A long time ago I was a Christian, and I was very afraid of Hell. Today I want to talk about one reason why I’m not afraid of Hell anymore. Maybe I’ll help someone who is still afraid.
Like every other belief in Christianity, Hell isn’t quite a universal doctrine. But for quite a few Christians, Hell is a very lively part of their faith system. Not long ago I ran into a very sweet young evangelical Christian who was thinking aloud about Hell–specifically, about how Christians aren’t really allowed to express a real fear of Hell. This young Christian is quite correct, and it’s a little sad that so little has changed over the years since my butt last warmed a pew. When I hear ex-Christians talk online about that fear, almost without fail Christians will swoop into the comments around them to inform them that this fear is the evidence of our not having been True Christians™. The logic goes this way:
* Jesus died and rose again for people’s sins (except Christians still sin all the time, and obviously tons of people are going to Hell, and oodles of other myths talk about similar tropes, oh yeah and nobody’s ever produced evidence that this event even happened, so I’m not sure why anybody is impressed here).
* If a Christian loves/worships Jesus and says the magic incantation called the “Sinner’s Prayer” and gets baptized and then tithes and does whatever stuff is required–a list that has as many variations as there are Christians, then that person is going to Heaven (as long as a long laundry-list of other asterisked conditions are met–and even then the Bible appears to say that even Christians who are quite certain of themselves will actually be rejected at the end).
* Therefore, anybody who is afraid of going to Hell is obviously not certain of salvation and just needed to pray more or get another breakthrough or speak enough in tongues or whatever someone has to do to be totally certain of salvation in that Christian’s cosmology (except: see parenthetical point above about even very certain Christians getting a zinger surprise after death).
The implication these Christians give is that anybody who’s done the right things (like they have) and believed the right things (like they do) should have absolutely nothing to worry about, so anybody who is worried clearly just isn’t doing and believing the right things.
I’m not sure they’ve really thought this thing out before speaking, though. They’re admitting even then that there is something very big to be worried about. And the big problem is that even though I’ve always turned out to have done all those things and believed all those things they say that a Christian should do and believe, I was still hugely worried about somehow going to Hell.
That’s exactly the point as well. Christians are supposed to remain afraid of Hell. And why shouldn’t they be? It’s a huge, eternal, unending, completely disproportional, utterly punitive, inescapable, merciless, indescribably depraved, and disgustingly evil place. You know those stories about kids getting beaten to within an inch of their lives for leaving out hairbrushes or not saying “sir” and “ma’am” to their parents? That’s Hell in a nutshell: outsized and incomprehensibly violent. I don’t think even the worst genocidal dictator deserves an eternity in those conditions. No civilized society would tolerate that kind of prison. Yet loving parents who’d never allow such beatings for their kids will still teach those same beautiful, trusting, impressionable little children that this is a real place that will burn them alive forever and ever and ever for being, well, human. Christians accost total strangers on streets to threaten them with this punishment for not obeying their god’s demands. To listen to Christians, Hell is absolutely something everybody should fear.
Like a lot of churches have always done, my church preached Hell constantly. Like most Christians have always done, I witnessed to people using the threat of Hell and I prayed to my god to save them from that threat. But like I see Christians doing even today, we all pretended that we certainly were not motivated by that fear at all.
Nobody’s allowed to admit that fear out loud. Back in my day, when I converted prior to a big Rapture scare (the 88 Reasons scare to be specific), we couched our terror of Hell in church-sanctioned ways by panicking about being “left behind.” This was before cell phones, so any time we couldn’t get ahold of our friends by phone we worried about the Rapture having come and gone! But what else was being “left behind” but a terror of being subjected to punishment for not measuring up? It was like the prelude to simply going to Hell, and we knew it.
In church, though, and in talking to outsiders, I didn’t talk about that fear, nor my fear of Hell, even if it was always there in the back of my mind. Instead, my peers and I learned to insist that we weren’t afraid. To do that, we learned to parrot the idea that we followed Jesus not out of terror, but out of pure love and adoration. Preachers alluded to that terror briefly in sermons about how–even if we found out tomorrow that Christianity wasn’t true–we’d still follow Jesus because it was just so wonderful to do so, but I remember squirming a little in my seat because I couldn’t even imagine being a Christian if there weren’t some pressing reason to subject myself to its nonsensical rules and restrictions. I knew even then that Hell was the only reason that most of us were there. (Not too long ago, I ran into a Christian on YouTube who plaintively asked, “If there wasn’t any Heaven or Hell… then why would we do any of this?” And I almost felt sorry for him because I knew the answer was something he didn’t want to think about too much.)
We pretended that our motivations for worshiping Jesus were pure, but the reality was very different. My pure motivations were overshadowed by terror–and my point here is that they should have been because that is what Hell was meant to produce in followers, not just in potential converts. That fear is meant to keep Christians dancing and guessing and afraid so they’ll stay obedient and compliant.
This insistence we gave about being Christian out of love alone should sound as hollow to you as hearing the Miss America Pageant people say that they’re all about the scholarships.
For one, we’d have been insane not to have been afraid of Hell, considering how depraved and evil the threat was and considering how easily someone could end up there–even someone who thought he or she was doing everything correctly. Only an idiot doesn’t recognize a great danger when it presents itself, especially when that danger is presented as a real and pressing danger.
For another, I’m not sure love and adoration can even exist where that kind of threat exists (and let’s be clear here: all the mealy-mouthed apologetics rhetoric around people “choosing” Hell just moves the issue over one step rather than resolving it; if a god exists who allows sentient beings to be tortured for even one second, then it doesn’t matter much if that god deliberately sent people to that torture or is just standing by with his thumbs up his butt while people get tortured, and either way it’s a god who designed a cosmology that allows that sort of thing to happen to anybody). I’m not sure how much free will or consent can possibly exist where someone is under that kind of duress. A threat that big just looms over and consumes everything in its path like a giant black hole across the entire religion. It took me a while to realize that all those prayers I was hearing my fellow Christians moan and utter and cry and shout about how good our god was were perhaps less declarations than they were reminders directed to that god.
The biggest, most major problem with this false insistence about our true motivations was that even though we insisted up and down and all around that Hell really wasn’t any kind of motivator for our decision-under-duress to follow Jesus, even though we generally started witnessing attempts with all the love and cuddly-wuddly, sweetie-shmoopy stuff about Jesus’ love and sacrifice and whatnot, those witnessing sessions inevitably ended with us trying to terrorize our targets into compliance with threats of Hell.
Look, people tend to use arguments that worked on them. They tend to avoid arguments they don’t personally find compelling and use the ones that are. And we tend to pull out our biggest guns at the end of a losing fight. Some Christians will lead with Hell, sure, but most really don’t. That threat is something that comes out only if the sweet stuff didn’t work, and it will emerge as a direct threat or as an implied, sing-song passive-aggressive barb–like a game of “good cop, bad cop.” What I’m saying here though is that it always comes out. It comes out because deep down, that threat is what the Christian thinks is most effective.
A Christian trying to terrorize me is a Christian who him- or herself was once terrorized in similar fashion. Maybe it happened in childhood, like it did to me, or maybe much later. But that threat of Hell convinced that person to become or remain a Christian, and avoiding that threat is what bought that Christian’s compliance. Getting others to buy into that fear alongside that Christian is a big part of evangelism. And that threat keeps a great many people in pews way past the time they wanted to leave–and keeps a number of ex-Christians afraid long past the time when they know perfectly well that the entire threat of Hell is a made-up, man-made idea designed from the ground up to scare people to ensure their obedience, a threat with no credibility whatsoever.
Watch those campus preachers and televangelists, and you might start noticing that what they’re really doing is pushing their own fears out at others. Watch Christians interact with non-believers, trying to sell their fears of Hell–and see how mystified and dismayed they seem to be when those non-believers just don’t share their fears or see any reason to be afraid. They react like you or I might react when told that oxygen doesn’t really exist. I remember being flummoxed like that myself. How was I supposed to sell Christianity to these people if they just couldn’t be induced to fear Hell? Indeed, it’s like Christians are telling us that of course Hell exists, of course there’s a valid reason to be afraid–how can we just not see the risk we’re taking by angering this narcissistic god of theirs? They compare this threat to getting hit by invisible buses or falling down an unending hole in the ground that only Christians can see–but when asked to produce some good and valid reason to share their fear, they can’t summon anything at all to support their claims.
That’s because Hell is not a real fear. It’s an artificially-inflated terror. It’s meant to put people into a mental headspace of knee-jerk panic just like any other terrorists’ threats of violence. It’s meant to make people do stuff they wouldn’t do ordinarily out of mindless extreme fear for their lives and safety. It’s meant to force people into obedience when there’s literally no other reason that those people would obey.
Fear of the unknown–of a threat that can’t be credibly supported or verified in any way–is in a lot of ways more potent than fears we can actually name and identify. It’s painfully easy to manipulate people based on that kind of fear. Best of all (from the point of view of those pushing that fear), just as the threat itself can’t be credibly demonstrated, its solution can’t be either. Blind obedience and acquiescence is all that can save someone from that threat, and the person being sold this bill of goods won’t know if it worked or not till after death.
Talk about a manufactured need! Christianity created the whole concept of Hell and is now trying to convince people that they need the solution Christianity offers for the problem it created in the first place.
In the end, honesty is very important to me, and I was forced to be dishonest by religion. I knew deep down that my fear of Hell motivated a lot of my behaviors and beliefs. Do some Christians genuinely not worry about Hell? Sure, I think so. Mostly I think it’s the ones who don’t buy into the idea of Hell at all who are free of that fear; their vision of a Christianity lacking Hell is so far removed from the mainstream that it heads into a universe where angles and colors work differently. But is it possible for Christians who buy into the idea of Hell to be free of that fear? No, I don’t think that’s possible. I’ve never yet met a Christian who believed in Hell who did not use it as a major talking-point against non-believers. Maybe one or two amoral sociopaths might try to put fears into people that they themselves do not think are credible, but the religion as a whole does that and I’ve got a lot of trouble imagining that many people wielding an argument they don’t personally find compelling.
I’m going to share with y’all what I told that sweet young Christian I mentioned at the top of this post: Love cannot exist where there are threats to one’s life and safety. It just isn’t possible for us to love that which terrorizes us with threatened violence.
The very second the threat of Hell gets trotted out, no matter how “nicely” the Christian doing it tries to position it, no matter how concerned that Christian acts or how pious the Jesus smile is that creases that Christian’s face, we need to understand that the religion’s entire pretense of being about love has just been shot in the foot. As long as unverified threats of violence exist in the religion, it isn’t about love but rather about control. And there’s no “nice” or “loving” way to push unverified threats of violence at another person.
I will be talking soon about the other ways that I broke free of this terror and realized that Hell could not possibly be real, but for now, I wanted to lay the groundwork by talking about the weird doubletalk Christians have about pretending to follow a god of love but yanking out threats of torture when they realize that love isn’t working to gain converts. That’s one reason why I’m not scared of Hell anymore. If their religion really were about love, they would never need threats. They use threats because they think that nothing else works to silence dissenters and gain converts.
I’m thankful that I’ve learned to evaluate threats to assess how realistic and likely they are, and I’m thankful that I’ve grown emotionally to the point where I simply refuse to make big decisions on the basis of unverified, non-credible threats of violence.