H-E-double-hockey-sticks: Be Not Afraid

H-E-double-hockey-sticks: Be Not Afraid June 15, 2013

I just want to get this out in the open: it’s going to be fun writing this post without using any expletives as I’m aware that some blog reader apps filter cuss words; if my longtime friends are reading this blog and wondering just which space aliens finally kidnapped me and replaced me with a far-more-genteel changeling, that’s what happened.

Ah, to hell with it (see? That escalated quickly). Hell hell hell hell. We’re going to be talking about HELL. And if anything’s more offensive than the word itself, it’s the concept it represents. Amazingly, some people are more offended by the word than by the concept, to the point that some ignorant Texans–and of course it was Texans, dangit, guys, stop doing this to my home state–are trying to popularize Heaven-O as a phone greeting, and that needs to change, because the place itself is way more obscene and awful than a simple four letters ever could be.

There are, right now, a shocking number of Christians who are still subscribing to the religion purely because they’re scared to death of Hell. There are many still who say with their mouths that no no, they’re in the pews on Sunday because they lurrrrrrrve Jesus, but really it is the fear of hell in their hearts holding them away from critically examining the religion, and even those who are dedicated to the faith acknowledge its supremacy as a theological concept; as I’ve seen true-blue Christians on religious blogs write, “If Hell doesn’t exist, why are we even doing all this?”.

Hell’s got a provenance in the Christian religion. It’s got a history. Its roots can be traced and backtracked–to its detriment. Hell’s all about fear and force. It’s a fear that is ridiculously contrived and laughably artificial, yet its force makes the fear it engenders crazily hard to shake. If I were going to design a religion, I couldn’t imagine a more effective way to stifle challenge and dissent than a concept like Hell! We’re going to talk a little bit about why Hell is such an effective control and manipulation tool, and I’m going to try to ease the minds of those who are still struggling with that fear. Be not afraid.

Regions of the brain affected by PTSD and stress.
Regions of the brain affected by PTSD and stress. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s start with some basic psychology. Humans are pre-programmed to perceive threats. We’re incredibly good it. In fact, as a theory called agent detection suggests, we survived as a species because we got really good at perceiving threats even where none exist. We’re so good at reacting to those perceived threats that even if nothing around us is actually threatening, if we get tense enough our bodies still sometimes start manufacturing fight-or-flight hormones on the assumption that maybe our mind knows something our eyes don’t, which is how post-traumatic stress disorder was explained to me. I went through dang near ten years of panic attacks as a Christian because of this exact mechanism. Humans are really soft and lacking in innate defensive adaptations like claws or teeth, so it was our very ability to perceive threats and get away from them before they could get too close to us that ensured our continued existence.

Humans tend to react to threats even when those threats are clearly not objectively real or even immediate. “What if it’s true?” is one of the most powerful manipulative statements ever uttered. When we don’t know what the future holds but someone else at least pretends to know about it, we tend to pay attention to what that person has to say even if there’s no way whatsoever to prove or disprove anything that person’s claiming. Add to this our human tendency to anthropomorphize non-human things like storms, the sun, animals, and just about every other thing in the natural world to make them into friends and foes capable of thought and emotions, and you have a heady swirl of unprovable assumptions about the world and an overwhelming number of beings that can possibly hurt you on purpose–or help you.

But we’re not done yet. Now you need to add in apophenia, the human tendency to see patterns between totally unrelated things–like conspiracy theorists do so well. All right. Now we’re set. We have an ancient world filled with inscrutable beings with their own agendas and jam-packed with events that must have looked downright miraculous or demonic to ancient eyes–eclipses, diseases that cleared up on their own or spread like wildfire, natural disasters, and more. And all we need now is some sense of agency–some sense that we have some measure of control over all these things, that our actions can somehow against all odds influence what happens to us, though often that sense results in a false illusion of control because really we can’t influence where the tornado goes or when an eclipse happens, and let’s not forget that it wasn’t till nearly the Victorian Age that we even understood a tiny bit about how diseases actually spread–and not till the modern age that we fully understood that mental illness wasn’t really always a parent’s fault.

A kettle full of Jews (with white hats) burnin...
A kettle full of Jews (with white hats) burning in hell, an illustration from the Hortus deliciarum (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Very loving of God to send folks here, isn’t it?

Religion was and is a way to explain the inexplicable and to influence that which can’t be influenced: in short, it’s a coping method we humans have developed to deal with our crushing ignorance and helplessness. There’s even a logical fallacy called “argument from ignorance” that goes, roughly, “We don’t know how X happened. Therefore Jesus.” As Greta Christina so eloquently explained on her blog, as our knowledge base increased, the room for ignorance decreased–and every single time we’ve found out what really caused X and discovered that whatever X was, it turned out to be a natural phenomenon and not supernatural at all. In fact, we’ve never found a single X that was supernatural. Ever. The sun rises and sets not because of a god in a chariot but because of how our planet moves; diseases spread not because of sin but through germs and other natural causes; mental illness isn’t caused by wickedness but through various combinations of genetics and environmental stimuli; natural disasters happen not because of humanity’s disobedience to this or that deity but because of usually-random but generally well-understood causes. That doesn’t mean we won’t ever find something supernatural or deity-caused in the future, but the list of things we don’t understand that could be so is shrinking almost by the day, so it seems quite unlikely at this point. The evidence points to an entirely natural world that works just fine without any deity tangling with it at all. But humanity wouldn’t have known this stuff thousands of years ago when the Judeo-Christian myths were just getting rolling.

So we’ve got an imaginary god issuing imaginary threats and we imagine we know exactly how to get on that god’s good side to avoid that threat. We’ve got legions of leaders who act like they’re speaking on behalf of that god and issuing vile threats in that god’s name and telling their sheep how to get on that god’s good side to avoid the threat they made up in the first place. Talk about a manufactured need. Hopefully, in this brief writeup, I’ve shown why humans are uniquely positioned to react strongly to the manufactured fear of eternal torment. Now let’s talk about why Hell must be manufactured, in order of ascending importance to me:

1. Many religions have a concept of Hell and they’re all different enough that they can’t all possibly be the same place. Some cultures’ hells are just places where souls hang out after death; some are set up as torturous and scary. If someone’s terrified of the Christian Hell but not Kuzimu (an African tribal hell), I have to ask why that might be. Clearly the entire belief system around Hell is absolutely cultural-based and not universal. This lack of universality makes the belief system very suspicious. There’s just no way that Hell always existed but that only a super-narrow group of humans in a super-narrow band of time knew anything about it.

2. Hell’s current conception in popular Christian imagination wasn’t like this all the time. Ask a Jew about Hell and you’ll probably get a benevolent little laugh in return; they don’t believe in it at all. The idea of Hell didn’t even get central billing in the Bible most of the time; there are some scattered verses, but considering we’re talking about eternity here, Jesus’ ghostwriters and the rest of the NT gang sure didn’t spend a lot of time discussing just what Hell was or how to avoid it. I find this lack of information suspicious as well, but I’m even more suspicious now that I know that the very theology of Hell itself didn’t really get rolling till the fifth century–several hundred years after Christianity really got popular. And according to that link, the Eastern churches didn’t really care about Hell for even longer–it was the Western churches that really got caught up early on in fanning people’s fear of Hell. If Hell was a real threat, I’d expect more consistency about it from believers and I’d expect to see a lot more about it from the earliest Church writers and gospel authors. As a gamer, I can see a distinctly patchwork guessing-game vibe emerging from my studies of the history of Hell. All in all, I can’t take it seriously because of its lack of consistency in the history of the Christian church.

3. Christians can’t even agree on what Hell is, who exactly is going there or for what crimes, how long they’ll be there (if not forever), or how serious its tortures will be (if any at all). Some Christians believe that it’ll be temporary; some forever. Some Christians think that good, decent people won’t go there; others believe that anybody who doesn’t kiss Jesus’ butt often or fervently enough will be sent there. Some Christians think the hellbound souls put themselves there because they just don’t like Jesus; others think God will be putting them there against their wills. Some Christians think Hell’s just an absence of God and not that unpleasant, just rather dreary; others think that Hell is all about flames and torture, some of which get really creepily detailed in Christian minds, like one Christian I once encountered on a message board who gleefully gloated about how much he was going to enjoy watching me–a non-believer–get raped by demons for eternity when I got what was coming to me sent to Hell for challenging his claims. Hang out on any forum where Christians mix with non-believers, and you’ll run into more than a few who seem disturbingly aroused at the idea of watching dissenters get what’s coming to them. It’s impossible to escape the idea that Hell exists, for these believers, as a TOLD YOU SO and a LOOK WHAT YOU GET. To some Christians, Hell is a genuinely distressing thing; when I was Christian I wept countless tears for my family and friends because I knew they were going to Hell, and I didn’t understand how I would be happy in Heaven knowing they were there. But to others, it’s a near-masturbatory fantasy where all those people who dissed and mocked them will finally get their comeuppance.

4. I don’t need to mention that there is no credible, objective evidence whatsoever for any afterlife at all of any sort, much less one where people are judged for their actions in life and rewarded or punished appropriately. The whole idea of a judgement sounds suspiciously like earlier religions like that of the Egyptians, who had a spiritual tribunal that judged souls and assigned them a place in the afterlife based on their lives’ worthiness. But Egyptians weren’t the only cats who were judging dead souls–most religions do it to some extent or another. The idea holds a lot of power over people, especially those who subscribe to the Just World Hypothesis, a cognitive bias which holds that good people get ultimately rewarded and bad people ultimately punished for their deeds. Really, if I had to design a threat to keep people in line, I can’t think of a better one than this one: that if they don’t behave, a giant Sky Daddy will eventually spank them super-hard, but if they’re good little children and behave, that same Sky Daddy will give them candy and nice things and spank their enemies for them.

5. Hell is an obscenely immoral concept. Infinite punishment for finite crimes, many of which are only “crimes” in that god’s eyes? That can’t be right. Modern minds rightly reject the whole idea. And if, as many Christians believe, Hell is eternal, then there’s no way out–which means that Hell’s not a rehabilitation center but a concentration camp. It is vengeance and revenge upon dissenters for not kowtowing enough. And vengeance doesn’t fit with love; I’d go so far as to say that a vengeful being that’d punish and torture a soul forever and ever is not worthy of my worship in the least. If Christians are pushing the idea of a righteous god, then Hell’s very unrighteousness sneers in the face of their conception of that god. I do realize that many Christians have vastly inconsistent views of Hell (again, a mark against their religion, but hey) and that many believe that Hell was designed for demons and not people, but the fact is, if people go there, then their god must have allowed it as he’s the one who designed it. Their god is fully culpable for this crime against humanity. There’s no getting around Hell’s obscenity and its mind-bending levels of cruelty. There’s no possible way it could be real; it’s way too obviously the creation of human minds seeking the scariest threats they could possibly devise. That its cruelty and levels of depravity only increased with time support my theory very well, I think.

6. Most telling of all and most pathetically, though, I know Hell can’t be real because even Christians don’t take it seriously. Let’s get real here. When I was Christian, I was absolutely terrified of Hell. I panicked if I realized I had an unconfessed sin on my conscience. I wept hot, stabbing tears for my family because I was sure they were going there. I did everything I humanly could to avoid Hell; I was downright frantic to fly right. But I was not like most Christians. Way too many Christians are happy to threaten others, steal, commit crimes against nature, assault children, and do a multitude of things that are categorically condemned in the Bible. If I felt like making every word of this section a link to a story about a Christian leader committing atrocities, I’d have to pad this section out to a few dozen thousand words to handle all the links I’d want to include–and that’s even if I left out the Catholics. But the conclusion I’ve drawn from my observations seems inescapable: Christian leaders, deep down, do not fear going to Hell. Maybe they think they’re so special that their god will cut them some slack. Maybe they’re one of those once-saved, always-saved types. Or maybe they know something their congregations don’t know.

Whatever the case, their insouciance trickles down to their congregations. Just about every single time I’ve ever been threatened, cheated, hurt, or betrayed, you can guess it was Christians doing it. I’ve overheard Christians discussing extramarital cheating techniques; I’ve had H&R Block reps bemoan how often they wanted her to help them cheat on their taxes; I’ve seen them out-and-out lie about their religion’s claims; I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve caught one doing something patently dishonest. Christians as a group just don’t seem to take Hell seriously except when using it as a cudgel to beat dissenters over the head. I don’t take Hell seriously because it’s way too obvious that Christians don’t take Hell seriously, and if they’re the extra-dextra-special-superlicious children of a living god and still act with that glaring of a lack of concern, then I don’t see why I should be scared.

And of all people, Christians should be the most panicked about Hell. Matthew 7:21-22 makes it very clear that plenty of people who think they’re Christians will end up getting cast out of Jesus’ presence–that even miracle workers aren’t guaranteed a pass. Luke 12:5 tells us that we jolly well should be afraid of the being who can throw us into hell after our bodies are destroyed. Of course, we’re told elsewhere that perfect love casts out fear in 1 John 4:18 and in the same verse we’re told fear doesn’t even belong in love. I agree with 1 John’s writer; our hearts should tell us that we simply can’t love that which terrorizes us. So why does no less than a Gospel author tell us to fear the being that can throw us into hell? How are humans supposed to reconcile the encouragement to fear this god with the non-negotiable commandment to “love” the selfsame god that will be tossing them in hell like so much trash if they aren’t up to specs?

So here we are amid the wreckage of yet another cherished Christian doctrine. Look at it all, and wonder at it. There’s a good reason why Hell exists as it does in the modern imagination. It’s not a very humane reason, but it is a very good one:

Hell’s main function as a concept keeps people quiet and obedient. It is the tool of a bully, nothing more. I found this study about bullies that talks about how bullies retaliate against imaginary threats but how this behavior pattern leads them to failure later in life as they threaten and bluster as an attempt to gain and keep control over others. Take a look at that link–it’s downright eye-opening. Bullies want control and are paranoid of each and every single infraction–does that ring any bells about the current crop of evangelicals who are absolutely convinced that they’re being “persecuted” every time they don’t get their way about something?

It’s hard to see studies like this one and not think about how they apply to the Christian concept of a god who demands total obedience and submission and sends dissenters to eternal torture. Christian bullies come by their aggression honestly, at least. Hell is a totally aggressive concept that is completely out of proportion to any offense anybody could possibly give, and the people who threaten others with it labor under the negligent gaze of a “parent” who is by turns capricious and obscenely severe. Hell’s the ultimate stick to hit people with–and as an added bonus, nobody can prove or disprove its very existence and it’s socially acceptable (still) to threaten people as long as it’s being done in the name of a god.

In summation, I just don’t see how Hell can be real. I’m condensing several years’ of soul-searching into one post–don’t imagine I came up with all this all at once in a blinding flash of the obvious or anything. I’m not really quick that way. My ignorance had fed and fueled my fear, but knowledge–slowly and painfully attained, yes, but knowledge nonetheless–led me out of the darkness. It took time to shed the fear of Hell, but once I looked at the concept of Hell with clear eyes, I felt that fear fall from me like a shroud. Knowledge casts out fear, as the saying goes.

Be not afraid.

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