The Missiological Case for Hell

One of the common, but strange, responses to Rob Bell’s infamous lack of enthusiasm for eternal torture has been what we might call the Missiological Case for Hell.

This case was articulated recently by Russell Moore, dean of the school of theology at Southern Seminary, during a Team Hell Strategy Session at Al Mohler’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. The (Southern) Baptist Press summarizes Moore’s remarks on the Missiological Case for Hell:

Bell’s view of salvation, Moore said, is wrong biblically but also flawed practically and will lead to empty church pews. If the pastor says there is no judgment and everyone will end up in heaven, then people have little motivation to follow Christ, Moore and the other panelists said.

“You never have a universalist Great Awakening,” Moore said. “… The very thing [Rob Bell] is attempting to do, it never succeeds. You always wind up losing the church and unable to reach the people outside the church.”

Moore says the church will collapse without the threat of judgment. And, to be clear, “judgment” must mean nothing less than the vast majority of humankind suffering consciously for eternity in the Hell that Moore, et. al., imagine (magical fire, merciless God, “holy” as synonym for “sadistic,” etc.). Without that threat, Moore says, there can be no revival, no evangelism, no missionary outreach, no church growth. Without Hell, the church will shrink and shrivel and fade away.

This is hogwash.

I don’t mean “I think, in my opinion, that this is hogwash,” I mean that Russell Moore thinks, in his opinion, that this is hogwash. Or he would have if he had thought this through, because the silliness he’s advocating here slanders the church and all of its members, including himself. Russell Moore is unjustly impugning the motives of Russell Moore and maliciously accusing Russell Moore of believing things that Russell Moore does not believe.

The embrace of the Missiological Case for Hell represents a shift in the argument of Team Hell that Moore acknowledges here. The doctrine of Hell, Moore argues, is “practical.” It is useful. It works. That is a much lesser claim than the assertion that the doctrine of Hell is true. And it’s a much lesser claim than the assertion — which Moore presumes, without support — that the doctrine of Hell is something the Bible teaches.

What neither Moore nor his colleagues on the Team Hell panel discussion seems to notice is that this panel discussion was explicitly organized because they all believe that Moore’s “practical” argument is not true. The panel was called together, Al Mohler says, because of Rob Bell’s tremendous popularity. “He has a tremendous influence, especially with younger evangelicals, and I think that’s why we have to talk about this,” Mohler said at the outset of the discussion.

This is why this panel of Team Hell luminaries was there in the first place, because people are packing the pews at Rob Bell’s church and because his “Love Wins” message is reaching more and more people inside and outside the church.

So Moore shows up for a talk in response to the growing popularity of a movement producing explosive church growth and dramatic outreach, and then proceeds to say that this movement is wrong because it is unpopular, it will shrink churches and end outreach. Bell’s ideas are wrong because they will lead to empty pews, which is why Bell must be stopped from filling the pews by preaching those ideas. Or something like that. If Moore can’t be bothered to make sense of what he’s saying then it’s unfair to expect the rest of us to make sense of it for him.

In any case, I haven’t time here for a full refutation of the Missiological Case for Hell, but let’s just quickly look at three counter-examples — three “practical” case studies — that cast doubt on this whole notion of the missiological and ecclesiological usefulness of a doctrine of Hell.

Case Study No. 1: Paul

The enthusiasts of Team Hell would likely agree with me that St. Paul was a very successful missionary. We could attribute his success to the work of the Holy Spirit, or we could credit it to Paul’s sharp wits and dogged determination, but one thing that no one can possibly argue is that Paul’s success as a missionary was due to his preaching about Hell and his stern warning of the certainty of future, eternal, conscious torment for unbelievers.

Paul never gave such a warning. Never. Like all of the other apostles and missionaries and early church leaders portrayed in the book of Acts, Paul never spoke of Hell. Paul’s gospel made no mention of Hell.

And yet his listeners seem to have found far more of a “motivation to follow Christ” than any of the fearful followers of the missionaries of Team Hell. Paul’s listeners seemed to understand the gospel that he preached as good news that was actually good news.

As Rob Bell points out, the unbiblical substitute for that good news promoted by Team Hell is not really good news at all. If the good news is primarily that some few have a chance to escape the otherwise inevitable fate of conscious, eternal torment, then this message isn’t really news that most people will hear as good. And in any case, this is not the gospel that the Bible teaches. That gospel — the good news of God crucified, risen and triumphant over sin and death — is proclaimed repeatedly in scripture, but never is it presented as How To Escape Eternal Torture in Hell. The accusation that Team Hell loves to level at people like Bell — that it is callous and irresponsible not to confront the damned unbelievers with an explicit warning of the Hell that awaits them — can and must be applied even more strongly against Paul, Jesus, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Q and all the apostles of the early church as portrayed in Acts.

Case Study No. 2: Russell Moore.

I don’t know Russell Moore, dean of the school of theology at Southern Seminary. I have never met him. But I know this much about him: Russell Moore is not a Christian because of the fear of eternal, conscious torment in Hell.

Moore believes that if he were not a Christian, then he would be destined for such eternal, conscious torment. And yet that’s still not the main reason he is a Christian. It’s not one of the top five reasons. Or the top 10.

Again, I don’t know Moore and I have never heard him tell the story of his own faith, but I know this is true for him because it is true for everyone who is a Christian. Get Moore away from the microphone and away from his official duties as a Defender of the Doctrine of Hell and then ask him why he is a Christian and I don’t know specifically what he would say, but I know generally. He would speak of God’s love for him and of his love for God. He would tell you about faith and hope, grace and gratitude, meaning and purpose. He would tell you about the love that was shown to him by some devout disciple or group of disciples and about the inspiring examples of good people he has known. He may say something about Heaven, but mainly in the context of God’s great love and the longing to experience that love as directly as possible. He may tell you some story of some numinous personal experience that he will apologize for being unable to articulate. He may tell you about his parents and grandparents.

But he won’t talk about Hell. If he mentions it at all, it will be as an afterthought — as though being rescued from the certainty of eternal torture was just a fringe benefit of all the rest, an added bonus.

I do not know anyone who is a Christian because of the fear of eternal torment in Hell. I know several people who used to be Christians, briefly, because someone had taught them this idea of Hell and that becoming a Christian was the only way to escape certain torture. But none of those folks were happy or proud about having made that decision for that reason, and it didn’t last. The preacher or teacher who had so vividly described the invisible and eternal gun to their head didn’t turn out to have much lasting influence.

I suppose there are congregations where the preacher invokes that invisible threat week after week, twice on Sundays and again on Wednesday nights. And I suppose something might arise in such congregations that might seem like a passable imitation of love for God, or that might feel like a functional substitute for belief that God loves us. But that’s not love, or faith, or discipleship. That’s Stockholm syndrome and it, too, will fade once the hostages are safely distant from the constant stress of the coercive threat.

Which brings us to our final case study.

Case Study No. 3: Saddam Hussein

The Missiological Case for Hell reminds me of one of the stranger stories about Saddam Hussein, the late and unlamented dictator of Iraq. Saddam ruled through fear but, at some level, he wanted his terrified subjects to love him.

We know that Saddam wanted their love — uncoerced, untainted by fear — because he wrote a novel and released it secretly under a pseudonym. The love and acclaim the people would pour out for this anonymous author, the dictator hoped, would be genuine and voluntary and he would at last know what it meant to be loved in truth and not just to have others falsely proclaim their love for him out of fear of torture and death.

But alas, the novel was apparently awful. It was panned and mocked and it did not sell.

That was intolerable for the tyrant, so he leaked the true identity of the author. Suddenly all the critics who had found it wanting recanted, lavishing it with forced praise. It became a best-seller in Iraq, but only in Iraq — only in the one country where people were forced, out of fear and the threat of torture, to pretend that they loved a man they actually despised, a man who deserved to be despised because of those very threats of torture.

Saddam published several more novels — all in his own name. They received massive critical acclaim and commercial success, but only within his realm. The Iraqis’ love for Saddam’s novels — like their love for Saddam himself — was a charade. And Saddam knew it was a charade. But he embraced that charade because it was the best he could hope for, because it was more than he deserved. For the despicable tyrant, feigned affection at gunpoint was preferable to the genuine contempt it masked.

God desires something better than that. And God deserves something better than that.

Even Saddam Hussein knew that love is not real if it is coerced under threat of torture. If fear and loathing masquerading as love could not fool Saddam Hussein, then you can be sure it does not fool God either. That is not what God wants from us. God wants our genuine love, freely given.

Why, then, would anyone think that God had arranged the universe in such a way as to guarantee that God would never be able to receive genuine love, freely given, but only a fearful, coerced imitation? I believe that God is good and I believe that God is smart — too good and too smart to confuse coercion with love.

Unlike the advocates of the Missiological Case for Hell, I believe that God is better and smarter than Saddam Hussein.

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  • >why is it too much to ask people just not to be assholes in the first place?

    It isn’t. By all means, ask!

    Of course, some people will say “No.” And some will go on to explain that they aren’t really being assholes, or that it’s OK for them to be assholes, or that it’s not OK for you to express such a preference, or that it’s not OK for anyone to express such a preference.

    And sometimes there’s something to be learned from those people. Sometimes it turns out that what I’m actually asking for, when I ask for them not to be assholes, is that they quietly accept a lesser role than my own. And I don’t endorse asking people to do that.

    And sometimes I don’t learn anything from those people, beyond that some people choose to be assholes.

    And in either case, it’s their choice.

    We’re entitled to ask. Sometimes the answer is “No.”

    For my own part, I feel like I’ve expressed my preference for people not to be assholes a few times on this thread alone, and that the overwhelming majority of contributors here (and, more generally, in places I frequent) share that preference and act accordingly.

    Sure, there are exceptions, here and elsewhere. But it would be a pity to treat them as the baseline.

  • Thalia

    I do appreciate your response, and I see I wasn’t being specific enough. Because some particular person felt like being a jerk when someone asked, “wouldn’t it be nice if folks like you…?” and saying, “No, it wouldn’t be nice, and that means, since it wouldn’t be nice, that I get to be not-nice back,” I shouldn’t think it’s a culture. I shouldn’t let myself be convinced that this is how everyone acts.

    But this is how anyone COULD act, myself included, although I tend to get embarrassed and stop.

    And I thank anyone who attempts to keep things civil, particularly you, Dave.

  • Amaryllis


    (I hate disagreeing with Amaryllis, because it usually means I’m wrong. I’m not really sure I am in this case, though.

    That’s nice of you to say, but I’ve been wrong as often as I’ve been right around here, and this may be one of those times.

    “I know a heck of a lot more about goodness than you do, and I therefore hereby coopt your good actions in support of my God.”

    is not what I meant to say at all! Ouch.

    Nor did I mean to imply to Andrew Glasgow:

    All of these phrasings still make me feel like ‘Good’ is meaningless and my own choice is just an expression of God’s will. I don’t particularly want to have anything to do with any God, and the idea that no matter what I do, any time I’m doing something good I’m being part of God or serving God or taking part in God’s will really kinda pisses me off.

    I shouldn’t try to be mystical, or metaphysical, because I always get it wrong.

    I don’t know anything (and the older I get the less I even think I know). I certainly wouldn’t say that your good actions prove that God exists or that God is good, or that anything good that you do is impelled by God, or taken to the service of God. It’s not so much that your “choice is just an expression of God’s will.” I meant, I think, that it could be argued that, for a certain worldview or cast of mind, “good” is seen as an expression of God’s nature, and that each little instance of human good is a human-sized expression of the same nature. For those of a different sort of mind, that doesn’t work.

    That’s probably not any better, is it? But I’m not sure how else to put it–It is impossible to say just what I mean!— so maybe I’m wrong in thinking that it can be said without offense.

  • It’d take the proverbial patience of a saint to put up with that sort of request on a daily basis. Atheists, unsurprisingly, have no saints.

    It would be better in the long run to get the side making those requests to stop than to condemn atheists for having a perfectly human reaction to being put down.

  • Shadsie

    Not everyone who believes in higher powers agrees with the tax-free status of churches. It would seem to be a relic left over from the days when churches were the primary charities out there / before a lot of secular charities were created. I remember someone somewhere explaining that the tax-free status also keeps the churches from having too much influence in politics, as in, it’s supposed to be illegal for church or other tax-free funds to go to support political campaigns and if they were taxed, the organizations legally have the right to become political fundraising machines. I suppose one can argue that this already happens, though…

    Personally, theist I may be, but I haven’t gone to church in years. I still find it difficult to support people as they insist upon insulting me/anyone remotely like me, *especially* when I’m *not personally a part of the problem.* Someone once blamed me for why she couldn’t become president. WTF? A candidate’s religion or lack thereof means not a whit *to me* – I vote on policy and leadership qualities. I think most political candidates lie about their convictions, anyway and it *annoys* me that so many have to “paint on piety.”

    I’m a proud owner of a set of boobs. I don’t think it gives me the right to verbally piss on men for having different plumbing than I do even though, as a *minority* it would seem many think I have the right or possibly even the duty to. Sorry, I still think of men as people.

    When you broad-brush, you inevitably wind up painting innocent people who are your allies, or at least people would be if you didn’t cover then in the ugly-paint.

  • Anonymous

    All I’m saying is that it would be a lot easier for me to support atheists if fewer of them gave me the impression that they hated me/ all theists/ this includes the Muslims you mentioned, too/ etc. and were just waiting for us all to de-convert or to die and get out of the way of the FUTURE. I have a good online friend who is agnostic, and she assures me, but it seems like most ardent atheists I meet online seem to think even agnostics are stupid and that anyone who dissagrees with them are a threat at worst, worthless/a waste of life at best.

    As I read over your comments more carefully, I noticed that you seem to be talking about two different groups. You say it is hard for you to support atheists (in general?) because some atheists give you the impression they hate you/all theists. I appreciate that one can find certain members of a group sufficiently off-putting as to make it hard to like anything about that group. I think the point has been made so far that, just as some theists have had that experience with atheists, many atheists have had that experience with theists. I’d also point out that most groups’ jerks make themselves more apparent online than in other venues.

    Speaking just for myself, I am aware of some very annoying people involved in just about every activity I might want to support. If one judges the value of an issue largely by the gentility of the people involved, well, as Hamlet said, “who should ‘scape whipping?” Again, speaking just for myself, the groups I have encountered who haven’t yet shown me their jerks are the Episcopalians and the Quakers, and I suspect that’s because I don’t know many Quakers and I just haven’t met the right Episcopalians yet. On the other hand, the group that has, I think, the highest level of general jerkitude per unit of population involved is … animal rescue, a group of people that most people tend to think of as doing admirable work. People who work in animal rescue tend to be good with animals, not so much with people. But if everyone judged the value of the activity by the annoyance factor of those involved, precious few animals would be rescued.

    When you broad-brush, you inevitably wind up painting innocent people who are your allies, or at least people would be if you didn’t cover then in the ugly-paint.

    Quoted for truth.

  • I wonder if it might be effective for a billboard to just say something like “Helping the homeless would be a nice thing to do” or “We should try killing each other less” or “Isn’t that sunset lovely?” with a banner at the bottom saying “This Message Brought To You By The Atheists”

    It conveys a positive message of goodness, associates the message with atheists, and does it without saying or implying that atheism is Better or You Know Your Religion Is Silly, it’s nonconfrontational, it doesn’t try to assert a causal relationship between atheism and goodness, and it forces anyone who objects into the position of having to say “Oh yeah? Helping the homeless is WRONG when atheists do it!”

    Plus, the same technique can be used by Muslims, QUILTBAG groups, heck, the socialists can try it if they like.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart


    Religious affilitation in Australia is asked every Census. Hang on 12 months and I’ll give you fresh new figures, but all this comes from 2006.

    First of all, 19% said they had “no religion” but another 11% didn’t answer the question on religion at all.

    To people who did identify with a religion:

    73% of people identified with some religion; 64% Christian (with Catholic the majority denomination). For those who are interested, the second largest religion was Buddhism.

    Religious identification is strongly linked to age cohort. More than 85% of people aged 65 or over identified with a religion; around 80% Christian. Amongst young adults, tough (15-34 years) it was 67% having any religion; 56% Christian. So Christians are a small majority in my age group.

    Also, rates of religiosity vary with socioeconomic status and ethnic background. If you live in an area like I do, skewed towards younger, more educated white-collar workers from largely Anglo and North Asian backgrounds, even nominal religiosity is a minority.

    Thing is, HEAPS of people will put down the religion of their youth, even though they have no ties to it any more and quite publicly refer to themselves as having no religious belief. Seems to be more common among people coming from denominations with a stronger cultural link — e.g. someone who grew up Catholic is more likely to put down a religion than someone who grew up in the Uniting Church. Many of my friends–heck, even people I’ve lived with who fill in the same Census form as me–put “Catholic” on the Census form because technically they were baptised and they’ve never formally split from the Church. But they certainly don’t pretend to be Catholic in any aspect of their lives.

    One other thing on the Census: the information is partly used to inform planning decisions. About one-third of Australian kids go to Catholic schools. Many openly have no interest in the religious aspect, but Catholic schools are generally considered to provide a good quality education while costing much less than private schools. If there are lots of nominal Catholics in an area any plan to build a new Catholic school gets added weight. People are made aware of this.

    Trust us, it is absolutely culturally acceptable to be an atheist in Australia.

    We have had several atheist Prime Ministers (not to mention Premiers, MPs, Senators and judges) and when the religious right has tried to make something of a politician’s atheism the national response has overwhelmingly been “WTF?”. I heard much more concern expressed about the previous PM’s Christianity than the current PM’s atheism.

    I had an employer tell people I was a Jehovah’s Witness because he was ignorant of the difference between that and Catholicism. I’ve had fellow scientists, on numerous occasions, launch into me for being a creationist before I get a chance to tell them that I’m not, actually. They just assume. When I went to mass this year on Ash Wednesday more than one person thought I was commemorating the fatal 1980s bush fire. I was on a working group once about which a staff member commented “What’s with all the Christians in this group?” There was 2 of us, out of 10 people, and neither of us mentioned religion. People frequently tell me to my face that my beliefs make me intellectually and culturally inferior, as well as morally suspect, and that I can participate in public life as long as I keep them quiet and don’t ever draw on them to inform an opinion.

    I don’t say these things to claim persecution–that would be ridiculous; I’m not persecuted–but to point out that being a person who publicly identifies as Christian puts you in the minority in much of Australia. Atheists are very welcome and very much part of the mainstream.

    I have enough exposure to US culture to know that things are very different over there. But as Deird pointed out, your experience is not universal. Atheists are not universally derided and Christians are not universally applauded. It’s cultural stuff we’re talking about, not a fundamental law.

  • Shadsie

    Now I’m thinking about those rather insipid and saccharine “doing goodness” TV commercials by “The Foundation for a Better Life.”

    – i.e. something sponsered by the Methodist Church.

    The commercials do not have a religious message, they’re just about taking time out to do the right thing and appreciate life and people. Rather “fluffy” and I didn’t know they were church-sponsored until I paid attention to text at the bottom of the screen.

    Are you talking about something like that?

  • hf

    I think people have tried to point this out, but it didn’t seem to take. The “good without God” billboards actually say, “Millions of Americans are Good Without God,” and “A Million New Yorkers Are Good Without God. Are You?” and “Are you good without God? Millions are,” and other variations on this theme. They take a common claim about Christianity vs atheism and point out that it does not fit the evidence. Likewise, a lot of y’all seem to be arguing about a fictional billboard.

    Other messages of course seem nastier. The one saying “In your heart you know its a myth” made me smile, but I’ll grant you that it seems a bit dickish.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart


    I meant, I think, that it could be argued that, for a certain worldview or cast of mind, “good” is seen as an expression of God’s nature, and that each little instance of human good is a human-sized expression of the same nature.

    Nicely said.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no way my opinion on this–regardless of what it happens to be–isn’t going to be taken as offensive or condescending so I’ve stayed out of it. But that was good. God’s nature, yeah.

  • Shadsie

    I’d say that even in the United States, it varies.

    Everyone knows here that in the Deep South, people are or at least pretend to be Christian, otherwise you might get your house vandalized or something. However, in the “blue states,” such as places in the Northeast, people who mention religion may be looked at as backwards hicks or just downright weird.

    I’ve seen people from New York talk about how people treat you much lesser in New York City if you are a a Christian, I remember reading somene’s take on Vermont: “Here, an overage of religion is seen as a bad thing and Christians are always seen as extreme.”

    From what I’ve seen of life in America, a certain “cultural Christianity” pervades, but not many people take it seriously. This is why you have people making claims about what the Bible says without having actually *read* the thing. Where I grew up, it was how it was, yet if people knew you as a particularly prayerful person you’d get looked at funny.

    I think times are changing and that diversity is good, I just would like it best if those making the change take care not to become the monster they are fighting against.

  • hf

    Perhaps I should expand on my last comment. Around December I had to see multiple signs about keeping Christ in Christmas. America of course treats this time of year as a capitalist national holiday that affects everyone. I kind of like the celebration itself — within limits — but I keep seeing people insist that it should exclude me and that America should celebrate for months in a way that excludes me. So seeing the image of the somewhat-dickish billboard came as a relief. It showed the more exclusive Christmas imagery and then said, “in your heart your know it’s a myth,” which seems true of me. And I can enjoy the celebratory images as part of a fun myth, provided I get to use other stories as well when I feel like it.

    Since people almost certainly spend more time thinking about people who resemble themselves, those who designed the billboard may not have given much thought to how dickish certain others would find it.

  • muteKi

    Now I’m thinking about those rather insipid and saccharine “doing goodness” TV commercials by “The Foundation for a Better Life.”

    And the music! Oh god, the music! Sometimes I like to call it variants of the “Foundation for a Better Life for Corny Songwriters”.

  • That’s probably not any better, is it? But I’m not sure how else to put it–It is impossible to say just what I mean!– so maybe I’m wrong in thinking that it can be said without offense.

    I think this subject is one where it’s very difficult to honestly express yourself without offending someone. I know I’m offending people by the responses I get, and I sincerely regret that. I think if atheists and theists talk about the core issues at hand, you can’t avoid it. All you can do is be in a situation where we can move past the offense and not turn it into an argument about that specifically.

  • Like, you know, the one where you can be a jerk on the Internet, and no one can shame you for it.

    I’m sorry, I was trying to avoid being a jerk, but I guess I should have listened to the doubts I had about discussing the issue. I think this is a topic where it’s not possible to speak honestly and forthrightly and not sound like an asshole to someone. I’ll try to find a better way to explain my position on this.

  • I’m a proud owner of a set of boobs. I don’t think it gives me the right to verbally piss on men for having different plumbing than I do even though, as a *minority* it would seem many think I have the right or possibly even the duty to. Sorry, I still think of men as people.

    I wasn’t ever saying that you as a theist are personally oppressing atheists, or that the atheists who were being jerks to you weren’t being jerks. They were. They may have had reasons for being jerks, and hating theists — a lot of atheists have reasons for hating theists that make complete sense to them — but it still wasn’t fair to you.

    That said, I don’t have to apologize to you for what some other atheist said, nor does the rest of the infidel community at large. I’m not going to take out an ad saying ‘Attention Christians, I don’t hate you.’ No one is responsible for the extreme actions, whether they are violent or just assholish, of others just because they happen to share their beliefs (or lack thereof), ethnicity, or other characteristics.* If it was an actual organization I actively belonged to who were making bigoted remarks to you, then I would owe you an apology.

    I think of theists as people too. Most of the people I work with and spend time with on a regular basis are theists of various stripes, mostly Christian. In the U.S. the default assumption is that one is a Christian unless one specifically says otherwise, and “coming out” as atheist can under some circumstances be as traumatic, or more so, than coming out as gay.

    *The link is to one of Fred’s old posts at Typepad!Slactivist, even though it says ‘The Board Administration Team’.

  • Your experience is the opposite of mine. Even in New York City, there’s a church, a synagogue, or something similar on every block. The vast majority of people in NYC, SF, LA, etc. are Christian, Jewish, or some other mainstream religion. They tend to be very secular, and maybe that’s what you’re referring to, and there is a strong and welcome attitude that one’s faith is one’s own business and only matters if you have to find a kosher deli or avoid pepperoni on the pizza because it’s a Friday during Lent.

    In redder areas (which are the majority of the country, really) you can be any type of christian you want, or you can be jewish, or you can be mormon. That’s about it, and the acceptance of being mormon is relatively recent. If you’re a muslim, these days, chances are pretty high sooner or later you’ll have to walk past a protest march to get to your mosque. If you’re a Sikh, Hindu, Baha’i or Buddhist, you probably won’t, although someone might mistake you for a muslim and try to harass you. But if you’re one of those, or pagan, wiccan, taoist or shintoist, you’ll still have the possibility of facing discrimination in the workplace, the inability to get religious holidays off that one’s Christian and Jewish colleagues can, and the pervasiveness of cultural christianity.

  • ako

    Bell’s view of salvation, Moore said, is wrong biblically but also flawed practically and will lead to empty church pews. If the pastor says there is no judgment and everyone will end up in heaven, then people have little motivation to follow Christ, Moore and the other panelists said.

    I always find this argument weird. I mean I don’t see any reason for me to be Christian beyond the “You’ll be tortured if you don’t!” claim, but I’m an atheist and most of the Christians I’ve heard from make it sound like there are actual positive things about their religion, and they see it as having more to offer than “At least you won’t be tortured forever!” Except for the Team Hell set, who seem to have the same “Barring the whole Hell-threat, there’s nothing in Christianity I particularly need or want” mindset I do.

    This will probably be offensive to people who love God, like Deird, and Fred, and others, but sometimes it almost feels like a creepy stalker who won’t leave you alone no matter what you do. And people around you keep telling you to open the door and let him in, let him control your life, get rid of the restraining orders against him, because he really loves you and wants the best things for you. And it doesn’t matter that you’ve never given him the time of day or given him any reason to think you want his love.

    This. I don’t have any sense of the existence of any gods or any relationship with them, and from the perspective of an outsider reading secondhand sources, “God is good!” is far less clear than it must be to someone who feels a personal relationship (the same is true for “God exists!”) In my understanding of the universe, I’m quite happy with any gods, and “But he’s there! All of the time! In everything you do! Waiting for you to let him in!” feels creepy and intrusive. (Plus, based on past experiences, it always reminds me of the people who are desperately trying to persuade me that I have a god-shaped hole in my life, so they can fill it with their religion, and completely ignoring my actual feelings and experiences in favor of their interpretation.)

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I mean I don’t see any reason for me to be Christian beyond the “You’ll be tortured if you don’t!” claim

    I still call and visit my mum, even though she won’t beat me or yell at me or disinherit me (even if she could) if I didn’t.

    To move away from the relationship metaphor (and not sure if this will work, but it just came into my head), I still read classical novels even though there’s no class requiring me to do so. I love it and I like the effect being exposed to it has on me.

    Personally, I don’t know any Christians whose only impetus for belief is avoidance of punishment but I’ll take the word of others that such a mindset exists.

  • Anonymous

    Just speaking personally, I think I would find billboards like [“You can be good without God”] slightly upsetting. Mainly because…

    Imagine if one of my friends kept randomly telling me “You know, you could have a good life without your mum.”

    Which (from the perspective that, if my mum died, I’d still have good stuff in my life) is possibly true. I’d still find it upsetting.

    I am an atheist. I am constantly told in many ways, explicitly and implicitly, that me being good without God is a contradiction in terms. I’m being told I don’t exist, I can’t exist. As I’m sure you can imagine, this is a wee bit upsetting.

    I’m sorry you’re upset by those billboards, I am, but I’d rather upset people with religious privilege than take those billboards down.

  • Anonymous

    I have, over time, learned to remember that atheists seem to be a minority in the US, and thus I should give them more lee-way. But very few USians seem to be able to remember that not everyone on the internet comes from their culture – and not all of us share the same minority/majority divides.

    Aw crap and I’ve just done exactly that. *retracts previous comment*

  • Shadsie

    As per public messages: I agree that addressing some topics are just going to offend people no matter what. Religion/ Spirituality is just one of those powder-kegs. No matter how polite or innocuous one tries to be with the message, some people will get upset.

    I’m kind of in-between. I mean, among even the well-designed billboards, a few of them irk me – the “I don’t believe fiction” irks me the most. That comes across as condescension. I don’t much like the “science will save us!” gist of a couple of them because I believe that science is neutral – it flew us to the moon, but also gave us atomic bombs. People treating it like a pure good magic thing seems to me like something that doesn’t respect it for what it is. At the same time, the “we’re a happy humanist family” one doesn’t bother me. The “If your faith doesn’t feel right, leave it” doesn’t bother me (that one would seem to be the best for “evangelism” as it were, since it targets people at a crossroads who don’t feel right where they are).

    And I’d totally fight to the death for your right to put them up.

    But, as you see, even “Good without God, join the club” ones which, *I, personally* find pretty innocous and am not offended by offend some people as we can clearly see in the tangent on this comments-thread – they see it as “How can one be good without the source of Good?” or “This is like telling me I could be happy without a loved one.” I think they are missing the point of who the message is for, but you see, even one of the most polite atheist-advertising messages is offending some people.

    Just as I’m sure people are offended by the simple message of “Jesus Saves.”

    Rattling people just comes with the territory – even if you go out of your way not to be a jerk, somene will be upset (but it doesn’t mean that you “might as well be a jerk” either – you lose people like me that are in-between that way).

    Also, anyone besides me remember those passive-agressive notes from “God” billboards that were popular for a while?

    As for getting more back on topic….

    I think if Christianity had only “escape from Hell” as a benefit, not many people would stay with it for very long, even if that’s that they originally came for. As I said on the first page, my exploring of it came about from fears of mortality, but that’s not why I stuck, or stick.

    I was telling an online friend the other day that one of the main reasons I have for reasonating with Christianity is that when I read Christ’s words in the Bible about equity and human worth, I feel like I’m not worthless. When I think about it, I feel like I’m not worthless.

    I have issues, anyway, but when I puzzle it out, I don’t feel like I’m a very valuable person in the worldly sense. I struggle finacially, I never quite “made it” as a success, the things that I’m good that (art, writing – or so I’m told) I’m apparently not “good enough” at to actually get anywhere with, I have issues that make me very difficult to live with, etc. Outside of feeling like there is intrinsic, and yes *cosmic* and *spiritual* worth to every person, and believing things like “blessed are the poor,” and such, I don’t feel, well, objectively valuable. I might as well donate my organs to my “betters” if I have to be objectively valuable.

    In a world that seems like its ruled by assholes, the idea that there’s something spiritual and, I hate to cause offense, but for lack of a better term “better than that” underlying it all and to be hoped for… it’s what keeps me going. And oh, yes, I’d say “working toward” that justice is better than just hoping for it, but I wouldn’t be inspired to work without hope.

    Also, I’m fond of saying that, as someone who likes to write, that I tend to see existance in terms of “plot.” I’d much rather be a character in a story that I believe will make sense someday that just a random person who should or shouldn’t have been born in a random jumble. Where some people see freedom, I see only despair, just as where I see purpose, they see only restriction or wishful thinking.

  • I’m glad that your religious/cosmic/spiritual tradition provides you a context in which you feel valuable.

    I’m sorry you don’t feel valuable outside the context of that tradition.

    And under those circumstances I can totally understand the impulse, and perhaps the need, to treat your tradition as “better than” the secular context that surrounds it.

  • I am an atheist. I am constantly told in many ways, explicitly and implicitly, that me being good without God is a contradiction in terms. I’m being told I don’t exist, I can’t exist. As I’m sure you can imagine, this is a wee bit upsetting.

    I’m sorry you’re upset by those billboards, I am, but I’d rather upset people with religious privilege than take those billboards down.

    That sounds perhaps closer than you intended to “Anyone who got hurt by this deserves what they got”

  • Anonymous

    I think a factor to consider when evaluating the behaviour of angry atheists is that a lot of them are probably spiritual abuse survivors. I absolutely agree with those who are saying that some atheists are real jackasses about their beliefs, but I also think it’s important to note that some people who are anti-religion are anti-religion because religion hurt them. I’m not an atheist–I’m a liberal Christian–but I’m also an ex-evangelical, and I’ve been known to use pretty negative language when describing what I think of some evangelical doctrines. I do it because those doctrines hurt me and I’m fairly confident that they’re hurting a lot of other people as well.

  • I didn’t read EllieMurasaki as making any statements about anyone deserving to get hurt.

    Can you unpack a little of where you get that reading?

  • Anonymous

    …now you mention it, yes, it does. Sorry, Deird et al.

  • Thalia

    I’m sorry, I was trying to avoid being a jerk, but I guess I should have listened to the doubts I had about discussing the issue.

    Thank you very much. I sincerely appreciate that. And I understood your other comments much more clearly. You win pie.

  • Thalia

    I take your point, and yes, it would be nice if people stopped asking for dumb things. “People in hell want ice water,” and the like.

    but see also “not specifically atheists.” I’m not “condemning people for having a human reaction.” I’m asking them to make a choice about broadcasting it. Lots of people don’t smack people for asking them the same stupid thing 100 times again. (Ask anyone in customer service) I’m in favor of being in a community where the people I like are civil specifically in that place to the individuals that are there, even when said individual is asking a dumb question. So I’m petitioning for that. I was having more problem with a personal aggression than any general group being like x or irritated by y. And now I’m just overexplaining.

  • Thalia

    I read that as “gunshy because my attempts to ally with atheists have been met with rejection.”

    But that’s me. YMMV. (But I think it’s worth noting that I double-down on your “quoted for truth.”)

  • Anonymous

    Rereading the comment I was replying to, I think you’re right. Reading fail on my part, and, Shadsie, I apologize for misreading the first part of your comment. I thought you were getting at a far more general statement.

  • Shadsie

    That seems to be the case with a lot of the angry-types I meet online. It’s like, I’ll make a comment on some Religion article at Huffington Post or somewhere and before I know it, I’m having to fend off people either calling me an idiot on the grounds of their superior, uber-science brains or talking about how they grew up with crappy over-religious parents and how I’m evil for being a part of it. It seems like no amount of explaining “not all X are Y” gets through. Okay, it gets through to some people, but those that really want to hold onto their hurt don’t seem to fathom that some of us think that what happened to them sucks. No, we are the “enemy” and it doesn’t matter how “nicely” we follow our God, to them, our God is the same nasty God of their absuive parents. They think that we must either be abusers ourselves or that we’re in thrall to Stockholm Syndrome.

    I am reminded of harsh words Jesus had to say about “those that lead these little ones astray…” Stuff learned as a child is hard to get over. I had a very open upbringing in regards to religion, the proverbial “Let a kid choose for themselves” that people seem to want because they think smart kids will inevatibly choose athiesm – turns out I *didn’t.* I wonder if that breaks peoples’ brains.

    What’s even weirder is that I know someone from my geek-fandom online life who mentioned growing up with a severely mentally ill mother who used to try “drowning demons out of her” (something like that). Today, she’s a healthy, strong-minded Seventh-Day Aventist. Chosen on her own after getting away from her mom. She seemed to make a distinction between the concept of “God” and the “God of Mom’s Crazy.” It seems not many do that, so I found that interesting.

  • Shadsie

    Another thing I thought of – This is the precise reason I don’t want to believe in Hell anymore, at least not in the traditional eternal sense. It seems unfair to immediately pitch someone into a firey furnace for eternity because they avoided You on the grounds that the only vision they had of You was given to them by crazy people who did so with a daily beating/daily dose of terror. You’d have to give them *at least* a clear vision of Your love and a last ditch chance.

  • > She seemed to make a distinction between the concept of “God” and the “God of Mom’s Crazy.” It seems not many do that, so I found that interesting.

    Yes, exactly.

    A friend of mine who used to be virulently anti-religion (and perhaps still is, though not so much in my presence) used to make all kinds of claims that just seemed obviously and demonstrably false, and become extremely upset when those claims were challenged… not just in principle, but by pointing out that religious people he actually knew were counterexamples to the claim he was making.

    Eventually I got into the habit of, every time he said “religious people do/are X,” understanding that to mean “the sort of Roman Catholic that my mom was when I was growing up does/is X.”

    It made our conversations a lot more coherent.

  • Shadsie

    There’s also people who make up their minds about something and “always must be right,” too – your story reminded me of some kerfluffle I got into with an ex-friend over something having nothing to do with religion, more like… character interpretation for a comic. Yeah.

    This ex-friend got onto a tangent about how X character must be an alcoholic because she’d read a few articles about alcoholism online. I contended that X character, while he drank some, didn’t strike me as dependant-alcoholic because I *grew up* with dependant- alcoholics. I witnessed alcoholism first-hand. (Thankfully, my father was a “happy drunk” rather than an angry one and he got help/recovery when I was young. My older brother… not so much). I remember explaining this, how alcoholism really went down and her response was basically “I’m right and you’re wrong because I read it on Wikipedia!”

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    If I hold the gun to your head every minute of every day, you never have the opportunity to do good simply because it is good. Team Hell can’t think of any reason why you would do good other than to avoid having your brains blown out.

    And you can take that gun to your head for only so long before you bail out, go crazy, or kill yourself.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    I heard somewhere that Jonathan Edwards probably had some form of OCD and depression, and that he had a couple suicides among his congregation.

    Edwards was also one of the most educated men of his time, and was heavily involved with the natural sciences (primarily cataloging American plants, insects, and vertebrates) and a couple starting-up universities in the new, raw Colonies. It’s a real pisser that the thing he’s remembered for today is ONE bang-up Hellfire and Damnation sermon.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Zero Sum Game. Where the only way for ME to win is to Make YOU Lose. The only way for me to be Exalted is for God to stomp you down.

    Internet Monk recently did a series on “Grace”, where the essence of Grace is “God does not play a Zero Sum Game.”

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Not only Hellfire & Damnation, but “Christians For Nuclear War.”

    Now THAT’s a Bad Combination. (Appropriate that your handle is the name of the wife of Hades.)

    Back in the Seventies when I was listening to Christian AM Radio, some radio preachers used to justify this combination with “If you can’t Love them into The Kingdom, SCARE ‘EM INTO THE KINGDOM.” Anecdotal experiences on this comment thread confirm that this approach is a Real Bad Idea — it only works if you can keep that Hell gun to their head PERMANENTLY. Or wait for a “snapping” phenomenon like in Room 101, after which there is only He Loved Big Brother. (I suspect this to be the origin of most to all of the Fred Phelps types.)

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Call me crazy, but it sounds like Rob Bell is the one calling people to be friends of God. Russell Moore only wants slaves for God.

    Think that’s the reason for all those “Fill-in-the-blanks FOR Jesus” organization names?

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    I have never figured out which is worse: Utterly ceasing to exist at death, or afterlife immortality in Hell conditions. Both are bummers.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Team Hell (and all those hyperdetailed Medieval Visions) are a real kicker when you consider that Jesus’ own idiom for Hell — “Gehenna”, i.e. Hinnom Valley, i.e. Jerusalem City Dump — is more akin to “a discard pile” than anything else.

    Paraphrasing Jesus’ idiom, “The Kingdom of God is coming, and now Is! When All is Fulfilled, don’t end up on God’s Discard Pile!”

  • Shadsie

    Last year, I fell down a flight of stairs. Bounced around on about fifteen steps and landed on a floor of solid concrete. People were surprised that I was alive after that. Frankly, I was surprised to be alive after that. Aside from bumping and brusing (and as I found out three days latter with stomach pain, I’d thrown a kidney out of whack), I was mostly unhurt save for a partially broken arm.

    Now, upon landing, my first thought was OW! PAIN! HURTS! My arm and other areas of my body that had made impact. My second thought, even as I was holding my arm out straight was “I’M ALIVE!!!” I mean, I was *screaming in agony* when I had that thought, but I had it, and, all in all, I was glad I was alive even though I was in more pain that I ever remembered being in.

    And that is why in some ways, I fear Hell less than Oblivion. It seems to me that even with Hell, Christianity is offering me a better deal than atheism here because at least I can exist. However, I also realize that, while I suffer daily from many things (mostly an emotional condition), I’ve never had any of the really *bad* diseases that put a person in abject suffering 24-7. I’ve been suicidal, but those times seemed to be more “I’m sick of being a burden on people” combined with “not in my right mind.” I’ve even had the thought of “if it sends me to Hell, at least I won’t be a burden.” – Yeah, if you’re in that state, you really aren’t thinking straight. But it’s not like I’ve had MS or cancer or anything – so, you know if I did, maybe oblivion would seem like a good alternative.

    People talk about it being like going to sleep, but I think that’s just a euphamism for a state that we that exist can’t actually imagine.

    (For the record, yes, I’ve been put under for surgery. That euphamism doesn’t work on me, either).

  • Madhabmatics

    I used to think those type of atheists existed only on the internet. Last year, though, I moved in with a buddy for a little while and his roommate was like some sort of living caricature of the internet militant atheist, I was absolutely floored.

    Like, this dude tried to corner me in a room and scream at me because I was bringing “CHRISTIAN PROPAGANDA* INTO THIS HOUSE OF SCIENCE”**

    * It was an issue of left-wing political magazine “The Nation.” His proof that it was actually religious propaganda was that a letter to the editor referenced Kierkegaard.
    ** The House of Science that literally got all of it’s food from religious charity and who’s gaming happened in the basement of a church nice enough to say “You can have your RPG events in our chapel.”

  • Madhabmatics

    I learned so much about building bicycles out of junkyard parts so I wouldn’t be in the house with him before it became too much and I had to flee back to hell, a.k.a Alabama.

  • I’ve never personally minded the thought of just ending. Of there being a finish line, and then it’s over. Honestly, at the moment I’m contemplating my final ‘finish line’ for a good long while in finishing my last year of college, and the idea that from now on, there is no more “all done” – no more end of semester, no more everything paid off and tidied up because every time I pay the rent, for example, it just starts the next cycle of having to pay for next month’s. That stresses me out like nothing else. So the idea of things just being over, no more work, no more goals, just being done and going away, it’s not so bad to me.

    It helps that I imagine I wouldn’t really know that I had died. Once consciousness stops, how would I ever know that I was obliviated? I know people who are afraid of the idea of not existing, but that doesn’t make sense to me, since they wouldn’t exist to be afraid. Just another perspective I suppose :)

  • Shadsie

    I, on the other hand, don’t seem to be happy unless I’m in the middle of some project. I love to create things but once I’m done with one art or writing project, I want to move onto another. I may be happy with someone once it’s done, but then, it’s “that’s it?” and I need to keep moving on. I can never imagine being done with absolutely everything.

    Sometimes I even feel pensive when I’m comming up upon the ending of a great book I’m reading or a great game I’m playing – I want to see the end, but I know once I do, I’ll never “read it or play it for the first time ever again.”

    Cycles of paying bills and other annoying tasks can be something we want over with, but I always seem to be into “always a new project to enjoy” or “always a new adventure.”

    Maybe that accounts for our differing perspectives?

    One of my favorite lines in a book ever is from “The Last Unicorn” – “There are no happy endings because nothing ends.” Where some people find that kind of prospect frightening, I find it the seat of all hope.

  • I’m sorry you’re upset by those billboards, I am, but I’d rather upset people with religious privilege than take those billboards down.

    Keep in mind that Deird and other Australians have suggested that religious privilege in Australia is much less, if it exists at all, than in the U.S.

  • Anonymous

    those that really want to hold onto their hurt don’t seem to fathom that some of us think that what happened to them sucks.

    This phrasing really bothers me. While recognizing that it is possible to hold onto one’s hurt–largely because I’ve done it myself a few times, although on other subjects–it is difficult to say of someone else on any given occasion whether they’re able to get over what they’ve been through but aren’t doing it or whether they are truly not able to put that portion of their past behind them. And in any case, are we called to make that judgment?