some fires are wonderful
Reading Time: 8 minutes (Dominic Sansotta.)
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Hi and welcome back! As we’ve been talking about Hell this past week, my mind keeps drifting back to my own days as a Hell-believing Christian. It blew my mind that the people I tried so hard to evangelize didn’t seem at all afraid of that which had so terrorized me. Now, some decades past my deconversion, I see today’s Hell-believers struggling in the same way. Today, let’s look at how these Hell-believers deal with this very potent conflict with their Happy Pretendy Fun Time Game.

some fires are wonderful
(Dominic Sansotta.)

(A Hell-believer is a Christian who deeply fears Hell, worries hard about their loved ones going there, and uses the threat of Hell as a recruitment tactic.)

(Previous Journeys Into Hell: 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; Why Hell Succeeds as a Threat. 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. Thanks!)

The Birth of a Hell-Believer.

Long ago, Yr. Loyal &c. Corr. was a super-duper-megalicious fervent fundagelical lass.

(And that will just be the last time I refer to myself in the third person in this post. This ain’t Usenet anymore, missy. Oh wait. Now I’m addressing myself in the second person. Oh, just forget it.)

Initially, I converted around 1986 (at 16, about midway through high school) — amid a huuuuuge Rapture scare that’s now called “88 Reasons.” Its creator, Edgar Whisenant, actually made a slew of failed predictions for the Rapture, one of which was coming up very soon at the time. That church service was the first time I’d heard anything at all about the Rapture and being “Left Behind,” and all that stuff absolutely terrified me.

Before, I’d always sorta-kinda taken Hell for granted. Sure, it existed, I thought, but I never worried about landing there. As someone who’d grown up very Catholic, I had a whole lot of ways of dealing with the potential threat of Hell. But that night, a Pentecostal preacher ripped away all of them.

That night, I truly felt for the first time that I was “a sinner in the hands of an angry god,” and it completely petrified me. My loving god could and absolutely would let me face the Tribulation and even Hell if I didn’t obey his self-appointed spokesmen him. There’s just not a way to convey just how staggering that idea was for me back then.

So that night, I became a Hell-believer. In other words, I became a Christian who believes in Hell as a real threat for humans, is absolutely blithering terrified of going there, and considers the threat of Hell a valid and ideal evangelism tool.

But But But But WHY: Hell-Believers Meet Reality.

However, the Rapture didn’t happen on that predicted date. And so I drifted out.

Now, I still feared Hell, because I hadn’t unpacked all that stuff yet. I still couldn’t really analyze any of it from a critical standpoint. Thus, I remained completely vulnerable to that kind of emotional manipulation.

By then, that same Rapture scare was in full swing and people were getting really freaked out by it. I was no exception. When my then-boyfriend Biff converted in mid-1987 to the exact same church I’d left, he eventually persuaded me to join back up again.

Biff loved evangelism. His style was, to put it mildly, confrontational and intrusive (back then, my tribe called it “fly or fry/turn or burn” evangelism, not always disapprovingly). It did not net him many sales. Mine was way more gentle and I hope more two-sided, though I didn’t make any sales at all.

That said, Biff and I had no idea what the world was like and had no critical thinking skills at all. Hell scared the willies out of both of us. It all seemed so incredibly real. We believed 10-billion-percent in all that stuff.

So boy oh boy, imagine our surprise when we kept running into tons of people who did not seem to fear Hell at all.

Wait, What? Flabbergasted Hell-Believers on Parade.

When I attended high school, just about everyone I knew was some flavor of Christian already. None of us were progressive Christians and only a few were even from mainline denominations. Instead, we were almost all Southern Baptists and Catholics.

So technically, we all believed in a general way in the concept of Hell as an afterlife destination for those who’d angered our god.

We just weren’t all Hell-believers. 

There’s a crucial difference between the two.

Most Christians believe in Hell in a gauzy sort of way like my high school peers did, but they don’t stress about going there, nor panic about their loved ones going there, nor seek to recruit others to their religion on the basis of avoiding Hell. No, we’re talking about the Christians who do stress, who do panic, who do try to recruit like that. Those Christians are Hell-believers: consumed by the fear of dying and going to Hell.

Of course, even as firmly set as I was on Hell as a danger, none of my friends (and certainly none of my family members) seemed anywhere near as scared as I was. In fact, they did not fear at all that which had so transfixed me.

All while I was a Hell-believer, I never successfully convinced anyone of the dangers Hell posed. The situation drove me out of my teen mind with frustration and anxiety.

Hell-Believers Try to Explain the Danger.

Often, you’ll hear Hell-believers compare this exact situation to them screaming that a bus is bearing down on their marks. Or their plane is crashing. Or their shared building is on fire. And the people listening to these warnings, metaphorically on the street in front of the bus, riding in the plane, or hanging out in the building, are all blasé about it.

My evangelism targets responded in the same basic way:

Oh, are you rattling on about that again? Ugh, I don’t see any problem. No buses are coming, dear heart. The plane’s flying just fine. There’s not a whiff of smoke anywhere in the building.

And then, they’d issue a tacit dismissal:

We’re fine. Stop worrying and stop threatening us with invisible stuff nobody can see. YOU can’t even see this stuff for realsies. When you have proof that there’s a danger, we’ll talk again. Bye! Don’t let the door hit ya where the Mad God split ya.

My utter inability to make others fear Hell distressed me constantly, though I had no idea why I couldn’t persuade anyone. Nor did I possess the mental skills needed to analyze things better. I just thought I needed to learn a better soulwinning technique. A better metaphor, maybe?

No dice.

Nothing I tried got any traction with those who were not Hell-believers already, or at least primed to develop that fear.

Hell-Believers in the Wild.

It’s very easy to spot Hell-believers in the wild. Generally, they’ll be the ones evangelizing with Hell-threats. Or we see them fretting about why non-Christians don’t fear Hell at all — as we see here in this Quora question. They can’t even imagine going through life not being worried at all about maybe going to Hell one day. When they get really stressed, Hell-believers layer on the implied threats even thicker, as this second Quora questioner does:

Why aren’t people afraid of the possibility of ending up in eternal hell? What if you’re wrong and will end up in hell? Why don’t you worry about this frightening possibility?

You can just about hear this questioner vibrating and thrumming with fear. Sure, they might also be a very stressed-out former Hell-believer struggling to get free, but I’ve heard this exact line of questioning more times than I can count from Hell-believers who are trying to goose me into fearing that which they fear above all else.

You don’t often see Hell-believers talking about their frustration in public, though. Sometimes, they hint at it — like we see here in a Gospel Coalition (TGC) post about how to manipulate one’s loved ones who “won’t believe.” (Interesting choice of words, hmm? These theoretical loved ones could well be fervent Christians, just belonging to the wrong flavor according to their judge.) That TGC writer advises his fellow Hell-believers to never stop trying to provoke a fear of Hell in non-believers.

Soon enough, that TGC writer makes clear he’s very much a Hell-believer. That exact threat got him to convert just as it has countless others before him (including me, remember). So he will always consider those threats to be his biggest gun, evangelistically speaking. He assumes that if he can just get others to fear that which he fears, then his sale is halfway made.

I hate to say this, but statistically, the numbers probably bear him out there. It’s just that it’s harder and harder to induce that fear in the first place. Hell-believers are born from utter terror of Hell. Without that fear, they can’t blossom into final shape.

Hell-Believers Need Ideological Lockstep.

Usually, though, Hell-believers don’t have a lot of options for dealing with non-belief in their biggest boogeyman. This Cru writer regurgitates a lot of hand-waving from incompetent apologists to address the Problem of Hell. None of it works. At all. Oh well. At least her determined thought-stopping has soothed her pain over having alienated a friend with her Hell-belief.

But her post neatly illustrates how much it can knock a Hell-believer for a loop when they encounter someone who just doesn’t fear Hell — or even believe that it actually exists at all. She has no idea how to handle pushback to her greatest fear. And to be fair, most Hell-believers don’t either.

I mean, imagine you fear spiders. Like bigtime, you’re scared to death of them. (*raises hand*) Now, imagine meeting someone who doesn’t even believe spiders are real. Just think about how mind-blowing that’d be.

Of course, it’s super-easy to find evidence for the existence of spiders. Usually, a quick and exceedingly careful search of a little-used closet cracks that mystery right quick.

But what if the fear is something that’s really difficult (one might say impossible) to prove exists at all, and the person suffering from that fear isn’t able to think it through critically or question it in any way?

So yeah. It feels downright surreal for Hell-believers, who believe utterly in this huge and imminent threat, to encounter people who don’t even think that threat’s real.

The Happy Pretendy Fun Time Game, Redux.

When Hell-believers find people who aren’t afraid of Hell, the Happy Pretendy Fun Time Game they’re playing takes a knock. It starts feeling less real. In fact, it starts feeling kinda silly.

It’s like being a kid who still believes in Santa, long after their playmates have matured past that belief. There’s something about being that kid that stains the cheeks with strange shame, years later. Well, same for Hell-belief in a way. You barely comprehend that you’re feeling shame at all, much less exactly why you feel it.

Thus, Hell-believers desperately need everyone around them to be playing the same game they are. 

And if some people still refuse to play, then they must be brought down somehow: negated, vilified, marginalized, silenced, or whatever else the tribe can muster in retaliation.

What Hell-believers won’t do is critically analyze the belief itself. That’s far too great a risk for them to take.

NEXT UP: YES, we’re going there: how Hell evolved over the years to reach its fiendish fever pitch in the modern day. See you tomorrow!

Please Support What I Do!

Come join us on FacebookTumblr, and Twitter! (Also Instagram, where I mostly post cat pictures, and Pinterest, where I sometimes post vintage recipes from my mom’s old recipe box.)

Also please check out our Graceful Atheist podcast interview

If you like what you see, I gratefully welcome your support. Please consider becoming one of my monthly patrons via Patreon with Roll to Disbelieve for as little as $1/month! My PayPal is (that’s an underscore in there) for one-time tips.

You can also support this blog at no extra cost to yourself by beginning your Amazon shopping trips with my affiliate link — and, of course, by liking and sharing my posts on social media!

This blog exists because of readers’ support, and I appreciate every single bit of it. Thank you. <3

Avatar photo

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,...