Really Believing in Hell (Keith)

Really Believing in Hell (Keith) January 3, 2009

But I was reminded of the incident later when I received a
letter from an American woman in her forties who had been brought up Roman
Catholic. At the age of seven, she told
me, two unpleasant things happened to her. She was sexually abused by her parish priest in his car. And, around the same time, a little
schoolfriend of hers, who had tragically died, went to hell because she was a
Protestant. Or so my correspondent had
been led to believe by the then official doctrine of her parents’ church. Her view as a mature adult was that, of these
two examples of Roman Catholic child abuse, the one physical and the other
mental, the second was by far the worst. She wrote:

Being fondled by the priest simply left the impression
(from the mind of a 7 year old) as ‘yucky’ while the memory of my friend going
to hell was one of cold, immeasurable fear. I never lost sleep because of the priest–but I spent many a night being
terrified that the people I loved would go to hell.

That’s from Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion – from
a short section on the trauma, especially to young children, caused by belief
in hell: pp. 317-21 (the above passage is from pp. 317-8). If you get your hands on the book, I
recommend that short section. This
section, and especially Dawkins’s comparing sexual abuse to being taught nasty
doctrines of hell were the subject of some great outrage. Though there are other bases for such
outrage, some of it was underwritten by thoughts to the effect that it’s absurd
to think believing in hell could be as harmful as sexual abuse. Never having been the victim of sexual abuse
myself, knowing little about what that must be like, and having nothing useful
to say about it, I don’t want to get into the comparative issue here. But some of the outraged seemed to be quite sure
that being taught nasty doctrines of hell could not be seriously harmful at
all, and that I do want to dispute.

As someone who spent many sleepless, terrified nights as a
child – at just around the age Dawkins’s correspondent was at the time of her
trauma – over hell, I can certainly emphasize with the judgment this woman
expresses. (Protestants take no back
seat to Catholics when it comes to hell-terror, I believe.)

Dawkins describes his interesting encounter with a promoter
of a terrifying account of hell as follows:

Another of my television interviewees was Pastor Keenan Roberts…. Pastor Roberts’s particular brand of
nuttiness takes the form of what he calls Hell Houses. A Hell House is a place where children are
brought, by their parents or their Christian schools, to be scared witless over
what might happen to them after they die. Actors play out fearsome tableaux of particular ‘sins’ like abortion and
homosexuality, with a scarlet-clad devil in gloating attendance. These are a prelude to the pièce de résistance, Hell Itself,
complete with realistic sulphurous smell of burning brimstone and the agonized
screams of the forever damned.

watching a rehearsal, in which the devil was suitably diabolical in the
hammed-up style of a villain of Victorian melodrama, I interviewed Pastor
Roberts in the presence of his cast. He
told me that the optimum age for a child to visit a Hell House is twelve.
This shocked me somewhat, and I asked him
whether it would worry him if a twelve-year-old child had nightmares after one
of his performances. He replied,
presumably honestly:

I would rather for them to understand that Hell is a place
that they absolutely do not want to go to. I would rather reach them with that message at twelve than to not reach
them with that message and have them live a life of sin and to never find the
Lord Jesus Christ. And if they end up
having nightmares as a result of experiencing this, I think there’s a higher
good that would ultimately be achieved and accomplished in their life than
simply having nightmares. (pp. 319-20)

(These “Hell Houses” seem to be a variation on an old
theme. For some vintage (“classic”) hell-terror-mongering, follow this youtube link.)
When I was around 7, I got that message – that Hell is a
place I absolutely do not want to go to – loud and clear. And it did terrorize me–And not just worries
that I might end up there, but terror at the thought of anyone ending up in
such a place. The combination of eternal duration with unspeakable torment really got to me. In a later post I hope to
go into the effects – some of them lasting to this day – beyond nightmares.

But I was apparently getting the hell message too early: Pastor
Roberts seems to think that 12 is the best age (though I’m here just going by
what Dawkins writes). By 12, I wasn’t
any longer really terrorized by hell, though I still accepted a very nasty,
traditional doctrine of hell – as I did all the way into my early 20s. (When I accepted the doctrine but was no
longer terrorized by it, I did find it curious that I wasn’t so terrorized.)
Why do some people who accept a traditional doctrine of hell
experience debilitating terror of it, while others don’t? Why was I terrorized at 7, but not at
12? Why does debilitating terror tend to
occur among children (though some adults also suffer from it)?
These are questions that I hope receive some serious
investigation. (And, again, if anyone
knows of any studies of this, please let me know.) All I can do is provide my own (non-expert) guess, which is
based just on my own case and that of several other people I’ve talked to.

My guess is that debilitating terror of hell is (at least
often) explained by the subject getting or having one cognitive ability before
or without having another (or having one of them to a much greater extent
before or without having the other to a significant enough extent): Having the
ability to understand and appreciate the doctrine without (yet) having
developed the ability to “quarantine” threatening “beliefs” from having the
effects beliefs of that content in some sense should have. (Since this – and especially my use of “quarantine”
– is all very vague, perhaps this shouldn’t even be thought of an explanation
so much as my guess as to the form that the right explanation will take.)

As I’m tempted to describe it (and I often succumb to this
temptation): When I was 7, but not when I was older, I really believed a
traditional doctrine of hell.

The notion of belief seems to be a very messy one that I don’t
very well understand, but it seems to somehow involve a very complex set of
dispostitions: dispositions to act in certain ways under certain circumstances,
to have certain emotions under certain circumstances, to form certain other
beliefs under certain circumstances, etc. And it’s possible to have some of the relevant dispositions without
having others. And in such cases, it may
happen that neither “yes” nor “no” is a very accurate answer to the question of
whether the subject believes the item in question. To use some advanced, technical terminology:
They kinda believe it–and kinda don’t. By the time I was 12, though I still accepted a traditional doctrine of
hell, I only kinda believed it, as opposed to my earlier, terrorized self, who really believed it. The “quarantining”
of the doctrine wasn’t a simple matter of fully retaining the belief while
blocking it from having some of its corrosive effects. Rather, it seems to me, it reduced the extent
to which I could accurately be described as believing the doctrine. In that sense, I didn’t really believe

That – including such a use of the likes of “really believe”
– is how I’ve been explaining this matter since well before Dawkins’s The God
came out. So the following bit
really resonated with me (the italics are Dawkins’s own):

‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never
hurt me.’ The adage is true so long as
you don’t really believe the words. But if your whole upbringing, and everything you have ever been told by
parents, teachers and priests, has led you to believe, really believe,
utterly and completely, that sinners burn in hell…, it is entirely plausible
that words can have a more long-lasting and damaging effect than deeds. (p. 318)

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  • Hey Keith
    Interesting analysis, and I think you are right on some of the negative effects (speaking as a person who continues to wrestle with the pragmatic consequences of my own beliefs as well). The distinction between belief and ‘really really’ belief is an interesting one for me… and one that I would get caught up with in thinking about hell. For example, in the past (and sometimes even in the present), I would get caught up on the sense that I felt I only somewhat believed in God, but didn’t really really believe in God… and that my lack of belief (in the ‘really really’ sense) would send me to this dreaded hell. Similarly, in so much as our conceptions of who goes to hell involve a sense of orthodoxy, or really really orthodoxy, I (somewhat uselessly) have spent a good deal of my upbringing trying to distinguish between the really really believers from the believers, and similarly what category I fell into.
    It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on the ‘belief’ v. ‘really really’ belief distinction when it comes to God as well… though perhaps not on topic.

  • Korey

    Interesting thoughts. I too cannot deal with comparative analysis between hell and profound earthly suffering, but after watching the 70s movie “Like a Thief in the Night” on a sunday evening at my church at a young age I was thoroughly disturbed for many months. I would have near anxiety attacks whenever I was alone. I in all honesty think that the scariest movie I’ve ever seen in terms of its impact on me.
    Being a father of a 2 and 6 year old, of all the religious doctrine I am perhaps most hypersensitive too it is hell and how/when it is presented. I am strongly resistant to coerced belief. It may be somewhat if not totally genuine as our experiences suggest, but I’m quite skeptical how deep, sustaining, and positively life changing it is (as I imagine you may be as well given your approach to the subject matter so far).

  • Keith DeRose

    Peter B: You are anticipating exactly where I hope to go in an upcoming post.

  • Hey Keith
    I am looking forward to it.

  • Angela Harms

    Hey, Keith,
    I think you’re definitely on to something. I have had the parallel thought in many instances: these Christians don’t really believe in God. If they did they wouldn’t (whatever).
    If you *really* believed in hell, you’d be tormented, crying, having nightmares, just like if folks really believed in the living, loving God, they’d be… well, loving.

  • Strangely enough, this entry made me think about Martin Luther and his fear of hell during the famed lightning storm, fear which consequently led to his stint in a monastery, putting him in a state of miserable depression and despair. He really really believed in a traditional hell and he was terrified of it and the failure to live up to what he saw as God’s expectations had pretty drastic effects. It seems obvious that some of the things which came out of the Reformation were heavily influenced by a traditional view of hell, and still are to this day.

  • budcath

    The philosophical entertainer and former episcopal priest Alan Watts once said that if people really and truly believed that there was sucha being as Satan and demons that were after them to cause their damnation to hell, they would spend their lives on their kness in prayer and in church and not be able to function in society.

  • Larry

    I wonder how many people today really, really believe in hell? After all, if you really believe in hell, it is perfectly logical and loving to silence heretics, using any means necessary. If not for the heretic’s sake, then for the sake of those who might hear him and so condemn themselves to hell. What could not be justified if it saved just one soul from everlasting torment? I think that the idea of an everlasting hell is so incoherent with our pictures of God that most people, even if they give the belief mental assent to the idea, don’t really believe it.

  • budcath, that is a very interesting comment and I have not considered that angle before. Is then the implication that folks don’t actually “really really” believe in hell, or do they believe in traditional hell and they are unable to cope with the consequences of being unable to satisfy the “list” of requirements?
    To throw another spin on this entirely, how would a Calvinistic or deterministic position affect the conversation? Is there comfort in the idea that one is chosen “out of hell” and would that necessitate one to spend his life on his knees praying?

  • Robert Coles wrote a book entitled “The Spiritual Life of Children.” I read this while taking a Faith Development course in my undergraduate studies. Given the developmental limitations of both concrete thought and vivid imaginations, “scare tactics” about hell can be as traumatic as anything else in a child’s life. This book is a fascinating read, that includes this specific topic.
    The idea seems to be to get the kid (or adult) on the “right side of the fence” regardless of condition–much like conversion by the sword, eh? If we believe in a loving God (and the type of spiritual life and relationship with God that implies) then we don’t have to rush it–because we want it to be authentic and deep and motivated from love. But if our God is the big white guy who is like an abusive parent (or the one that we WISH would judge society based on our own presuppositions of rightness) that judges people with less nuance than a 13 year-old’s moral compass, then the ends justify the means always.

  • The whole reason i became a Christian 20 years ago this month was a fear of going to hell. My jump into faith in Christ was for ‘fire insurance’ which was not really authentic looking back today. It was fear-based and not out of love. It was very selfish of me.
    i personally believe a lot of life lived out today on earth is a living hell at times. i think about the genocide in Darfur, the human trafficking, the hunger and poverty, Hitler and what he put anyone who did not meet his specifications of what a true human being was through by the concentration camps and gassing them. Even my daily grind of existing with Chronic Lyme Disease, and NOT really living is a real living hell a lot of the time and i am a Christ-follower.
    My understanding of hell is that Jesus was talking metaphorically about it referring to the garbage dump where everyone’s garbage was taken. i just do not believe it is a real place where people go when they die, burn for eternity, and gnash their teeth for eternity b/c they did not ‘receive Jesus into their hearts, confess their sins, and become born-again’. i think all those scriptures are not being taken in their historical, cultural, and religious contexts Jesus was speaking about/to. i could totally be wrong but this is where i have come in my personal journey.
    Enjoying your thought-provoking posts!
    Happy New Year!
    Warm Regards,

  • Along the lines of the question of belief vs. “really believing,” an equally fascinating book called Theological Incorrectness by D. Jason Slone deals with why religious people say they believe one thing but really believe another. You can read the “front flap” info on the amazon preview for a quick snippet. As I recall, it all comes down to the way the brain works, able to hold socially and emotionally related beliefs in tension with one another.

  • Your Name

    Having been indoctrinated as a child and also having been sexually abused by a priest when I was a little girl, I can assure you that the latter rather than the former caused me much more pain throughout my life.
    I can call myself a recovering catholic, and work through dismissing the doctrine (which if you think about it is a really hard sell no matter the victim’s age) but I will never ever forget what that priest did to me, how it made me feel, how the bishop and his cronies minimized then denied my truth….
    If you’ve never been sexually abused by a priest you could never fully understand the pain. Working through this is difficult — now THAT is hell!

  • budcath

    Virgil…I believe Watts was referring more to a really really belief that Satan and his demons exist and are constantly trying to tempt you into sin, so they can get you into hell and torment you. I think realistically people that believe in hell just don’t think they are going to end up there. In George Carlin’s last HBO special he asked why is it that when you go to a funeral everyone says, “I’ll bet he/she is looking down on us now.” Why doesn’t anyone ever say, “I’ll bet he/she is looking up at us now.”
    As for the Calvinist pre-destination thing, if you’re among the elect, you’ve got nothing to worry about. But how do you know you one of the elect?
    I spoke with a Jehovah’s Witness years ago, and they believe that only 144,000 are saved and they were chosen even before God created everything. So everyone else is doomed. I asked, “How many Jehovah’s Witnesses are there?”. He said about 3 million. I said, “Then a lot of you guys are just wasting your time.” I think they all think they are one of the 144,000 and how would you ever know for sure. I think that is how most people see it.

  • Colin

    Echoing the post above me, I would just add that I have yet to me a Calvinist who wasn’t among the elect. Some of them are tortured about it and constantly worried for their election, but in the end they wrestle some sense of “assurance of salvation” out of God.
    I attended a fundamentalist Calvinist church for about two years and this was my experience. It never totally sat right with me and I guess from the way I behaved you might say that I never really believed it. This particular church was among those with a “remnant” mentality, preaching that there were no other true churches in the area. I don’t know if any of you are familiar with Harold Camping and his Family Radio business, but a bunch of people at this church had a radio show and a few worked at the station. They later condemned Camping as a heretic when he started his “end of the church age” campaign and started a church to try and prove him wrong.
    The odd thing is that there was a particular man who was involved in some street preaching group that said something like “Jesus or Hell!” and all of your other favorite turn or burn slogans. Maybe they thought they were just supplying the call for God and God would turn them from a-burnin’. In any event, I think the main way that this particular group dealt with the doctrine of Hell is by saying that in God’s justice, he doesn’t love all men. He hates the reprobate and loves the elect. This theology was supplied with some serious linguistic gymnastics and an over-reliance on the King James Bible’s archaic language being understood as if your next door neighbor today wrote it. Texts that support neighbor love are easily rationalized away as applying to only the church (which is of course only the elect). And the pragmatic result was, like I said before, the mindset of being the last remnant, which is a fancy theological way for saying “we don’t care that much about what happens to everyone else.”
    There was a woman who attended from out of the area fairly frequently who had a couple of sons, both of which were killed on different occasions. When her last son was shot by a man trying to rob him, the preacher gave a sermon trying to warn everyone about hell and telling us all that Kente was there now burning and wishing he had known Jesus, all in front of the grieving mother. (Just in my own defense, I had lost almost ALL of my respect for this church after a few months but I attended with my now fiancée’s family and could only socialize with the pastors kids, also among the non-elect). This pastor liked to yell and carry on and pound on things- in retrospect the man was bizarrely insecure. Needless to say, this woman did not darken the door of that particular church frequently after her son’s death.
    Anyway, this brings up an interesting point- the “s/he is in Hell” sermon at the funeral. I attended a more moderate Baptist church that did sermons for non-Christian family members. The pastor I was close with always said that he had to speak the truth about that person’s most likely eternal destiny. The most “comforting” way that he did this was by having a typical alter call at the sermon after proclaiming the good news of penal substitutionary atonement in some form or another, a call which was let to go to the machine time and time again by those listening. Any other experiences?

  • Keith, this post brought up a lot of weird stuff for me. Apparently I am a post-atheist emergent; I’ve discovered I have a different sort of childhood hell trauma. I posted my response at the url above. –Angela

  • Your Name

    Korey January 3, 2009 3:44 PM Interesting thoughts. I too cannot deal with comparative analysis between hell and profound earthly suffering, but after watching the 70s movie “Like a Thief in the Night” on a sunday evening at my church at a young age I was thoroughly disturbed for many months. I would have near anxiety attacks whenever I was alone. I in all honesty think that the scariest movie I’ve ever seen in terms of its impact on me.
    It’s interesting you should mention this. I have all four movies on DVD (A Thief in the Night, A Distant Thunder, Image of the Beast, and The Prodigal Planet), and whenever I’ve had occasion to mention that they’re actually decent films, and probably much better than the “Left Behind” movies, I never fail to get responses from people who say how “A Thief in the Night” terrified them as kids.
    Maybe that’s one reason I haven’t shown them to my granddaughters. (That, plus I have some reservations about the pre-tribulation rapture + premillennial dispensationalist doctrines.)