As you can easily guess, any time he writes about that topic, outraged, indignant toxic Christians descend upon him like locusts. Clearly, John Pavlovitz’s dissent is seen by them as such a huge threat that he must be neutralized as quickly and as firmly as possible. Their worldview depends upon hegemony to maintain itself; the presence of so many dissenters to their self-positioning as the arbiters of all truth and morality is just as disastrous as they clearly think it is.
Mostly their concern trolling* centers around the supposed damage this fellow is doing to non-believers’ eternal souls by giving the impression that it’s possible to be a decent, loving, compassionate person and a fervent, devoted Christian at the same time. They also often bring up that by saying he isn’t sure Hell even exists, he is putting himself into the danger of going there if he doesn’t fall back into line with their demands and threats. (I don’t think they care if he believes it’s false or true; they just want him to shut up.)
To these two concerns I can only say the following:
First, actually, speaking as someone who is ten times more hellbound than Mr. Pavlovitz is by their reckoning, I can totally promise that he is not doing one single thing to negatively impact any non-believer’s conclusions about his religion. After reading his blog, I’m not tempted to join Christianity, no, but at least I think better of it. He makes me feel loved, while the fundagelicals threatening me do not.
Surely it’s better to succeed at loving me while failing to convert me than it is to fail at converting me while also failing Jesus’ direct, explicit, he-didn’t-stutter-did-he command to love me. If either way Mr. Pavlovitz is not going to convert me, then at least he can love me, which not only squares with his Savior’s command but also produces a much better and happier association for us all.
So the Christians panicking about this imaginary threat can relax.
And second, if these Christians are so sure that Hell exists, then they need to demonstrate what evidence they have for it if they want others to take their fears seriously.
When Christians issue their threats, all I hear is that they think that threats are a morally acceptable way to gain compliance from others. This idea is losing cachet quickly in modern society. But instead of coming up with ways to persuade that do not hinge on threats of violence, they’re busting their asses to find creative new ways to issue threats.
I realize that some people–even atheists–think that it’s a sign of sincerity that so many Christians threaten us about Hell under the cloak of “concern” for our eternal fates, but I don’t. Someone doesn’t get a free pass just by saying the magic words “I’m only worried about you” any more than they get one by insisting that they’re being cruel to someone “only out of love.” (See footnote * below.)
If these Christians were sincere then they’d be listening to our objections, and then coming up with answers that meaningfully address those objections. That’s what sincerity looks like. Instead, they do neither.
When all they’ve got is more threats, then that’s not sincerity being displayed. They may themselves sincerely believe in Hell and think that it is a meaningful threat, but they are not engaging with me sincerely on the subject. My objections to the doctrine of Hell revolve around how there is not one single bit of evidence that the threat is valid, not around how few really creative, violent threats about Hell I’ve heard. More threats are not going to convince me.
Threats aren’t evidence for supernatural claims.
Nested Assumptions, Redux.
There’s a whole list of nested assumptions regarding Hell that Christians blithely assume are true without any more evidence than they have for Hell itself. It all starts with the idea of the supernatural, which not one single person in history has ever conclusively demonstrated to be a credible idea. Hell, we can’t even really come up with a consistent definition of the word “supernatural.”
But we need one before we can start to figure out objective evidence for supernatural beings, and well before we’re able to work our way down to how we can tell, again objectively, whether or not one (and only one) of those supernatural beings fits Christians’ conceptualization of their god, which is by no means a consistent conceptualization among Christians. We’d probably eventually have to figure out what to do with other religions’ gods and differing conceptualizations of the Christian god, as well as what the mechanism or process is that allows a being to move from one realm to the other, but I’m willing to skirt all that until we have some framework upon which we can even hang our questions about the supernatural.
We also need to figure out just what part of humans remains sentient and aware after our deaths. Since we know that sentience and awareness are largely determined and generated by our organic brains, this would be a toughie! We know that brain injuries can destroy our sentience and alter our personalities, and that various diseases like syphilis can change us permanently sometimes. In addition to explaining how we can still be “us” independent of that organic, biological stuff, Christians need to show that I need to be concerned with–and can meaningfully influence–what will happen to that part of me after I die, because I’m simply not narcissistic enough to assume otherwise without evidence.
If the Christians in question think that there’s some way for that non-biological part of me to suffer after my biological death, then they’ll also need to tell me how that is since we also know that pain and emotional torment is largely a product of released neurochemicals and hormones in our bodies and brains in response to some injury or insult to our biological bodies. Even phantom pain originates in our brains! I wouldn’t have pain receptors or a brain to flood me with pain and sadness chemicals, any more than I’d have a tongue with which to taste an eternal feast, or feet with which to tread streets of gold (it’s hardly even worth mentioning at this point how inconsistent Christians’ ideas are on this topic).
Once we get all that done we can get to the nitty-gritty of figuring out exactly what evidence there is that Christians have figured out what the magic riddle is that humans must solve in order to avoid the unpleasant fate they imagine lies in store for people who for whatever reason don’t solve it. How do they know their riddle is the correct one (or that there is a riddle at all), and how do they know it is solved by their proposed solution? Why are everyone else’s riddles and answers wrong?–because almost every religion in the world has a different riddle or a different answer, and they all have exactly the same evidence for why they think they’re right (and why everyone else who differs is wrong). Even within Christianity there is no consistency in either the riddle or answer; however fervent each clutch of Christians is, however sincerely they believe that the riddle-maker himself has told them directly what the riddle and answer are, there are countless other Christians who believe exactly the same thing: that they’ve been divinely handed the correct riddle and answer–but they have different riddles and answers, all of which they believe their Trickster God himself gave them.
And then last of all we’d have to work out how the existence of Hell fits with a truly loving god. Even the most stringent of all truly fair justice systems on Earth allow for rehabilitation, appeals, arguments, some kind of jury system, parole hearings, and the like, but you’ll find none of this in most Christians’ (inconsistent) ideas about what Hell would be like and how it’d work. Most of them go with “eternal punitive torture forever with no escape or hope of redemption,” but I don’t regard that kind of system as loving or fair, and certainly regard any “choice” made based on these parameters as uninformed or even fraudulent and therefore not binding. Even if Christians could establish all the other stuff, they’d fail here (this is formally and rather charmingly called the Problem of Hell by those in the know).
Whew! What a mess! But this is exactly the can of worms Christians open when they try to make others as afraid of Hell as they are.
A State Dinner in Zoonobia.
When Christians try to instill their own fear of Hell in me, it’s like they’re telling me I must buy this very particular but super-expensive dress they’re selling because one day, without a doubt and whether I like it or not, I will be invited to a state dinner at the capital of Zoonobia and if I don’t have that dress, which I can only obtain at great cost from their hands, I will not only not be allowed to attend this state dinner but will be systematically tortured for the rest of what will be a long, artificially-extended life. Moreover, all of the people convinced of the veracity of this situation have different dresses. They are all convinced that their particular dress is the only one correct dress, and that anyone who shows up in a different dress will be rejected and then tortured forever.
Oh… and I almost forgot:
In all cases, the dress is actually invisible until the day of the state dinner. You can’t see or wear your dress till you get to Zoonobia. But you have to have one OR ELSE.
Long ago, anonymous people wrote about seeing the prototype for the dress and they left us some ideas about how it was designed and sewn, but their accounts are often contradictory and confusing.
This threat assumes that Zoonobia exists, has a government that has state dinners, invites foreigners to those state dinners, has a serious dress code that can only be met by one particular dress, and has the ability and desire to torture me if I don’t have that dress. If even one of these assertions turns out to be untrue, then the threat’s validity is threatened.
It’s like “kissing Hank’s ass” on steroids, and yes, the whole idea of Hell sounds just this ridiculous and implausible to me.
Meanwhile, I see Christians buying their invisible dresses, pretend-modeling their dresses, talking up how wonderful this state dinner is going to be, and getting into heated arguments with those who say neither the dress nor Zoonobia appear to exist–or who disagree about what style of invisible dress is the correct one. Instead of finding proof for their assertions, these dress-buyers are instead finding more and more creative ways to describe this land they think exists as well as more and more creative ways of expressing how awful the torture is going to be and how wonderful Zoonobia is and how lovely their particular dress is compared to everyone else’s dress–and how people will suffer for not buying their dress. Often dress-buyers try to ignore the torture awaiting non-dress-buyers and talk up how awesome the food will be at the state dinner and how pretty the dress is going to be, as if either of those really matter much compared to the threat of torture for not having the correct dress. The dress could look like this and the food could come come entirely from this blog, and nobody sensible would even care because the escape from torture matters fifty zillion times more than either of those superficial concerns.
What’s funny is that people are letting what amount to salespeople flog a manufactured threat to solve a problem that exists only in their own imaginations so that they can claim sales commissions by selling a product that doesn’t actually exist in the real world. And huge numbers of people are getting every speck of information they have about Zoonobia, the dress, and the state dinner from the very people who are selling the dress they say will both get you into the dinner and help you escape the torture that awaits if you don’t buy their dress. Information on any of these topics does not exist outside of the salespeople’s brochures and infomercials, and there isn’t one single consistent idea or verified fact about any of it across all the millions of these sales attempts.
Would y’all buy a house or a car based on inconsistent, unreliable, unproven information available only from salespeople whose livelihoods depend upon them selling you this stuff? Would you pick a daycare for your kids or a college for yourself that way? Or start a healthcare regime? Hopefully not!
And increasingly not.
It must be rough for Christians selling Hell, these days. My heart bleeds peanut butter here. Truly.
In the end, I see no reason to fear this threat.
If Hell is not a real place/condition/situation, then I have no reason to consider Christianity’s various demands out of terror–and without terror, there isn’t any other reason to put a lot of stock in their demands.
And not to put too fine a point on it, if Hell isn’t a literal threat then what else in the Bible isn’t literally true either?
No wonder fundagelicals, with their childishly over-simplified, fear-based view of the religion, feel so threatened by the idea of any piece of their idolized holy book turning out to be untrue. Hell is one of the base cards in their house of cards, and if it is slid out of place, then the whole structure trembles.
One would think that figuring out that their big-gun threat can’t possibly be a valid concern would be the happiest day of fundagelicals’ entire lives–a reprieve, in a very real sense.
But that’s not what happens.
The less reason we as a species find to buy into Hell, the harder fundagelicals cling to the idea and the more violent and grotesque their threats concerning Hell become.
I suspect that fundagelicals know deep down that nobody sane would ever consider joining such a destructive and maladaptive, abusive and mean-spirited worldview as theirs. Certainly Christians would have a lot more trouble retaining members without that threat to hang over people’s heads–and even less ability to rationalize their attempt to control everyone around them or lie for Jesus “for our own good” or to think of themselves as society’s Designated Adults.
A lot of fundagelicalism’s worst and darkest features is excused–and perpetuated–by doctrines like Hell.
But the more someone thinks about the idea, the more it starts looking more like a child’s campfire horror-story–lurid and shockingly violent, yes, but also obviously made-up to be as impressive and frightening as possible to the unwary and uninformed.
I hope John Pavlovitz keeps writing. It’s good to see a Christian speaking out against fundagelicals’ increasingly noxious behavior and ideas. We could use some more like him. I hope others take courage from his example and go, and start doing likewise.
* Concern trolling is when someone acts very worried about A Thing, but that supposed concern is really just a mask for the real agenda: criticizing, tearing down, gaslighting, or attempting to control the concern troll’s victim. Concern trolling serves the added function of enshrining the troll in a dominant role over the victim, who is seen as inferior and in need of “advice” and “concern.” It often takes the form of unsolicited advice. Examples:
–“Are you sure you should have that milkshake? I’m just worried about your health!”
–“You shouldn’t act smart. I’m concerned that men won’t want to date you if you keep that up.”