Reading Time: 10 minutes (James Lee.) The photographer isn't kidding -- See here for a list of cities named for some variant of Hell. This one's in the Cayman Islands.
Reading Time: 10 minutes

Hi and welcome back! As y’all know, I grew up as a very fervent Christian before deconverting around 1994. I deconverted because I found out the religion’s main claims simply aren’t true. That said, for years afterward I kept finding more and more Christian claims that turned out to be equally untrue! Deconversion opened up a whole new capacity to make observations and ask questions that I’d never imagined while I was Christian. And a lot of those observations and questions came up around the topic of Hell. Join me today for a romp through the stuff about Hell I never even thought about till after leaving Christianity!

(James Lee.) The photographer isn’t kidding! — See here for a list of cities named for some variant of Hell. This one’s in the Cayman Islands.

(I decided we’ll need a second part to this post about similar questions about Heaven. Stay tuned for that one on Saturday. Also, it is very important to me to note that most of the following questions have hand-waving answers. I guarantee any Christians reading this post that I’ve heard these false answers since deconverting. I consider them unsatisfactory. Yes, even that one. And that one.)

The Most Sickening, Cruel, and Evil Doctrine in a Religion Full of Contenders for the Title.

A lot of the really disgusting, grotesque, evil, cruel, stomach-churning gruesomeness in Christianity gets glossed over with centuries of iconography, re-framing, and very fine art and architecture. Nonetheless, Christianity remains a very ugly ideology containing largely very ugly foundations.

Some Christians these days seek to de-fang and redeem this dreadful religion. I don’t think it’s possible, but it’s their one lifetime to spend however they wish (an it harm none). And usually, they zero in quickly on Christianity’s most repulsive, sickening, and evil doctrine of all: the idea that a good and loving god who cherishes justice and compassion could ever send anybody to the afterlife commonly known by Christians as “Hell.”

Out of every evil doctrine contained in Christianity, Hell stands supreme as the worst of all of them. The moment I know that a particular Christian believes in Hell as a destination for noncompliant humans, I know quite a bit about that person that they really shouldn’t ever want anyone to know.

Belief in Hell drives humans to do and accept evildoing that chills good people to the bone–and not only to excuse it in their own god, but to revel in the idea of him doing this to their enemies. It also cows good people and terrorizes them into bending knee to this evil ideology and those who promote it.

No wonder early Christian evangelists pushed the idea of Hell so hard. No wonder at all. It allowed them to work all the dark deeds they craved, to brutally control those who might otherwise oppose them, and to gain power they did not otherwise deserve to wield. Oh yes. Hell, as a concept, has been most useful to Christian leaders–most useful indeed.

That’s why they push it hard even today–like John Piper recently did to parents, hoping they’ll impress their young children with the horrors he imagines exist in Hell. (Check out his herpy-derp Jesus smile in the pic at that link. Sick!)

And Yet.

Hell-belief isn’t universal among Christians–even among the most extremist of them. You’d think that evangelicals, having fused completely with fundamentalists by now, would be nearly-unanimous there. However, according to the 2015 Pew Religious Landscape Study, only about 82% of them hold that belief. The demographics involved are interesting, to say the least.

In 2016, LifeWay put out their own (poor-quality) survey about general Americans’ Hell-belief. In it, they discovered that only 40% of survey respondents agreed with their official party line about Hell. I don’t take this survey nearly as seriously as I do Pew’s, but it’s useful to gain an idea of general trends. Chances are good that America is heading in the same direction as Western Europe in terms of beliefs.

It all makes me wonder if maybe people are starting to ask some serious questions about a belief that back in my day seemed as universally accepted as, say, belief in Germ Theory.

Back then, I didn’t even think about some of this stuff. I didn’t even know how to formulate these concerns, much less ask serious questions about them.

First Off, Which Hell?

First and foremost, I had no idea how many visions of Hell there are in religions from humanity’s past and present. I thought only Christianity had a real Hell. As it turns out, however, plenty of religions divide their afterlife into pleasant and unpleasant sections, sending the deserving to the pleasant one after death–and everyone else to the other.

Wikipedia presents us with a list of some of these Hells:

  • Kur: the Sumerian afterlife. Dark, dreary, and unpleasant. A lavish burial and libations from family members could alleviate the unpleasantness.
  • A lake of fire: Egyptians believed that people who misbehaved in life were thrown there. Ammit, a demon goddess called “the devourer of the dead,” ruled it.
  • Tartarus: the Greek religion’s place of torment for immoral people.
  • Anaon: a sort of Hellish place in old Breton folk religion, where the damned do penance.
  • Peklo: an old pagan Slavic Hell where souls atoned for their crimes.
  • Rotaimo: the realm of the dead of Sámi shamanism, ruled over by the god Ruohtta. Anyone who didn’t live according to the religion’s principles ended up there forever.
  • Naraka: in Hinduism, where souls go for expiation of sins.
  • Hetgwauge: in the First Nations’ Haida mythology, bad people go to this dismal, unpleasant place to be tortured. Among other punishments, souls there get to watch the lord of that realm eating their dead body.

I could go on and on and on.

With so many hells to choose from, why would someone fear Christians’ Hell but none of the others? What makes Christianity’s Hell correct, and all these other Hells incorrect?

And I should have wondered this. I read mythology voraciously as a child–my family had books around like Bullfinch’s Mythology and the like. Somehow, though, it never occurred to me to wonder why the Hell that my society overwhelmingly believed was real just happened to be the one worth fearing over all others.

How Does Eternal Torture Work Out to Justice?

Most Christians who buy into the idea of Hell consider it to be an eternal destination full of absolutely nothing but torture.

These same exact Christians also tend to think that when children die young or get born with catastrophic congenital conditions that are completely incompatible with life, all that horrific stuff happens for a reason–even if they don’t know what that reason might be. Some of them punt to mystery. Others default to sin nature (the idea that the supposed wrongdoing of Adam and Eve passed down to their children for all time; we’ll cover this bizarre, crazymaking notion in more detail soon). What Christians don’t tend to do is insist that these children deserved to suffer and have brief, horrific lives of pain. Such an idea is monstrous, even to them.

They also don’t tend to believe that these infants and children who die so young end up in Hell.

There’s a reason why so many Hell-believing Christians issue children a get-out-of-eternal-torture-free card. Hell, as it stands, represents the most obscene injustice imaginable. It lasts forever. Those stuck there can never expect pardons. Its pain is purely punitive, not rehabilitative, so it exists purely as a form of vengeance for what largely exist in Christian mythology as thought crimes (such as disbelief in the mythology itself); going there hinges surprisingly little on how good and decent a person is during life.

Christians want the people who go to such a cruel fate to deserve it somehow–otherwise their god is unjust. And even the TRUEST of TRUE CHRISTIANS™ know that infants did nothing to deserve such a fate.  Even to suggest such a thing around a dead child’s grieving family would likely provoke a reaction that’d end up on the evening news.

Why did I never wonder how an eternity of punishment for a finite lifetime’s offenses works out to divine, ultimate justice?

Tasting Without a Tongue.

Of course, I’m getting ahead of myself bigtime.

Nobody has ever found any objective support for the idea of any afterlife, much less the Christian conceptualization of it. Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) remain subjective and highly-dependent upon their experiencers’ cultural beliefs about the afterlife.

The fact that finally broke me of the notions of Heaven and Hell is simply this: everything we think, feel, sense with our five senses (or six, as some scientists reckon it, adding in proprioception) comes from the physical nature of our bodies. These bodies, specifically.

The pleasure we feel from sex, eating, dancing, sleeping in, partying, cuddling our pets, running ultra-marathons, you name it: it derives from pleasant sensations striking our nerve endings, taste buds, visual cortex, and whatnot. By stimulating our brains or feeding them chemicals of various sorts, we can be made to feel very strong and pleasant emotions. We can do the same to alleviate many unpleasant emotional states.

But our bodies die–and what makes us us no longer occupies them afterward. In many old religions–like that of the ancient Egyptians–eternal life depended absolutely on the preservation of the body, because the soul reunited with it after death. Christians generally believe that they’ll get all-new bodies upon reaching Heaven (though they can’t explain what age, gender, or appearance that body will have without making wild guesses). The problem with that idea is that a lot of what makes us us comes from quirks of DNA and conditioning of the bodies we possess right now. And a lot of what many people like in this life, like sex, is stuff that the Bible tells us won’t happen in the afterlife.

The facts remain: we know of no way for people to sense things without a body. We remain unable to demonstrate any human sensory perceptions that exist independently of our bodies.

Why did I not wonder how I’d feel anything without a body to provide the sensations to me? And why did I not wonder how losing this body I occupy now would radically change who I am as a person?

Why Were the Christians Around Me So Sure About Who Was Going to Hell?

Speaking of a dead child’s grieving family

When powerhouse Christian evangelist Billy Graham died, all kinds of other Christians knew exactly where his soul went afterward. Most felt positive that he’d ascended to Heaven. A few others, seeking notoriety, loudly insisted that he’d landed in Hell.

Ask Christians if a truly evil person is in Heaven or Hell, and usually they insist that this person went to Hell. They do this even if that person experienced a miraculous conversion before death, like Jeffrey Dahmer did. They don’t like imagining themselves sharing Heaven with serial killers, any more than they like imagining a Hell filled with the souls of those who died all too young.

Christians all appear to have very strong opinions about who is and isn’t in Hell. When it’s the fate of someone they love, they’ll generally abstain from judgment or hope for the best. Otherwise, they seem quite certain. Indeed, I saw many of my peers gloating about the idea of people going to Hell. They still do gloat about it, just like they have for many centuries.

Why didn’t I notice just how self-serving Christians’ opinions were when it came to who was heading for Hell? Why didn’t I notice how often their opinions meshed with their own desires and worldview?

Not Without My Mother.

Now we arrive at possibly my biggest sticking point with Hell-belief. This is the one I truly wish had driven me from Christianity, the one I wish had been my dealbreaker. I wish it’d been my line crossed–my stentorian roar, my barked-out this far and no further.

It wasn’t.

But I wish I’d had the integrity, strength, and compassion back then for it to have been so.

Why did I not value my loved ones more than I did? Why was I willing to allow Christians to use my fear to separate me from those I loved most? 

These questions represent a regret that drives me to tears sometimes. Every so often, it makes me bite my knuckles, moan fitfully to myself in near-sleep, shake my head as if doing any of this could ever deny those thoughts access to my mind.

Sometimes, it even works.

I was just a kid, FFS, so I try to be as gentle as I can with myself. Immediately and always and at the end, Mom forgave me. The least I can do is try to forgive myself.

Still, it gets to me sometimes. I know damned well what she would have said if someone had tried telling her to abandon her daughters to Hell and enter Heaven without us. She’d’a told ’em to stick it! But I folded immediately.

Why didn’t I notice anything weird about the way so many Christians utilize terror to sell a god of love?

Seriously, THIS Is the Best This God Could Do?

Part of what I’m talking about today is the Problem of Hell. Christians named it that because they can’t satisfactorily answer it. So they capitalized it and largely declared the whole shebang too mysterious to answer.

Basically, it runs like this:

Given that Hell is monstrous, evil, unjust, and in every way antithetical to the values of love, mercy, justice, and compassion, how in the world can any god who values that stuff allow anyone to go to such a realm?

I can really see why some Christians opt out of the whole mess by renouncing the entire concept. But Jesus clearly believed that Hell was a real place. He also taught that it was somewhere people could end up going–even if they were positive they were going to Heaven.

But the idea of Hell gets even worse than that when we start wondering how an omnimax god could even have designed a cosmology involving Hell. I’m not even a god and I could do a lot better than what Christianity has evolved over the centuries.

It’s beyond painfully obvious to me now that Hell exists in Christianity because its hucksters couldn’t sell the religion without it.

They still can’t.

Hell: The Cage of Feral Rats, Lowered Over Christians’ Heads.

It hurts to think that anything could have terrorized me so much that I would ever forget what is most important. I forgot every single value important to me: objective truth, compassion, kindness, community, integrity, all of it.

No more. Not ever again.

Christians can keep their evil god and their disgustingly perverse doctrine of eternal torture for noncompliance. They can use it to sever ties of their own–to rend mother from child, brother from sister, and lovers from each other. But I know the tactic for what it is now.

Woe betide the next charlatans seeking to induce terror in me, hoping that fear will ensure an easier sale of whatever snake oil they’re selling.

See, thanks to Christianity, I now know exactly what questions to ask about whatever pitch they try. 

NEXT UP: A quirky little 80s cartoon becomes relevant again–somehow. What in the world?!? Join me next time and find out! Then we ask the big questions about Heaven that somehow I never wondered about when I was Christian.

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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,...