FAQ: Do You Ever Still Worry About Hell?

child scared of hellA friend of mine who still identifies as a Christian wrote me to ask me whether or not I’m still bothered by Pascal’s Wager. In case you’re not familiar, Pascal’s Wager refers to that age-old notion that a person, whether or not he fully believes it, should choose to live as if God were in fact real (although I wonder: which God? They usually mean the Christian one for reasons they never explicitly state).

The reasoning goes that if a person lives this way and then this premise proves false in the end, nothing is lost (that’s debatable) because in that case we simply die and that’s the end of it. But if a person chooses to gamble his life, choosing to live as if there were NO God, then the consequences of being wrong on that point would be so catastrophically bad that the alternative outcome should look more palatable by comparison.

[For a counterpoint, read “The Christian’s Wager: Why Faith is a Bigger Gamble Than Disbelief“]

Leaving aside the question of whether or not you can just choose to believe something you don’t already see sufficient reason to believe, also leaving aside the possibility that the God which turns out to be the right one isn’t one of the ones who punishes people for choosing incorrectly, I’m passing along my answer to my friend below.

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Are you past the point of being haunted by Pascal’s Wager? I’m not.

As much as I think a person can be, yes. Somewhere along the way I turned a corner and it just feels so unreal to me now…it’s virtually impossible for me to believe in it anymore.

This belief in posthumous punishment simply strikes me as too convenient…like it’s exactly the kind of belief system people would set up if they wanted to scare people into never leaving it. And it doesn’t seem logical to punish people essentially for not believing the right things. Like I’ve written about before, I can’t even figure out the mechanics of Hell for it to make enough sense to take seriously anymore.

[Related: “Why I Find the Notion of Hell Absurd“]

On top of that, I spent too many years asking God to turn up and show me something… anything… to change my mind. I mean if I’m really headed for something that terrifying, then he’s gonna have to do something to make me understand it’s all real. If he’s real and if he’s anything like they say he is, then he KNOWS me…he KNOWS what it would take to change my mind. And surely he would be capable of doing whatever that is, just like materializing for Thomas. Is he no longer capable of doing such things? And why not?

I think I’ve settled for myself how sincerely I know that I only want the truth. I’ve given my life completely over to Jesus before. I held NOTHING back. For decades. I know I’m willing to surrender everything. So it’s not an issue of motive. I sincerely want the truth and asked for it so many times. The only conclusion that makes sense to me anymore is that it’s all made up. Like Ryan Bell put it, the world just makes more sense without that additional layer of complexity on top of it all.

If God knows the heart, and if my heart is as sincere as I know my own heart to be, then it makes no sense that he would 1) be real, and 2) love me and know me the way I’m told he does, and yet 3) hide himself from me when all I ever wanted was to know him. The same logic can be applied to avoiding Hell…and the more time passes, the more cruel and inhumane that scenario sounds to me.

It doesn’t even sound like something the God I was taught to believe in would allow. Not when he could just materialize and offer scars for people to touch with their own hands. It doesn’t add up.

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There are a number of other things I could say, but for now I’m just passing along the above exchange with my friend because it’s a gut-level honest response. I really don’t struggle with fear of Hell anymore because enough time and thinking have transpired to cause that sensation to fade for me beyond recognition.

The funny thing about Hell is that the fear of it often sticks around long after a person has decided she no longer even believes it makes any sense. One can even lose all discernible belief in God, and yet still somehow fear that she will be punished one day for doing so. It’s not a logical process because at its bottom, faith isn’t ultimately a rational process, but an emotional and social one. It’s rooted in sentiment more than logic.

Religion is transmitted socially, through our networks of support, through our surrounding culture, and through our friends and family. We learn to transfer our trust in our parents and our elders onto a proxy which will far outlive them—in this case an invisible Being, a surrogate Parent of sorts. This heavenly Parent lives on long after the first people we ever trusted have passed away, and we learn to transfer that trust onto him by extension. It’s deeply rooted in something primal and sentimental.

Which explains why it feels nearly impossible to reason people out of their beliefs. They didn’t come by them through argumentation. They came to their beliefs through a transfer of trust and love from one or more visible people onto this invisible Person, and asking them to give him up is like asking them to let go of the most foundational presence in their lives.

That’s why I’m never in a rush to take that away from them. Although I do have to say, if their image of God involves a threat of everlasting punishment, I’m gonna do what I can to pick that apart because I don’t see any way that can help anyone.

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About Neil Carter

Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a writer, a speaker, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals living in the midst of a highly religious subculture.