Yes, There Are Atheists Who Still Fear Hell

Yes, There Are Atheists Who Still Fear Hell February 6, 2020

I received this email over the weekend, which I will keep anonymous,

Even though I no longer believe I still find myself AFRAID of Hell.  It was beaten into me for so many years it is like a fear that I am finding difficult to shake.

So my question is what advice could you give me to get over this fear.  Maybe you could do a blog on this topic.  It is so difficult to get over this very real fear.  I want to enjoy my atheism as you and many others do but this fear of hell is truly Hell.

I am shocked and devastated to find out that this is true. I suppose I always just assumed that when you free yourself of religion, your lack of belief protects you from this fear. The fact that it’s been beaten so thoroughly into you that even disbelief in the deity that sends you to Hell can’t stop you from fearing it, is really sad. I have to say, I feel for those of you who struggle with this, and I am so sorry you have to.

I’ve been an atheist my entire life. I don’t know what it’s like to fear Hell. I can’t fully comprehend such a fear, and as such, my advice for getting past it may be insufficient, but I will give it my best shot. Here are a few of my ideas:

1. Exposure. This tactic has long been used as a method to get over many fears and phobias. Obviously, you can’t go to Hell and inspect the place, but what you can do is read about it. The more you read about it, the less clear your idea of Hell will become. You’ll realize that many cultures throughout the ancient and modern worlds have had some awful place that sinners go to for eternal punishment. Just like the story of Jesus was told over and over again with different heroes for thousands of years before Christ, so has the story of Hell. Reading about it will prove to you that it’s nothing but a story. Here are some books about Hell that illuminate where this idea came from, all its different manifestations throughout history and the fact that not all of those stories can be true, so the likelihood is that none of them are:

These are a good start, but I would go further. Keep reading. The more you expose yourself to it, the more apparent it will become that there is no consistent view of Hell and it’s all just myth.

2. Remind yourself of how unjust the concept of Hell is. Here in Canada, we do not have the death penalty. In fact, the longest sentence a convict can get in the Canadian penal system is 25 years (considered life). God punishes people for eternity for lesser crimes than those committed by Canadians serving life in prison. Therefore, Canadians are more forgiving and merciful than God? Further, does it sound just to you that finite sins are met with infinite punishment?

3. Force yourself to see the gaping holes in the story of Hell.  If a good, well-behaved, Christ-loving family has one member who is not saved – does this family really experience bliss in Heaven knowing that their loved-one is burning for eternity? I’ve heard many Christians explain away this problem by suggesting their memory is wiped of any loved ones in Hell as soon as they pass through the pearly gates. So, ultimately, in order for Heaven to be truly blissful for anyone who may have a loved one in Hell (or even just compassion for those burning for eternity), they basically have to play out a scene from Men in Black. Essentially, they have to be lobotomized to enjoy Heaven. What if a mother’s precious only child is the one burning in Hell for being a nonbeliever while she is up in Heaven? A child who was her life, her everything, her very reason for breathing… if her memory is wiped of that child, is she really herself anymore? That begs the question, what’s the purpose of an afterlife if you’re not yourself at all? See the hole. Ask the question. None of it makes any sense at all.

4. Ask yourself what the purpose is for eternal punishment. What is gained? Punishment generally has a goal to teach some sort of lesson or correct poor behaviour. Why punish at all if there is zero chance the subject can prove they’ve learned from it? Punishing for eternity is an oxymoron. You cannot punish someone for eternity. If they have zero opportunity to learn and grow from said punishment, well, then it’s no punishment at all. It’s just torture, plain and simple. Torture for the sake of torture. So, what then, is the purpose? Is this just how God entertains himself?

5. Focus on the things that you do know and can prove. For instance, you know you have this life to live. This is factual. An afterlife is something we have no evidence for, but we are all alive now. Reason with yourself that spending the one life you are sure of in fear of a life you have no reason to believe exists, is a waste of this life. You’re wasting what you’re absolutely sure of, in fear of something for which there is zero evidence. Focus on the love of your family and friends, for which there is evidence. Spend time on your passions, for which there is evidence. Set goals and try to accomplish them, strive to build a better you in the here and now. Live your real life before you worry about any mythical one.

6. Read about reality and how this Universe ticks. Expose yourself to awe-inspiring questions, like the ones we all had after watching Cosmos or reading The Demon-Haunted World – Could there be life out there somewhere? What would that life look like? Will we ever be able to travel between galaxies and set foot on new planets? If you’re like me, these questions lead to more questions, and leave me with a sense of awe and wonder so huge I can barely contain it. Try thinking about Hell after you’ve thoroughly considered the sheer vastness of our universe. Suddenly, it may seem sort of silly.

7. Focus on the idea of a loving god. If you spend your life being kind, fulfilling your obligations, caring for those in your life and just being an all-around good person, would a loving god really burn you in hell for eternity just because you’ve used the brain he gave you to think critically? No. That’s not a loving god at all. So, even though you don’t believe in him anymore, there is obviously still a part of you that wonders, “what if it’s true?” If it is true, and you’ve been kind and good, and he is indeed a loving god, then you have all your bases covered.

8. Keep reading the case against Hell. Here are some fantastic resources:

Ultimately, this is going to take time and I imagine it is hard to rationalize. Be patient with yourself and don’t give up. Supplement these points by reading some Joseph Campbell and watching his 6 part interview with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth. Eventually, I would be willing to bet, you will be able to put your fear behind you and finally move on to that stage of being able to enjoy your new-found freedom.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • guerillasurgeon

    Okay I give up.

  • Robert Baden

    Mom was an ex-Catholic. Raised us UU, with emphasis on Universalism part. She still had nightmares

  • Randy Meyer
  • Jim Jones

    I have to sleep sometimes. And I slipped and face planted on the street yesterday so I’m recovering a bit now. And I have to straighten out my glasses!

  • Jim Jones
  • Randy Meyer

    It’s not your fault, I tried my best to avoid the patheos nanny filter and still got burned. You shouldn’t have to deal with it at all!

    Sorry about your face.

  • Jim Jones

    My knee took the worst of it!

  • Jim Jones

    Just Daleks. And Republicans.

  • Michael Neville

    You took a sidewalk to the knee?

  • Jim Jones

    It’s fear. People like this develop it early in life and it never leaves them. They die in terror. Religion, Christianity in particular, feeds that fear with stories which were invented by people like themselves. It’s a feedback loop and is why we don’t understand them and they don’t understand us.

    Here’s the thing about heaven and hell. Christians lie. That’s really all you need to know. They lie a lot and right out of the gate.

    They invented hell (and added heaven) to scare us, but they wound up scaring themselves! Since they lie about everything (“the religion of love, our loving church, our charitable work”) why believe them on this? At least they, and we, have experienced their religion, their churches, their charity, and know how hollow they are. No one has reported back on hell.

    Put the best face on it. What do Christians like? Apparently they LOOOOVE virtue signaling. That’s the main benefit of church; a better church, a better minister, nicer clothes, a new car, kids who appear to be good (although may hate their parents). So why not a planet (say) with a sort of game show where everyone fights to appear better than the others, like The Bachelorette but with Christians, not pretty girls? Streets of gold? What a stupid idea. Why would you need or want that?

    How about hell? What do Christians hate? How about a planet of hedonism where you are 30(?) forever and there are no STDs or pregnancies. One where you can do all the stuff you never could, alone time in the forests, mountain climbing, great food (some cooked on grills which are the “fires of hell” they lie about), plenty of safe sex, everything you really wanted.

    You know I’m right. Christians are telling these stories, Christians lie. We can deduce the truth. If any part of the myth is true.

  • Jim Jones

    A street I was crossing.

  • Ann Kah

    I’d start with number 6 and number 3. If the whole idea of hell is physically impossible, there is no reason to study how unjust it would be. Don’t try to explain a thing until you have evidence that there’s anything to explain.

  • Gussie FinkNottle

    Their concept of Eden, too. Though that’s just Milton, not Dante.

  • Gussie FinkNottle

    It never really leaves you, but it does get better over time. I found the ending of “Rapturepalooza” surprisingly therapeutic.

  • Kelley Gaither

    One of the arguments against Hell that has helped me question its existence is actually something my dad told me about the human perception of sub zero temperatures. We were watching Nature on PBS one night, and the narrator was talking about the wind chill that hit a place in the Arctic being -60 F. I shook my head and said “My God, can you imagine how cold that would be on your bare skin?” and he chuckled, and looked down at me as I sat on the floor and said “Baby girl, after a certain point, cold is just cold….you can’t tell the difference between -35 and -60 F…it hits your skin the same way”. It’s the same with fire…after a certain point, it’s *just* hot, and as with cold, if you’re out in it long enough, it all blends together…you acclimate, becoming ‘numb’ to it. .

  • Sharon Dee

    This person’s story was my own. Even though I intellectually knew Hell was a myth, my inner child still believed in it and feared every sudden noise was the coming of Christ to cast me down.

    Only after years of my fears not coming true did they fully leave. I think it was the first tactic you list, Exposure, that did the trick for me. The longer you live with nothing happening, the easier it is to cast off that fear.

  • abb3w

    While it would seem rather strange and silly to believe in Hell without believing in a Deity, it should not be all that surprising to learn that there can be people in the world who are both strange and silly in their beliefs.

  • Meena 2016

    You can be burnt in agony in the fires of hell for all eternity by eating meat on a Friday. As for anything a bit sexual, well unless approved by the church, hell be be even worse.
    In our RC secondary school this was drummed into us many times.
    It is child abuse.

  • Meena 2016

    Godless Mom – please note I have a VPN, not used for thhis comment:

    You can be burnt in agony in the fires of hell for all eternity by
    eating meat on a Friday. As for anything a bit sexual, well unless
    approved by the church, hell be be even worse.
    In our RC secondary school this was drummed into us many times.
    It is child abuse.

  • Connie Beane

    Good advice. I was fortunate enough to escape heavy religious indoctrination in childhood, so when I finally acknowledged that I am an atheist, I didn’t have a real problem shrugging off the notion of Hell. (Actually, I think it was less of a problem than giving up the fluffy, comforting myth of a blissful (god-free) afterlife, which isn’t any more likely than Hell but a lot more fun to imagine.) Most atheists come to atheism via reason, however, so with time and patience one can eventually accept that Hell is exactly as real as dragons or orcs or unicorns.

  • Jim Jones

    Religion is spread by four basic methods:

    Deceit
    Fear
    Tor​ture
    Mur​der

    It is always thus.

  • Jim Baerg

    I can’t think of a crime bad enough that the appropriate punishment would be eternal torture….
    With the possible exception of building a dungeon in which to torture people for eternity.

  • Hell is something that not even all Christian Faiths are in agreement about. (Even Islam ‘casts’ it differently!)

    Problem of Hell -Wiki
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Problem_of_Hell

    Jahannam (from the Qur’an) -Wiki
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jahannam

    Restoration Movement (also known as the American Restoration Movement or the Stone-Campbell Movement) -Wiki
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Restoration_Movement

    The Restorationist movement, which grew in strength in the midst of the 19th Century (beginning in USA and later in Great Britain) gave birth to a number of sects, and denominations, (within Christianity) which tended to diverge from the existing Christian beliefs in a literal Hell.

    QUOTE
    Almost no forms of Judaism share the traditional majority Christian belief in the immortality of the soul, therefore Sheol (Hades in the Septuagint, “the grave” in many instances in the King James Bible) is simply the destination for all the dead, and no “problem of Sheol” exists. Gehenna, found in the Mishnah, is the Lake of fire or destination of the living sinners and raised wicked at Judgment Day, and the place of either destruction, in the Mishnah or, in some rabbinical texts, eternal torment, which would potentially create a “problem of Gehenna.” UN-QUOTE

    There remains quite a major difference between religious doctrines taught by the Old Testament, and by the New Testament. The Old Testament mainly consists of translations of the Tanakh writings of Judaism with some changes, and editing. (The city of Jerusalem, is pronounced Yerushalayim in Hebrew)

    (Tanakh is an acronym of the first Hebrew letter of each of the Masoretic Text’s three traditional subdivisions: Torah (‘Teaching’, also known as the Five Books of Moses), Nevi’im (‘Prophets’) and Ketuvim (‘Writings’)—hence TaNaKh.)

  • Great article but I think you missed the point about what Christians believe in number 7. Being a good kind loving person doesn’t get you into Heaven. Believing in Jesus Christ as saviour is the ticket (John 3:16). That’s why Christianity is such a stupid religion. I have no fear of Hell. It makes no sense.

  • Jim Jones

    Mark 13:10 Have you heard the gospels? Be able to answer no.
    Romans 1:20 Do you recognize Jesus as Lord? Be able to answer yes.

    You’re in.

  • Anselm

    I’d personally endorse all the above steps, but especially #1. I was fundamentalist and eased out of it directly into atheism. It wasn’t much of a wrench because deep down I didn’t believe it anyway – it was all just too fantastical, unreal, illogical and even nonsensical. But for years afterwards I had that niggling thought “What if I’m wrong?” Exposure, and especially relativism, cured me of that eventually. How many hells are there to be wrong about? Can I be wrong about one but not another? Can I really be wrong about them all? Thinking along those lines just reinforced how absurd it was to treat the concept as anything more than a purely human invention, like god and all other religious tropes. Empirical evidence for any of them? Zippo.

  • Jim Jones

    Why don’t you go to hell and check for us. Report back when you have all the details.

  • EmmittBrownBTTF1

    While Hell is clearly fiction, the subconscious brain cannot distinguish the real from the unreal, so a terrible fiction can be a traumatic as a real calamity. The good news is the subconscious mind can be retrained. Just as PTSD can now be successfully treated, so can religious trauma syndrome. it takes some time and work, but it is doable, and apparently worthwhile.
    One way to gain exposure that will perhaps free a mind is through the satire of Andy Hamilton’s Old Harry’s Game, which aired on BBC4, and now can be found YouTube. Here we find Satan is rather put upon having to deal with labour relations, over crowding, Jane Austin, an over bearing unsympathetic employer, escapees from the Pope enclosure, bankers, and the unending tasks of try to convince a professor that humanity is fundamentally corrupt, and that the professor is not merely having a delusion of hell, and then there is Thomas the most contemptable excuse for a human being there could be.
    The humour of this production helps retrain the subconscious mind to respond more joyfully to the concepts surrounding Hell, replacing the fear reaction.