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Religion & Culture | Hellfire threat: Religion’s greatest abuse

Published:Sunday | June 24, 2018 | 12:00 AMDr Glenville Ashby

Religion has been criticised for its zealotry, unyielding orthodoxy and blindness to reason.

Of religious sins, especially religion-fuelled wars, we are by now desensitised. But there is one religious intransigence, one dogma so insidious, that we are unaware of its catastrophic impact on our daily lives.

The dogma of hellfire is embedded in mainstream religions of the day. I recall my early years weaning myself off Christianity's fire and brimstone teachings only to drown in similar teachings advanced by other movements.

Even in the passivity of Tibetan Buddhism the afterlife is depicted in woeful terms. The dead face a trepidatious crossing called the Bardo, or the lonesome valley, where it must fend for itself.

Although reincarnation in eastern traditions offered some hope for redemption, there was still only marginal reprieve. In the background there lurked always the spectre of punishment.

But for Christian and Muslim sinners the afterlife is far more damning, far more sadistic and calamitous. In the case of Christianity, tongues of flames devour those that are cast down amid maddening cries and the gnashing of teeth.

In Islam, hellish existence begins in the grave. The details are harrowing: Upon death, the spirit returns to dwell in the body. In the grave the deceased is subjected to questions of faith delivered by two angels: Munkar and Nakir. They are glaringly hideous.

If the test of faith is passed the grave is widened allowing for the deceased to wait peacefully for the Day of Judgement. If the deceased fails the test the grave shrinks in width, crushing the bones while the weight of the earth descends on the body. Over time, flesh-eating worms gnaw away at the body, ad infinitum.




Petrified of their possible fate, the faithful recite the following: "O Allah, I seek refuge in You from the affliction from the Hellfire and its torment, from the affliction of the grave and its torment ..." - (Sahih Al-Bukhari #6377)

Psychologist Ahmed M. Abdel-Khalek, who studied anxieties about death among Arab youth, found that preoccupation with the fear of torture in the grave is very real. A poll taken by Abdel-Khalil among Egyptians and Kuwaitis showed that the majority worry more about afterlife torture than they do about a serious disease befalling a loved one.

These bloodthirsty scenarios of the afterlife are taught, preached and subliminally wove into the psyche of a child. On dying, images and symbols of the afterlife gush through the layers of the mind causing anxiety and inexplicable utterances, behaviours and gestures.

Anyone with a modicum of understanding of the unconscious will concede that religion has left us at the mercy of its phantasmagoric creations. And most vulnerable are we at the hour of death.

In the article: 'Is Believing in Hell bad for Your Health', Mark Darling, whose background is in psychology and neuroscience, grapples with this little-researched subject.

Darling writes: "To be honest, the thing I struggle with most is the concept of hell as a place of eternal conscious torment. To even think that the life force of universal love would slow roast the vast majority of the human population is abhorrent to me ... this is no small matter.(

That this infernal siege taught to children can lead to neurotic responses throughout life is not a far-fetched argument. Belief in hellfire is the beginning of fear. And fear, unconscious and conscious, is arguably the most destructive emotion.

In Psychology Today, John Kim tackles this subject in the article, 'Most Destructive Emotion'. He writes, "No one enters adulthood unscathed. We've all been burnt, so we all live in fear. The difference between a fulfilled life and a stifled one is whether you are in control of your fear or fear if in control of you." (

What makes fear so powerful and ruinous is its existence in the unconscious self. We get our first taste of fear directly and subliminally by our religious caregivers. It is in the unconscious that most of our teachings are stored in the form of images. An image or thought form, once planted, is never removed.

Images of unceasing punishment by an ever-lurking god and devil is a form of child abuse that leads to maladjustment later in life.

Fear of authority and punishment, and even acceptance of abuse, have their roots in our childhood.

In a skewed way, the dogma of hellfire validates physical abuse and violence to punish incorrigibility.

That fear of god is the beginning of wisdom, we are told. Nothing could be further from the truth. Only love, not fear, will lead us to personal liberation and true happiness.

- Dr Glenville Ashby is the award-winning author of 'Anam Cara: Your Soul Friend and Bridge to Enlightenment and Creativity'. His latest book: 'In Search of Truth: A Course in Spiritual Psychology' is available at Amazon and iBooks. He is member of the International Society of Applied Psychoanalysis, Montpellier, France. Feedback: or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby