You might have noticed that we’re talking about Hell lately around these parts. There’s a reason for that. The terror induced by the threat of Hell is something a lot of Christians learn by their earliest childhood, and just like in losing weight, that first fear is often the last one to say goodbye. I’ve been noticing people mentioning this fear–either navigating the erosion of it or trying to push it onto others–and I think this is a good time to openly discuss one of the scariest and most toxic elements of the Christian religion. So let’s talk about Hell.
Having a fear doesn’t mean that the object of that fear is a credible reason to be afraid. I knew a guy once who was mortally phobic about butterflies–and I really don’t think he was faking it. Some people fear ducks, or clowns, or particular numbers. These fears can be really compelling for the people who suffer from them. That doesn’t mean those fears are based on real danger or that the objects of those fears could or do really hurt anybody (except maybe the clowns).
Other people build up fears in their heads out of circumstantial evidence and sheer suggestibility, coming up with fears of space aliens, Satanic panics, or vaccination hysteria, as well as whatever Fox News is pushing gullible, ignorant people to be afraid of this week. Without the ability to discern facts from fiction and anecdotes from evidence, someone can get really lost in what is quickly becoming a whole alternate universe in the conservative wing-nut-o-sphere. That doesn’t mean that these conspiracy theories are credible or that they should be taken seriously.
Hell definitely falls into that category of stuff that should not be taken seriously. But to talk about why, I want to first run these scenarios past you.
Few texts describe Zoroastrian hell — a gloomy and fiery place full of stench. Only one, The Book of Arda Viraf, describes it in detail. . . in addition to the river and bridge, it mentions hills and four particular places by name: Dush-humat, the place of evil thoughts; Dush-hukht, the place of evil words; Dush-huvarsht, the place of evil deeds; and Chakat-i-Daitih, a desert below the Chinvat Bridge. In addition it describes the unnamed deepest region, the pit, of hell, which Manuschihr in Religious Judgments (Dadestan-i Denig) calls Drûgâskan, a place so dark that all who are sent there are as if blind.
Wow, a Bog of Eternal Stench, a super-dark pit, and places that are the very embodiment of evil deeds and thoughts. Do you fear the journey across the Chinvat Bridge? If not, why not?
What about this one?
Those who were judged unfavorably faced a very similar fate to our modern concept of hell, and perhaps even more specifically to the more Middle Age concept of it as a specific region beneath the earth. For the damned, the entire, uncontrollable rage of the deity was directed against those who were condemned through their evils. They were tortured in every imaginable way and “destroyed”, thus being consigned to nonexistence. They were deprived of their sense organs, were required to walk on their heads and eat their own excrement. They were burned in ovens and cauldrons and were forced to swim in their own blood, which Shezmu, the god of the wine press, squeezed out of them.
Yikes! Imagine that–getting pressed in a winepress, swimming in one’s own blood–not that you’d really mind since that was probably an improvement over getting baked alive in ovens, walking on your head, and eating your own shit. Isn’t that just a terrifying idea? Don’t you want to do anything to avoid that fate? If you don’t, then why don’t you fear it?
Or what about this one?
. . . hell captured the spirits of the unwary, and even on the God-led island of Aitutaki, it was expected that at death human spirits descended to the domains of the goddess Miru, a deformed and frightful being who feasted on the spirits of the dead.
Oh, it might not be quite as elaborate as some of the other Hells, but it’s definitely no picnic–except for Miru, I guess. Wouldn’t that be just scary and painful as anything, to have one’s spirit eaten forever by that sort of deity? Why aren’t most people scared of that idea?
Not only are most of us not scared of any of those visions of Hell, we’re not even vaguely threatened by any of them. Why aren’t we? Don’t you wonder why the Christian Hell is the one most Americans think of when they think of Hell, and why that’s the one they think is compelling?
If missionaries from those other religions stopped you on the streets today and warned you of the danger they thought you risked, their eyes wild with panic, their hands waving in the air their holy texts, their voices raised and their eyebrows squinched up tight like Pat Robertson’s when he’s on a roll, would you listen to what they had to say? Would you care? If you could be bothered even to ask, what evidence for their threat would you demand to see before buying into it alongside them? And do you demand that same evidence for whatever Hell you might fear?
Most of us grew up in a culture that happens to have a fairly monolithic belief about Hell. Even if we weren’t raised Christian, we are inundated from birth with the imagery and tropes that surround the idea of it. Folks raised Christian do more than brush up against those images and tropes; parents indoctrinate their children into this terror very early on, and those parents were themselves indoctrinated into it when they were just little children by their own parents, and so on and so forth, back to the very beginning. Those earliest fears are the hardest to break; children are naturally very trusting of their parents and caretakers, so are unlikely to question an adult who tells them something is real. There are obviously exceptions; I’ve run into several people, Mr. Captain included, who rejected the idea of Hell–and often Christianity itself–at an early age.
Most of us aren’t so lucky, though. I for one wholeheartedly accepted my indoctrination without questions or skepticism. I put up a little resistance about some of what I got taught, but was all too easily sidetracked by thought-stoppers like “It’s just a mystery and we’ll understand one day.” Even well into my college years, it never occurred to me that the “mysteries” I’d been taught as objectively-factual truth didn’t have a shred of evidence behind them; I took ancient history classes because I was convinced that in these classes I’d finally find the evidence for my faith I’d always been assured was totally there.
I credit those college classes with giving me my first inkling that maybe some of this stuff that my family and church authorities had seemed so very certain about wasn’t actually objectively true. But these classes did something even more helpful: they taught me about other cultures’ religions. That’s what really shocked me. I met people from other religions in college, and I mixed freely with people from all over the world. I couldn’t help but notice that these people were as sure of their religion as I was of mine. Why did they think I was wrong but they were right? For that matter, why did I think I was right and they were wrong? Why weren’t they worried about my Hell and why wasn’t I worried about their Hells?
While in college I also read about other religions–many in books like Larson’s Book of Cults, which was written from an evangelical perspective. Just as I noticed about my new friends’ religious ideas, I noticed that books like that one struggled to explain why those other religions were totally wrong but their own was totally right. Some of these materials talked about archaeological evidence discounting those other religions’ claims, or discussed ways that their holy books made predictions that didn’t happen or made scientific or historical claims that weren’t actually objectively true. I was coming to a slow understanding that the Bible–and really my entire religion–suffered the exact same flaws. I had the same repertoire these other religions’ adherents did of apologetics tricks to smooth away those rough edges and jangling bits of cognitive dissonance. And I saw the same elements of my own religion in theirs: worship, praise, subjective gooey happy feelings of peace and contentment, rules and regulations for followers that marked them as different from the adherents of other religions, threats to make people more obedient, and punishments for noncompliance both for followers and outsiders.
There really wasn’t anything special about my religion that didn’t exist in other religions, either past ones or present ones. If these other religions could be marked down for historical and scientific inaccuracy, failed predictions, and flawed sourcebooks, then mine could too. If the claims of these other religions’ adherents could be viewed with skepticism because demons (or simple human gullibility and eagerness to assign motives and agency to natural phenomena) might be inducing them to their feelings of certainty about their religions, well, nothing really stopped me from being judged the same way. “Because obviously Christianity is the only true religion!” just didn’t cut it anymore for me–they could say that too about their religion, as did “Because the Bible said so!”
I started wondering why the One True God gave the information about the One True Religion to a teeny-tiny little backwater in the middle of nowhere inhabited by impossibly-ignorant, backward desert nomads when just a bit further to the east the Chinese Han Dynasty was flourishing–with a truly impressive level of technology, education, writing, and philosophical achievement as well as a much greater population? Why had this god chosen to reveal himself to that tiny little pinpoint of conflict and ignorance when he could have shown himself somewhere he’d be guaranteed to reach more people? And for goodness’ sakes we could name half a dozen other empires flourishing around that same time. But he chose that area? Why?
And that’s not even counting the existential panic I went through when I realized that we don’t actually know what all the religions in the world have ever been. There are likely thousands of little religions that have existed in our species’ history. We’ve got no idea what religious ideas sparked the creation of Venus figurines, for example, or what spirituality informed our ancestors’ decision to decorate difficult-to-access caves 40,000 years ago or to build some of our planet’s more mysterious monuments. What if one of those religions was the one true religion out of all the world, and we’ll never even know because every bit of information about them and their gods disintegrated into dust eons ago? My mind simply recoiled from that idea–but my reaction was so extreme that I noticed it and dwelt on it.
In the end, I came face to face with my own sheer narcissism, and I crumbled under the weight of that realization. I seriously had thought for my whole life that I just happened to have been born in the right place and the right time to be taught the one correct religion out of all the tens of thousands of religions that have ever existed in the world and that moreover I’d happened to luck into the one correct flavor of Christianity out of all the tens of thousands of flavors of Christianity that have ever existed since the religion’s creation. Either I was just incredibly lucky and “blessed,” which meant that billions of other people on this planet had been neglected by a god who was looking more and more incompetent and malevolent all the time, or I maybe was simply a blazing egotist who’d latched onto the religion my culture liked best and had found a myriad of rationalizations for why I’d done so.
The other reasons for rejecting Hell came almost as an afterthought. Of course there is no scientific evidence for Hell. Don’t be silly. There have never been any verified miracles, either, and no near-death experiences that could be credibly demonstrated to have been factual. Nobody’s ever come back from really-dead death and told us anything about Hell that we could falsify and test.
It gets worse, though.
Belief in Hell is the result of a whole series of nested premises, not a single one of which can be credibly supported. Nobody’s ever even proven that anything supernatural is real, much less that any supernatural beings exist, much less that the Christian god exists, much less that this god can communicate with us in some way, much less that this particular god cares deeply about what people do with their money and their genitals, much less that there’s some realm we go to after death, much less that anybody knows what that realm is, much less that anybody knows for sure how to avoid it. Anybody who says they know any of these things is likely trying to sell you something.
To get me worried about Hell, someone would have to find some way to support at least that first premise. Then we could move on to the second premise and so on. That’s how real science works: a series of tested, confirmed observations that build up to a theory that explains how something works. But I don’t know of any credible support for any supernatural claims made by any religion, especially Christianity. (Though I know of hundreds of non-credible bits of pseudo-science and junk archaeology that apologetics writers push in lieu of real evidence, these are not actually credible to anybody but them and their flocks of followers.)
Fear of Hell is a mental habit. And like most habits, that fear takes a little time, self-education, and introspection to break. I felt a little awkward at first stepping away from that fear–but it was a task worth the effort. I felt that fear slip away from me gradually as I learned more about other religions and about history and science. I don’t remember the exact moment that I thought to myself, “I’m free of this fear at last!” but I do know there was a time when I startled at the realization that it’d been a long time since I’d been afraid of dying and going to Hell because of some forgotten, unconfessed sin on my conscience. I was still Christian at that point, but I’m sure that realization played a big part in my eventual deconversion.
Again, Hell’s part of a nested series of beliefs. Once I realized Hell couldn’t possibly exist, it didn’t take me long to realize the other premises were unsupported as well. I’ve got to wonder if the Christians who buy into this belief kinda know deep down that once Hell is taken off the table, a lot of other stuff falls off the table along with it. I know some Christians do reject the idea of Hell–or wrap the idea around a far more benevolent deity than Christianity usually preaches. And it’s no surprise that the Christians who use their own morality to overrule their dogmatic teachings tend to be the least dishonest and abusive of all their tribe. Once the grotesquely terrorizing concept of Hell is taken away, love can finally start taking center stage and we can start to heal.