The Necessity of Hell

After my earlier post on this subject, Slacktivist has written several follow-up posts about the evangelical freak-out over the news that one of their own may not believe in Hell:

For Mohler, as for most of Team Hell, we can see that there are two distinct categories. On the one hand there is what is “clearly revealed in the Bible… teachings… doctrine.” And on the other hand there’s this evasive, fuzzy-wuzzy, extra-biblical, anti-biblical notion of “the character of God.”

…this is not how Team Hell reads the Bible. They regard the idea of reading the entire Bible as “driving toward” any one point as a dangerous approach that prioritizes some passages over others. That opens the door to all sorts of “evasions” and “revisions.” For them every word in the Bible is sacred. And thus every word in the Bible is equally sacred. To allow for some grand theme or interpretive scheme or some larger picture of the character of God would be to challenge that equal sacredness of every single word.

I won’t repeat my previous post, but I want to point out that what neither Slacktivist nor his pro-eternal-torture adversaries see is that they’re not using different interpretive schemes. They’re both basing their beliefs on their respective interpretations of how the Bible describes God’s character. The only difference is that one side emphasizes the wrathful and warlike verses while ignoring those that focus on love and forgiveness, while the other does the opposite. The Bible is such a vast book, and contains so many different and conflicting passages, that you can find support for essentially any viewpoint you care to take about the nature of God.

I want to talk, instead, about why this is so important for Team Hell – why they’re so emphatic about the requirement that Christians believe in eternal, conscious torture without relief or hope for the majority of humankind. And I think there’s an important hint in the story of Carlton Pearson’s deconversion. When Pearson was struck by a crisis of conscience and ceased believing in damnation, the congregation of his megachurch dwindled from 5,000 to 200. As I wrote at the time:

Had he preached that some other church was not strict enough – that God was withholding salvation from some group formerly believed to be saved – I doubt anyone would have batted an eye. But to widen the circle of the saved was, for his brethren, an intolerable heresy. Theirs is a theology that elevates wrath over mercy, punishment over grace, and judgment over love. One of Pearson’s associate pastors admits as much, candidly saying that teachings about eternal torment and the Rapture did far more to fill the pews than teaching about love and forgiveness ever will.

Leah of Unequally Yoked quipped that Mormonism, because of its belief in posthumous conversion, is “the only losing choice in Pascal’s wager“, and I think the pro-eternal-torture crowd sees itself facing a similar dilemma. Their strategy to fill the pews relies on terrifying people with lurid images of hellfire, offering them an easy way out, and then promising that by making the right choice, they’ll become God’s elect and enjoy his divine favor eternally. But universalism threatens that simple equation. If people don’t have to go to church to be saved from Hell, then what do they need church for at all? Even worse, if those other people – the ones over there in that other tribe, the ones we don’t like – are going to Heaven too, then how can we be sure we’re better than them? Intolerable thought!

This is the old advertiser’s tactic: invent a problem, convince people that they have it, then offer to sell them the cure, promising that it will make them cooler, sexier, better-smelling than the teeming masses. Whether it’s tooth-whitening strips or eternal salvation, the selling points are the same. And just like the corporations that rake in the bucks from exploiting consumers’ insecurities, the evangelical pitchmen have built an empire of wealth and political influence on belief in Hell. It serves the dual purpose of coercing people to stay in line through fear, then rewarding them for their obedience by flattering them that they’re the savvy ones who know how to escape what the rest of the world has got coming.

A faith that made no demands for everyone to join, unlike the evangelical theology of exclusivity and judgment, might be superior in the moral sense. But in the memetic competition, it’s probably doomed. It just wouldn’t be able to outcompete religions which demand allegiance and obedience and threaten those who won’t go along. Whatever else you can say about the evangelicals, they know their target market. I’d be glad to see Rob Bell and those of like mind make progress towards reforming Christianity, but ultimately, I don’t think belief in Hell or any other religious derangement will ever be defeated from within. It will only be overcome when people become rational and skeptical enough to question any belief for which there’s no good evidence.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://chl-tx.com TX CHL Instructor

    “Whatever else you can say about the evangelicals, they know their target market.”

    I think it’s actually accidental, and entirely due to natural selection. The belief systems that use this meme succeed, and those that don’t, die out. Knowing their target market doesn’t really enter into the picture, although they do *act* as if they knew their target market. Which gets naturally selected for survival.

    Which makes me wonder if atheism is doomed. After all, I can’t threaten you with eternal damnation just because you don’t agree with me.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    A faith that made no demands for everyone to join, unlike the evangelical theology of exclusivity and judgment, might be superior in the moral sense. But in the memetic competition, it’s probably doomed. It just wouldn’t be able to outcompete religions which demand allegiance and obedience and threaten those who won’t go along.

    This is one of the aspects of religion I sometimes think/worry about. I would be happy if more people left the more fundamentalist forms of the religion and instead joined the ones that believe in equal rights, don’t condemn people to Hell, etc. (and when talking about Islam, it’s something that I think is desperately needed to wrench control of the faith from the people who are controlling it). Although I wouldn’t consider this form of the faith true, either, it would at least be a step in the right direction. Still, I worry about how successful these accepting, loving forms of religion can be, given the actual content of these books and the scare/intimidation factor available to the hateful forms. I tend to agree that it is better to point out that neither a vengeful God or loving God is supported by evidence.

  • http://www.unequally-yoked.com Leah @ Unequally Yoked

    A faith that made no demands for everyone to join, unlike the evangelical theology of exclusivity and judgment, might be superior in the moral sense. But in the memetic competition, it’s probably doomed. It just wouldn’t be able to outcompete religions which demand allegiance and obedience and threaten those who won’t go along.

    The success of Mormonism is pretty confusing given this framework. They really don’t preach hellfire for unbelievers and, although they find their own ways to threaten deviants, particularly in the more fringe-y sects, I don’t think damnation is anywhere near as prevalent in their pitch as it is for evangelicals. Nonetheless, they’ve had extraordinary success as missionaries, and I can’t figure out why (especially since their pitch to me was so terrible).

  • LindaJoy

    I often find myself more aggrevated with liberal Christians than the fundamentalists precisely because of the good god/good Jesus view that they take. When I point out that Jesus endorsed the idea of hell (eternal torture for deeds done in a finite lifetime), all you hear in reply is crickets chirping. I find the idea of hell probably the most immoral idea to come out of the “thinking” of mankind, but particular repulsive when it is endorsed by a god or the “loving savior”. At least the fundamentalists are more consistent in their view of the harsh god/ judging Jesus. (I mentioned this to Fred Clarkson in an email discussion once after he banned me from Talk to Action for “being a troll”. Apparently the liberal Christians can discuss theology on that site, but no one else can, especially atheists.)

    Whenever I am on a comment section that has to do with an article on religion, I point out the immorality of god and Jesus based upon their endorsement of “hell”. People will jump on me, but NEVER address the point. I think it may be the biggest “get them thinking” argument there is…. besides the “do you think it was moral for god to kill the Egyptian babies” question.

    It is human nature to need to feel superior to others and the concept of hell connected to the “I’m saved from it and you’re not” plays incredibly well into this need. Until people walk away from these texts, and that includes the liberal Christians, I don’t see this concept dying out real soon.

  • Rieux

    You said it, LindaJoy. I’ve been in precisely that same “People will jump on me, but NEVER address the point” boat, with regard to precisely that scriptural issue, on numerous comment threads.

  • archimedez

    Threat of hell-fire and Judgment Day are probably effective means of frightening children into taking religious belief seriously.

    That said, American Christians for the most part seem to be quite loose about who they think will go to hell:

    See PEW

    “Many Americans Say Other Faiths Can Lead to Eternal Life
    Most Christians Say Non-Christian Faiths Can Lead to Salvation
    December 18, 2008″

  • Jormungund

    When I point out that Jesus endorsed the idea of hell (eternal torture for deeds done in a finite lifetime), all you hear in reply is crickets chirping.

    I once had a discussion with a Christian in which they had an answer for that: hell is destruction, not eternal torment. They pointed out that the ‘Gehenna’ which is talked about in the NT doesn’t really translate to ‘hell’ in English as some Bibles translate it. It was a literal garbage dump where garbage was burned. But then we have other problems in the Bible of a number of other words all being shoehorned into the English word ‘hell’.
    I know that is conveniently ignoring the fact that Matthew chapters 8, 13, 22, 24 and 25 all mention ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ which doesn’t sound like pain free destruction to me. But some Christians do believe in some kind of destruction for the unsaved rather than torture.

  • LindaJoy

    Jormungund- at the very least, the weeping and gnashing of teeth sure sounds like dental hell. Plus Jesus prefaced the teeth stuff with a “furnace of fire”, so he still gets a bad mark from me on the morality thing. Since many Christians do not believe in the concept of hell, how in the world can they still worship a savior who does??? Of course leave to any religionist to get him or herself in a pickle just trying to reconcile anything from their texts or their theology. Religion makes such fools of people.

    I also think the concept of salvation is immoral, besides being a con game. Just look at it this way. God allows the original sin to occur in the garden of eden and then waits about 4000 years to come riding to everyone’s rescue with the whole salvation plan. What’s up with THAT?

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    @LindaJoy (comment 4):

    Whenever I am on a comment section that has to do with an article on religion, I point out the immorality of god and Jesus based upon their endorsement of “hell”. People will jump on me, but NEVER address the point. I think it may be the biggest “get them thinking” argument there is…. besides the “do you think it was moral for god to kill the Egyptian babies” question.

    You make a good point. For a lot of the other bad things in the Bible, more liberal Christians can always say that God will make up for what happened in the lives of people who were killed by giving them a good afterlife. Bringing up Hell and the idea that only members of one religion will go to Heaven sort of takes that explanation/excuse away.

  • Miss Phoebe

    Re #9. If God makes it up to people who suffer in life by giving them a nice after life, what about the after life of people who don’t suffer? Is it less special? Lots of believers seem to think that people with horrible disabilities, who have terrible accidents, get clobbered in earthquakes and whatever, etc., will be gloriously rewarded in heaven. So if heaven isn’t egalitarian, then maybe the bottom rung is hell.

  • Eurekus

    ‘It will only be overcome when people become rational and skeptical enough to question any belief for which there’s no good evidence.’

    The whole concept of hell terrified me as a child which then caused me to take religion seriously into adulthood. Like any concept of any kind of threatened torture in the ‘afterlife’, it’s nothing but mind control. Only my eventual rationality and skepticism overcame it. This insiduous belief requires us atheists to become more outspoken and frankly, to call this nonsense exactly what it is, complete bullshit.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    You’ve only got to look at the whole Grimm fairytale genre to see the perceived effectiveness of threats to children for the consequences of bad behaviour. Think Hansel and Gretal for instance which sees the children alienated from the benign father (at the behest incidentally of the evil mother) only to fall into the hands of the evil (female again) witch. Hell is the ultimate dark forest inhabited by the uber big bad wolf.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    The success of Mormonism is pretty confusing given this framework. They really don’t preach hellfire for unbelievers and, although they find their own ways to threaten deviants, particularly in the more fringe-y sects, I don’t think damnation is anywhere near as prevalent in their pitch as it is for evangelicals. Nonetheless, they’ve had extraordinary success as missionaries, and I can’t figure out why.

    That’s an excellent question, Leah. At a glance, I can think of three possibilities: First, it may be that the extraordinary effort Mormons put into evangelism, far more than other than Christian sects, may compensate for this doctrinal deficiency. (Are they really growing through conversion, or just through reproduction?)

    Second, the success of Mormonism is only temporary – it’s still a new religion, after all – and in the long run, competing religions (or variant sects) which do teach hellfire will outcompete it and drive it to extinction.

    And third, I’m just completely wrong. :) This is something I’d be happy to be wrong about, since it would imply that comparatively moderate, peaceful religions have a fighting chance against the vicious ones. I’d be glad if that were the case, but given the freefall of mainline Protestantism throughout the developed world, I’m not convinced that it is.

    @LindaJoy:

    I often find myself more aggrevated with liberal Christians than the fundamentalists precisely because of the good god/good Jesus view that they take. When I point out that Jesus endorsed the idea of hell (eternal torture for deeds done in a finite lifetime), all you hear in reply is crickets chirping.

    I think it was Robert Ingersoll who said that Jesus, for all his supposedly superior moral teachings, was the one who introduced the idea of Hell into Western religion. It is, as you say, an excellent counterexample to the liberal Christian idea that Jesus’ morality was far superior to anything else that’s been devised. I’d ask people like Slacktivist, even if you think Hell was just intended as a metaphor, the question still remains: is that really how a good person behaves? Coercing others to obey through threats and imagery of violence and torture?

  • Rollingforest

    Even if the liberal Christians have to do mental acrobatics to justify their beliefs, I still like them better than the theocratic nature of the Fundamentalists. Liberal Christians are just less dangerous. The good thing is that, while Liberal Christians are disappearing, they are becoming secular not Fundamentalist.

    In regard to the Mormons, I think that Ebon’s first hypothosis is correct. Mormons are succeeding mostly because of reproduction, which is way above what other groups are (though, with the addition of illegal immigrants, the US population has grown just as fast as them so they aren’t picking up percentage wise). Also the sheer amount of energy and money they put into sending out missionaries helps some, though not as much as they would hope.

  • Wednesday

    @ Leah, Rollingforest — According to a friend of mine who spent a semester at BYU for graduate school (after which he basically fled), the Mormons are fairly successful in winning converts from other Christian denominations. Their missionaries are very well-educated on other denominations, so it may well be that they home in on problems with other flavors of Christianity, and then say “well, we’ve got this extra book that addressees all those problems!” From my interactions with in-the-field missionaries, I also get the impression that they focus on the positive aspects of their religion. Rather than “join us or rot in hell you awful sinner!!111″ and “how arrogant can you be, claiming to know enough about the universe to be sure there’s no god!”, they talk up all of the things they think are really swell about the LDS church. For a lot of people, religion is a social membership in addition to (and sometimes even without) a belief system, and the LDS Church is definitely a well-organized social institution.

  • Rollingforest

    The Mormon Church is successful at winning converts…but most of them don’t stay converts for long. Most of them fall away within a short time after they become members. In an attempt to exaggerate its influence, the Mormon Church (like scientology) publishes radically inaccurate membership numbers. Here is an article that tries to put a positive spin on the fact that 2/3rds of Mormonism’s so-called members aren’t actually active in the church at all.

    http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/home/51497153-76/church-growth-says-lds.html.csp

    You are right about the missionaries trying to present Mormon beliefs in the best light possible. The problem is that they will do anything, even if it involves misrepresenting what they actually believe. Mormons go to great pains to hide most of their beliefs from people until their lives are enveloped in the Church’s social network. When they go door to door, Mormons like to present themselves as Christians with minor but important improvements on Christian doctrine. These missionaries make sure to forget to mention or to gloss over the huge changes in dogma that becoming a Mormon requires (multiple Gods, belief that polygamy was Godly in the past and could be again in the future, absolute submission to the decrees of the Prophet, baptism of the dead, three levels of heaven, the belief that the Native Americans are descended from Jews who turned their back on God, the ability of believers to become Gods of their own, ect). These beliefs are only taught to a person after they’ve been sucked in, gradually becoming more receptive to drastically changing their world view. This process is called “milk before meat” and it is the church’s primary method of conversion. Here is an article by a Mormon defending this practice and complaining that Google allows people to find out truths about the Mormon Church that it isn’t ready to tell them yet.

    http://www.mormontimes.com/article/15891/Jerry-Johnston-Milk-before-meat

  • Sarah Braasch

    I remember being approached by a Mormon on my university campus a long time ago, and I pretty much regurgitated to her the Mormon doctrine, which is pretty much public knowledge, as Rollingforest describes above, and she straight up lied to me, and told me that none of the crazy stuff is true, especially about the female subjugation stuff.

    I told her, well, if you’re not even interested in telling the truth, then I’m not interested in having a conversation with you.

    In Europe, they’ve started, a little bit, going after these scam artists for fraud.

    I think this is an interesting concept.

    We don’t allow people to straight up lie to people, heedlessly, in any other area of public life.

    But, if you claim to be a religion, it’s a bloody free for all. No holds barred.

  • archimedez

    Jormungund,

    I wasn’t previously familiar with the Greek and Hebrew terms, but your mention of ‘Gehenna’ (for hell) caught my eye because that is essentially the same word used in Arabic in the Qur’an for hell, namely, Jahannam. I checked, and indeed Jahannam comes from the Hebrew Gehinnam. It’s also kind of funny to see how far the term has spread, considering that this apparently originated as the name of an actual dump in a particular location.
    “jahannam : hell [Heb gehinnom, Amh gehannem] Aze cehennem, Ful jahannama, Hau jahannama, Hin jahannum, Ind jahanam, Per jahannam, Swa jehanum, Tat dzhehennem, Tur cehennem borrowed from Ar”
    http://www.freeweb.hu/etymological/AEDweb.htm

  • Rollingforest

    @archimedez: There is a theory that Muhammad got much of his ideas for the Quran from Ebionite Christians, who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, but was not God (Jews today also believe that the future Messiah will be a man, not a God). Muhammad changed Jesus to a prophet, not a Messiah, but Jesus does have an important part in Islam, likely from the influence of these Ebionite Christians. The fact that the Quran uses a term that originated from the Bible seems good evidence that Muhammad was familar with the text when he wrote the Quran.

  • Jeff

    Firstly, Rob Bell believes in hell. He’s just a squeamish evangelical – he hopes most people won’t end up there, at least not permanently – but he believes at least some will. My understanding is that he allows for postmortem conversion.

    As for the rest – Ebon, you’re way off. You’re giving them FAR too much credit. They cling to the concept of eternal damnation not merely because it fills the pews, but because they positively relish the idea. Calvinism is one of the two most pervasive influences within the evangelical subculture (Dominionism being the other). For centuries – going back to Augustine, but Calvin got the credit – it’s been teaching that the enjoyment of eternal bliss will be heightened by the ability to see the torments of the damned. Many – and I insist that it’s most – of these people truly believe that the large part of their “heavenly reward” will consist of milling about on a mezzanine in heaven, chugging beers with Jesus and Dubya, peering over the railing into the bowels of hell, watching you and everyone you’ve ever loved or cared about being tortured unimaginably for all of eternity. They anticipate it eagerly; it’s what they live for. It gives them great, big erections. Read Frank Scheaffer’s books; he grew among them, and he acknowledges freely that their theology is, essentially, one great, big revenge fantasy. Jesus returns, and everyone they despise – everyone brighter than they are, which is, of course, pretty much everyone – is made to see that they were right all along. Then they get what’s coming to them.

    I’m convinced that fundamentalism/authoritarianism is the result of a neurological disorder – and the small but slowly growing body of evidence is beginning to bear this out – but they’re complicit in this aspect of it. It’s a collective criminal psychosis; there’s simply no other way to see it. They are the worst people in the world. They are the worst people in all of human history. There is no treatment, other than to quarantine them and prohibit them from breeding. Of course, this will never be done, which is the main reason I’ve given up hope for our survival.

  • Syn

    Hel, of course, is where people who didn’t die in battle or otherwise distinguish themselves go. People who really served their tribe or community go to Asgard, to await the final battle with the forces of chaos (Ragnarok), in which they will fight on the side of the gods. I think that we can guess from ancient burial practices in Europe that it wasn’t only warriors who were granted an afterlife.
    I was interested to read that “Gehenna” was literally a garbage dump. I wonder if Christianity hasn’t run with a metaphor that originally just described the actual burial practices of a community in Judea, with its accompanying judgements on who merited remembering.

  • anti_supernaturalist

    “Good” God! You have a “problem” with evil.

    • a brief guide to “immoral” gods

    The so-called ‘problem of evil’ always arises when natural disasters — those Acts of “God” for which insurance will not pay — overwhelm lands and peoples indiscriminately. Surely, not everyone “deserved” punishment. What’s up with God — the gods — the invisible powers?

    This line of response begs important questions — Why must God be benevolent? Why must the gods be just? Why assume that suffering is punishment? Why does (western) religion demand obedience to an immoral monster? (The very word ‘islam’ means submission.)

    The big-4 monster-theisms, always eager to maintain secular power rush to restore a status quo ante in cases of “unmerited” suffering. To preserve belief in the supernatural, they create a defense — a theodicy — justifying god’s ways to man.

    The god hypothesis — ‘God is good’ — can itself never be questioned. God’s goodness is ruled immune from any attempt at disproof. Here lies exposed the root irrationality common to zoroastrianism, post-exilic judaism, xianity, islam.

    gods needed defending long before mega-cults arose

    A very ancient theodicy mixes submission with raw acceptance — the powers act as they will. Their actions are subject to no constraint. This is not the sophomoric view that whatever a god does is right.

    The oldest of divine powers are “beyond good and evil” to use Nietzsche’s sparkling phrase. Categories of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ do not apply to them. The gods of Gilgamesh, Job, and Oedipus for example must be acknowledged and worshiped whatever they do.

    morality does not grow out of religion.

    The truth of a wide separation of morality from religion receives a masterful summary by the eminent classicist, E. R. Dodds [The greeks and the irrational. Berkeley. 1951. pp. 31-32]:

    “I need hardly say [sic!] that religion and morals were not initially interdependent, in Greece or elsewhere; they had their separate roots. I suppose that broadly speaking, religion grows out of man’s relationship to his total environment, morals out of his relation to his fellow men.”

    Breaking a link between ‘god’ and ‘good’ appears impossible to followers of the big-4 so-called great monotheisms. They also want an impossible object of devotion: an all powerful, all knowing, do-gooder. But they are late comers professing irrational doctrines which continually tie them in knots of inconsistency.

    At the core, there are no paradoxes of faith despite Kierkegaard — only necessary falsehoods and conceptual incoherence bound together with unconvincing historical fiction.

    Dead doctrines get manipulated by lying, fraudulent clerics aiming at secular power.

    the anti_supernaturalist

  • Mike

    I’m not sure what, exactly, I am;however, what I do in fact know is the Fundamentalists/Evangelical’s addiction to the teaching of a literal Hell is no worse than an addiction to drugs.

    Fundamentalists NEED “hell” as the “big stick” to beat their congregations into submition and to drive the new hearers to the direction of the altar. Without pain, torture and eternity, the churches would empty faster Three Rivers Stadium on the Pirates opening day.

    My first dose of honesty and truth about Hell came from the book The Origin and History of the Doctrine of Eternal Punishment by a Unitarian named Thayer. If you want to give it a read, follow this link:
    http://www.tentmaker.org/books/OriginandHistory.html

  • vampirarchist

    At the core, there are no paradoxes of faith despite Kierkegaard — only necessary falsehoods and conceptual incoherence bound together with unconvincing historical fiction.

    What makes you eligible to say that? The world abounds with paradoxes.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X