(Content note: discussion of serious burn injuries.)
I’m really sorry about there not being a FULL KITTEN UPDATE today. With Paris reeling from horrific terrorist activity, I felt uncomfortable about running such a post right now. We’ll do it next week, and if you’re around Paris or have loved ones there, then please know you’ve got my sympathies and hopes for a speedy resolution to this crisis. Today we’ll talk about a belief that I think contributes to extremist thinking: that somehow people deserve harm and eternal torture for not believing in a specific set of supernatural claims or complying with a religion’s demands. Religious people’s danger is in falling prey to extremist thinking–and this extremism infects any religions with a black-or-white, all-or-nothing structure that admits to no compromise or empathy with outsiders and which only wants dominion over all other people. The extremists who are terrorizing Paris have more in common with Christian extremists on American soil terrorizing women’s clinics and synagogues than they do with the more moderate members of their own religion. My heart goes out to the people of France and those who have lost loved ones to the violence erupting there, and my anger continues unabated toward the mindset that makes it okay to do anything like what is happening there.
I want to talk about Hell today.
There is something truly grotesque about the way so many Christians seem to get off on the idea of people burning in Hell. I’m sure you’ve seen what I have: the way their eyes glitter when they talk about it, the eager tone of voice they get when describing in lurid detail the horrors non-believers will experience there. I don’t think they even realize they’re coming off that way, they’re so desensitized to the idea by now. The idea that a huge number of their family members, loved ones, and total strangers alike are one day going to burn forever and ever and ever is so endemic to their worldview that I’m not sure they even realize what it means or what their gloating implies about them as people. Today we’re going to talk about this mindset and what it means–and why good people reject it.
Recently, I watched an old back episode of Forensic Files, a crime procedural that was very popular at one point in the United States. In each episode, people use forensic science to figure out a mystery. In this particular episode (Season 2, Episode 3: “Killer Fog”), the show examines a dense fog that caused a multi-car accident that claimed numerous lives to find out if any human factors were involved in the fog’s creation.
In the episode, a sweet Southern fellow named Mike Curtis who had escaped his truck early in the accident describes his attempts to save others who weren’t so lucky. He saved one family’s teenaged son, then the boy’s mother, but when he went back for the father, this is what happened:
All I could see was fire. I could smell hair burning. His coat came off burning in my hands. [Long pause.] It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to witness, the most helpless feeling I’ve ever had.
The father ended up burning to death. Mr. Curtis, in this interview, fights hard to maintain his composure, but it’s a losing battle; he is ” this close to breaking into tears, and I couldn’t stop myself from joining him. One of the authorities who responded to the accident scene later described a very similar experience of watching a victim burn to death–and had a similarly tough time holding himself together. Years later, this officer relates that he still has trouble visiting the site of the accident because of the memories it holds for him.
These interviews hit me really hard. My dad was the equivalent of an EMT for part of his years in the service, and one of the things he did was first response to accident scenes (so yeah, my family’s light bathroom reading was his well-illustrated EMT manual, so if you ever get a sucking chest wound around me, you’re golden). One of the people he tried to save was a guy who’d been set ablaze in a serious motor vehicle accident. Years later, the memory of watching this guy die from burn damage was etched into my dad’s mind in a way that nothing could erase. He tried to drown that memory in liquor, but the old saying is true: bad memories can swim. Sometimes he’d get really blitzed and talk about it, and this talk was always done with him in tears–I didn’t realize it then, but what he was seeking was an absolution that nobody could give him. My tough dad, the biker, the weightlifter, the guy with the Tasmanian Devil tattoo and the years of deployment to the most inhospitable places on the planet, the sharpshooter, my dad, cried at this memory.
All of the people I’ve mentioned here have made one fact painfully clear: out of every single way there is to die, burning is about the most horrible and ghastly one there is. If these victims they’d tried to save had survived, it would be amid years of pain; burns take forever to heal and some never really do. Clearly our species simply didn’t survive serious burns often enough to pass on superior burn-healing capabilities to our offspring in the distant past, because we are really shitty at healing that sort of injury. No wonder Christians years ago used death by fire to punish heretics and dissenters; out of all the really imaginative ways we’ve ever found to hurt people, fire’s about as bad as it gets.
So gang, that’s what it’s like to watch someone burn to death. It’s not fun or funny. It’s not cute. It’s not something to gloat about or even feel smugly certain about. Someone has to be seriously disturbed to watch someone suffering fire damage and feel anything but a desire to immediately leap in to help in any way possible.
And had I marched up to my dad or Mr. Curtis and suggested that there was something these burn victims might have done to deserve that kind of death, I would not have been surprised in the least if such an encounter ended with me nursing a bruised ego–or ass. Neither of these two men are gods, and even they would have been more merciful than the Christian god apparently is.
When Christians chirp their various singsong threats, that’s what they are saying to us: we are going to suffer and die an unending death by fire, tortured forever by burning, and they actually look forward to seeing us in that kind of agony. It’s no more than we deserve, by their lights, so there’s no point in wasting empathy or sympathy on us. They regard our rejection of their religious claims as a direct attack upon themselves, and our future torment is nothing more than cosmic comeuppance for not obeying them.
We didn’t pick the correct religion out of all the thousands in the world, you see, and from there the correct permutation of Christian doctrines out of the 40,000+ available. We didn’t manage to feign adequate belief in the utter nonsense spewed by Christian apologists and leaders. We found no reason to believe in this god who spent so much time and effort deliberately obfuscating his existence to ensure that there’d be no proof whatsoever of his existence. We figured out that there was no more reason to accept Christianity’s claims than there is to accept those of any other religion. And for our great sin of using our divinely-granted consciousness and discernment, we deserve to burn to death forever. We deserve to be set on fire after we die and tortured without any hope of mercy, redemption, reconciliation, forgiveness, parole, or escape.
Most Christians don’t even think about how absolutely appalling this doctrine is–how blatantly manipulative, how openly terrorist in nature, how beyond-blitheringly cruel and evil it would be for any earthly despot to institute a punishment even half as ghastly as Hell. Even worse are the Christians who do think about it, though; they have to find some way to reconcile such a concept with that of a loving god, and the ways they find of doing that are nothing short of obscene.
Why it’s only moving the problem one step over to claim that “people send themselves to Hell.”
The idea of Hell as I’ve outlined it clearly does make some Christians hugely uncomfortable. And it should. It’s an evil, nasty, mean-spirited, fearmongering, openly terrorist and extortionist doctrine that is 100% incompatible with the current reigning Christian view of its god as gentle, loving, and merciful.
That doctrine is fine with a lot of Christians–the sort who openly gloat about dead soldiers and picket children’s funerals, or those Calvinist sorts who seem perfectly at ease with the idea of their god being an asshole–but most Christians are part of our culture whether they like it or not, and our culture is moving away from that kind of cruelty. So they’ve evolved some two-steps meant to distance themselves from the more troubling ramifications of their own ideology.
I’ve talked before about these distancing acts. The whole “love the sinner/hate the sin” dance is one of them; it is meant to give Christians an excuse to be nasty and hateful to others. They don’t especially care if their dance fools anybody outside the tribe; it’s done for their benefit, not for ours.
The current two-step around Hell is one of their current favorites, though.
Follow along with the dancing red ball:
Assumption A. Allowing people to be tortured for any length of time is evil and monstrous.
A1. The Christian doctrine of Hell involves people being tortured forever by fire.
A2. That would normally make the author of such threats evil and monstrous.
A3. But the Christian god can’t possibly be evil and monstrous.
Conclusion. Clearly that means that the evil and monstrosity is coming from somewhere else.
Assumption B. Whenever a doctrine seems to contradict Christian ideology, it’s not the doctrine that is in question, ever, nor the ideology that is at fault; there is always a way to reconcile them somehow.
B1. So clearly it’s people’s fault that they are facing eternal torture. It is not this god’s choice that people suffer, nor his desire.
B2. The Christian god must have nothing to do with Hell, so people must be sending themselves to Hell to be tortured eternally by fire.
Conclusion. It’s totally not our god’s fault at all that people end up in Hell getting tortured forever by fire.
Overall conclusion: Hooray! He’s (still) a loving and merciful god!
I’ve heard a dizzying number of excuses along these lines offered by Christians to explain why Hell is not a monstrous and evil idea:
* People choose to throw themselves into Hell.
* People don’t want to be with Jesus in the afterlife, so they do this to themselves on purpose.
* Would you want to have a rude guest in your house for a party? (I used this excuse myself.)
* The doors of Hell are locked from the inside, not the outside. People who go there don’t want the Christian god around.
* Hell isn’t a punishment; it’s a consequence for noncompliance, just like death in a car accident is a possible consequence of not following seat-belt laws.
* Hell was designed for demons, not people, so of course it won’t be pleasant for people to be there.
And some heretics even try to make for themselves a Hell that is not fiery, eternal, and physically painful–even though such a Hell looks nothing whatsoever like anything in the Bible.
All of these excuses depend on a few ideas that categorically put the entire Christian faith on its ear. These excuses all require that the Christian god be something besides all-powerful, for him to be an idiot, or for him to be malevolent enough to punish people for his own inability to provide evidence enough to compel belief in him. As Neil Carter’s so ably described, tons of Christians figure this stuff out and end up following the evidence right out of the religion. We deconvert because when we tried our damndest to find a good reason to believe, we found none at all.
Christians might comfortably and complacently believe that one or two of us “chose” to be tortured eternally, but most ex-Christians are thoughtful, caring, intelligent people who want only to do the right thing with our lives. The idea that a god might allow a single one of these precious and beautiful people to be harmed even one second repulses any compassionate mind. How many of those people do Christians need to meet before they start having questions about how loving and merciful their ideas of Hell are?
And, too, this entire “choose to be tortured” idea has the distinct smack of victim-blaming about it. It’s like a murderer telling a judge, “I told her not to scream or I’d shoot her, and she screamed! So really, she chose for me to shoot her to death!” Do you suppose any judge in the land would allow such a murderer to go free after that excuse was given?
If the Christian god designed the ideology and place itself, if he decided upon its entrance requirements and then deliberately refused to provide people solid proof of any of his religion’s claims so that there was no more reason to blindly choose his religion over any other in the world, then he is the same as that murderer who claimed that his victim caused her own death by not complying with his demands. This is not the same situation as someone not listening to seat-belt laws and then getting killed in a car accident; in our scenario, the Christian god actively inflicts this pain on others (or allows it to be inflicted, but again, because he’s omnipotent that doesn’t actually make much of a difference!) because he was dissatisfied with their obedience to his whims, and he created the entire game itself to be exactly as it is now. It was no accident that someone found no evidence to believe, nor that there happened to be a horrific place ready for that person to go to after death to suffer for not having believed.
The Christian god, if one is to take his adherents’ preposterous claims seriously, is an omnipotent being who created this realm and set it up. If he didn’t intend for any people to go there, then he needed to design somewhere else for people to go. If he didn’t want people to go somewhere like Hell, then surely he is powerful and intelligent enough to either create a more reasonable ideology or to give people overwhelming evidence and instructions for avoiding that place.
If he isn’t powerful enough to create a cosmology that allows people to see the truth either before death or posthumously, or to change their minds after death about anything, or to at least allow for rehabilitation and redemption at that point, then maybe Christians need to figure out what cosmic Truth their godling is compelled to obey and go work out what god is embodied therein so they can follow that one instead, because whoever that god is, she or he is the real MVP.
And that is the Problem of Evil in a nutshell.
Either this god is not smart or powerful enough to create a cosmology that avoids eternal torture, or he is cruel and malevolent enough to allow such torment to exist. If he’s capable of stopping fiery torture but chooses not to do so, then he is evil; if he is not capable or doesn’t realize what’s happening at all, then he’s hardly a god in the first place.
Now, obviously there’s no proof for a single bit of Christians’ claims. There’s no evidence that there’s even an afterlife, much less an unpleasant one controlled and administered by demons at the behest of an omnimax god of love and mercy, much less any god, omnimax or not, loving and merciful or not, much less a cosmology that looks remotely like the one Christians believe.
But if one of them tells me with a perfectly straight face that their infinitely loving, powerful, merciful god is not only okay with the idea of anybody burning in this life or the next but designed things to be that way, then I am going to think that either the Christian in question has never really thought this one through (as indeed I hadn’t, back then!), or is an immoral person who is okay with hurting people for noncompliance.
Moving the Problem of Evil to humans’ laps only moves the issue one step over; it does not resolve the actual problem at all because ultimately, their god (according to them) designed all of this nonsense in the first place. All they’ve done is add some victim-blaming to the mix.
And I’m not so sure that it’s that far a jump to think that if it’s okay to hurt someone deliberately and cruelly in the next life, then maybe it’s not so bad to do it in this life if it’s for a good cause. We already know that right-wing Christians regard themselves as mini-Jesuses, fully invested in the right and ability–even the obligation–to dispense divine justice upon other human beings in the name of the greater good. They already think that they should be given the right to control the rest of us because non-Christians are just too damned stupid to run our lives correctly. They already scare the bejesus out of non-believers because of the over-the-top aggression they display when they’re challenged–even to the point of issuing death and rape threats to an underage girl who objected to the way Christians in her school district were muscling into her education.
If Christians can’t have cooperation through happy consent, then they have demonstrated repeatedly that they will take compliance given only out of fear–and will consider either one evidence of divine blessing upon their endeavors. And our culture is starting to reject this mindset–in large part because we’re finally starting to empathize with and understand the people who are getting hurt by these ways of thinking, and we’re starting to understand how interconnected we are to each other.
It’s hard to stomach the idea of hurting someone we know very well and consider part of our group. It’s even harder to be okay with the idea of eternal fiery torture for noncompliance when we start really thinking about how terrible it is to burn.
Any religious system that relies upon force, violence, or threats to gain compliance from anybody is not one worth following.
People are right to reject any religion that tries to gain power and influence through threats, and to reject such such behavior as incompatible with the idea of a loving deity of any kind even on the metaphorical level. People use fear when they don’t have a good case to make otherwise. The bigger the threat, the weaker the case generally is. And Hell–burning to death forever and ever–is about as big a threat as anybody could ever concoct.
But fear requires darkness in which to operate. It can’t stand daylight in the form of questions and open dissent. The more people question the doctrine of Hell, the more Christians will get the permission they need to contemplate the unthinkable questions: What if the two-step they’re doing about Hell doesn’t actually solve any of the problems the doctrine has? What if the violence embodied in Hell taints everything about Christianity?
And even more unthinkable: What would their religion even look like without fear being any part of its doctrines and ideologies, and without threats being considered a perfectly acceptable and viable marketing tactic? If they refused to use fear or threats of any kind to sell their religion, then how would they market it?
Tonight as my heart rushes to Paris, it sobers me to consider the prominent place of violent threats in my own country’s dominant religion. I truly hope that my culture continues to reject such threats and to openly push back against those who try to get their way by making these threats. Best wishes to those who face violence and fear tonight – you are in my thoughts. Please be well.
We’ll do the kittens soon. Promise.