You don’t often see Christians talking about their terror of Hell in their out-loud voices. Usually they at least try to make Christianity sound like a voluntary decision they made out of sheer love for their Savior and Messiah, and they try their best to downplay all that stuff about eternal torture and pain and torment and sizzling–like it’s not really their god condemning someone to this ghastly and horrifying eternity, but more like the frying-forever person in question chose it–without really having proof at all that it even exists or what the alternatives really are, so it’s a really ignorant and uninformed non-choice, but hey, Adam and Eve fell in the Garden under precisely the same sort of circumstances, so I guess Christians feel justified that way.
The point is, Christians don’t normally go all-out to threaten people they’re proselytizing at; usually the threats come out during YouTube comment squabbles or Facebook spats, or are hinted at slyly in singsong “ohhhh, I hooooooope you’re riiiiiiight…,” which says precisely what the Christian in question wanted to say. They don’t normally want to make proselytization such a very obviously fear-based decision; they usually want at least a pretense of it being done purely out of love or awe or at least rationality.
Well, meet Dan Delzell, who just wrote a blog post about precisely this threat. “Would You Forsake Unbelief to Avoid Hell” is the title of this bit of nonsense, and we are going to talk briefly about it today because it annoyed me. Oh, who am I kidding? We’re back to our regular schedule. Hope you’ve got a minute or two. This guy could take home the gold in Slaloming Past the Point, Ice Dancing Around Mischaracterizations, and Figure Skating With Total Ignorance of What He’s Talking About.
First, Mr. Delzell totally doesn’t even understand what belief is, much less what disbelief is. Nobody “forsakes” unbelief. You either believe, or you do not. Christians are very fond of pretending like they can pick and choose what they do or don’t believe, but the truth is, you can’t. I can’t just make myself believe in Jesus or in the Bible at this point. I’ve read way too much and seen way too much. It’s not like flipping a light switch or making your chair face the north window or the south window. I can’t make myself believe in something I know isn’t true, just like I can’t make myself stop thinking something is true when I know, objectively, that it’s true.
I know, objectively, that there is no reason to think the Bible is in any way divine or even divinely inspired; rather, I know that it’s a mishmash filled with atrocities and contradictions. I know, objectively, that given the list of attributes commonly given to the Biblical god (among them “a biography that looks like the Bible,” but also those omnimax attributes bestowed later on by tradition upon the Bible’s terribly fallible and strangely human deity), that there is no way in the world he could possibly exist. I know, objectively, that none of Christianity’s objective truth claims have ever been shown to be true–its believers are not intrinsically better people than non-believers are; prayer does not actually do anything at all; nothing in the Bible really happened the way it claims; tongues-talking doesn’t really happen; healing does not really help anybody; miracles do not really occur; nobody has ever really talked to this deity and gotten anything out of it that couldn’t be guessed or surmised beforehand.
Given all of the things I know about Christianity and its source material, I am not magically going to decide the Bible is divine in nature when I know, objectively and completely, that it is not, any more than Mr. Delzell will magically decide tomorrow that everything in the Harry Potter series is totally for real and true when he knows, objectively and completely, that the series is purely fictional (I hope).
I am not going to magically just totally forget everything I know about real science to accept the pseudoscience and junk history peddled by Christian apologists, either. I understand why apologists’ arguments fail and where their fake history and science fall apart under testing and examination. I’m not going to suddenly forget everything I ever learned about real reality and science, or decide a religion’s claims should be believed over objective analysis.
I am not going to magically accept the flawed arguments I’ve debunked a thousand times over. I know what the usual arguments are for the religion, and I know why they fail and are not actually evidence for this religion’s claims. I just don’t see a way for me to ignore that understanding.
I am not going to get a case of the Gullibles and start believing the crazy urban legends Christians devour and consider their favorite pablum. It’s just embarrassing to hear what they will happily sell their souls for–and we’ve talked many times before about what a serious black mark these urban legends are to the religion. I’m not suddenly going to start believing them, any more than I’m suddenly going to stop caring that this religion seems to have only urban legends and no true or verified miracle stories. I’m also not going to suddenly start trusting Christians’ outrageous testimonies, since I know, too, that every single time I’ve seriously challenged one of these tales, it’s turned out to be another urban-legend packed piece of wish-fulfillment fantasizing.
I can’t forsake unbelief because unbelief isn’t something that can be “forsaken” in the first place. Unbelief is just the state of being I find myself in regarding Christianity. I can’t forsake it any more than Mr. Delzell could forsake his unbelief in Harry Potter. I’ve looked at the evidence Christianity has, and I’m simply not compelled to believe that evidence is adequate, any more than I feel compelled by the claims of Tarvuism or Wicca.
Though… c’mon, that looks pretty fun.
Second, evidence sways us, not conscious willpower. Sometimes we don’t understand what real evidence is. Sometimes we lack the tools to adequately sift the real stuff from fakery. And sometimes our biases predispose us to leap onto the first explanation that fits in with what we desperately wish were true. It isn’t hard to see where Mr. Delzell falls in this evaluation.
But I know how to sift real evidence from fake claims. I know how to evaluate a good argument and how to assess claims. I know what my biases are and how to identify them. And that means I am far less likely than Mr. Delzell is to believe something that simply is not true.
Is Mr. Delzell asking me to just fake it till I make it? How patently absurd and dishonest. I can’t just go through the motions and pretend I believe and hope to goodness’ sake I start feeling it. That’s a lie, and I don’t like to lie even to myself. But that seems to be exactly where he is going:
Would you be willing to forsake your sin of unbelief in Jesus if it would keep your soul out of hell? And what if by forsaking unbelief, you ended up with a new heart which loved God and wanted to please Him with your life?
So if we “forsake unbelief,” we’ll get a “new heart which loved God and wanted to please Him.” So if I fake it and try really really hard to see that black is white and there are really five lights, then this god will magically make me totally happy to serve him. And this is apparently a good thing, and Mr. Delzell thinks that non-believers should be happy to think that this god would go to all that trouble.
That’s disgusting to me. If this god were capable of giving me a “new heart” that slavishly adored him, then surely he is also capable of actually giving me some very good reason to believe he exists. Instead, I am being blamed for not being able to believe based on what materials humanity has at its disposal.
Third, Mr. Delzell is also forgetting one very important detail, and that is that many thousands of people can actually attest to his argument’s lack of veracity. He is saying that if you just try to believe super-duper hard, then his god will reward that effort with belief. In fact this idea is the central thrust of his very earnest emotional appeal to us. But quite a few non-believers were actually believers at some point, and we were very fervent believers–which means we actually were trying to believe as best we could, most of us, toward the end, and this god did not actually give us “new hearts” that “loved and wanted to please” him. In fact we ended up realizing it wasn’t true while we were smack in the middle of it all, and we still did not get these magic new hearts and strong faith.
He goes on with this analogy, though:
But in order to trust Christ, you will need to forsake your unbelief. She is your spiritual mistress and your lover, but she will not be able to give your soul what it needs. Why go on loving her as though she can give you something better than Jesus? Why go on cheating with your lover of unbelief while the One who loves your soul is willing to give you abundant life today and forever? Jesus or unbelief? Truth or error? Heaven or hell? No man can serve two masters, or love two women.
After I picked my forehead up off my dented desk, I wanted to yell “CITATION NEEDED.”
My unbelief is my spiritual mistress and lover, but will never give my soul what it needs? How does he know? Has he asked? What if my soul feels just fine where it is now? And I don’t regard my disbelief in Christianity as a lover or mistress. My disbelief is the absence of belief, not the presence of contradictory belief. I don’t believe in his god because I have no reason to believe in him, that’s all. Is his disbelief in Harry Potter his lover and mistress? His disbelief in Harry Potter is a mistress that he loves, but she will never give him what he needs, will she? Why would he go cheating with his lover of unbelief in Harry Potter while the Lighting-Marked One who loves his soul is willing to give him abundant life today and forever? So which will it be? Harry Potter or unbelief? Truth or error? My unbelief in Jesus is about as strong as his unbelief in this fictional boy wizard, I figure, and I figure it exists for the exact same reasons as his unbelief in the writings of J.K. Rowling exists.
It might be instructional for Mr. Delzell to consider why he doesn’t believe in the gods of other religions or in the fictional universes of fantasy novels. Buddhists, Mormons, Muslims, and pagans feel just as strongly about their religions’ veracity as he feels about his, after all, and whole communities exist around acting like Harry Potter is real.
There are some way less-savory elements to his flailings, though, like his characterization of disbelief as a “lover.” Sorry, but I know what a lover feels like, and disbelief is not a lover for anybody. I know what a true romantic partner is. I don’t pretend anymore that an imaginary friend is a lover or partner; I know the difference between an imaginary friend and a real person. It was realizing that Jesus was an imaginary partner that I had blown up into a real partner in my head that made me wake up to how much of a mistake I was making by being a Christian. I know Mr. Delzell does not understand this idea, though, and that’s how he can make such a blatantly false comparison. I don’t “love” my unbelief. I do love myself though. In fact, I love myself too much to fall for a fake religion by letting go of the rationality and reason that has stood me so well over the years, especially if doing so would make me fall into a cult that encourages its followers to physically threaten non-believers to get us to kowtow to their imaginary friend. And if a god has some kind of issue with me exercising my mind and rationality like that, then may I suggest gently that the god might be the one in the wrong, not me?
It hardly even goes without saying that plenty of men love two women. Plenty of women love two men. Plenty of men love a man and a woman. Or two men. Plenty of women love a man and a woman. Or two women. There are as many ways to love as there are people. It’s only Mr. Delzell’s lack of imagination and complete lack of empathy that stops him from noticing that. In his world, one man gets to love one woman, and there’s never any situation where it might work differently. How boring, how heteronormative, how juvenile, how puerile, how callow a viewpoint, and I am not okay with him making his point in this manner. But how very symptomatic of Mr. Delzell’s entire problem this one paragraph is: he really has no idea what people are really like outside of his Christian Bubble, does he? And worse, he seems to have no desire to find out or move past his privilege blindness.
Notice, too, that not a single bit of his piece actually contained any actual evidence. That might sound a bit unfair–there is actually no evidence for Christianity, and you and I both know that–but the truth is, what would actually sway most non-believers is good evidence for Christians’ claims (I say “most” because not all non-believers have enough critical thinking skills to combat the constant onslaught of emotional appeals, threats, and eye-rollingly infantile arguments that constitute almost the entire range of Christian apologetics). Nope, it’s a threat and an emotional appeal the whole way through. It’s a singsong “what if you’re wronnnnnnnng?”, and it has the same effect as any other attempt to snag me through emotional appeals and threats.
He’s telling me that no, he has no evidence at all here, but I’m the one who has to do all his work for him by just mouthing words of belief whether I feel them or not, and then his god will reward me with real belief. You know, I think he got this faith model from a Nigerian prince in his email.
But the worst part about this exhortation is that Mr. Delzell does not realize that the very concept of Hell itself disproves his argument. If there is a Hell, and if a god lets people go there for any reason to be punished with no hope of reconciliation or rehabilitation, then that god wouldn’t be a good or loving god. There’s no way this Christian blogger can square that circle. This issue is called “The Problem of Hell” in some parts, and it is in large part why many Christians end up deconverting. He’s using a terror of Hell to sell his god of love.
If I found out that there really was a Hell, and that I was in danger of being sent to this Hell for any reason, then I would be morally obligated to oppose and fight against the insane and monstrous being who had set up such a cosmology and such a place and who had made it even a possibility for humans to go there. I would not be fighting hard to avoid it–because I would not be able to enjoy whatever afterlife existed for collaborators knowing that everybody I loved was being tortured forever and ever and ever for their finite thought crimes and their honesty. I could not go to this heaven and gloat or rejoice in the torture and punishment of the damned; I’m just not that kind of immoral. There’s just not going to be a way for Mr. Delzell’s god to convince me that there’s any goodness or morality in doing that to people. That he’s managed to rationalize Hell and even consider it a selling point for his religion is about all I need to reject it.
Nor would I really trust this monster of a deity to be honest about this heaven anyway. It sounds like a gruesome place to me, like living with that little boy in that Twilight Zone episode who could make any reality happen with a mere thought–that constant terror of making him upset or angry, just mechanically singing praises and hanging out on streets of gold forever or whatever it is Mr. Delzell thinks is so much better than the eternal torment he’d be avoiding by collaborating with this deity. And remember, the whole time, people are screaming and suffering and being tortured in the Hell this god set up and let people go to (or sent people to, depending on which of 40,000 denominations fancies your toodle).
I would certainly not be applauding the being who had created the system that would be torturing millions of people, any more than I’d applaud any other genocidal maniac. And I would not be kowtowing to it in hopes of avoiding the fate so many millions of other people would be facing out of the same rationality and healthy skepticism I use when I evaluate any religion, not just the one Mr. Delzell has created in his own image.
A very wise man once said that violence is the last refuge of the incompetent. Once someone’s lugged out threats, you know they’re at the bottom of their toolbox. Mr. Delzell has no convincing arguments at his disposal. He has no evidence. He has no really compelling observations to make. But he does know what works, at least on him, and what works is a threat of eternal violence and torture. He is absolutely terrified beyond all reasoning of Hell, and he wants us to know that he thinks there is something for us to fear along with him. He uses threats of Hell because threats of Hell clearly work on him to keep him in line and to stop him from learning or questioning the dogma he’s internalized.
If this lame-ass argument is all he’s got, then my answer to his disingenuous question is this:
No, I would not pretend to believe in his god to avoid his god’s cruel, hellish, revolting, disgusting, totally out-of-proportion threat of eternal torture for my finite thought crimes. For one, I’m not sure his god, if he were real, would be so stupid that he’d be fooled by my pretense anyway. He doesn’t sound bright, but surely he’d notice at some point. For two, I was a Christian for long enough to know that faked belief does not get divinely rewarded with real faith. And for three, what kind of horrible religion does he follow that treats threats as a proselytizing tool and lets someone like him wear a big ole Jesus smile while threatening people?
No, Mr. Delzell. I would not pretend just to make that evil tyrant of yours happy. I don’t negotiate with terrorists. I don’t kowtow to abusers. I don’t bend knee to despots. I don’t collaborate with genocidal monsters poised to eternally torture every single human being I love and hold dear. And I do not make spiritual decisions from places of fear and terror.
I leave all that to Christians like Dan Delzell.
He has made a god in his own image, and he is welcome to live under that god’s terrible yoke as long as he wishes to do so.
But for me, I simply refuse to live in fear. I am not afraid of what he is afraid of, because I turned the light on and saw there was nothing to fear in those shadows. There was a time when I was very afraid like he is, but after too long afraid, I discovered my fear burned away and finally I was able to seriously look at what had once held me in such terror. Before, I’d been too afraid even to dare to question the thing I feared. But once my fear had been burned away, I discovered there was no there, there. Certainly there was nothing to fear. So I stopped fearing. And if Mr. Delzell doesn’t have some kind of objective evidence behind his threats, then he’s not doing anything more than telling spooky stories to the kids at summer camp and getting mad when Wednesday Addams refuses to act scared. And yes, I just compared myself to Wednesday Addams. If any little girl knew “Invictus” by heart, she did. I truly wonder if Mr. Delzell knows this poem. Do you?
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
William Ernest Henley, 1875
I leave you with this: if there were really something to fear, we’d know about it by now. If there were really some good reason to believe, we’d have seen it by now. Christianity’s had 2000 years to come up with proof of either, and it hasn’t yet despite concerted efforts. Mr. Delzell’s trying his hardest, and that’s still the best he can do with what he’s got: insisting that there are five lights when the rest of us can clearly see there are only four, and threatening us with the rage of his genocidal tyrant when we refuse to play along with his delusion.
Being so desperate to be right that someone’s willing to issue baseless and incomprehensibly violent threats and make nonsensically false statements to non-believers to feel justified… that’s some pretty deep dysfunction right there. This is why Christianity is failing so hard, folks. All Christians have at this point is “I know it doesn’t seem like there’s even one good reason to believe in this stuff, but trust me, it’s all true! And if you don’t believe the way I do, then after you die you’ll be tortured forever and ever by the school bully! Trust me on this one!”
I feel sorry for the sane ones, honestly. Having folks like this as a bedmate has to be rough.
We’re going to talk next time about “Quiet Christians,” who seem at first blush like they’d qualify as sane, but you might be surprised. I sure was. See you next time, and remember, there are four lights.