Just as we slowly lost our belief in the Devil, Hell was watered down before it was doused altogether. The English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588- 9) can take much responsibility for creating that kinder and gentler Hell—”Heck” we might call it—where God sends the “clanged” and then not even for long. And Hobbes used the Bible to do it.
Hobbes was born in April 1588, as the Spanish Armada sailed toward England, and lived during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), the English civil wars (1642-1648), and the beheading of King Charles I (1649), all before the publication of his most famous work, Leviathan, in 1651. Having lived through such political chaos, he was convinced that human society was always in danger of lapsing into a state of war, where life would always be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” His solution was, paradoxically, to turn up the heat in this world, and turn it down in the next.
Hobbes proposed that the natural social condition is a “war of every man against every man,” where the “notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have…no place.” Our only hope for escaping this Hell-on-earth, Hobbes declared, is our common submission to an absolute sovereign whose will is law, and whose law is backed up by “the power of life and death,” especially death. He who holds the biggest stick commands the greatest fear and maintains peace.
One of the great causes of the breakdown of society, according to Hobbes, is misplaced fear. He believed that people feared civil power too little, and the Church too much. Taking his cue straight from Machiavelli, he conceded that effective political rule required the prop of religion to control the uneducated and passionate masses. Christianity, therefore, had to be tamed, not eliminated. The invention of Heck was part of his overall effort to declaw the Church.
Unfortunately, the Bible seemed to support the Church’s claim to exercise a more severe punishment— eternal damnation—than any sovereign could mete out. This called for some ingenious scriptural exegesis. (So ingenious were Hobbes’s interpretive methods that he became the founder of modern scriptural scholarship—a dubious honor, considering he was an extreme materialist and almost certainly an atheist.)
Hobbes first had to eliminate belief in the soul, for if people were more concerned about their bodies than their souls, the Church would lose her eternal advantage. As a materialist, Hobbes could argue on philosophical grounds alone that no immaterial soul exists after death. But for his Machiavellian transformation of Christianity, he needed to “find” scriptural evidence for his “no-soul theory.”
The idea of an immaterial, immortal soul, he con-tended, came not from the Bible, but from “the contagion of the demonology of the Greeks,” who erroneously supposed that “the souls of men were substances distinct from their bodies.” Once we purge this alien pagan influence, we discover that the word “soul” in Scripture is just another name for “life,” and the only life we have is bodily. At death we are extinguished.
By declaring death extinction, Hobbes may seem to have completely eliminated, rather than modified, the doctrine of Hell. Not so. We are, maintained Hobbes, completely re-created—resurrected from scratch—by God on the last day. What then will the resurrected damned find?
It turns out that the fires of Hell are not all that hot. First of all, we misinterpret Scripture if we believe that the damned will “be eternally burnt, and tortured, and yet never be destroyed, nor die.” A more careful reading of Holy Writ reveals that the enemies of God will only be subjected to a “second death” by immediate destruction, a fate not nearly as terrifying as the excruciating tortures a civil sovereign can visit upon us while alive. But there is even better news for the squeamish: “Hell fire,” if we really read Scripture carefully, is only a “metaphor…to be taken indefinitely, for destruction.” A quick (and apparently painless) snuffing out, and the damned are no more.
Hobbes created Heck, but he didn’t eliminate punishment in the afterlife completely. Soon enough, however, even the gates of Heck, being too harsh for modern tastes, could not prevail. But the road to Heck provided the tools for reinterpreting Scripture for secular goals. His method, in great part, formed the approach used by the great de-mythologizers of the 19th century, who, not being satisfied with making Hell into Heck, eliminated Hell altogether.