the KJV New Testament.

Twelve of the references in KJV New Testament are to the place name Gehenna, which is a valley just outside the city of Jerusalem where trash was burnt. So references to Gehenna may possibly carry an inference of fiery torment. The references are in Matthew (7 times), Mark (3), Luke (1) and James (1).

Ten of the occurrences of hell in the KJV New Testament translate the Greek Hades. Hades is the Greek underworld where all the dead go. The references are in Matthew (2), Like (2), Acts (2) and Revelations (4). There is another mention of Hades in Corinthians 15:55 which is translated simply as “grave”. There is a single mention of Tartarus, one of the realms of Hades which is a deep chasm, a place of darkness and torment. The reference in Peter 2:4 refers to Tartarus as the place where God cast angels that had sinned, to be chained in darkness and reserved unto judgement.

Most of the New Testament was written decades after Jesus died, and already included mythological elements common to several religions of the region. The concept of hell evolved over time, particularly when Christianity was adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire and a selection of writings was chosen to become the official Bible around 382 CE.

Jesus died in either 30 CE or 33 CE. The Gospel of Mark probably dates from around the year 70 CE, Matthew and Luke around 85–90 CE, and John probably sometime in 90–110 CE. Various changes and additions may have continued as late as the 3rd century. To understand what the earliest recorded forms of Christian writing had to say about hell, I read the two oldest gospel texts, likely written around two decades after Jesus’ death, earlier than the four gospels of the New Testament.

Written in the 50s of the first century CE, only two decades after Jesus’ death, the Lost Gospel Q (for Quelle or Source) is significantly earlier than any of the four gospels of the New Testament. The basis for the “Q hypothesis” is the large amount of common material found in both Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark. Scholars have concluded that neither of the authors of Matthew or Luke knew of the other’s work, and that the common source must have been an earlier gospel, now lost. Unlike the narrative gospels of the NT, Q is a sayings gospel consisting almost entirely of sayings of Jesus, with very few stories about Jesus. The Lost Gospel Q is scholars’ best attempt to reconstruct the text, to uncover the pure voice of the Gospel Jesus.

Among the many gospels and other documents found at Nag Hammadi in 1945 was the Gospel of Thomas, another sayings gospel. When scholars realized that over one third of the sayings in the Gospel of Thomas were very similar to those probably contained in Q, this leant strong support to the Q theory. Some scholars date the original Greek manuscript to the 50s like Q, which means it was written before the New Testament Gospels, and thus more likely to be historically accurate. The Jesus Seminar determined that, for nine New Testament parables likely to have been told by Jesus, the Thomas Version was closest to the original in six cases.

The reconstructed text of Q contains 82 sayings of Jesus and the Gospel of Thomas 114. How many of these sayings mention heaven or hell? For hell (or any of the words translated as hell in the New Testament) the answer is simple: none.

The 6th saying in Q does refer to the devil, in the context of the devil tempting Jesus to turn a stone into bread while he was fasting for 40 days in the wilderness. There is no mention of hell or of the devil ruling over hell. This story is very similar to the story of Mara tempting the Buddha with visions of beautiful women to try to obstruct his meditation and enlightenment. And the message of the 6th saying is almost identical.

There is also a reference to Beelzebul, as the chief of the evil spirits. Saying 37 of Q describes Jesus as curing a man possessed by a demon, at which some in the crowd said Jesus was in league with Beelzebul. Jesus disputes this and the translation has him saying “So if Satan’s house is divided how can his kingdom survive?” and that he casts out demons by the finger of God. Beelzebul is one of the names of the Canaanite god Baal, but in Christian mythology is another name for Satan.

Both Q and Thomas have multiple references to heaven, the Kingdom of heaven, and the Kingdom of God. I have identified all the sayings in Q and Thomas which refer to heaven, the kingdom, and various alternate phrases.  Leaving aside several uses of the phrase “the heavens and the earth” which I see as a poetic reference to the universe or “everything”, and a single reference to “paradise” in Thomas 19 which is of Gnostic origin, the table below summarizes the number of sayings in which various references to heaven or the kingdom are made in Q and Thomas.

I am not sure of the extent to which these phrases represent direct translations of the original Coptic words (possibly itself translated from Greek or Syriac) or are variants introduced by the translators.

The “Kingdom of God” is also translated as “the realm of God” and the translators note that it is one of the most problematic phrases in the gospels. They actually used “realm of God” nine times in Q, compared to three for “kingdom of God”, but I have counted all “realm” references as “kingdom” references in the table above. The translators say that the Aramaic and Hebrew words used by Jesus are not referring to a place or territory but to a power that is coming to be, sometimes hidden and sometimes manifest. This sounds awfully like Buddhist writings that describe enlightenment or non-dual consciousness as ever-present but often hidden. In other words, a state of consciousness.

In fact, once I actually read all the sayings referring to the kingdom of heaven or other variants, it was quite clear that they do refer to an enlightenment state, ie. a state of non-dual consciousness always already present but usually hidden by everyday consciousness.

Q62 and T96 describe heaven as like leaven (yeast) in dough. T57 describes the kingdom of heaven as like wheat hidden among the weeds, and T76 as like a merchant who had goods and found a pearl hidden among them. The kingdom of heaven is clearly being described as like discovering something precious that has been there all along.

T109 similarly describes the kingdom as like a man who had a treasure hidden in his field without knowing it, and T113 says that the kingdom of the father is spread out on the earth and people do not see it.

In Q79, Jesus was asked, “when will the Kingdom of God arrive?” He replied, “You won’t be able to see the Kingdom of God when it comes. People won’t be able to say ‘it’s here’ or ‘it’s over there’. The Kingdom of God is among you.”

There are also several sayings where Jesus explicitly equates the kingdom with non-dual consciousness or enlightenment:

  • T3 mentions those who say the kingdom is in heaven or the kingdom is in the sea and dismisses them to explain “Rather the kingdom is within you and outside you”.
  • T22: “When you make the two one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make the male and the female into a single one, so that the mail is not male and the female not female, …. then you shall enter the Kingdom.

One saying of Thomas (T97) likens the kingdom of heaven to a woman carrying a jar of meal which empties out without her noticing. This quite unique saying implies that the kingdom of heaven can slip away if people are not careful. Q64 may also be relevant here: “Those who think that the realm of God belongs to them will be thrown out into the dark where they will cry tears of bitter regret.” These are definitely pointing to a state of consciousness which can potentially be lost, rather than to an eternal destination after death. And Q64 may even be warning that to grasp onto enlightenment is to lose it.

The Jesus of Q and Thomas is not the Messiah, the semi-mythical figure who will save humans who believe in him, but a wisdom teacher who is trying to explain to his listeners how they can enter the “realm of heaven” right here, right now. Jesus had a profound mystical experience, perhaps during his 40 days and nights in the desert, in which he experienced a non-dual state of consciousness where he was not separate but one with everything, where the inner was the outer and the outer the inner.

Like every mystic, he invents new language, poetic images, metaphors to try to describe his experience and encourage others to open to the same experience, and risks not being understood. He would have tried to communicate his experience in the context of the religious vocabulary he was familiar with and described it using terms such as heaven and God. And his common use of the term “father” for God would likely have been an attempt to convey the intimacy of the non-dual state where there are no boundaries and no “other”.

Although Q and Thomas are likely the earliest records of Jesus’ teaching, they should not be taken as a near transcript of things Jesus said. They are an early product of a developing tradition, recording sayings likely preserved orally, and predating most of the mythological elements later incorporated. It is noteworthy that neither of them contain any material about Jesus’ birth or death, let alone resurrection, and in both gospels it is his teachings, not his birth or crucifixion, which is important.

The clarity of Jesus’ teachings on the kingdom would have been filtered through at least one layer of memory of his disciples, and likely a second layer, contaminated by second layer understanding of other wisdom traditions such as Gnosticism or Neoplatonism. Some have attempted to identify Buddhist influences in the teachings of Jesus. From my reading of Q and Thomas, his sayings do not seem to have any clearly identifiable Buddhist terminology but rather to be the attempt of someone to describe his own enlightenment experience using poetic images and parables based in his own culture. Unlike the Buddha, he did not have a ready-made set of techniques (meditation) well known to others in his culture, which he could adapt as practices to facilitate the achievement of enlightenment. And so, inevitably, his teachings were turned from practices into beliefs by later generations of Christians.

As the Jesus tradition continued to develop, it incorporated many mythological themes from other Middle Eastern religious traditions, including death and resurrection after three days, and the myth of a paradise and a hell not of this earth, where the souls of the dead go after death. Probably after the first disciples and the second generation of followers, there were few traditions if any which preserved any understanding of Jesus’ actual message:  that the kingdom of heaven was right here now, waiting to be discovered like a treasure in a field, on this earth, not somewhere else in the future.

As for hell, it is not mentioned in Q or Thomas. The devil is mentioned twice, but only as an agent tempting Jesus to abandon his path to enlightenment. In few hundred years after Jesus’ death as the Christian religion developed and became the state religion of the Roman Empire, it incorporated a mythology of hell as a place of eternal torment for sinners. This was likely influenced by Zoroastrianism, a Persian religion which emphasizes a never-ending battle between good and evil — a contest between the religion’s God, Ahura Mazda, and an evil spirit, Ahriman. Its concept of hell involved the punishment of those who did evil in life, but it was also considered temporary and reformative, souls do not rest in eternal damnation. These beliefs almost certainly influenced all the Abrahamic religions, though Christianity’s notions of hell have also been heavily influenced by medieval views, particularly as expressed in the poetry of Dante and John Milton.

Modern Christianity, at least in developed countries other than the USA, is much more likely to preach that God is good, which makes it difficult to believe that God is also willing to have the vast majority of his children tortured forever and ever for any reason whatsoever, much less for crimes like accepting their sexuality or believing what their parents taught them, or not believing one or any of the many versions of Christianity.