The threat of eternal punishment in hell has been used for centuries as a powerful form of mind control, employed as a sanction to exercise a "terrible tyranny in the mental domain," in the words of the brilliant analyst of ancient history and spiritual matters Gerald Massey (1828 - 1907).

It has been used by religious authorities -- primarily those representing the literalist versions of Christianity -- to stifle dissent, to command obedience to authority figures in both the church and in government, to suppress behaviors which are seen as a threat to those authorities, to oppress groups of people within society, and to motivate the conversion and conquest of peoples and cultures around the globe.  

While the use of the threat of eternal damnation and hellfire for the above purposes may seem to have waned in recent decades, with fewer people in "the west" (even within literalist church bodies) accepting the doctrine of hell, in fact this doctrine still exercises a powerful influence over very large numbers of people who have been exposed to it, and it is still employed in missionary efforts as a form of mental coercion to influence people in remote areas to give up their traditional beliefs and convert to literalist Christianity.  

And, there are probably many people who have ostensibly rejected this doctrine but who still harbor some gnawing doubts which make them uneasy at the bottom of their hearts, when they wonder if perhaps their actions are putting them in danger of eternal perdition.  Perhaps they were exposed to descriptions of hell as a child, or even explicitly threatened with the possibility that they would end up there for all eternity in the afterlife if they continued a certain behavior or course of action.  

The most well-known example of the literalist doctrine of hellfire, of course, is the sermon by Jonathan Edwards delivered on July 8th, 1741, in Enfield, Connecticut, entitled "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."  This sermon is often assigned reading in the public schools (at least in the US) and is used as an example of Calvinist theological doctrine and the historical and cultural setting of the American colonial period, but it would be incorrect to assume that the doctrines in the sermon are unique to that period and place.

On the contrary, the sermon is backed up throughout by references to scriptural verses from both the Old Testament and the New Testament, and they are not taken out of context at all by Edwards, who was an extremely accomplished theologian and very much in line with historical orthodoxy stretching back to the time of Augustine (AD 354 - AD 430).  In this online version of Edwards' sermon from the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University, every scriptural reference within the text itself has a link, so that hovering your cursor over the verse will cause that verse to appear in a small temporary pop-up box on your screen.

The fact that the doctrine of hell as understood by Edwards is in no way out of step with the doctrine of hell as it is still understood and preached by some literalist churches is evident from the fact that Edwards' sermon has been updated into modern language for use in modern sermons by various authors even today (for example here).  It is also an undeniable fact that some pageants, dramas, and "Halloween houses" put on by churches to this day feature depictions of a literal hell and use it as an explicit threat, and that the threat of at least the possibility of the existence of hell continues to be used in some literature written by those pushing a literal understanding of the scriptures found in the Old and New Testaments (here is just one example from the internet, although one could easily find many others).

On the other hand, there is also a large contingent of churches in the modern era which take a literal approach to understanding the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments (they believe in a literal Jesus and twelve disciples, for example) but no longer accept the understanding of hell as a place of eternal damnation as described by Jonathan Edwards in his sermon.  The reasons given for their rejection of an understanding of a literal hell while still maintaining a literal understanding of other passages may vary, but many of them center around the proposition that a loving God "would not choose to punish" souls eternally as some have taught (including Edwards and most of literalist ecclesiastical Christianity for the past seventeen centuries).

The problem with this approach to the question is that there are many passages in the books which were included in the New Testament which, if read literally, would seem to make it quite clear that the "would not choose to punish" approach is mistaken.  Edwards, in fact, quotes many of them in his sermon: among those he cites are John 3:18 and 1 Thessalonians 5:18.  There is also the well known parable of "The rich man and Lazarus" (sometimes also called "Dives and Lazarus," with the name "Dives" being the label given to the rich man in the Vulgate or ancient translation of the New Testament into Latin), found in Luke chapter 16 and verses 15 through 31.  These passages make it difficult to argue that a literal interpretation of the New Testament does not include the possibility of eternal damnation.

Those who accept the doctrine of hell will also sometimes raise the subject of punishment for extremely heinous individuals, saying that if there were no doctrine of hell there would be no certainty of punishment for those who committed genocide on an extremely grand scale (such as Adolf Hitler).  We will set aside for the time being the question of whether literalist Christianity has not been behind much of the genocide that has taken place in history, which is a subject that is touched upon in The Undying Stars.  

So, based upon the fact that verses in the ancient scriptures that were selected for inclusion in the Old and New Testaments (especially the New Testament) appear if read literally to explicitly teach a doctrine of eternal punishment in hell for at least some souls, and based upon the argument about "punishment for individuals who have committed extremely heinous crimes," how can one argue that those who support the literalist doctrine of hell or some variant of that doctrine do not have at least some arguments to back up their position, if not a lot of arguments to back up their views?

The answer lies in the fact that the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments were never intended to be interpreted in the literal sense that they have been understood for the past seventeen centuries.  This concept is explained fully in The Undying Stars (and in other works that have been written on this topic over the centuries), and is covered in some detail in the three sample chapters available for reading online here.  In the third of those three sample chapters (on page 34 of the book pagination), the text lays out some aspects of the esoteric system underlying the ancient scriptures of the world (including the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments but also the sacred traditions of many other cultures, including those of the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and countless others).  There, we read:
That half of the year when the Sun is on his upward path, climbing towards the summer solstice, is represented in the Old Testament as the Promised Land, a hill whose summit is the Heavenly City of Jerusalem, while that half of the year in which the Sun arcs downward to the winter solstice is the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.  More broadly, the upper half of the year represents Heaven, and the lower half of the year represents Hell.  In the Homeric accounts of the Trojan War, the upper half of the year represents the Achaeans or Danaans (the Greeks), while the lower half represents Ilium and the Trojans.  In ancient Egypt, the upper half of the year was Upper Egypt, and the lower half represented Lower Egypt.  The same pattern will be repeated over and over, in many different guises, throughout the sacred traditions the world over, but once we know the pattern, it will become more and more familiar and more and more recognizable.  34.
The diagram above illustrates this concept.  The cycle of the year is depicted as a circle, with the summer solstice point at the top (for those in the northern hemisphere), and the winter solstice point at the bottom.  The horizontal line through the middle of the circle represents the line of the celestial equator, which the sun's path (called the ecliptic path) crosses twice per year, at the equinoxes (represented by two red letter "X"s on the diagram above).  The sun crosses this line once on the way up to the summer solstice (at the spring equinox), and once on the way back down to the winter solstice (at the fall equinox).  During the months "above the line," days are longer than nights, and during the months "below the line," nights are longer than days.

As the passage above explains, there is abundant evidence in the scriptural texts that the allegorical stories of the ancient mythologies represented the months above the line as Heaven, and the months below the line as Hell (with the winter solstice point being the very Pit of Hell).  Many further arguments to back up this interpretation are offered in The Undying Stars.  You can also hear arguments and evidence for this approach in the many excellent teaching videos of Santos Bonacci, and from other sources he discusses in his presentations.

This is a completely different approach to the question of the existence of a literal hell than those typically offered by those who are still approaching the scriptures from a generally literal understanding (rather than by an esoteric understanding -- the concept of the esoteric is explained more fully in this post, using the example of Mr. Miyagi and Daniel-San, from the 1984 movie Karate Kid).  It is also fully consistent with the scriptures, and in fact can be shown to be far more consistent with the scriptures than the literalist approach, which has some real difficulties (primarily because the scriptures are esoteric in nature, and not literal).

It should be very liberating to realize that the Bible does not actually teach a literal hell to which souls are eternally condemned.  Even those who have themselves come to accept the view of a literal hell (from which they believe they have been saved) might harbor tremendous remorse and sorrow at the thought of relatives or ancestors who have gone before them and who (according to literalist teachings) they believe to be condemned to hell (this can especially be a problem for those from traditional cultures that were not previously exposed to literalist Christianity but who now, through the efforts of literalist missionaries, have come to accept literalist teachings about hell and damnation).

Of course, some might argue that giving up the doctrine of a literalist hell comes at the price of giving up other literalist teachings as well, some of which might give great comfort.  However, one might ask, "if that comfort is derived from an incorrect interpretation of the texts, would you want to hold onto it if you knew it was derived from an erroneous approach?"  One might also point out that if such comfort also came along with a doctrine of hell for other people then it must be somewhat "cold comfort" indeed.  Happily, it turns out that the esoteric understanding of the scriptures also holds tremendous positive benefits and comforts for the soul, in addition to the fact that it flatly disproves the traditional literalist teaching of eternal damnation and a literal hell.

As for the question of punishment for heinous actors (such as the perpetrators of genocide), it turns out that the esoteric understanding of the ancient scriptures shows that they teach successive return for as many cycles of incarnation as is necessary for the soul to learn the lessons that can be learned from incarnation alone.  This concept is discussed in some previous posts dealing with (among other ancient texts) the Egyptian Book of the Dead, such as this one, this one, and this one.

Whether or not one agrees with this teaching, a careful reading of the ancient scriptures (including those gathered into what we call today the New Testament) makes it very difficult to argue that the scriptures were not intended to teach this doctrine. On the contrary, evidence presented in The Undying Stars shows that it is almost impossible to argue that the scriptures were intended to be understood literally, or that they were intended to teach the existence of a literal hell. [later note: here is a link to an index of blog posts which trace out the celestial foundations of over fifty other "star myths" from around the world].

For this reason, those who do not wish to even consider the possibility that the scriptures are primarily esoteric in nature should probably not read The Undying Stars.  However, for those who are troubled by the teaching of a literal hell and eternal damnation, or who are at least troubled by the possibility that the scriptures teach such a doctrine, the understanding of the esoteric approach may be a real comfort.  Also, if in fact the literalist doctrine of hell is an aspect of "mind control" used to control men and women, then seeing it in that light can help advance the cause of human freedom and consciousness.

And, as the book goes on to explain, an understanding of the esoteric approach opens up the possibility that the authors of the scriptures possessed an incredibly sophisticated cosmology that anticipated modern quantum physics by thousands of years, and that may help to explain some of the incredible accomplishments of the ancient civilizations (accomplishments which the modern, conventional academic approach to history has a very difficult time explaining).

John Lennon -- Imagine