When the subject of hell comes up one thinks of the wonderfully imaginative works of Hieronymous Bosch of skewered people being roasting over fires in hell by gleeful minions of the devil.
But the actual passages in the Bible about hell are very different. There are only a handful of passages in the entire Bible that describe suffering in the after life:
1. Cast into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Matt 8:12, Matt 22:13, Matt 25:30
2. The rich man looked up from his torment and saw Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham, and asked for water.
3. John in his apocalyptic book said the devil would be cast into the lake of fire that burns forever, prepared for the devil and his angels, who were to be tormented day and night forever. All those whose names are not written in the book of life would be cast into the lake of fire, the second death. But it never says those people will be tormented forever.
All of the other passages about the negative afterlife do not describe any suffering:
1. Gehenna, the garbage dump of Jerusalem that burned rotten garbage constantly, and where the worm did not die. Mark 9:44-48
2. Those who did not comfort and feed the righteous evangelists would go away into eternal punishment.
3. Destruction: Matt 7
And that’s all the verses there are.
Notice the inherent contradiction between outer darkness, and fire. Either these are separate metaphors or they are describing different situations. Some believe the outer darkness was a prison awaiting judgment, a place before the judgment day. The same is also conjectured about the rich man in torment looking up at Abraham and Lazarus in comfort.
None of these passages describes people from other lands and other religions being cast into eternal torment. In fact the nativity story goes out of its way to say that other leaders, the Magi, from another religion, zoroastrianism, came to worship the infant Jesus because they were directed by God to do so.
And why should any verses describe eternal suffering? There is no hell described in the entire Hebrew Bible. Why should it be totally absent in the OT and then suddenly appear in the NT? Some believe that the writers took the metaphors of the time: heaven and hell, and used them to make their points, much like the prophets of our time warn us with dire threats of global warming and eco-collapse.
There are two reasons the ex-fundamentalist needs to re-examine the doctrine of eternal punishment in hell. One is so that we can, from a more studied point of view, ask ourselves if these descriptions reflect the character of God described by Jesus: the father who ran to meet his returning son, even before his son had made a complete repentance, and rebuked his older son for not accepting his younger brother back in. This is a description of the God who longs for relationship with each one of us, not the person who delights in tormenting his children forever. What use would God have in tormenting people forever? It makes no sense in the picture of God we have through Jesus’ eyes.
Eternal torment made sense to people in the Middle Ages. They were used to kings who banished and tortured people. This was what they expected from a king. And when John Calvin of Geneva, Switzerland came along, he decided God chose, before the foundation of the earth, which ones were going to be saved, and which ones were going to be tormented forever in the lake of fire, and there was nothing they could do to resist this determination of God, a picture that reflected the helplessness and harshness of life at the beginning of the Renaissance.
The second reason we as ex-fundamentalists need to re-examine the doctrine of hell is because hell is used as a last ditch argument to keep us in the fundamentalist fold. Nothing much makes sense to us in the fundamentalist fold, but the fear of hellfire keeps us in.