Hell is at the center of evangelical Christian theology, more so than heaven or even Jesus. Without belief in hell and the exclusionary politics it inspires, Christianity would cease to exist.

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Evangelical Christians say they want to teach us how to get to heaven. Actually, it’s hell that’s at the center of their faith.

Hell is the one essential ingredient of their theology. It’s hellish fire, not heavenly clouds, that underlies their politics, that tinges their words and that colors their outlook on the world. Christianity as we know it could exist without heaven, or the trinity, or even Jesus—but it couldn’t exist without hell.

Hell is a load-bearing belief

Obviously, Christianity wouldn’t literally be the same religion if Jesus or the trinity were erased from its creeds. What I mean is that the institutions, the attitudes and the priorities that are characteristic of Christianity, as it exists in the world today, could persist even if those specific beliefs were dropped and replaced with something else. To put it another way, those beliefs aren’t load-bearing.

Hell is a load-bearing belief. If Christians gave up their belief in hell, Christianity couldn’t continue to exist in the form it currently takes. If it didn’t cease to exist, it would have to be radically transformed.

Christianity as we know it could exist without heaven, or the trinity, or even Jesus—but it couldn’t exist without hell.

As an example, take Urban Christian Academy. It was a private school in Kansas City that provided tuition-free education to underprivileged students. It was an explicitly Christian institution, but its staff practiced an inclusive theology which believed that LGBTQ people are made in God’s image and didn’t condemn them. As they put it, “We don’t believe in being spiritual gatekeepers who say who’s in and who’s out.”

For a while, UCA preached this quietly. Eventually, they decided this was dishonest and made a public statement about their support for LGBTQ people. As soon as they did, funding from Christian donors nosedived. UCA no longer has the money to keep their doors open, and they’re shutting down this spring.

Another story along the same lines is Carlton Pearson. He was once a fire-and-brimstone Pentecostal preacher, a rising star of the religious right who had a megachurch and his own televangelist show and spoke with presidents. Then he had an awakening of conscience which convinced him that a loving god wouldn’t consign people to eternal torture. As soon as he announced he no longer believed in hell, attendance at his church plunged, and he was cast out by all his former allies.

As I’ve observed before, widening the circle of salvation is a much greater offense than narrowing it. No church or preacher of the religious right has been declared heretical for being too strict or for having too many rules. However, declaring God’s love and forgiveness over some formerly outcast group is treated as a grave offense.

Naively, you might think this would be a joyful occasion. Getting people to heaven is supposed to be the goal, after all. It should be great news that what was once thought to be sin a should no longer be considered such. Christian evangelicals ought to welcome this doctrinal revision: “More people will be saved than we thought! Hooray!”

Instead, they cling to their belief in God as wrathful and judgmental. They fiercely resist any suggestion that he might not be so wrathful as was previously believed.

Who’s in and who’s out

The idea of hell is so pervasive that it overpowers every other doctrine. Evangelical Christians say that, once you’ve accepted Jesus into your heart, your sins are washed away and you’re forgiven. However, in practice, their belief in hell trumps their belief in Jesus. As many ex-evangelicals will testify, they still feared for their salvation even when they were believers. Many of them “get saved” and repent over and over—just in case they did it wrong last time.

Historical evidence echoes this pattern. Of the three parts of Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Inferno has always been the most popular and culturally influential by far. The sections about purgatory or heaven are obscure by comparison. Evidently, humans are just more fascinated by hell.

Why is hell so vital to Christianity in a way that other beliefs aren’t?

Simply put, it’s because Christianity, as it’s practiced today, is an exclusionary religion. It’s all about who’s in and who’s out, who’s saved and (more importantly) who’s not.

Hell is a necessary doctrine to give believers an outgroup to define themselves against. If Christians believed in universal salvation—or even if they believed that salvation could be found through many paths, and that it couldn’t be boiled down to whether you say a certain prayer or vote a certain way—then evangelical believers couldn’t maintain their unwarranted confidence.

Hell is a necessary doctrine to give believers an outgroup to define themselves against.

They wouldn’t be able to define themselves as the righteous ones. They could no longer claim they’re the only ones who understand God’s will. And they wouldn’t be able to bash and condemn outsiders so recklessly, or cheer for their persecution.

It’s the professed certainty of you’re God’s enemies and we’re not, you’re going to hell and we’re not that gives rise to all the evils of Christian fundamentalism. Like the medieval inquisitors who justified torture on earth as necessary to save heretics’ souls from torture in hell, modern-day believers can inflict any kind of cruelty on outsiders and convince themselves it’s for their own good. But the true motive is as Thomas Paine wrote: if God hates those people and wants to punish them, how can it be wrong for Christians to express a lesser version of the same impulse?

Hell is a method of control

Belief in hell inspires the punitive, prohibitionist, vengeful impulses that define Christianity as a political force. It’s the impulses that drive Christian voters to restrict immigration and turn human beings away at the border; to ban transgender people from getting gender-affirming care and roll back gay rights; to outlaw books they don’t want kids reading and subjects they don’t want young adults studying; to ban abortion, block birth control and imprison women and doctors.

All of these policies arise from belief in hell. They spring from the belief that evangelical Christians are the owners of the one and only path to salvation. Under this theology, all other beliefs are contaminations that have to be suppressed, lest they corrupt the minds of true Christians (because, again, hell is all around and salvation always hangs on a knife edge).

By contrast, here’s what Christian voters as a bloc aren’t doing: calling for open-border policies because Jesus was a refugee fleeing persecution; lobbying for expanded safety-net programs to end poverty and hunger; arguing for gun control to stop the daily slaughter; calling for decarceration and shorter prison sentences because Jesus told us to forgive those who trespass. Christianity tries to stop people from doing (what they see as) evil, but it makes no attempt to get more people to do good.

Some individual Christians support these policies, as do a few small and marginal denominations. But at the institutional level, where a majority of the votes, the dollars and the political influence resides, Christianity is a cruel, oppressive, hell-based religion.

Because avoiding hell is their top priority, evangelical Christians have an incentive to follow the rules rigidly. However, there’s no “extra credit” for doing good beyond what’s required for salvation, so there’s no incentive to help others.

Belief in hell draws a sharp line of separation between the righteous in-group and the damned outgroup, and for the same reason, it’s a potent method of control for those on the inside. It keeps the flock in line. After all, if you think for yourself too much or ask too many questions, you could make God angry and lose your salvation. Better to obey the authorities and always prefer the harsher interpretation, because God never damned anyone for being too strict about avoiding sin.

When that theology extends to the political realm, we end up with the vicious, regressive religion that plays such an outsized role in American public life. Their faith is founded on cruelty, and cruelty is what it begets.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...