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I’m Scared of Going to Hell . . .

I’m Scared of Going to Hell . . .



I’m a secular Jew, and I’m afraid of going to hell. What does the Torah say about hell, and will I go there simply because I don’t observe the Shabbat, Jewish holidays or the laws of kosher? All in all, I think I’m a very decent human being—but of course nobody is perfect.


I hope you don’t mind if I take issue with your first few words. You write that you are a “secular Jew.” I don’t believe there is such a thing. You see, the word secular means “mundane” or “un-sacred.” A Jew, by definition, is holy. And you are just as Jewish as me, your great-grandfather and Moses. Perhaps not as observant—but just as Jewish. I truly mean that . . .

I’m sure you’re a great person. You probably live an ethical life and do many acts of kindness. You have done much to express your innate holiness. And that’s exactly why you can grow so much through taking on a few new mitzvot. You can take your being a decent human being infinitely higher. Your goodness will be instilled with a G‑dly touch.

You write that you are not perfect. But then again—as you yourself say—no one is. And that’s exactly why Judaism is not an all-or-nothing religion. It treasures the power of a single act. So I challenge you to take on one new mitzvah. It’s a mitzvah that happens only once a week, and takes only a minute. But it is powerful. And you will find that its effect is profound.

Jewish women have the special commandment to light the Shabbat candles each Friday afternoon. It brings light, holiness, peace and tranquility into the home. Give it a try. Check out our Shabbat Candle-Lighting Wizard for more information about this special mitzvah.

Now, to address your question about hell:

You’re probably expecting me to depict a haunting scene of ghosts and goblins. But the Jewish concept of “heaven” and “hell” cannot be more different than the description found in medieval Christian texts or cartoons.

Yes, Judaism believes in punishment and reward in the afterlife. But in Judaism:

Hell is temporary—not permanent.

Hell is a therapy—not an imprisonment.

Hell is a consequence—not a punishment.

Hell is a washing machine—not a furnace.

Sounds interesting? Click here to read all about this topic.

Let me know if this helps. I await your reply.

Yours truly,
Rabbi Yisroel Cotlar

Rabbi Yisroel Cotlar is a Chabad rabbi in Cary, North Carolina. He is also a member of the Ask the Rabbi team.
All names of persons and locations or other identifying features referenced in these questions have been omitted or changed to preserve the anonymity of the questioners.
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Discussion (52)
August 29, 2014
Dear Rabbi Yisroel Cotlar

this will help a lot of us! I am in exactly this situation. I discovered my jewiness a couple of years ago. Since then I try to be an observant but have falued many times. This fact brings me to sadness sometimes and give me a feeling of being a bad person. Your article encourages me. I will go on trying to meet as much mitswot as possible. Shabat Shalom, Rachel
erlangen germany
August 28, 2014
Last year I published a book, "Thirteen Truths About God and Life: Deeper Understanding Through Deeper Thought," where I discussed my understanding of myriad religious issues strongly influenced by me being Jewish and by my Jewish upbringing.

In discussing hell, I wrote, in part, "If we believe that God is the Creator of everything, then God created hell. If we believe that God wants what is truly good for us, then, if hell exists, it must be truly good for us. If hell is truly good for us, then it cannot be eternal torment, because eternal torment can never be truly good for us. Thus hell must be finite and must, in some way, aid the advancement and growth of our spiritual essence."


"We have free will and can choose to live a life that is truly good for us and be closer to God, or we can choose to live a life that is not truly good for us and move further away from God."
Alan Acker
Columbus, OH
August 28, 2014
Where in the Torah does it say these things about hell...
August 28, 2014
Chevre Rabbi,
I believe she was making reference to the term "secular." In the rest of the world outside of Judaism, the term refers to "a non-practitioner of a religion that when asked, identifies with a particular one (more likely in the past). Generally, when asked, "What is your particular religion," a typical response might be, "None currently but when I was younger I was..."
August 28, 2014
I've been told to 'go to hell' so many times and by so many people that I've learned to not worry about it.
August 28, 2014
Why Judaism stands apart.
Being religious doesn't mean one is Spiritual.

The Religious wants to control the Spiritual; by sheer nature of the ' spiritual', which is inherent not indoctrinated, the religious, although desperately, can never own, nor claim the spiritual.

The Spiritual is Free of All Encumbrances... the religious will never be, hence they are distinctly different.

Being religious and being Spiritual are 2 different things.

Judaism has no hell, no heaven and just one day in the year to atone for your bad manners. Of All religions, this is by far the best deal out there, with a unique feature, you may disagree with the Rabbi, no other religion allows.

If, by some " Divine Spark", some Spiritual Intervention, the Rabbis would take time to listen to the sound of the washing machine, turn the light switch on Shabbos, we could see a long overdue religious enlightenment instead of rehashing dark old beliefs, and dark old rituals of dark old days eons ago? Nu?
August 28, 2014
No Hell ! Nope .Not for Human Beings .
I love your take on the subject of hell . I recently read a book by Julie Ferwerda called "Raising Hell " where she deals with the subject and has conclusions so remarkably like your own . I do not particularly give much thought to "hell" as it were . His Majesty has much better rewards than we have been told of . The most important to me ? The learning of my Gift of Birth Right . That is something I did not earn and will NEVER lose . That is truly a gift from God.
James Oliver
BC, Canada
August 27, 2014
Hell is eternal
This was more of a feel good message, but not scriptural.
No one is good, not one, that is what God tells us. Hell is not temporary, it is eternal.
Christians don't have a hollywood view of hell, hell is a real place, the word of God tells us this, and that it is an eternal fire that burns forever, nor does satan have a tail and horns, Lucifer was one of the most beautiful angels that God had created who revolted against God.

Of course, as a Christian, and disputing what many jews teach about what we believe, there is a reason why we believe, because God has proven it, not only through his word, but through his spirit. However, this person being a secular Jew, as she describes herself, she needs to make sure what the truth is, and God gives the truth to all who seek it, to Jews, Christians, and all who search for it.
August 27, 2014
Is anyone actually "secular"?
Is anyone actually “secular”?

The Encarta Dictionary (North American) defines "secular" as
(1) not controlled by a religious body or concerned with religious or spiritual matters
and (2) not religious or spiritual in nature.

I don’t think these definitions apply to the vast majority of the human race, including Jews. Here’s why:

Even people who don’t belong to a particular religious movement (and thus feel they are not “controlled” by one) usually have some concern with religious or spiritual matters. Certainly your reader’s concern about “going to hell” proves her concern with the spiritual. Even an atheist’s decision NOT to believe in G-d shows that he or she was concerned enough about religious/spiritual matters to develop a belief system around them.

As for the second definition “not religious or spiritual in nature”, is quite false. Many non-religious thinkers, including the great psychologist Viktor Frankl, posit that Man has a spiritual core. Scientists have theorized that humans are hard-wired to believe in - or at least ponder about G-d.

In these times, “secular” actually represents a political movement which seeks to address diversity of faith by subscribing to no faith at all. Rightly or wrongly, it’s an attempt to try and keep social order in multi-ethnic; multi-cultural societies. But are people secular? For the most part, no.
August 27, 2014
Reincarnation in Judaism
Hello, Rabbi Cotlar, and thank you so much for this most touching insightul reply! I did not know these were the Jewish teachings regarding the "hell" concept. I also did not know that reincarnation was part of the Jewish framework. As a grown man, I married back into Judaism after growing up in a family that had long ago abandoned its Jewish roots, so I'm having to learn things from the ground up that I suppose I might have learned throughout childhood had my family not been Atheist on one side and Evangelical Christian on the other, but rather had still been embracing their Jewish-ness. So, I now have a question - are there any recommended readings you could provide me to learn more about Jewish teachings on the subject of reincarnation? Thanks again, and please know that your ministry is appreciated!
New Learner
Huntsville, Alabama
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