From my experience, I would argue that hell is the worst Christian doctrine of all. I’m not even going to get into how there is no justice in punishing finite transgressions with eternal torture, or into all the other problems with the theological ins and outs of hell. Instead, I’m referring to the practical implications of the doctrine.
I am a mother. I look at my beautiful young daughter, so full of life and joy and excitement and curiosity, and I feel my love for her bubbling up in my heart. If I believed that there were any possibility that this sweet little thing could end up tortured in a lake of fire for eternity, I would leave no stone unturned in desperately working to keep her from this fate.
In my quest to keep my daughter from unimaginable pain, I would probably be highly susceptible to religious leaders offering various methods for raising good Christian children, and easily taken in by their promises to keep my daughter’s soul from destruction. I would do anything I had to do, buy any book, try any method, risk any hurt. What parent wouldn’t?
Fundamentalist preacher and author Michael Pearl promises parents that if they discipline their children just so, including an emphasis on absolute obedience and the use of hitting to back it up, they will not stray from God’s path, and if he warns that if children are allowed to grow up without such discipline, they will be set on the path to hell. Is it any wonder that so many parents follow Pearl’s highly problematic parenting methods?
Leading Christian patriarchy organization Vision Forum promises that if you raise your children according to their teachings, homeschooling in order to “shelter” from “evil influences” and “teach God’s truth” and emphasizing the hierarchical teachings of Christian patriarchy, your child will not stray from Christ’s side like all those willful pagan children in the public schools. Is it any surprise Vision Forum has such a draw?
Bill Gothard’s Institute for Basic Life Principles also promises a perfect godly family, with highly problematic consequences. Mercy Ministries and Hephzibah House promise to restore your rebellious teenage daughter’s faith, though both have been linked to abuse. Exodus International promises to “cure” your gay son or daughter, though actual science is nowhere on their side. And on and on and on it goes.
If I believed there was any chance my small daughter could go to hell, I would turn to any method I could to keep her from this unimaginably horrible fate.
Attend church three times a week? Check. Homeschool using only religious textbooks? Check. Control her every interaction with others to keep her away from “bad influences”? Check. Follow strict child training methods that involve enforced obedience and hitting her if she so much as has a bad attitude? Check. Employ emotional manipulation or even threaten to cut her off if she grows up to make wrong choices, hoping that tough love will bring her back? Check.
Simply put, I would do anything I had to to keep my daughter from eternal torture. I suspect any parent would, really.
And then, if my daughter ceased to follow Jesus and I believed that she was on her way to hell, my heart would break. How could I have joy in life thinking of my daughter suffering eternal torture? How could I be happy knowing that pain without end lay in her path?
And how could I not lay some of the blame for her fate on myself? I would ask myself where I went wrong. Should I have sent her to the Worldview Academy, which promises to make your child immune to the wiles of liberal professors? Should I have sent her to Summit, the McCarthyist worldview conference that promises to give young people a conservative Christian worldview, for several summers instead of only one? Or maybe I should have sent her to an even more conservative college, or taken her to the Creation Museum?
Guilt and blame would ensue. How could I not keep my own daughter from eternal torture?
I understand why my parents raised me as they did and then reacted as they did when I questioned their beliefs. And I think now you understand why I really, really, really hate the doctrine of hell.