Agnosticism, Atheism, Christianity, Culture, Faith, God, Religion, Salvation, Truth

How It Happened: My Deconversion Part 2

Part 1 can be found here.

In studying the doctrine of Hell, I found some interesting things. First, Hell is not talked about in the Old Testament. The King James Version mentions “Hell” a number of times, but that’s just a translation issue. The actual word used in the Old Testament is Sheol. Now, we might be tempted to just say that Sheol was merely the Hebrew word for Hell, but if we examine the OT, we’ll find that’s not the case. In Genesis 37:35, we read:

His sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father wept for him.

Did Jacob believe Joseph was going to Hell? Is that what most parents think when they lose a child? Or do they assume that child is in Heaven? I find it very unlikely that Jacob believed Joseph was destined to go to a place of unending torment. Another good example is Job 12:13:

Oh that you would hide me in Sheol,
that you would conceal me until your wrath be past,
that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me!

Who would want to hide in Hell, especially as a place to escape God’s wrath? No, I think it’s obvious that Sheol meant something other than our idea of Hell. In fact, other passages in the OT give us the impression that Sheol referred to either the literal grave, or to a place that all souls went after death. Certainly there are OT passages that talk about Sheol in a negative light. But since Sheol represented death, it’s not hard to see why it would sometimes be viewed negatively.

In studying Hell, I also couldn’t help notice how often Heaven is referred to in the OT. Unlike Hell, it’s referred to many, many times. However, if you’ll take the time to go through the OT references to Heaven, you’ll find that it’s never spoken of as a place the righteous go to. It’s only talked about as the sky, or as God’s abode. Heaven and Hell are both talked about in the New Testament, so there’s no denying that the Bible teaches the concepts. But why the lack of mention in the Old Testament? If there is an eternal judgement, that’s the most important thing any of us will face. Its importance far outweighs that of anything else in this world. So why didn’t God communicate that to the countless generations of people who only had the OT for reference? The only OT reference to eternal consequences that I know of is Daniel 12:2:

Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.

Most scholars believe Daniel was written around 165 BC, but even if it’s as old as 550 BC, the writing of that passage comes much too late for everyone who lived before the Persian Empire. That’s a lot of human history to leave in the dark about eternity.

I found that to be fascinating, and it certainly wasn’t what I expected to find in studying the subject of Hell. The New Testament, of course, does deal with Heaven and Hell. In the NT, a couple of different Greek words are used to talk about Hell. The primary one, Gehenna, is etymologically tied to the Valley of Hinnom near Jerusalem. In Jesus’ day, this was a trash heap that burned almost continually. During the time of the Israelites, it was a place of human sacrifice. Obviously, both terms conjure unpleasant images. Another Greek term to describe Hell that’s found in the NT is Tartarus. 2 Peter 2:4 uses this term, and it’s the name of the Greek’s version of Hell. I find it interesting that Hell, if real, is a place that’s as old as the world itself, yet it had to borrow its names from the Greeks or from physical landmarks, and it’s not even spoken of in the OT.

But despite discovering these things, it still seemed to me that Jesus taught about a literal Hell that would consist of eternal punishment (if you’d like to see an alternate view, check out this article). So I found no solace in my study — my understanding of God’s plan of salvation still left me feeling dejected and distraught over the fate of most of mankind. I tried not to dwell on it too often, and instead focused on the more positive aspects of the gospel.

That was 2008 and early 2009. I’ll cover more ground in the next post. By the way, if you’d like to read more about the issues I have with Hell and why I think they’re important, you can check here, here, and here.

44 thoughts on “How It Happened: My Deconversion Part 2”

  1. Persto, I think you are mistaken because you are focusing on the form of response and not on the content. It doesn’t matter if both say similar but opposite things, what matters is the content and the evidence.

    Now Muslims and Christians both agree God exists, so both could use the cosmological and design arguments as evidence (in fact the Kalam Cosmological argument originated in Islam). But a christian points to the NT and Jesus, and argues he is divine, which a Muslim totally disagrees with – nothing “oddly similar” there!

    So what matters is whether the NT is indeed historical, and whether we can reasonably draw the conclusion that Jesus was divine from the evidence.

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  2. No, I think Persto is right here. His point is that while you think your evidence is better and clearer, a Muslim will think the same about his evidence. Maybe one of you is right, maybe neither of you is. Persto’s point is just that we all feel that way about our own positions — even we atheists. The only real way one could actually come to truth and know it’s the truth is to exhaustively examine every religion, trying as hard as he/she can to justify each particular religion. Of course, doing such a thing is unrealistic, but I think that’s why folks like Persto and I think it’s unlikely that some god actually expects that of us.

    Persto, please correct me if I’ve mistated your position. And unklee, please know I’m not trying to get you to justify your beliefs, I’m just trying to help illustrate how tough it is to really compare religions objectively.

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  3. Nate, are we talking at cross purposes? I don’t think I have ever claimed that we can “know” (meaning 100% certainty) that christian belief is true. So let’s put that aside, and go for reasonable confidence. I also don’t think we can ever be totally objective. Again, let’s settle for trying to be as honest as we can. But beyond that, I can’t see why you are making the points that you are.

    If it is impossible for someone to make a reasonable assessment of other religions without exhaustive analysis, then how can atheists say they disbelieve in them? Surely the truth is that we can indeed make an assessment from a limited amount of information, especially when one religion (christianity) makes claims that are beyond any of the others (as we’ve discussed already)?

    My summaries are at Where in the world is God? and Choosing my religion?.

    I still say the fact that Muslims think they are right and Christians think they are right, and atheists think they are right is irrelevant to anything we are discussing. And I can’t see that either of you have presented any sort of argument why that fact is important, except to illustrate that we don’t all agree and therefore …… what?

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  4. You know, you could just ask God, “If you exist, can you point me towards trhe religeon you want me in?”

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  5. “Hi unklee, sorry if I misunderstood your comment, or if I came across badly with mine.”

    Nate, this is just to tidy up a loose end. I thought I had replied to this before, but somehow mustn’t have. As usual, you didn’t come across badly, but sincere and honest, as you always do. If anything, I am sometimes a little too curt – trying to be brief and also make a serious point. Thanks again.

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  6. Oh, no problem at all. I think we may have both misunderstood what each other was trying to say. But I’m sure it will come up again in one thread or another, and we can try again.

    And you always have a great tone — it’s what I appreciate most about you. You manage to remain polite, even when others aren’t. So no worries. 🙂

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  7. Nate, it’s been awhile since I read a post that I have lost myself in, but I’ve been enjoying reading about your de-conversion. I am particularly interested in your understanding of the Bible in a historical light and was wondering if you have any particular books that you felt were helpful through your journey?

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  8. Hi Charlie,

    Thanks for the comment! There are some books that were very helpful, but I’m trying to think of ones that focused on the historical aspects of the Bible.

    There’s a book called Darius the Mede and the Four World Empires in the Book of Daniel by H.H. Rowley. That was a very helpful book in dealing with Daniels’ historical details. And A History of God by Karen Armstrong does a great job of laying out the development of the God concept through the Canaanite and Abrahamic religions.

    There are two archaeologists named Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman who have written several books on how archaeology has matched up (or not) with the Bible.

    As far as textual considerations go, Bart Ehrman’s books Jesus, Interrupted and Misquoting Jesus were both very good, as well as Neil Lightfoot’s How We Got the Bible.

    But one of the books that helped me the most in learning about the problems in the Bible was Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason.

    Anyway, I hope that helps — thanks again!

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  9. Great! Thanks for your quick reply! I’ve been meaning to delve into the history/historical inaccuracies of the bible for awhile now, as I jumped onto the ‘atheist bandwagon’ with a more scientific approach. It’s only been just recently that I’ve been reading more accounts of people who lost their faith through a much different avenue than I. I can’t wait to continue reading your story.

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  10. More thoughts…

    I have often wondered about the subject of hell myself. My current opinion (and I cannot stress that word enough) is that it is nothing like the medieval pictures presented but, rather, correctly interpreted by those that don’t believe in a God. You die, and that’s it. Whatever the state of nothingness, that is hell. Regardless, I’ve never found the questions you raise here, such as origins of the word, to be that important to me, so I don’t have much else to contribute here…

    Why no mention of heaven in the OT? I think the question points to a truth that is often not understood: that the Bible is not the static, end-all interpretation and authority on all things related to the spiritual life. Rather, it is a snapshot at a moment in time, a summation of what was believed and understood at that point. As humanity grows in knowledge, our perception expands. Our perception as a race change from the cradle, to the house we live, to the neighborhood, to the town, to the world…

    Eternal judgment is not the most important thing, IMO. In fact, if we find the path while on this earth, it is moot. The focus should always be on this present moment…

    Language, no matter how eloquent, often fails to capture the complete picture. Words are often like photographs: even if they fully capture the image, they cannot capture the impressions left by the experience. The link you provide here illustrates that. I take a similar view, while holding on to humility about anything I think I might know…

    Moving on…

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  11. Hi Don,

    Thanks for your great comment. I’m really glad that you’re enjoying this series of posts — they haven’t been very easy for me to write.

    I think you and I actually have a very similar view of how the Bible came to be written, with the exception that I don’t think there actually was any divine influence. Other than that, I agree that they were the work of different people who honestly believed the things they wrote, and it was that belief that inspired them.

    If your position on Hell is accurate, then it would be easier for me to believe that a moral god could be behind the Bible. Still not quite convincing, but at least easier to swallow than the version I held to previously.

    Thanks again for chiming in!

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  12. Nate,

    I’ve read this post, Deconversion Pt. II, and a number of the comments — but not all. Frankly, the comments started to get boring to me. Your commenters kept bringing up the same thoughts — thoughts which I’ve thought about, and come to conclusions about, already.

    There’s a church down my street that has a big sign on it’s front lawn: “WHERE WILL YOU SPEND ETERNITY?” I’m constantly struck, whenever I contemplate that particular question, by its insignificance. I really do think that God had a purpose in creating the universe; but it would be laughably silly to imagine that His purpose was to get Paul Bradford’s sorry butt into Heaven. Just thinking about it makes me giggle.

    I live near Boston, and I’m a Red Sox fan, and if you’re walking down Brookline Avenue toward Fenway Park some summer evening you’re guaranteed to pass this guy who carries a big sign with an illustration of what somebody imagines hell to look like. He accosts everyone who passes by with the question, “Have you been saved?” I’m thinking about the opponent’s starting pitcher and he’s trying to get me to figure out whether or not I’m saved.

    What I want to be saved from is the obsessive worry over whether or not I’m saved. I want to train my brain to think about things that actually matter.

    I’m going to give your blog a rest for a while — then I’ll come back and read more of your story.

    Peace,

    Paul

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  13. Nice post. I liked: “…comes much too late for everyone who lived before the Persian Empire. That’s a lot of human history to leave in the dark about eternity.” Including Moses, Abraham, the Kings of Israel, etc.

    As I have talked with people, I have made the point that following the greatest and most overt outpouring of revelation from God to man, the people of Israel appear to have marched away from Mount Sinai none the wiser about the existence of either hell or the devil. That seems a little cavalier on God’s part.

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