Revised version of “The threat of Hell”

This is a revision of a section of chapter 1 of the book. I was inspired to do it by a recent thread at LessWrong. And yes, it’s also a signal that I’ve gotten tired of the “blog MTWTF and only then” thing. Did anyone actually care about that?

Another thing I need to address right away is the fact that some people are terrified at the thought of becoming atheists, because they’ve been told that if they stop believing (and die without repenting their unbelief), they’ll go to Hell. If you have this fear, I’m very sorry for you, but I want you to know that Hell isn’t real. Let me say it again: Hell isn’t real. How do I know, you ask? Isn’t that a very arrogant thing for me to say?

The best response I can give is to paraphrase a point Sam Harris often makes: If you are a Christian, consider that there are well over a billion Muslims in the world, and that a substantial percentage of them believe that if you hear and reject the message of Islam—that there is no God but God (and not a Trinity of gods), that Muhammad is his prophet, that the Qur’an is the word of God—that if you hear and reject this message, you’ll go to Hell. Now consider how little sleep you lose over this possibility, in spite of the hundreds of millions of people who believe it. And if you are a Muslim, consider the same things, with the two religions reversed.

If you don’t think you know the Hells of other religions aren’t real, and that there isn’t anything arrogant about thinking this, then you shouldn’t be surprised that I’m equally confident that the Hell of your religion isn’t real. And I think it’s really important that you get rid of any fear of Hell you have right now.

Because the truth is this: when someone, even your best friend or a religious leader you’ve come to love, tells you you’ll go to Hell if you don’t believe what they tell you to believe, they’re using a threat to try to control you. You should resent this the way you would any other threat. You should see it as an attempt at brainwashing, an attack on your ability to think.

That’s what it is. Philosophers have respectfully discussed the “you should believe to avoid going to Hell” argument under the name “Pascal’s Wager,” after the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal (1663-1662), who also lends his name to, among other things, a scientific unit of pressure and a programming language. But don’t let the respectful name fool you: it’s still an attempt to control people through threats.

This ought to be an embarrassment to religion. What does it say about belief in God that its advocates so often resort to threats and promises to win converts, and keep sheep in the flock, rather give reasons for actually thinking God exists? It’s a strong clue that they can’t give a good reason. A clue that none of it, Hell included, is real.

One more thing: if you’re unsure about the existence of God, don’t confuse the chance God exists with the chance a specific religion (like Christianity) is true. And don’t confuse the chance Christianity is true with the chance you’ll go to Hell for not believing. That’s something Christian theologians disagree about.
Do parts of the Bible seem to say all non-Christians go to Hell? Absolutely. But as with everything else, this is something the Bible contradicts itself on. Other parts seem to say that it’s what you do that matters, and still others (like I Corinthians 15:22) seem to say everyone will go to heaven. I recommend Rob Bell’s work Love Wins for a nice collection of conflicting things the Bible says about who will go to Heaven and who will go to Hell.

So in short: don’t let the threat of Hell stop you from thinking.

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