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.

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


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