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Are You Afraid of God?

Are you afraid of God? Millions of Americans seem to be. Their fear is tied to their belief in eternal damnation in Hell. The Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament, knows nothing about this. For the early Hebrews, everyone suffered the same fate: We all went to Sheol, a lifeless place similar to a Motel 6 where they forgot to leave the light on for you.

Hell comes to us via the rabbis who probably borrowed the idea from Zoroastrianism. The rabbis made little use of the idea, while their Christian rivals seem to obsess over it.

Oliver Thomas writes about this in USA TODAY (Monday 8/8/11). According to Thomas, when Jesus speaks of “eternal” punishment, the Greek New Testament uses the word aionos, which is better understood as “final” rather “eternal.” And almost every reference to Hell is a reference to Gehenna, the valley on the south side of Jerusalem where garbage was dumped in Jesus’ day. Jesus’ message was this: Change your life (teshuvah in the Hebrew, repent in English) or your final destination will be the garbage dump. Or, as Rev. Thomas puts it, repent or you wind up wasting your life.

If Jesus did not teach eternal damnation, why insist he did?

The answer, I think, is simple: Fear brings power. The only way we can get people to follow stupid ideas is to scare them out of thinking any other ideas. This is what fundamentalism does to people. It robs them of the ability to think by scaring them away from questioning their beliefs at all.

If the motivations of the masters of this madness are clear—fear brings them power—it still leaves us with the question as to why people adhere to these ideas. To be blunt: Why volunteer to follow a preacher who preaches a sadistic god and a religion of hate? I can only think of one reason: The people who follow sadists are themselves sadistic.

When I suggest this to fundamentalists, they are horrified and claim they do not believe in eternal hellfire for their own benefit but because this is what the Bible teaches. This is, of course, nonsense. The Bible can be read many different ways. There are as many love-based versions of Christianity, for example, as there are fear-based ones. So why choose fear over love, torture over forgiveness, anger over compassion? There can only be one answer: They like the fate that befalls those who disagree with them. They are sadist.

I find this answer inescapable and very troubling. Please show me where I am wrong.


Rabbi Rami Shipiro

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is an award-winning author, essayist, poet, and teacher. In the print version of our magazine, he has an advice column, “Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler,” addressing reader questions pertaining to religion, spirituality, faith, family, God, social issues, and more. His latest book is Surrendered—The Sacred Art. Rabbi Rami hosts our podcast, “Essential Conversations.”

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