Bombing Demons; Or, the Fear of Hell

I recently received the following email:

Just wanted to preface that I’ve been following your blog “Love, Joy, Feminism” for a while.  While I did not grow up quiverfull, I did grow up in a fairly conservative evangelical church.  I left Christianity in college after an experience with abuse and domestic violence blasted my views apart.  I’ve come to appreciate your writing as a good expression of what many of us experienced growing up as young women in the conservative movement.  

Like most in that type of church, I was taught that all non-christians were going to hell – with Christianity of course being narrowly defined as agreeing with the church.  While I of course no longer believe in heaven or hell, I still find myself afraid of it.  I was talking to a friend recently – a liberal christian and a universalist – who revealed similar fears.  This seems to be fairly common among those of us who grew up in that type of culture.  My question is, did you have to deal with this fear of going to hell when you left Christianity?  If so, how did you handle it?

Peace, Jese

To understand where this question comes from, you have to understand exactly what Jese and I were taught about hell. Many of my readers come from similar backgrounds and understand, but for those of you raised in liberal religious traditions or outside of religion entirely, I’ll start by explaining.

Heaven, Hell, and Salvation

We were taught, first and foremost, that heaven and hell are very real places. Every person, when they die, will go to either heaven or hell (there is no purgatory or in-between place in this schema). Only those who have trusted Jesus for their salvation will go to heaven; all others, no matter how good or earnest, will go to hell. In heaven, souls spend eternity praising God and living in the city of gold and jewels he has built for them. In hell, souls spend eternity being tortured in a lake of fire.

I, and others raised similarly, was taught that the only way to be saved is to acknowledge that you are a sinner and cannot achieve heaven on your own but will always fall short, and then to trust that Jesus’ death on the cross will pay for your sins, thus accepting God’s gift of salvation. I have written before about salvation anxiety, because while this sounds simple and easy it really isn’t. While salvation comes from the acknowledgement I mentioned below, as embodied in the “sinner’s prayer,” you have to actually mean it. If you have any pride in your own abilities or righteousness, the whole thing is negated. The result is that many (not all) young Christians, like me, pray the sinner’s prayer again and again over the years, afraid that maybe they hadn’t really meant it the first time.

If you don’t pray the sinner’s prayer, you will go to hell. It’s as simple as that. And you can’t pray the sinner’s prayer unless you have heard of Jesus (See Romans 10:14-15), so everyone who never hears the gospel message will go to hell, as will anyone who hears and rejects it. It doesn’t matter how good someone is, how loving or caring, if they haven’t prayed the sinner’s prayer – and meant it – they will go to hell. Ethical atheists, well-meaning liberal Christians, compassionate and loving Muslims, all will go to hell.

Just what is hell? Hell is not a very popular idea these days. Some fundamentalists and evangelicals, along with many in more liberal Christian traditions, define hell as simply “separation from God” in an attempt to downplay it. But in churches like the one in which I grew up, the “separation from God” line is never evoked alone. Hell may be separation from God, but it’s also a physical place of eternal torture and fire. There are many Bible verses ready to confirm this.

Matthew 13:49-50 – It will be this way at the end of the age. Angels will come and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 

Mark 9:47-48 – It is better to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.

Revelation 14:9-11 – A third angel followed the first two, declaring in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and takes the mark on his forehead or his hand, that person will also drink of the wine of God’s anger that has been mixed undiluted in the cup of his wrath, and he will be tortured with fire and sulfur  in front of the holy angels and in front of the Lamb. And the smoke from their torture will go up forever and ever, and those who worship the beast and his image will have no rest day or night, along with anyone who receives the mark of his name.”

Yes, I know there are Christians today who don’t believe in hell, or at least don’t believe hell is permanent or that it is a place of torture. My point is not to get in an argument over what the Bible does or does not say about hell, but rather to point out that there are a myriad of verses that seem to indicate that hell is a place of horrendous and eternal torture, and that many evangelicals and fundamentalists take these verses very seriously and many evangelical and fundamentalist children grow up with this understanding of hell.

This I and many others like me grew up believing that if I did not pray the sinner’s prayer, and mean it, I would be tortured for eternity, with no end. This torture, I was taught, would only be what I deserved for being a sinner and not accepting God’s gift of salvation through the death of his son on the cross.

The Fear of Hell Part 1: Losing My Faith

When I first started questioning the basic tenets of Christianity and even looking beyond religion itself, I was very, very afraid. I felt that no matter how much Christianity did not make sense to me, I had better stick with it than risk the eternal torture in hell. I knew Pascal’s Wager well, and felt it was a wager I must make. I had to hold onto my faith, whatever it took, because I could not, would not risk eternal torture.

The problem was that I knew that faith had to be real, and I had precious little of that left. How could I affirm the credo of the sinner’s prayer with sincerity when I was having serious doubts about every little part of Christianity? I knew that God could see through a fake confession. I realized that more and more when I affirmed the tenets of Christianity I was simply paying lip service to things I didn’t really believe anymore. And so I stopped.

My growing atheism immediately helped to erode my fear of hell. If there was no God, there was no hell. As I became more and more sure that there was no God out there, and as I found more and more evidence that pointed toward a lack of God’s existence, my fear of hell was able to dissipate. As an atheist, after all, I was now fairly certain that there was no God, no heaven, no hell. And yet. There was still a little bit of me that was afraid, afraid that maybe somehow I was wrong and hell as I was taught really did exist, in which case I would of course end up there and be tortured for all eternity. My fear of hell had lessened, but it had not disappeared.

The Fear of Hell Part 2: The Lessons of Logic

I had been taught that people went to hell after death not because God sent them there, but rather because, without Jesus’ blood, they deserved it because of their sinfulness. But this all made less and less sense to me.

Why would God set it up so that his son’s sacrifice only paid for those who happened to hear about it and believe in it, rather than for everyone? Why would God privilege belief over things like love, compassion, and ethical living? How was eternal torture a just punishment for any evil deed a human could carry out?

There are several counter arguments to all of this. The first is that God couldn’t change the rules that he had to live by, and these were somehow the rules. He couldn’t “set up the system” any other way, this was the way it had to be, as much as it grieved him. The second is that God may be merciful, but he is also just, and justice demands the eternal torture of those who do not repent of their sins. This does not negate God’s love. The picture I was given growing up was almost one of God weeping as sinful people willfully consign themselves to hell.

But then I realized something. If I were told that if I had children, fifty percent of them would have a horrible nerve system condition that would result in them feeling excruciating pain for their entire lives, with no way to give them any sort of relief, I wouldn’t have children. I realized that God had to be horribly sadistic to create mankind knowing what would happen, knowing of the eternal torture of billions of souls, just so that he could have the company of the ones who admitted they were sinners and bowed before his son. No matter how bound God was by whatever rules he was bound by, there was no excuse for this.

I also realized that eternal torture for finite sins is absolutely not just. If my cat scratched me several times in one day, would I be justified in cutting the tip of his tail off as a punishment, or in sticking pins in him as a punishment? If Sally began making destructive messes, throwing her toys all over and pulling books off the bookshelves even when I asked her to stop, would I be justified in tying her down and beating her? NO. The punishment is supposed to fit the crime, and eternal torture as a punishment for something that is part of human nature (because, as descendants of Adam, all humans supposedly have a sin nature) is sort of like using an atom bomb in response to someone stealing a stick of gum. Except worse, because eternal torture never ends.

I suddenly realized that, in the words of one of my readers, if this was God, I was more ethical than he was. I realized that if the God I had been taught existed actually did exist, if a hell of eternal torture awaited all who did not bow before him, he wasn’t worth serving. He was an evil, cruel, malignant sadist worse even than Hitler. It was at this point that I formulated “Libby Anne’s Wager.”

The Fear of Hell Part 3: The Salvation War

Yet I knew that there technically could be an evil, sadistic God, however unlikely it was. I could say all I wanted that I wouldn’t serve a God like that, but that didn’t automatically mean that he did not exist, though I seriously, seriously doubted it. In other words, just a smidgen of my fear of hell survived all these questions and musings. And then I read The Salvation War. Yes yes, laugh, because it is ridiculous, but reading this book-length internet fan fiction killed the last bits of my fear of hell. The premise of the Salvation War is as follows:

The story follows an alt-universe story wherein heaven and hell are real, and heaven declares that, from now on, all humans who die will go to hell, and orders all humans to lie down and die. Satan consequently declares Earth a conquest; however, the surviving humans will not go under lightly and declare war on hell. The story explores themes of betrayal, self-reliance, and especially the dichotomy between inflexible dogmatic thinking and flexible scientific analysis.

Basically, it turns out that God and Satan are in league, that all humans are going to hell anyway, and that they offer an ultimatum ordering obedience. Many humans obey, laying down and dying and going straight to hell. Others, however, resist. They declare war – yes, war – on hell.

I know this sounds silly, but the moment the first B52 bombers blew up the first demon scouts – “Just what the hell are those?” – I felt liberated in a way that’s hard to describe. The moment a seasoned female marine was killed in combat and found herself in hell, only to take up arms there and start a rebellion within hell itself, I felt something give inside of me as the last bit of my fear of hell took flight. The Salvation War is the story of ethical, compassionate, brave people waging literal war against an evil, backward, narcissistic, cruel God and his companion, Satan. And I don’t want to give away the end, but let’s just say it doesn’t turn out so well for God.

Now, I know that this story is fiction, and I grew up being taught that demons are somehow in another dimension and couldn’t be killed by B52 bombers. But somehow, reading The Salvation War spoke to something deep within me, reminding me that if there is such a God, we are greater than it, and maybe, just perhaps, if there was such a God we could, together, do something about it.

If your curiosity is piqued and you want to have a look at The Salvation War, you can read the whole thing here, but I’ll warn you – it’s long. Oh, and there’s some profanity, and the people who wrote it are very into science and technical things, so there’s some detail about weapons systems, etc. But it was food for my hell-fearing heart.


I have indeed dealt with the fear of hell, and I have overcome it. For me, it took both logically realizing that a God who would allow the existence of hell as we were taught is a sadistic bully, and reading literature that allowed me to see the defeat of just such a God at the hands of ethical and united human beings. Best wishes to you on your own journey, and I’d like to invite anyone else who has had similar fears to share how they have dealt with them.

When Demons Are Real
Charlie Hebdo and Freedom of Speech
What Kind of Atheist Parent Are You?
Why I Take My Kids to the UU Church
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Amanda

    Uhm… which book is first? And drat them that I can't find it in a PDF, LOL

  • Exrelayman

    @Libby Anne – lovely, logical, incisive – IOW typical Libby Anne.@Jehe – Because fear is the powerful mind control weapon, I wish to add to Libby Anne's excellent exposition a few points.HGod (hypothetical God) would have to be more logical than we humans. Given for arguments sake the ludicrous story of the fall, it is not logical for a God who hates sin to decree that all be born into sin because of the sin of the original pair. More logical would be to replace this pair with a new and improved pair.HGod is loving. Ever so much more loving than we humans. Such limitless love could never be a part of a divine plan that included a Hell that consisted of inflicting pain endlessly.HGod is immensely beyond and above us, as we are in a lesser sense beyond and above the ants. It in no way offends us that ants do not love or worship us. Why then does it make any sense for HGod to be offended by our lack of adoration or belief?Another appeal to logic. Discipline by loving parents is formulated so as to instruct the child so that future behavior will be informed by the lesson and thereby improved. But Hell as scripturally described is simply torture forever with no improving function. How does that make any sense? HGod would be less compassionate the we are in disciplining our children.These are only a few thoughts on the fly, but I hope they help you. Likely some others will add more points. Hell is a ludicrous concept for too many reasons to be seriously contemplated as a possibility.

  • Libby Anne

    Oh, sorry! Armageddon is first, and is actually the only one I've read. Pantheocide is second, and I think involves the war with Heaven, which follows the war with Hell. I've heard it's going to be a trilogy, but I'm not sure what the third book will be about. Oh here, I found it: "'Armageddon' was about Humanity vs. Hell, 'Pantheocide' will be Humanity vs. Heaven, and 'Lords of War' will be about the consequences of humanity being the master of Heaven, Earth and Hell." All together it's called The Salvation Wars.

  • Stephanie

    It's interesting because you never hear about atheists commenting on the reason why heaven doesn't exist. I can understand trying to disprove hell, but they never mention heaven. But I guess it is more don't take away people's hope? I am a Christian even though I struggle with this "salvation anxiety" and as you know it is really psychologically taxing at times. I was raised in a similar way to you so I enjoy reading your posts.

  • boomSLANG

    Kudos. A good comprehensive coverage of the despicable, and yes, ludicrous concept known as "hell". I'll add something else…If you're ever in a position where you're discussing "hell" with friends or family who are Evangelicals, you can throw them for a serious loop by simply asking them if you "deserve" to be there if you should end up there(using that exact word, "deserve"). It throws them off, because, chances are, you are a good, compassionate person, and thus, they know deep down that you don't deserve to die a second death and be discarded in a "lake of fire". On the other hand, they at least implicitly support "hell", as well as God's supposed "Perfect Justice". The point being, while they're fully prepared to say that people whom they don't-know-from-adam do in fact deserve to be roasted in "hell", it's hard for them(if not impossible) to say that people whom they know and love "deserve" it. And here's the clincher—even if they can muster up a "yes, you deserve hell", you then hit them with, "Well?…so then what's the problem?"The philosophical problem is glaring: If God is merciful, then he is subverting "Justice".

  • Resophonic

    I have always found it fascinating how little the Bible talks about heaven vs how much it talks about hell. What actually is heaven? What is it like? Christians all know that the "sitting on a cloud with a harp" model is wrong, but I don't think that I have ever heard a better description.Libby Anne's comments about Hell being "separation from God + eternal torment" line up pretty closely with what I was taught. Heaven was more like "eternally basking in God's prescence and love". I always had the thought "sounds boring." To which, my church's leaders would go on about how "it will be greater than anything that you can ever imagine." We were always a little contemptuous of the Islamic "72 eternally restored virgins" view, but at least they tried to describe their heaven.I think that I internalized Heaven as "eternally LIVING" while Hell was "eternally begin stuck at the moment of dying." I knew it wasn't supposed to be that way, but fear of Hell was always more emphasized than longing for Heaven.My first exposure to atheism was Lennon's "Imagine" which directly addressed the lack of Heaven and Hell. I think that Atheists don't generally talk about Heaven other than to dismiss it along with Hell because you don't generally argue against something that is supposed to be universally good. We argue against Hell strongly, because just the existence of the concept, and the rules of the system that get you there, are profoundly unjust and evil. We also tend to think that there is no good evidence to say that the world really works that way.I think that the most profound thing that anyone can say about death is "I don't know what happens when/after you die, and neither do you."

  • Exrelayman

    I keep a file of quotes that I have liked. As pertains to your inquiry, this seems a relevant one:Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775-1854)Has creation a final purpose at all, and if so why is it not attained immediately, why does perfection not exist from the very beginning?Allow me to elaborate. A good and powerful God could make the perfect state of being from the getgo. No need for this vale of tears, or for us to be 'tested'. (God knows the outcome of any test before the test happens – why have it – why not instead refrain from allowing the manifestation of those who will end up in Hell? Just start out with perfection/heaven – an all powerful God could do that, so why not?)Atheists are not critical of the heaven concept because that concept is not logically incompatible with a loving God.

  • Joy

    I find a lack of belief about the afterlife (that is, I'm not sure I believe in any such thing) fairly comforting–once a full life is over, it' just over, and nothing after. But, on the other hand, my life has been pretty good. Had my life been full of suffering and oppression, I might feel more comforted by the idea of an afterlife of eternal bliss (and an afterlife of torture for the bad guys). But the concept of eternal hell of torture does offend the basic sense of fairness–what finite offense merits infinite punishment?Since we really know nothing about hell, I generally talk to religious people about hell using Dante's model. In fact, I treat Dante as if it were as reliable a source as the Bible for religious people (they don't seem to mind this in general). Limbo (for the righteous heathens), however, is not eternal torture though it isn't exactly eternal bliss either. Also there is a school of theology that has Paradise in Hell before Jesus (though not after; he harrows it and that's that. I do like the myth of the Harrowing of Hell: jailbreak, baby!). The more you delve into Christian thought about the afterlife, the weirder it gets.

  • Anonymous

    ResophonicJan 27, 2012 11:00 AM said:"I have always found it fascinating how little the Bible talks about heaven vs how much it talks about hell." I thought I would try a google search and this is what I found:In the King James version the word – heaven – appears 582 timesthe word – heaven's – appears oncethe word – heavenly – appears 23 timesthe word – heavens – appears 133 timesandthe word – hell – appears 54 timesRead more:

  • Libby Anne

    Beverly – To do that you'd really have to look at the Greek or Hebrew. In English, "heaven" can mean the sky, i.e. "look up into the heavens." Furthermore, Greek and Hebrew had multiple words for "hell," and those words are frequently simply transliterated, i.e. "And he will be thrown down to Gehenna." Similarly, hell is frequently spoken of as "the lake of fire," etc, rather than called "hell." None of the verse I quote above, after all, use the word "hell." I don't know which the Bible actually speaks of more, I just wanted to point out that a google search of "heaven" and "hell" won't actually tell you.

  • Resophonic

    Beverly, I think that word counts are a superficial way of looking at it–especially in translation. There are a lot of words for heaven and hell in the Bible, just as there are many words for God, but there is a lot more time spent talking about the concepts. Both are fairly late in the theological evolution of the Bible and the most mature expressions occur later (and strangely enough, parallel what was going on with the neighboring countries theologies at the time). Even the concept of having an afterlife evolved over the course of the Bible. One of the major differences between the Pharisees and Sadducees during Jesus's time was over the existence of the afterlife. The priestly class of the Sadducess didn't believe in it at all because during the time of the Pentateuch, it is pretty clear that neither concept was present (though there are some sections that can be read retroactively to vaguely support them.) Even the concept of the devil evolved. My point was that especially in the new testament, that heaven was out there, and yes they talk about it, but it isn't described much. What will it be like? Why is it something to be desired? More importantly, how do we know that the world works this way?Your post on Libby's other thread talked about some of what you see it being like. Is the existence of that Heaven good enough to explain Hell's torments for people that either don't think that this makes a lick of sense, or have never heard about it?

  • JeseC

    What gets me as much as anything is that this came up in a conversation with a Christian friend. Said friend just happens to be one of the liberal Christians that the people we grew up with would raise eyebrows at and intimate that they weren't "really saved." He no more believes in eternal hell than I do, yet that fear is still there. It's sad that these people are so quick to condemn even other Christians to hell for not being of the right type.

  • boomSLANG

    "A good and powerful God could make the perfect state of being from the getgo." ~ ExrelaymanAgreed. And if such a "God" indeed made us in his own image(per Genesis), then this "perfect state of being" could have, and should have, been the end result. But it wasn't, was it? No–we were "created" with the propensity to displease the "Creator"; we were "created" with an imperfect nature. Note, neither Adam nor his accomplice chose their nature; this nature was given to them by "God". The absurdity is compounded when the entire human race is then held accountable for this duo's one-time "trespass". It really is lunacy when you think about it.

  • Meggie

    Suggestion for everyone – learn the bible passages about not judging others lest you be judged. They are very useful when people ask whether you are truly saved, a real Christian, etc.

  • OneSmallStep

    ** I realized that God had to be horribly sadistic to create mankind knowing what would happen, knowing of the eternal torture of billions of souls, just so that he could have the company of the ones who admitted they were sinners and bowed before his son.**Not only that, but in order for Adam and Eve to choose to eat the fruit in the first place, there's no way they could've been created "perfect." If they were perfect, then they wouldn't have been tempted in the first place. So God created them with a flaw, and then punished them for falling for that flaw.

  • Anonymous

    Speaking of heaven….a Christian of my acquaintance told me that since animals don't have souls, our pets won't join us in the afterlife. But since people like pets,God will create animals exactly like them so that we could have the pleasure of their company in Heaven. I guess God also alters our minds so we don't realize that good old Fido isn't really Fido, but a God-made simulacrum? Sorry for wandering off topic but I'm having trouble trying to figure this out.

  • Anonymous

    A further thought….if he can do the pet thing, perhaps then God makes perfect images of all the people in our lives we loved who didn't make it into Heaven? For example, you would have a psuedo-Grandma to keep you company in Heaven so you are not bothered by the thought of your actual sweet Grandma roasting eternally. It's a loathsome thought, but it actually makes some kind of sense.

  • Rachel

    I don't know if it's any consolation, but if one isn't brought up to believe in hell, it's really a nonsensical notion. (In its own way so is heaven, but at least that isn't an inherently cruel idea!) This is one thing that I can't comprehend, being so certain not only that there is an afterlife, let alone believing one knows exactly what it's like. I come from a mixed-faith family where nobody was particularly active or devout so religion kinda didn't happen much.If there is a heaven, I'm going to be met by a pile of animals — not simulacra — or it isn't heaven!

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    Same here XP

  • Rebecca

    Not sure if anyone is interested in this, but if you would like to read something that is existential and makes the whole god business seem a bit silly but is light-hearted and funny at the same time. I recommend the Hitchhiker's Guide series. Douglas Adams wrote humorous existential fiction, and he addresses god from time to time (although it isn't a main theme) in his plot line, but you will laugh out loud while reading it. It isn't really heavy at all.

  • Jaimie

    What really helped me with this fear, and believe me I was threatened with Hell quite often, was a rather sudden epiphany. If these awful, control-freaks who couldn't care less about me beyond their impossible expectations are the ones going to Heaven, and God is truly dangling salvation in front of me then snatching it away at the slightest sign of any independent thought coming from my brain, then why do I want to go there anyway? Am I some kind of masochist? I'd rather be in Hell with the sinners who love me for who I am. Of course, God is nothing like that but it took a while for me to understand that and actually trust Him.

  • Musical Atheist

    Great post. First time commenter, by the way, but I came across your blog a while ago via Butterflies and Wheels, and now check in regularly. I love the idea of starting a rebellion in Hell: I just wanted to mention, as a point of comparison, that Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' trilogy deals with exactly the opposite idea: the peoples of earth unite to rebel against God – the 'Authority' – because the rebellion of Lucifer failed the last time, and now it's time to try again. It focuses on free will and knowledge of good and evil as a more desirable state than 'innocence': a maturity to aspire to, the striving of children to truly grow up into their full power and beauty.