very spooky handprint!
Reading Time: 9 minutes (alex mihu.) Spoooooooky!
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Hi and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been talking about Hell — as a concept, yes, but also as a beloved threat by a large number of Christians today. As threats go, this one’s absolutely ludicrous. There’s not a chance in Hell (hehe) that any aspect of it could be real. But millions of Christians are scared spitless of it nonetheless. Even ex-Christians often struggle with this fear, long after realizing not one claim in the religion is objectively true. The threat of Hell has some significant sticking power. And today, we’ll look at some reasons for that power.

very spooky handprint!
(alex mihu.) Spoooooooky!

(Previous Journeys Into Hell, and Other Such Related posts: The Night My Fear of Hell Died; But WHICH Hell Shall We Fear; Why Hell Fails as a Christian Threat; We’re Made Out of Meat. Obviously, this post concerns that subset of Christians who believe in Hell and use it as a threat to gain power over others. Also, when I talk about such Christians as tribalistic people, I’m using the term in the sociological sense. And now, on to the post!)

Fear in the Wild.

Long ago, I was out with a friend, Julia, who’d just gotten herself a Jeep. It was a lovely summer day, so we were laughing and enjoying our best life.

As we stopped at a red light, a sportscar shot from behind us in the other lane. It was flying like a bat outta Hell. Its driver ran the light — and T-boned an old, beat-up pickup truck in the opposite lane that was turning left.

The sportscar ricocheted at an angle and plowed into an apartment building’s sign across the intersection, while the truck chugged through its turn and slowed to a stop.

It all happened so quickly that we barely processed the appearance of the sportscar before everything was done with. Teenagers began spilling out of the car (so, so many of them) with dazed expressions, while an older gent climbed out of his truck to survey his own damage.

In the Jeep, our gasps startled both of us. We’d been holding our breaths.

In surveying our own potential damage, I looked down at my friend’s hand, on the shift. In just those few milliseconds, sweat had blossomed across the both of us, all across our exposed skin. The drops glistened like dewy flowers in the sunshine, like diamonds.

Though we were very different people, our bodies had reacted to this horrifying threat in exactly the same way. It took us both a long time to settle down, for our breathing to slow, for our hearts to quit racing.

To me, this incident illustrates our near-universal human response to fear and threats.

(Fortunately, it didn’t seem like anybody’d been seriously hurt in the collision. Emergency responders arrived quickly. The older guy’s pickup truck had barely any damage, even. The sportscar fared far worse. My friend and I escaped unscathed.)

How Fear Works.

Fear is a physical response to the mind’s perception of a threat to our safety. As this health site tells us, when we notice something that might be a threat, it triggers some powerful responses that flood our whole bodies — just like it did to Julia and me that day in the Jeep. That link says:

As soon as you recognize fear, your amygdala (small organ in the middle of your brain) goes to work. It alerts your nervous system, which sets your body’s fear response into motion. Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released. Your blood pressure and heart rate increase. You start breathing faster. Even your blood flow changes — blood actually flows away from your heart and into your limbs, making it easier for you to start throwing punches, or run for your life.

That said, this biology paper at the National Library of Medicine (NCBI) tells us that scientists sometimes have trouble agreeing on exactly what “fear” even is. Is it feelings, or is it a set of behaviors? How applicable is the term to animals like fruit flies?

The person who wrote that paper, Ralph Adolphs, does a lot of work with emotions generally. He thinks it’s the state between the perceived threats and the behavior that ensues. He also distinguishes fear from anxiety. Fear is the immediate phase that starts after we perceive threats, while anxiety is a longer-term mood involving our preparation for future threats.

Within the realm of fear, Adolphs also distinguishes between different types of fear — one type, for example, gets triggered by the presence of a potential predator. Our brains process different threats in different ways, biologically speaking.

So as we talk about threats, be thinking about the exact nature of the threats in question. It matters.

We Evolved to Fear.

When I look at all the biological responses our brains summon when we encounter a potential threat, one fact seems crystal-clear: humans evolved to feel fear. Humans even share a lot of the same fears, which horror writers and moviemakers take ruthless advantage of in their work! This site lists a few of those nearly-universal fears:

The most basic, universal, genetically hardwired fears are the fears of sudden, loud noises and of looming objects—those are the fears that we aim to evoke when we hide behind a door, waiting to spook an unsuspecting friend by jumping at them with a roar.  [. . .] The startle reflex is primitive and swift, and very effective in orienting the organism toward, and preparing it for, danger.

That site goes on to describe the specific fears that children develop as they grow up. They develop these fears right at the stage when their development makes them way more vulnerable to those particular threats. For example, infants start fearing separation from their caregivers right about when they start learning to move around on their own.

(I’ve also heard many times that children develop a fear of new foods after they get weaned and become more mobile, which could easily lead to them finding poisonous things to stick in their mouths.)

Fear kept us alive, generation through generation. Quick startle responses and immediate floods of adrenaline and other chemicals allowed us to get away from threats quickly. Dreads of loneliness and new foods kept us from losing our caretakers and poisoning ourselves by accident.

Now, I can’t explain Lawn Darts or those nutbars on YouTube who wrap their bare torsos in firecracker strings and set them off, but overall humans are pretty good at avoiding serious threats.

The Authoritarian Mind is Hypersensitive to Fear and Threats.

Some people are way more sensitive to potential threats than others. Authoritarians, for example, tend to be downright hypersensitive to threats compared to more egalitarian people. Over and over again, we find that more authoritarian people notice potential threats more quickly and then have a way more exaggerated response to those potential threats. Not only that, but authoritarians zero in harder on social threats, which encompass stuff like the breakdown of society, the Endtimes, civil war, natural disasters, etc.

(See: Paper 1; Paper 2; The Authoritarians by Bob Altemeyer, plus his 2020 update; Paper 3; an interesting 2020 writeup in The Guardian.)

In response to those social threats, authoritarians always have one solution that falls immediately to hand: more rules, tighter rules, more draconian punishments, and way more power handed to their tribal leaders.

Unfortunately, what authoritarians have trouble doing is figuring out if a potential threat is really an actual threat. In other words, they can’t accurately evaluate the threats they encounter. If the threat fits in with their worldview and comes from a trusted authority figure, they’ll react to it even if it’s stone-cold impossible.

And here’s the kicker:

We’ve seen that people living in evangelical-dominated regions don’t even have to be evangelical themselves to absorb the mindset. Even a non-Christian marriage in such an environment stands a much greater risk of conflict and divorce.

So even if someone doesn’t want to be authoritarian, being around tons of authoritarians or getting raised by them can predispose us to perceiving threats — and responding to them — as authoritarians do.

A Fear Instilled at Birth.

Making matters worse, some fears get instilled in us before we’re even old enough to analyze them rationally. Our childhood fears can overwhelming and very difficult to shake — as this progressive Christian parent discovered a few years ago.

And Christian authoritarians know this fact very well. It’s not hard to find the most horrifying voices in the religion offering handy tips for terrorizing one’s children with imaginary fates — like creepy mommy blogger turned incompetent apologist Natasha Crain or pastor Rowdy John Piper, who’s always up for stomping on real love and compassion.

To such Christian leaders, a 6-year-old terrified of Hell is a good thing. It’s something parents should strive to create. If parents fail to produce kindergarteners who are terrified of Hell, they obviously Jesus-ed all wrong and their kids’ later Hellbound status is all their fault.

Christian leaders know one fact above all, however. That fact is what drives them so hard to push parents to terrify their kids with threats of Hell. It is the biggest tell they could possibly offer about the true nature of their religion and their own understanding of the validity of their own claims. Here it is:

Hell is such a ludicrous and obviously false threat that only a very trusting, very young child (or someone with a similar frame of mind) could possibly accept it as a real thing to fear.

If a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ doesn’t build that fear into a child early and thoroughly, the chances of that child becoming a Christian and staying one drop dramatically.

An Absolutely Over-the-Top, Grotesquely Out-of-Scope, Disproportionate Threat.

There’s a reason why so many Christians seem to cluster together under the banner of whatever leader can make the biggest, grandest, most disgusting threats to them about Hell.

In a lot of ways, Hell works to produce fear in so many people because it’s absolutely and grotesquely disproportionate. It’s just so horrifically and cosmically huge that there’s no real way to engage with it meaningfully — like galactic superclusters.

And I think those sorts of threats hit children and authoritarian-influenced people very hard. The bigger the threat, the more fear it evokes in such people. They end up vulnerable to every single conjob who encounters them who can spin a more grotesque threat.

Hell, as a concept, has grown more and more grotesque and inhumanly cruel. It’s the same reason why horror stories have gotten more and more gory and disgusting. Once a mind has acclimated to a certain level of fear, that state becomes a background buzz of anxiety. To get the same huge fear state after a while, someone needs to present a much bigger threat that trips our circuits again.

And because we’re humans, we’re capable of decoupled cognition, so we can imagine all kinds of stuff that doesn’t really exist.

As a result, a toxic Christian can always come up with a more gruesome threat to top the last one. It’ll scare the willies out of authoritarian-influenced people and those who have no defenses against it — guaranteed.

The Fear of Hell Works Best in the Absence of Facts.

One last aspect of fear we must cover here: when we don’t know much about a situation, we tend to take threats about it more seriously. That’s natural and normal.

But literally nobody knows anything about the afterlife at all, which most definitely includes 98.8%-Lad. We have even less evidence supporting the existence of the modern Christian notion of Hell. So, that’s a whole lot of unknowns swirling around the topic.

As a result, evangelism often centers around stoking this fear of the unknown to fever pitches of terror, then offering the panicky mark a soothing agent: complete compliance with the evangelist’s demands assures safety.

When Christians get rejected after all that effort, watch for them to go all passive-aggressive at us and chirp stuff like: “Gosh, I hope you’re riiiiiiight about there being no aaaaaafterlife….” When that happens, they’re playing on that fear of the unknown that lurks in almost everybody’s heart. It’s a parting salvo that would leave them a wreck, so they assume it will do the same to others.

Even if these Christians can’t produce one single credible, objective fact to support their threats, they know that they, at least, want to grab for as many straws of safety as they can. As above, they assume others will respond the same way they do to big threats about the unknown.

Fear vs. Love.

Ultimately, love has never kept Christians’ butts in pews (BIPs). Fear is just a better motivator, though it can backfire if the pressure is maintained for too long. We’ll respond a lot more quickly and completely to a fear trigger than to a love one.

Centuries ago, Niccolò Machiavelli observed that while it’s nice for rulers to have their subjects’ love, fear works a lot better to inspire loyalty and obedience. This was especially true, he thought, when rulers have conquered a region that’s still a little rowdy. He wrote:

Here a question arises: whether it is better to be loved than feared, or the reverse. The answer is, of course, that it would be best to be both loved and feared. But since the two rarely come together, anyone compelled to choose will find greater security in being feared than in being loved. . . . Love endures by a bond which men, being scoundrels, may break whenever it serves their advantage to do so; but fear is supported by the dread of pain, which is ever present. [Quote source]

Fear and love simply can’t coexist, though. The moment a threat enters a relationship equation, love slips out the back door — forever. And when we’re certain of all-consuming true love, fear melts away.

Where the Authoritarian Votes Landed.

Authoritarian Christian leaders have cast their vote. They want fear from their followers. That’s why they try to instill a framework for fearing it as early as they can, and why their evangelism almost all centers completely around stoking this fear. It’s why their imaginations paint more and more grotesque visions of Hell, and why Hell figures so prominently as a parting salvo when their demands are rejected.

Hell works magnificently well on them. They fear it utterly. And so they assume everyone else is just as vulnerable as they are to threats of Hell. More and more, however, the world outside their tight tribal bubble does not fear what they fear.

NEXT UP: How authoritarian Christians deal with people who don’t fear Hell. See you tomorrow!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...