You all know the drill. Scramble into place and line up before Jesus McJudgealot, who’s seated on a great white throne. Scrolls are opened like winning lottery tickets, and names read aloud. The naughty are separated from the nice, and the former get tossed into a fiery lake of burning sulfur. Yadda yadda yadda, brown-nosers and goody two-shoes inherit the new earth, which glistens with streets of gold and IHOPs as far as the eye can see.
This is more or less the picture that is painted in the Book of Revelation, minus the 24-hour chicken and waffles. And those consigned to the Lake of Fire suffer the “second death” (Rev. 20:14-15). An idea that’s totally original to the Bible, RIGHT? Bah! The ancient Egyptians were waxing theological about second deaths in an ominous Lake of Fire a good millennium beforehand.
But, before you were annihilated in the Egyptian Lake of Fire, you were treated to all manner of good, wholesome torture: having your flesh ripped off by demons, walking upside down on your head, getting your limbs torn from your body, and, best of all, eating a heaping helping of your own shit.
Images of burning in “liquid hot magma” were present in Zoroastrianism, too, which, like the Book of Revelation, involves the destruction of the cosmic evildoer by submersion in the fiery ooze. Not that the Hebrews took this idea from the Persians or anything. I mean, when could that possibly have happened? Except for that one time, in band camp, when the Persians freed the Jews from captivity in Babylon, and then a Jewish sect arose whose name smacks of Persian (Pharisee = Farsi/Parsee).
Okay, but maybe the Bible’s account of Hell is still true, and the Egyptians and Zoroastrians were simply keen to the same, spiritual insights.
Except that the Bible is about as consistent on the afterlife as a Mitt Romney campaign that starts on the East Coast and ends in Georgia.
The Old Testament begins by teaching mortalism (Gen. 3:19, Ps. 90), then speaks of a shadowy existence in Sheol as the final destination of both the righteous and the wicked (Eccl. 9:2-6), then of resurrection to either everlasting life or eternal contempt, depending on one’s righteousness (Dan. 12:2-3).
The New Testament says that we are resurrected to a spiritual body without flesh and blood (1 Cor. 15:50), then the opposite (Lk. 24:39), and includes notions of a paradisaical life after death (Lk. 23:43) versus one in which we sleep (Eph. 5:14, 1 Thess. 5:10). Hell ranges from a place of eternal fire and punishment (Mt. 18:8, 25:46) to outright annihilation like that of ancient Egyptian belief (Rev. 20:11-15, 21:8). Confused yet?
All in all, there’s nothing to fear of Hell. As with so much of the Bible, it is derivative of earlier mythology, and its artificiality is laid bare by the winding and weaving of ideas attached to it. And you know what that means? No eternal consequences. As Rick Warren says, we can throw caution to the wind, engaging in lifelong debauchery and hedonism. Because it’s not like there are real-world consequences for our actions!