Summary: This article explains a spiritual solution to hell on earth and in the mind and provides a psychological understanding of religious doctrines of terror. It proposes a psychological view of hell as trauma seeking to resolve itself through a reenactment of violence and argues the bodhisattva vow is the philosophical and theological resolution to hell. It traces the ideological origins of the doctrine of hell in historical trauma and offers a theological and humanistic way of healing hell on earth, including Jesus’s example of entering into suffering in loving service, or seva.
Hell exists everywhere on earth as the ignorance and enslavement in the minds of all who suffer needlessly, driven by the energy of unresolved trauma which creates violence in the mind that leads to violence in the world. Hell in this sense is a psychological condition. The psychology of hell is simple: hell is pure fear, psychic fragmentation seeking resolution through vengeance. Hell is a reenactment, or repetition compulsion, of violence, which is behind every trauma. However, even though hell is the opposite of love, it is at bottom a desperate unconscious cry for love, a manifestation of enslaved consciousness seeking release from suffering through reenactment.
Doctrines of hell created as a punishment for not believing in the dogmas of a religious institution or holy book are the penultimate ideological manifestation of the trauma of hell. Preaching that the divine will for creation is eternal hatred and violence is the gospel of Satan, not any kind of God (Satan in the sense of the personification of evil.) If there is such thing as a doctrine inspired by demons (1 Timothy 4:1), it is the teaching of hell, for demons are consciousness distorted against itself deceptively appearing as light.
The Traumatic Origin of the Doctrine of Hell
How did the people who proclaim themselves the emissaries of the God of unconditional love come to believe that the fate of most of humanity should be eternal torture in hell? This is the explicit teaching of many religions, especially traditional Christianity. In the Judeo-Christian religions, the unthinkable traumas of genocide and exile resulted in the doctrinal innovation of eternal revenge, or hell. During the violent oppression of foreign empires like the Assyrians and Babylonians, the Jewish people saw their babies being dashed to pieces before their eyes, their temple destroyed, and all kinds of unspeakable atrocities befell them. They imagined the worst possible punishment on their enemies in order to counteract the severity of the trauma: “Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” (Psalm 137:8-9, NIV). Only eternal torture could match the enormity of the wound.
Hell was also conjured up as a theological solution to Israel’s foreign occupation. Israel’s God Yahweh seemed to delay judging Israel’s foreign oppressors, even though the Jews had largely succeeded in devoting themselves to the worship of Yahweh. The Jewish people looked for a theological explanation for this seeming divine abandonment. Before this time, beliefs in an afterlife and eternal judgment were undeveloped in Judaism. Jewish theologians now reasoned that, since they did not see and could not expect God’s justice on their enemies during this lifetime, there must be another lifetime and final judgment after death where God would make things right.
The development of belief in an afterlife, a final judgment, and other apocalyptic teachings took root during the Intertestamental Period (between the writing of the Old and New Testaments), or Second Temple Judaism. These beliefs were held as orthodox by many Jewish people by the time of Jesus (there was not yet a consensus; c.f. Mark 12:18-28, Matthew 22:23-34, Acts 23:8). The doctrinal innovation of an eternal hell of unimaginable physical and psychological torment was often included as a part of the new theologies of afterlife and judgment. Not only would punishment come for the enemies of the God Yahweh, but it would also be infinitely severe. Thus, the people of God might have to endure temporary suffering during this lifetime, but they could find relief through the knowledge they could expect heaven and the incredible payback of hell on their enemies in the afterlife.
Hell, the Defeat of Justice and Love, Satan’s Victory Over God Through the Church
Yet hell creates a deceptive sense of justice. It resolves the pain of one group of people by inflicting it on another. It is a displacement of traumatic energy. There is no justice, no love, and no forgiveness in eternal wrath, only the immortalization of suffering. Hell is the exponential magnification of the most atrocious, vengeful, psychopathic, and sadistic human potentialities. Is the author of hell God? If so, God is really Satan. With the development of the idea of hell, the genocidal spirit that had taken hold of the religious through their traumatic experience of genocide had reached its pinnacle of power, culminating in the darkening of all divine light: the infinite genocide of hell. In this ultimate doctrinal perversion of salvation history, the supposed defeat of darkness at the Final Judgment is the eternal lostness of most of humanity. Christ’s victory is null, the Dragon reigns supreme.
Belief in a literal hell would soon become a litmus test of faithfulness to an orthodox Christian gospel. (Such orthodoxy is merely faithfulness to the golden calf idol of dogmatic monotheism and its cousin, bibliolatry.) Conservative theologians argue that the God who inspired the Scriptures about hell laid forth the doctrine as an ultimate offense to human understandings of justice in order to test our faith. A willingness to question the most offensive doctrine in the Bible or reinterpret it metaphorically as a human-made condition of suffering showcases a different theological commitment than submission to the inerrancy of Scripture and therefore to God, they argue. Therefore, anyone who does not believe in literal hell reveals her unorthodox cards and is dangerous to the faith, a false teacher. Ironically, the orthodox came to teach that the punishment for not believing in hell is hell! If you do not believe in hell, that is a sign you are going there because you are willing to question the Holy Bible.
Such a perspective makes Jesus out to be an antichrist-like figure, sadistic and persecutory. The mark of the beast has become the mark of Christ. And the punishment for receiving this mark, says the author of Revelation, is none other than hell: “The smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name” (Revelation 14:11, NIV). Indeed, religious believers in hell suffer from the psychological fires of fear of hell burning in their minds, inspiring their evangelistic crusades and dread of opening to the divine mystery beyond the Book and their rigidly confined ideas of the divine. And their fire consumes the earth.
A Way Out of Hell: The Words of Jesus
Some of the sayings of Jesus and Paul in the Bible offer a way out of the blood crusade of hell. Although certain statements of Jesus and Paul likely reflect a belief in a literal eternal hell, several of their other teachings offer a strong counterpoint to the idea of eternal damnation. We can take Jesus and Paul seriously without agreeing with everything they believed, as they held erroneous and beneficial ideas like every other human represented in the Bible. According to Paul, Jesus’s victory on the cross was the vanquishing of sin, death, and the enslaving judgments that come from the Law: “Death is swallowed up in victory!… For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57-57). But if hell is the final end of the human race, as traditional theologians preach, Jesus has been vanquished and sin, death, and the judgments of the Law are ultimate.
Then God has failed to answer Jesus’s prophetic prayer, his final wish for humanity as he breathed his last on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:24, NIV). And if God the Father and Jesus have two different wills, then are they not two different gods? See how quickly the orthodoxy commits blasphemy! Jesus prayed that his crucifiers, the reprobates, and the damned living under the enslaving genocide of Law (the ultimate enemies of the divine) would find the salvation he died to bring. Christ died to end violence, vengeance, and genocide once and for all, not perpetrate it forever through hell. We know we have been saved when we can look upon our enemies in their ignorance and feel only empathy, as Jesus did at his death. This is what it means to overcome evil with love.
Jesus died to end the violence of human suffering. The cross he was crucified on was originally a symbol of politicoreligious fascism. Crucifixion was designed to be a form of capital punishment that maximized physical and psychological torture to discourage dissent. It was deployed by the Roman Empire on a mass scale to crush rebellions and terrorize the masses into submission. When he was crucified, Jesus met–“crossed”–the combined forces of the Jewish religious establishment and the Roman empire (and the archontic archetypes undergirding them)–hatred, control, religious brutality–with their polar opposites–love, forgiveness, a spiritual kingdom of reconciliation. The cross was transformed into a symbol of freedom. Golgotha, the Place of the Skull where Jesus was crucified, became the birthplace of spiritual resurrection (Matthew 27:33, Mark 15:22, Luke 23:33, John 19:17). Jesus’s triumph on the cross was completed in his dying words, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34, NIV). The curse of the karmic cycle of genocidal vengeance was broken. The faithful followers of this heretical prophet would advance his message of reconciliation not through the sword of orthodox control, but the cross of nonviolent spiritual liberation.
Two Different Jesuses: Is the Jesus of Wrath the same Jesus of Love?
One might object that in his future Second Coming as it is portrayed in the Bible, Jesus is wrathful. Revelation depicts Jesus as a Moses-like avenger of blood: “He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God” (Revelation 19:13, NIV). How we hold these texts is our choice. Do they align with the heart of the gospel of reconciliation and love? These texts were inspired, like the theological conceptions of hell and the tyrannical war-God Yahweh imagined by Jews living under Assyrian and Babylonian oppression, by vengeful karmacurrents of trauma under Roman genocide. John, the author of Revelation, was living under exile as his Christian brethren were being murdered by the Romans, and his vengeful end-times theological vision reeks of the deadly stench of trauma bent on revenge. To the author of Revelation and his vengeful inerrantist allies, I suggest, why not rewrite the crucifixion story? That is what they have done, more or less. Why not have Peter take out his sword and slay Judas and the Jewish Sanhedrin? Why not have Jesus call down his twelve legions of angels to kill all the Romans in a glorious bloodbath of retribution, saving God’s people? This is the kind of messiah the people of God were in fact looking for, after the example of Moses and Joshua. John the author of Revelation and the so-called orthodox Christians who cry out for the vengeance of hell are clearly not satisfied with the one they got. What a disappointment Jesus is!
The authors of the Bible who teach eternal damnation–possibly even including the historical Jesus himself in his more vengeful moments–showcase a need to murder one’s enemies rather than love and forgive them. Do we really want to prioritize the Jesus of traumatized vengeance over the Jesus of forgiveness? These Jesuses are mutually exclusive, and we cannot have both. The shadow Jesus of trauma can never be satiated with the trauma of more judgment, even for all eternity. The trauma cycle can only be ended with the reconciling embrace of forgiveness, a self-willed enduring of the crucifixion of one’s own demand for judgment. Contrary to the teaching of Revelation, the children of God cannot enjoy eternal bliss while they inhale the smoke of their burning fellow humans arising from hell without destroying the consciousness of God: “They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb [and the children of God]. And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever [as incense]” (Revelation 14:11, NIV).
Only a Jesus of universal salvation aligns with God’s ultimate nature of love. There are many strongly universalist claims in the New Testament which have been minimized or discounted by inerrantist orthodox theologians. Here are a few: “The Lord [does not wish] that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (1 Timothy 2:3–6, ESV). Is God’s will ineffectual? Does the Lord of creation make wishes and not get what he wants? “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22, ESV). Is God’s new creation partial, or are only some made alive? “God our Savior… wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and people, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people” (1 John 2:2, NIV). So then, God wants all people to be saved, but this desire and intention of Jesus’s death are not all that serious, because God’s wish for vengeance gets the best of him in the end? “The living God… is the savior of all people, especially of those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:10, ESV). Those who believe benefit most from God’s salvation, but God is somehow still the savior of those who do not believe even though he sends them to hell? The salvation this Scripture mentions is meaningless if eternal hell is their end! “For God has bound all people over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all” (Romans 11:32). Is the telos of God mercy on all people or only kind of? It cannot be both. Maybe all means, as inerrantists teach, mercy on just a few elect people and damnation on almost all!
On the flip side of the theological coin, there are certainly many statements in Scripture that unequivocally teach conditional salvation and eternal damnation. They should be denounced and viewed in light of their traumatic inspiration. Inerrantists are forced to essentially erase the universalistic passages of the Bible in favor of the damnation passages in order to maintain their view of the Bible as God. Biblical literalists argue that, in order to be faithful to all of Scripture, we must interpret the broader statements of the Bible in light of the more specific statements. Thus, we are told, we must prioritize statements about literal hell and judgment on homosexuality because they are more specific than broad statements like “God is love.” So logically, our understanding of love must include eternal genocide and the murder of gays!
In response to such orthodoxy, we would do well to heed the wisdom of Jesus: “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24, NIV). Does it really make sense to sacrifice love, the heart of the Scripture, for the minutia of human-conditioned prejudices which have been unequivocally discredited and condemned in modern times for their barbarism? Surely the broad-sweeping, most essential statements about love, justice, and universal reconciliation in Scripture should be prioritized over the minutia when they conflict, inerrancy be damned! The Bible is not a univocal text with a grand, symphonic argument. It is a collection of multivocal texts written by diverse humans co-creating with the divine, often cacophonous and mixed in its messaging, filled with contradictory teachings, some life-affirming and others genocidal. We must choose our priorities consciously, or we will become blind theologians, driven by a neurotic sense of righteous commitment to God’s will. We would be swept up in a delusional fog of the worst impulses and prejudices of humankind contained in these pages. It is time to leave aside the breast of simplistic, fantasy non-thinking for the more difficult to digest food of complexity that comes with adult theological responsible thinking about the Book as it actually is: “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready” (1 Corinthians 3:2, NIV).
The Way of Jesus and the Bodhisattva Vow: The Loving Service of Humanity Through Suffering
The real Jesus (metaphorical or literal) doesn’t send people to hell, he enters into because he cannot stand the knowledge that it exists as the primary state of consciousness on earth. Any person who wants to be like Jesus should know that Jesus’s mission is never to send people to hell. His spirit enters into hell and suffers the agony with us. The very belief in eternal hell is a negation of Jesus because it is the eternal trauma of unending violent vengeance the Jesus persona wants to break through forgiveness. Jesus’s way is the same kind of mentality found in the bodhisattva way, the way of love serving humanity through suffering. It is also known as seva: the service of selflessness enabled by spiritual connection to oneness.
The bodhisattva vow is the exact philosophical opposite of the ideology of hell and the solution to hell. It’s the purest, most ridiculous form of love that can be imagined; love taken to the nth degree. The bodhisattva vow originated in Buddhist contemplative theology. It is a vow taken by highly evolved souls to devote infinite lifespans to relieve the suffering of others, reincarnating as long as it takes to liberate the last being enslaved to suffering. This is a vow to choose hell over heaven for the sake of lessening the suffering of others. It is the way to empty out hell on earth.
The bodhisattva vow includes a belief in reincarnation. Whether or not you believe in reincarnation, the doctrine of the bodhisattva vow teaches a powerful lesson: selfless love entering into suffering is the harrowing (emptying out) of hell. According to the teaching, one can achieve liberation from cycles of rebirth into bliss–nirvana or heaven–by returning to wholeness (“Spirit/God/consciousness”). The path of returning to wholeness involves resolving the soul’s traumas and becoming pure and luminous through spiritual practice and other means. BUT having reached this level (wholeness, Source, oneness), these souls CHOOSE to forgo heaven in order to serve by suffering.
The intensive spiritual practice of these beings leads them to find liberation from attachment to their egos and the things that make up temporal existence. As a result, they obtain the option to return to pure Oneness/Love/God and no longer incarnate into additional lives in this temporal realm. But at this highly evolved state, these souls choose not to. Instead, they choose the option of loving service to humanity: in other words, suffering instead of bliss. And not only suffering but the worst kinds of suffering possible! Instead of wanting people who commit evil to be punished in hell, bodhisattvas themselves go to hell in order to rescue them from delusion. They take on the “judgment,” or suffering that naturally results from misalignment with love, of hell upon themselves as Jesus does.
Bodhisattvas know and expect that the lifetimes they incarnate into in the future will necessarily involve them in the most horrible situations of human suffering because the most ignorant and deeply enslaved humans are the perpetrators of the worst evils. These deeply traumatized enslaved beings can only be liberated by the pure loving service of enlightened freed spirits, whose light alone is a match for their darkness.
Knowing full well the depths of human suffering they may have to endure in future lives as a result of their vow, these evolved beings have also mastered their minds so their reaction to pain is transfigured with light. They feel pain but are deeply connected to in infinite source of bliss within it. Physical and emotional pain is minimal in their experience of nonattachment and connection to bliss. Because they are not attached to their own egos or their pain/pleasure anymore, what is left is a concern for the suffering of humanity. Their ego is connected to and concerned with the greater whole, not just the individual self. They are selfless, in the sense of being full of so much love that love of all is all that makes sense.
For bodhisattvas, when they return in future bodies as liberated beings, it’s not as a big of a deal to personally experience even brutal torture on this earth–the greater suffering is what ignorant/unwhole people suffer in their minds. Suffering is not really a thing for liberated bodhisattvas anymore in the way we experience it as a kind of hell. For the liberated being, the experience of pain/pleasure persists but the suffering created by the mind is gone. Because bodhisattvas identify with the selves of all sentient beings, they cannot endure heaven with the knowledge that hell still exists on earth for many other fellow beings. All that is left to do is be one with love, and love serves suffering humanity by entering into the muck.
At this point in their evolution, liberated bodhisattvas do not suffer anymore because they have equanimity in both pain and pleasure; they are not attached to circumstances. They only kind of suffering they still experience is the suffering of compassion; feeling the pain of their fellow human beings who are still enslaved to suffering. The only response that makes sense for such highly evolved beings is to devote themselves to the liberation of the rest of humanity (and all life). This is the choice to reincarnate instead of enjoy an eternity of rest in divine bliss, to keep living and dying in suffering again and again, for all eternity if necessary. For these beings, heaven is found in choosing hell, the blissful liberation of suffering love. And through this choice, hell is gradually transformed by divine light into heaven. The gospel of love, the true message of evolved liberated beings like Jesus, is the willingness to go into and take on the hell that exists on earth in the minds of those who create it, so they might be saved and join us together in the glory of liberated, trauma-free human connection in spiritual oneness.
Are you a bodhisattva? Yes, I know you are. Because you are a human being, and this is your most highly evolved state. It is your destiny. Your divine nature calls you.
But each of us must hear the call:
“And now, as long as space endures, As long as there are beings to be found, May I continue to remain To soothe the sufferings of those who live.” (Bodhisattva vow, Shantideva 10:55)
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I’m Andrew Jasko, Master of Divinity (M.Div.), Masters in Counseling in Progress, and I work to help you transform your trauma into the place of your power and connect to a healthy, authentic spirituality that works for you (whether that’s as a spiritual not religious, atheist, religious, transitioning, or agnostic identifying person). I was born into a minister’s family and became a preacher and missionary to India, after studying theology at Wheaton College and Princeton Seminary. As a Christian, my relationship with God was my passion, but unhealthy religious teachings caused me an anxiety disorder, sexual repression, and spiritual disillusionment. I felt alone, traumatized, and abandoned by the divine. After an agonizing crisis of faith, I rejected religion and spirituality. Then, I reintegrated a healthy spirituality through mystical, spiritual, and mindful practices. My passion is to help you to heal and connect with your authentic spiritual wholeness.