A relative recently posted this image on facebook, along with a call for all of those “who haven’t repented” to take note. There are a lot of Christians today who either do not believe in hell or downplay the idea of hell. Unfortunately, this is not true of my relatives. For them, hell is as real as you or me, and is the rate of anyone who has not repented and prayed the sinner’s prayer.
Sadly, I cannot simply be theoretical about this. This is because I know from experience that a belief in a literal hell can ruin relationships. My mother’s firm belief in the reality of hell, after all, is perhaps the most significant problem in our strained relationship. I can’t disagree with her on, well, anything without her worrying about my eternal salvation—without her shedding tears over the possibility that I might burn in fire, screaming in anguish, for eternity. And unless I can make her stop believing in hell, which I can’t, this won’t change. She will, for the rest of her life, cry over her fear that her daughter will suffer a fate worse than anything imaginable on this earth—an eternity in hell.
In fact, I think my mother’s primary goal in life, at this point, is to ensure that each and every one of her children will go to heaven, and avoid the fate of hell. “I just want to see my children in heaven,” she told me during a recent heart to heart. I can’t shake the feeling that religion is more important to my mother than her children, and that she can only value her children through the lens religion provides her. She shows her love for her children by trying to keep us out of hell rather than by accepting us as we are. And that’s really not good for our relationship.
But when you believe in a literal hell, what’s good for relationships is not of primary importance. Instead, bringing a person to repentance is of primary importance, and anything that might lead to that becomes justified. If you believed that you had to get your friend to the safety of a police station or a man would kidnap her, hold her hostage, and torture her, wouldn’t you do anything in your power to get her there? If she refused to believe you and told you you were delusional, you might feel that even kidnapping her yourself to bring her to safety would be justified. Even so, this belief that a literal hell awaits those who don’t trust Jesus as their savior—or those who live “sinful lifestyles”—justifies all manner of treatment that would otherwise be considered wrong or even abusive. Anything that might bring those wayward ones to repentance becomes justified.
The irony is that these sorts of messages don’t bring me any closer to a belief in the Christian God they promote. In fact, if anything, they solidify my lack of belief. If the god they so want me to believe in really consigns any who don’t believe in him and trust his son as their savior to eternal torture in hell, well, that is not a god I want any part in. That is not a good god, or a god worthy of praise.
Oh I know, I’ve heard the argument that God has no choice in the matter, that he has to consign those who do not believe to hell even though he does not want to. But if God is all powerful and all knowing, that idea is ridiculous. I mean really? God couldn’t find some other place for those who don’t believe to go, some place that doesn’t involve eternal torture? At least in the Greek afterlife ordinary people are given a neutral humdrum existence and only those who have committed horrific crimes are tortured.
Besides, if it were indeed the case that God could not eliminate hell or prevent people from being consigned to it, he should never have created humans. If someone were to tell me that 90% of the children I would bear would live their lives in excruciating, searing, mind-numbing pain with no cure and no way to salve the pain, and no access to euthanasia, I would not have children. Period. The pleasant lives of the 10% would not justify the pain of the 90%. And when it comes to the view of hell I grew up with, we’re talking eternal torture and eternal agony—eternal. If that’s not horrific I don’t know what is.
It’s not that I think this iteration of the Christian God exists and I don’t like him. I really don’t think he does exist. But telling me that I will be consigned to hell for eternal torture if I don’t repent doesn’t help. Watching the pain my mother feels at the idea of her children being consigned to hell doesn’t help either. Frankly, if I were to become convinced that this Christian God does exist, I wouldn’t repent. I would fight him tooth and nail, because consigning humans to eternal torture is, quite frankly, sadistic and inhuman.
In the meantime, I’m getting really tired of dealing with the relationships fallout belief in a literal hell creates. Someone, please save me from hell!