I have lost my patience with this Hell business. Completely. Not too long ago, a reader wrote me this note:
“I was raised a fundamentalist, I took my faith very seriously, and I took it so seriously that eventually it all just disappeared. It couldn’t handle the contrary evidence, and eventually it just fell away. For three years after, I led a very happy life as an atheist, and didn’t give religion or theism a second thought until about 7 months ago I woke up in the middle of the night with a terrifying fear of hell. After a brief spat of trying to be a christian again, I realized once again that christian belief seemed both historically, philosophically, and scientifically unfounded, and I’m finally getting to the point where touching hot water or looking at a fire no longer sends me into a frenzy of imagining my whole body will be engulfed in flames for all eternity. However, I’m still tremendously saddened by core christian beliefs, and I feel so hurt that my life has been turned into a sort of high-stakes gamble for no apparent reason. I want to live my life freely, but it’s quite a challenge when every steeple serves as a reminder that most people in my country believe I’m going to be tortured for eternity, and when christian apologists are trolling the sites that I look to for help, making a very sophisticated case for how god is love – but that I’m still going to hell.
“I’m growing very tired of feeling trapped by religious thinking, and jumping at the sight of a church, a cross, or a Jesus fish. It hurts me that people could worship a deity who seems so morally bankrupt, and out of love (!) rather than fear. So, I was wondering, might you have any advice for how I can move forward in my life without feeling so bogged down by a belief system that I find so hurtful?” (emphasis mine)
Messages like this make my blood boil, and they should make yours boil, too. How could it not? Anger is the appropriate emotion when you encounter abuse, and that’s what this is no matter how well meaning the people were who put her in this position. The best intentions of the people who drill these fears into us don’t erase the deleterious effect they have on us. As a parent myself, it incenses me to think that someone would teach my children to lie awake at night, worrying that they might die and go to Hell if they don’t do the right things or believe the right things. I know what that fear feels like because I had it once myself. Like any good Southern boy, I was brought up in church, and I was taught to believe that some people will fry for eternity for not believing the right things (even though we didn’t like to talk about it much). I remember what it was like to feel that dread and angst, that existential uncertainty about my own eternal destiny. I also know what it’s like to let it go. I’m going to explain in a minute why I finally let it go, and why you should, too.
But first, another friend more recently told me something I’ve heard many times before:
“I want so much to let go of my indoctrination but I keep thinking: What if I’m wrong? I just can’t shake the fear of Hell. It’s too scary.”
YES, it is. It is a very powerful idea. That’s exactly why the guardians of Christian orthodoxy won’t let it go. If you analyze the threat of Hell very long at all it makes no sense whatsoever, but ironically it persists precisely because of its irrationality. It operates at a level deeper than your reasoning. It appeals to your emotions, bypassing your logic so that it doesn’t have to earn its way into acceptance. It just automatically makes it in and becomes rooted in your deepest psyche, most likely because it was put there before you had the intellectual tools to evaluate the idea in the first place. Something you plant that deeply into a child’s mind doesn’t just go away simply because she’s thought things through later on. It lingers there, like a virus or an auto-immune disorder slowly attacking her ability to fight off bad ideas.
It is an indictment of any religion that you would use fear of everlasting torment in order to keep people in the fold. It screams to me that your religion cannot keep people in by virtue of its own merits, rationality, or beneficiality. If you have to scare people out of leaving, you are perpetuating an abusive relationship, plain and simple. It’s about maintaining control.
This is what abusers do. They tear down their victims by telling them they deserve awful things. They warn their captives that if they leave, bad things will happen to them. They beat fear down so deep into their victims that it becomes impossible for them to objectively analyze the nature of the relationship. Their minds won’t let them. The fear is too loud, too strong. It prevents them from seeing things as they are, not by justifying why this relationship should continue, but by scaring the victims into remaining where they are. This is how abusers operate. And it’s exactly what’s happening when people teach their children that if you leave Jesus you will burn in flames forever and ever.
Incidentally, you can try to argue that wrong belief isn’t why Christians say people go to Hell. You can say that “being bad” is how you get there, and that the punishment is for “sinning.” But Christian theology also teaches that people who are just as bad don’t go to Hell. They “get saved” from it, and not because they started being better people. It equally claims that good people will wake up in Hell one day simply because something was missing from their otherwise decent lives that wasn’t missing from the select scoundrels who made it into Heaven. What made the difference? Correct belief. For the ones who get spared everlasting torture, “their faith made them well,” so to speak. It was their orthodox beliefs, not their meritorious behavior, which elicited their divine reward. Likewise it was the lack of proper belief that condemned the damned to Hell. So we see that in the end Christianity teaches that you suffer forever for not believing the right things, not merely for being a bad person. Ultimately that’s the only reason anybody goes there.
A BAD IDEA THAT WON’T GO AWAY
It happens differently for everybody. For some, the notion of posthumous punishment falls away early on in their deconversion process. Those who transition first from fundamentalism/evangelicalism into more liberal/progressive Christianity often give up Hell long before they give up everything else. Maybe they read some Rob Bell or Brian McLaren or Bishop Spong, who are like the gateway drugs on the way to harder stuff like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. Somewhere along the way it occurs to them that a God who is both loving and all-powerful would not be bound to accept his children’s self-destructive choices, as if he had no say in the matter. Nor would it make sense that a loving, all-powerful God could create a world in which eternal torture (or privation of happiness) is even possible. If he’s in charge, he gets to make that call. Saying his hands are tied because we have free will makes no sense either, as I’ve already explained in this piece here.
For others, however, Hell will be the last thing to go. Oddly enough, like the friends I’ve quoted above said, fear of Hell can linger long after you’ve lost all rational reasons for believing such a thing can exist. One of the reasons why is that its primary function is to keep people in, so it screams the loudest when you’re on your way out. A friend recently put it this way:
“Thinking back, during my conversion to atheism, it gave me more than a small amount of anxiety at times. It’s sort of a dreadful feeling to be losing your religion but not be losing it fast or hard enough to completely lose the fear of hell. And the fear of hell actually increases in some way, because the further you get from being able to believe, the more you think, “well, I’m screwed if I’m wrong, because I just CAN’T believe anymore.” (emphasis mine)
The other reason why it’s so hard to let this go is because fear is an emotion, not an idea. How do you deconstruct an emotion? Fear of hell is like an intentionally programmed phobia, and phobias don’t go away just by talking through why they aren’t rational. Their irrationality is exactly why they won’t go away! It can take a lot of work to overcome something that operates at such a primal, limbic level. Sometimes it comes down to just deliberately walking into whatever it is that you fear in order to prove to yourself that the world isn’t going to fall apart once you’ve done it. Like my friend Ryan Bell did over at Year Without God, maybe the most sensible thing you can do is just “try on” atheism for a while, looking at the world without the God-glasses for a time in order to see if the world makes more sense or less. If God is real, and if he is what everyone in your world keeps saying he is, then wouldn’t he be able to overcome your skepticism and demonstrate the reality of his existence despite the limitations of your own ability to perceive him? If he is real, then the evidence of his reality should not disintegrate simply because you quit believing in it.
WHY I QUIT BELIEVING IN HELL (AND YOU SHOULD, TOO)
1) For me, it started with realizing there are no good reasons to believe people come back from the dead at all. Losing a belief in Hell was an unavoidable consequence of losing my belief in supernatural things in general, including life after death. I won’t go into all the reasons why here because I don’t want to focus on that today. Many people who chunk the idea of Hell will still hold very firmly to their belief in other supernatural concepts, and while I can’t go along with those myself, I still call that major progress. They were likely persuaded by the many other reasons for disbelieving in eternal torment. I’ll list a few of them here, and I’d love to hear from you if you have any more to add to the list.
2) Logistically speaking, the doctrine of Hell makes a category error by alternately claiming it’s physical and then not physical. It’s like it can’t make up its mind.* Do you suffer physically in Hell? That would require a body and bodies wear out and disintegrate. I suppose you could claim that after being miraculously reconstituted (bodies decompose), it’s no big deal for God to miraculously keep replenishing your physical existence so that the damage inflicted upon you in this torturous state can continue indefinitely. But that puts God in a position so actively involved in your suffering that he becomes a monster. They can’t have that (unless they’re Calvinists, then they’re fine with it). So they try to remove him from the process, but bodies can’t just come back from the dead—nor can they live forever—without some kind of divine intervention. So you have to choose which it is. Either God is directly responsible for the torture of Hell’s victims, or else this cannot be a physical state at all, despite the way the doctrine is usually presented.
So many just go the other way and say it’s not physical, and there’s no resurrection. You just die and your soul immediately goes to Heaven or Hell, without a body. But this presents all kinds of other problems. For one thing, it contradicts the very book which brought us the concept of Hell in the first place. Both Paul and the book of Revelation speak of the dead being physically raised in order to be judged. It’s super sketchy to get an idea from a book and then completely change key elements of the idea just because aspects of it are objectionable, especially if you then turn around and claim you’re just following the book. No you’re not. You’re making this up as you go, and you need to show a little more self-awareness about what you’re doing.
The feelings we feel are inextricably tied to our bodies. You can change the way you feel by tinkering with the chemistry in your brain. If you doubt that, then you should do a little reading about how things like depression, schizophrenia, and bi-polar disorder work. Without bodies to generate the feelings we feel, the notions of torture and anguish make no sense at all. And like I said, bodies wouldn’t just go on forever without some kind of constant divine intervention. So we’re back to seeing Hell as a direct work of God’s “hand.” Which leads me to the next reason you should disbelieve it:
3) Morally speaking, punishment that has no redemptive or rehabilitative purpose is deplorable. As a teacher and a parent, I know how to recognize punishment that teaches a lesson. I also know how to recognize blind rage and unproductive wrath. I can tell the difference. The former is redemptive in that it leaves its recipient in a better state afterwards because it is corrective. The latter serves no purpose other than to make the angry authority figure feel better. Which category do you think Hell would fall under? Do the people who go there get a chance to learn from their punishment? What kind of person punishes people for things they’re no longer in a position to change? It makes no sense to wait to punish people only the second after they can no longer change their destiny.
4) It also makes no sense to withhold any clear evidence of the existence of this punishment until the moment it becomes your inescapable destiny. I am so tired of hearing “Well if you were running toward a cliff, the only loving thing to do is to warn you that it’s coming.” The reason that’s such a bad analogy is that cliffs are real things. You can go look at a cliff if you want to see one. The person doing the warning has clearly seen the cliff and knows for certain that it’s there. That’s not at all the way warning people about Hell works. You’ve got a concept of an invisible, unprovable plane of existence which has no empirical evidence at all, and yet you’re talking about it as if you have seen it. But you haven’t. No one has. So stop talking about it as if you know it’s as real as a cliff. And please consider how little sense it makes that people would be punished by something for which there is no clear evidence up until the moment it is too late.
5) The punishment doesn’t fit the crime. In fact, for most, there is no crime at all. Criminal behavior includes things like murder, rape, genocide, grand theft, and an otherwise violent disregard for human life or property. Most people don’t engage in criminal behavior, and when we catch the ones who do we still don’t flat out torture them. What kind of sick solution is that? Even the most atrocious of crimes results in a death penalty, but that is over within minutes. Anything beyond that we call “cruel and unusual punishment” and we won’t go there because it’s “inhumane” (unless you’re in Guantanamo but let’s save that for another time). Apparently “humane” means something more compassionate than the word “divine” would indicate. Humans would only punish someone for a short time in order to spare him constant agony. Evidently God is not as good as people are.
6) The duration of punishment renders the crucifixion nonsensical because, if it takes forever to pay off the sins of one lifetime, you can’t pay off the sins of a billion lifetimes by suffering for twelve hours on a Friday. That makes no sense at all. And yes, I know there are many who reject the very notion of penal substitutionary atonement, but the people who do that already have no qualms with cherry-picking which parts of the Bible to accept and which ones to reject, so they’re likely to disbelieve in Hell as well. Some may continue believing in Hell while still believing it’s not a punishment, but again, you have to come to grips with the reality that you are disagreeing with the very source of the doctrine you say you hold. It makes no sense to posit that Hell is real when you got that idea from a book you clearly don’t trust. It unambiguously speaks of Hell as a punishment for sins. Own it. If you’re going to redesign the doctrines of the Bible to suit your own preferences, you need to stop defending the legitimacy of the book itself.
7) Jesus may not have believed in Hell himself. I saved this one for last because it matters the least to me personally. I’m not convinced that we can even determine what the real Jesus said or did, and many aren’t convinced there ever was a real Jesus in the first place. I happen to think he was a real person, but that we’ve virtually lost him to so many layers of embellishment and competing oral traditions that it’s nearly impossible to figure out what the guy really said. But some care immensely what Jesus believed, and a growing number of those people are beginning to argue that we’ve misinterpreted what he said about Hell. Some say he was only speaking metaphorically about the here-and-now consequences of an unhealthy life. I’m not personally convinced Jesus is a good example of what “a healthy life” looks like, but I’m talking about that in a future post.
Personally, I would rather not see your rejection of Hell rooted in a need to continue basing everything you believe on what this guy said because I don’t revere him the way you do. But that may not be something I can change. So instead, let me just point you in the direction of the pastors and writers who have worked through their own understanding of the teachings of Jesus only to find that they no longer believe he really said what people think he said about the matter. If you want to go on that trip I’d recommend books like Love Wins by Rob Bell or The Last Word and the Word After That by Brian McLaren. It’s no coincidence that both of those men have left the traditional pastorate, nor is it a coincidence that they’ve been branded as heretics by the guardians of Christian orthodoxy. But I also can read the signs of the times well enough to know that Christianity is in the midst of another reinvention. Many like these two are leaving the doctrine of Hell behind, and it will be interesting to see what becomes of that. I find it difficult to imagine a widely successful Christianity that doesn’t feature a belief in Hell, but I guess we’ll see. For the time being, I think there are far too many reasons to keep beating this dead horse. It’s time to bury it and move on.
POSTSCRIPT: WHY PASCAL’S WAGER SUCKS
A Muslim friend threatened me with Hell one day by arguing that if there’s even an outside possibility that I am wrong about the prophet Muhammad, I should choose to honor him just in case I am wrong, because the downside to being wrong about him far outweighs the benefits of my being right. Sound familiar? Well, later that same week I had a family member use the exact same line on me about Jesus. You see the problem here, and I think I laughed out loud at the time (which really freaked him out). At least two religions each claim mutually exclusive rights to my soul, and each one threatens me with eternal damnation if I don’t choose the right one. Pascal’s wager makes an offer which in the end becomes useless because it fails to establish which damnation I’m supposed to be afraid of. I am literally damned if I do and damned if I don’t. I just don’t see its appeal anymore. Besides, you can’t be afraid of something you already don’t think is real.
All you have to do is get out a little—venture beyond the confines of your own provincial world—and you will gain exposure to some of the equally dogmatic beliefs of other religions. This may truly do you some good. Broaden your horizons a little bit. The more you listen to what people in other parts of the world believe (and at other times in history), the more you will learn to see what you were taught to believe in more realistic perspective. And no, I don’t mean reading Christian books about what’s wrong with everyone else’s religions. I mean asking those people to tell you about their own beliefs in their own words. If you do that, you will likely find that Hell is a lot less believable.
* Whenever I point out inconsistencies in the Bible such as this one wherein our eternal destinies are vaguely physical and non-physical at the same time, the stock response is that these are just mysteries and we need to get over it and try not to think so hard about it. That’s a terrible response as it essentially amounts to telling people not to think too much. If I may use another teacher illustration: I sometimes catch my students cheating on exams and when I ask them for their stories about what happened, they rarely coincide. Imagine if they responded by saying of the inconsistencies: “It’s a mystery, Coach. Try not to think too hard about it.”