The Problem and a Typical Response
It has been hard for me to understand why so many Christians seem comfortable believing I’ll burn in hell forever. It’s been even more difficult to witness their zealous protection, and even praise, of a God-concept that says I deserve it. Although I spent 28 years in church and have been in talked frequently about this issue in the three years since I left, it still doesn’t make sense to me.
When I share this concern with Christians, their response almost always is: “I’m so sorry you had that view of God. What you need to understand is that God doesn’t send anyone to hell,” they continue, as if I’ve committed a grave logical fallacy. “People choose to go there by rejecting God, but He loves you and wants you to be with Him.” Hell is simply separation from God, they say. It’s the logical consequence I get for rejecting his beautiful invitation to accept him.
Some Christians are particularly insistent. I remember, for example, a man who looked rather bewildered at my inquiry while we were chatting about it at a local IHOP — he punctuated his sentences by banging the table in frustration as he insisted: “All you have to do to avoid hell is ACCEPT Christ! Why do you reject him and choose hell?!”
The “Choice” To Go To Hell
In spite of what many Christians seem to think is common sense (and in spite of some thoughts from Dante’s Inferno and CS Lewis’s book The Great Divorce)…honestly, the concept that anyone chooses hell — a place that is usually defined as a place of separation from God — isn’t common sense to me for three reasons that, it seems to me, most Christians should be able to understand.
First, if God made all things, didn’t He make Hell? So isn’t its existence, then fundamentally His fault? And, furthermore, if He made it…why would He make it a horrible place? Did He really have to make it so bad? And if He made it, it’s connected to Him somehow, right? So how would you really be separate from Him there, if hell is created and kept intact by His creative power? As George Carlin stated when talking about how prayer doesn’t make sense in light of God’s divine plan, “It’s all very confusing.”
Second, by worshipping this God, you’re saying that He’s right — that you think I deserve Hell. For some reason, Christians seem to think it is comforting that everyone deserves hell — that they aren’t singling me out. But this doesn’t help; it makes things worse, because it requires that I think not only of myself, but of all humanity, deserves a tormented eternity. It’s difficult for me to even begin to stomach the very notion of thinking such a terrible thing about so many people.
Third, why would I choose to go to hell? If I chose to go to hell with full knowledge of what the consequences of the choice were, then, for me to prefer it over the alternatives, it wouldn’t be able to be a bad place — if it were, I would definitely prefer to go somewhere else. If it turns out to be more unpleasant than I thought it was when I chose it, I don’t understand how I’d be choosing to go there. It’s not an informed decision, so it wouldn’t really be my choice. When I explain this to Christians, however, they tend to think I’m somehow being intellectually dishonest…for some reason, it’s hard for them to believe that I would not willingly choose to be tormented forever. I have a difficult time explaining to them that if I knew hell existed and was the worst place imaginable, I wouldn’t want to go there, but it’s true and, if I could be so bold, doesn’t seem like rocket science logic.
How Disturbing Should “Hell” Be?
Thinking hard about how so many otherwise seemingly normal people can think I deserve eternal torment for not believing in a God-concept has, unfortunately, made me less shocked by other massive injustices throughout history. Hell is, by definition in most versions of Christianity, the worst fate that can befall anybody. Forget the Nazi concentration camps, forget dying from a famine in Stalinist Russia, forget radiation poisoning from Hiroshima, forget the recent stories of CIA torture, forgetting the recent beheadings of American citizens by ISIS. None of those begin to hold a candle to even a tenth of a second in most versions of hell. And according to most interpretations of the Christian Bible, atheists and people from many different faith traditions will be there forever.
I’ve tried to think about how long “forever” is, but I could never get my brain wrapped around it. If you try to think of it all at once, it’s too much, your brain stops trying, and you don’t get a sense of how extreme it is, so it might help to break it down.
If someone waterboarded someone else for an full hour, without a break, many of us would be outraged. What about two hours straight? Spitting, gasping, and desperate for breath the whole time (as someone who has almost drowned twice, this really hits home for me)? At some point, your brain can’t calculate the horror and it becomes more of an idea than an actual possibility you contemplate.
But try to vividly imagine, in detail, your best friend or dearest family member being waterboarded for 24 hours, nonstop…
…take a moment….
Can you begin to grasp how horrifying that would be – the choking, the screaming, the psychological hell? Are you capable of multiplying that by seven, or 168 hours, to encompass an entire week? What about a year?
What if there was no end result in sight, no end goal of seeking enemy information – what if it was just pure punishment? What if he had to do it while being forced to stand, or while lying on a bed of nails rubbed with salt and oil, spaced enough to hurt him without killing him? What if an expert clinical psychologist was systematically trying breaking down his self esteem the whole time? What if he was force-fed through a stomach tube, just enough to keep him alive?
Would you be crying for them to stop? Would you be begging for it to end? Would you be able to look on passively or watch a movie or play a game or laugh as it continued? Would the screaming gasps and blood be distracting?
And can you imagine, as you plead for it to stop, this going on…not for a hundred years, or a thousand years, or a million years, even. A million years – I know it’s a lot, but I challenge you to just try to imagine it – of this happening, and it getting worse and worse every time, and no closer to ending, and you feeling as anguished as the years went by just as severely you did the very first hour — no subsiding of grief. The pain is no closer to subsiding at the end of that million years, than it was the first second it happened.
The reason I’m breaking this down is because I think that it gets to a point where it’s all too much. The hell most Christians seem to believe in seems so terrible that most of them can’t, or won’t, even begin to try to empathize with those who will supposedly be going there. So they give up thinking about it. But if you try, you realize that, as distressed you may be, and however terrible and horrifying that scenario is:
The hell of most of Christendom is infinitely worse than that.
Is the Lack of Fear Christians Have of Hell Disturbing?
This isn’t an attempt to “trick” Christians into believing that hell is a bad place. I’m not saying anything I hadn’t anguished over myself, as a Christian. During my last couple years in the church, I couldn’t understand how Christians weren’t constantly grieving, especially if we really believed that hell existed.
Why weren’t we out in the streets? Why weren’t there more tears? Why wasn’t there more of a sense of urgency? The anguish was so severe that for my last few weeks as a Christian I just wanted it to end, and would hold a knife to my throat a couple times a week thinking about my tears for the anguished in torment – only to put it down out of fear of going to hell myself. I wrote; I studied apologetics; I prayed; I tried to convince atheists, often staying up all night deep in conversation. I really, genuinely cared. I was not nonchalant and, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how so many Christians could seem to care so little. It’s difficult to really state how confusing that seeming nonchalance in other Christians towards the topic was.
Penn Jillette On The Topic
Because if people can go to movies, have dinner parties, enjoy amusement parks, celebrate holidays, and so on while worshipping a God whose judgment (as people deserve hell because they disobeyed the laws He made) is the reason people they know and claim to love will go to a place far worse than their worst imaginations, for eternity…
As I struggled with learning to stomach the fact that they could believe that this place of torment exists for me, and worship the God of that belief, I found it easier to stomach the fact that people supporting an agency that tortures, that a country once supported a regime that operated concentration camps killing millions, that citizens once supported a system of government that depended on gulags. The dark human allegiances of past and present all seem to fade in view of the fact that hundreds of millions of people around the world are so seemingly cavalier and able to function while worshipping the God whose judgment will send me and others like me to eternity in hellfire. I have hard time thinking of anything people have believed that’s darker than that.
I’m not sure what to do with that fact disturbing fact nowadays. I’ve been angry and railed against it and I’ve also, after developing calluses from the pain, talked about it patiently with people. But for some reason, people seem extremely intent on believing it, and I still have a hard time understanding why — although I have a piece of the puzzle: Christians lack a healthy, empathetic fear of hell.
The Phone Bill Analogy
Often, hell seems to be seen as the background for the foreground of heaven — the worse hell is, the better heaven seems to be. One side of this realization, admittedly, is very disturbing — it means that many of Christians probably don’t care much that I’m going to spend eternity in hell, so long as they are assured they’re going to heaven.
In any case, the result of using hell to emphasize the beauty of heaven results, in many cases, in an emphasis on heaven, and a de-emphasis on hell. In fact, if you mention you have a fear of hell in most churches, many people seem to think that’s a hint that you think you’re going there. That thinking is fairly effective; if Christians know they’ll be looked down on for admitting they are afraid of hell, and are heavily encouraged to focus on heaven, they’re very likely to allow concept of hell to be unexamined.
If you ignore your fear of paying your phone bill, there’s no reason for you to examine the bill. But the more afraid you are of the bill, the more important the bill becomes, so the more incentive you’ll have to make sure it’s legitimate. If you’re concerned enough about it, you’ll look at it closely to ensure all the charges are straight. You might compare it to other providers to make sure the bill is fair and makes sense.
One strategy the provider can use is telling you that you shouldn’t be afraid of the bill — that you should look at the service, not the bill. Because they know that the more you concentrate on the service, the less likely you’ll be to dispute charges or switch to a less expensive carrier.
The same dynamic happens, I suspect, with the the fear of hell.
If you ignore your fear of hell — not merely a selfish fear for yourself, but also a very empathetic and rational fear for others — there’s no incentive for you to examine whether the concept of hell is legitimate. To be sure,the church needs the concept of hell (like the cell phone company needs bill payments) to keep its control over its parishioners. But the more hidden it can make that concept, and the more it can emphasize the benefits of heaven, the more it can get away with keeping the concept of hell intact and unexamined. The trick is to keep your focus on the carrot with the threat of the “stick” of hell, without actually allowing you to look back and examine the (bogus) threat. As Psychology Today states, one of the essential things to do to keep people in a cult is to, “Keep your flock fixated on the carrot. The payoff is just around the corner and only they will be the ones paid off.”
What if Christians Had More Empathetic Fear of Hell?
I know it’s controversial to say this, but I think that if allowed themselves to have fear for the supposedly condemned — enough for them to care about examining the concept of hell closely — their empathy for those supposedly going there will reveal that it instigates cruel views of nonbelievers. And without the concept of hell, I think the church would lose a lot of its control and influence. If we thought everyone would go to the same place when they die, Christianity would lose its exclusivity and, thus, its power.
There’s another route, of course. It’s pretty well known that church attendees are often encouraged by their leaders (and atheists like Penn Jillette, too) to turn this fear into evangelistic fervor, but I’ve also seen Christians who, rationally I think, rapidly become uncomfortable with telling people they’re going to hell.
If you’re one of these, I think it’s a good idea to ask yourself why you’re uncomfortable. If you really believed it, why would you be so timid about it? Perhaps you’re unsure whether it’s true.
And, unlike your pastor possibly does, I’m not using that point as a guilt trip. I’m using it to say that those doubts may be completely rational, and you should explore them. It may be a difficult journey, but from one person who has taken it to, perhaps, another, I’ll say that, for me, it’s rewarding beyond words to be able to look at people without thinking, on any level, that they may deserve to be in torment forever. I think I owe them that at least that much respect and beauty.
What do you think?
Related from Camels With Hammers: Hell as the Absence of God and Why Do Atheists Resent Being Told We’re Going to Hell?
This was a guest post by Peter Mosley. Unless otherwise noted, Camels With Hammers guest posts are not subject to editing for either content or style beyond minor corrections, so guest contributors speak for themselves and not for me (Daniel Fincke). To be considered at all, posts must conform to The Camels With Hammers Civility Pledge and I must see enough intellectual merit in their opinions to choose to publish them, but no further endorsement is implied. If you would like to submit an article for consideration because you think it would be in keeping with the interests or general philosophy of this blog, please write me at camelswithhammers@ .