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Excellent dialogue earlier, folks, by the way, I want to say again. I mean this: you are the best comment gang on the internet. I appreciate you all so much. Wonderful, wonderful job keeping things civil and productive.

I had an interesting exchange today with a rather belligerent young Christian who threatened non-Christians with hell as a “joke.” I know–really cute and funny, right? Almost as side-splittingly hilarious and privilege-enforcing as a rape joke. Wondering how that happened? Discussing a friend who’d deconverted, she came out with this (and I’m paraphrasing, but the AOL-speak was there): “Well, u better hope u r right lol.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this kind of statement. This week. On another forum, I ran across a guy who insisted that creationism was true (which he needed it to be for his version of Christianity to work), and when challenged, finally retreated behind something similar: “Well, you’d better hope you’re right.” Another person–a Christian no less–has seen this exact sentiment on a bumper sticker. And here’s an entire web search for this saying with 2.8 million hits, so you can get an earful of Christians threatening dissenters with vague violence on behalf of their magic invisible friend who mysteriously can’t issue these threats himself. What I’m getting at here is that it’s really common to shoot that over a non-believer’s bow like it’s some kind of slam dunk.

Blaise Pascal first explained his wager in Pen...
Blaise Pascal first explained his wager in Pensées (1669) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This saying is a version of Pascal’s Wager. A long time ago, a Christian apologist, Pascal, made up this wager that tried to figure out if it was a winning proposition to bet one’s soul on Christianity. He decided it was a much better bet to accept rather than to refuse Christianity’s offer. But awesome refutations of this failed sucker bet exist online and can be easily found and accessed. There are so many limitations to the wager that it’s always such a shock to me to see someone even trying to use it or variations of it. It really only works on people who are either so gullible they can’t immediately tell where it steers wrong, or on people who are prone to an abuse or abuse-victim mindset.

Which would be, I guess, toxic Christians.

I can only assume that the reason the Wager–and the threats it engenders–is so enduringly popular with Christians is that it plays upon some basic human biases: First, it plays upon fear. Humans fear the unknown. Of course we do. We tend to put a lot of stock in threats that involve the unseen world because we don’t know enough to be able to say for definitively sure that the threat is invalid. Nobody knows what’s going to happen either way, but that doesn’t mean that the person who feels the most certain of his or her favorite explanation wins. Being certain of something isn’t the same thing as being right about something. But I’ve met way too many Christians who are absolutely convinced that this is the case. Certainty drives out fear in a lot of ways even when it shouldn’t. Christians manipulate that fear in others constantly. I will just mention here that if I could name one emotion that marked my time in Christianity, it’d be fear. Oh, we talked a big game about freedom from fear, but I truly don’t recall a single person toward the end there who wasn’t absolutely terrified of getting “left behind” or not making the grade. Christians have even less reason to be free of fear than non-believers do. I don’t think it’s very loving to deceive people or to manipulate them with fear, do you?

Second, the Wager and its threats play upon our desire to feel superior to others. The Christian who issues this threat is safe upon his or her vantage point, but thinks s/he knows something that would cause the target of the threat to come to harm. The target of the threat refuses to do what the Christian wants when the Christian tries the normal lovey-dovey Boyfriend!Jesus stuff, so the threat comes out as a last resort. It’s a pretty safe threat to make; the Christian cannot prove the threat’s validity any more than the target could prove its invalidity, and nobody’s going to know what’s going to happen until the moment of death. So the Christian making this threat can be assured of the satisfaction of looking like he or she is “in the know” while the target of the threat is going to face harm because of the target’s refusal to agree. Are you feeling the love?

And third, threats play into Christians’ desire to see dissenters get punished. The world is just and fair, the thinking goes, and surely at the end of the story, the Christian will get his or her reward for all that self-denial, service, sacrifice, and oppression–and the non-Christian will get his or her comeuppance, just like in the fable of the grasshopper and the ant. It’s positively sickening to see just how detailed these revenge fantasies get. I saw one of these True Christians™ just today on Facebook who actually insisted that Satan used spit for “lube” before anally raping sinners forever. The threat is just a tickling reminder that oh yes, we’ll get ours. We’ll get punished. We’ll get it. And the Christian will be there to shake a finger at us to remind us that s/he tried to warn us. But it’ll be too late then. Very loving, isn’t it?

Those are some really powerful biases. But none of them are very loving, are they? Don’t Christians want people to convert out of love? Wouldn’t they–and their god–notice if someone converted out of terror of Hell? Doesn’t the Christian god consider love the primary virtue of all? So why do fear, violence, vengeance, and smugness figure so prominently in with Christians’ interactions with non-Christians? Surely this constant looming threat they are so quick to lob just further distances people from their cause–surely it does nothing but dismantle the myth of the “easy yoke” and “god of love.” Surely it makes us realize anew that the religion can’t be that valid if it relies upon vague threats of revenge like these believers throw all the time.

I really wish Christians would understand that not only are these threats ridiculous-sounding, but that they never do anything but backfire.

Aside from the theological implications of using threats to make people convert under fear, here’s why this kind of threat is the last thing that a Christian should ever want to say to a deconvert (or anybody who rejects their message, really, and yes, some of these overlap):

* It’s a thinly-veiled threat of violence, and threats of violence aren’t the mark of a good or loving person.

* It’s a brutal manipulation of people’s very human fear of the unknown, all done while the Christian him/herself really has no idea either.

* It’s second-hand bullying. If Jesus wants to threaten me, he can do it himself, or else he’s a douche.

* It’s smug.

* It’s hateful.

* It’s based on non-credible, unproven assertions around the afterlife.

* It’s meant to enforce a notion of privilege–the Christian is in the in-group, the dominant group, and anybody not in that group is in actual, real, physical danger. And that dissenter is in danger specifically because s/he refused to bend knee to the Christian’s message of hope, peace, and love.

* It’s not actually a valid argument or a reason to believe, unless you count “out of terror for one’s safety” as a valid reason to consider Christianity.

* It opens up a huge can of worms that invites the target to wonder about all the limitations of the wager–and from there, to wonder what else the Christian is totally wrong about that s/he must use threats to strong-arm others into agreeing with him or her.

* It’s a clear indication of the Christian’s belief that his or her loving, gracious, wooing boyfriend Jesus is actually going to subject the target of the statement to unending torture, physical harm, and violence forever and ever and ever. (And, moreover, it’s a tacit approval of this god’s plan, even a condoning of that violence.)

Why is this threat so common? Why is it the last-ditch salvo fired at ex-Christians when all else has failed? What makes a Christian think that threatening people is an acceptable way to end a discussion that has failed to win a soul?

I mean, let’s get down to brass tacks here. What kind of person actually converts out of fear? Surely it’s a person that understands domestic violence, because that’s the mindset of a battered spouse. Better hope Jesus is okay with what you’re doing, is the implication I get out of this threat, because if he isn’t, oh boy are you in trouble. Are we still really talking about the same loving, gracious god here? Because he sounds like a bully and a tyrant to me, not someone worth loving and worshiping.

I’m trying to remember if there’s a Bible verse about Jesus telling people, “Love your god with all your might, and your neighbor as yourself. And if your neighbor refuses my loving message, issue vaguely-worded weaselly threats on my behalf, because dude, I totally love seeing you try to terrorize people from a position of shared ignorance.” How can anybody love that which terrorizes people and threatens them?

This threat is abusive, cruel, and manipulative, and only serves to highlight the limitations of the Christian’s argument and the hypocrisy of the Christian issuing it.

Oh, by the way, if you’re the type of Christian who, like the bubblegum Christian I referenced at the beginning of this piece, thinks it’s okay to add “lol” to these threats like that somehow makes it not so much of a threat of violent, eternal torture you’ve just made on behalf of your god, then just know that you’re a big part of why your religion is faltering and fading. It’s not cute or funny to threaten people like that; it’s not a joke to non-believers that you threatened us, and it’s definitely not showing us anything about your religion we’d consider even vaguely worth a thinking, loving human being’s membership. That you just mean your threat to be “just a joke, gahwww!” (to paraphrase the bubblegum Christian’s response when informed that her cutesy-poo widdle “joke” wasn’t funny at all) doesn’t make anything better because your intent is not a magic shield, and you don’t get to tell others how to react to your boorish “jokes.” It’s like a bully saying, “I’m totally going to kick your butt after school… except I’m just kidding. Maybe.” Yeah, nobody’s fooled into thinking that was just an innocent little haha joke.

And that’s kind of the problem with using this threat. It’s used as a socially-acceptable way to punish and harm non-believers, and non-believers aren’t allowed to take exception to being threatened even in jest. Forget that. People who use this “joke” want to threaten people and evade responsibility for doing so, and the buck stops here. Look, we non-believers already know the threat isn’t something to take seriously because there’s no evidence that we should be afraid, but the problem is that you think it is a real and legitimate threat to make–and yet some of you laugh about it and treat it like some big cosmic lark, like you’re going to be drinking mojitos and partying down on the Jesus-bus while watching dissenters get fried by flames and tortured and raped by demons while you shriek “YAY JESUS! PARTY ON, DUDE!” and flash your tits and junk for (rosary) beads. At least pretend you take it seriously and care about people being tortured and harmed forever and ever because of your loving god. At least pretend you give a shit about those who are “lost.” I won’t even ask for love. Just compassion would be nice.

When I was a Christian, I did not threaten people with Hell, and I most certainly would never have used such a threat as a “lol” type of joke. I was broken up about the people I thought were going to Hell. It destroyed my sanity to know, every day, every minute, that people I loved, people I cared about, even people I didn’t even know but who seemed nice, were going to be tortured forever for just making the wrong choice out of the tens of thousands of gods out there. I prayed constantly that my god would change their minds. I didn’t take it lightly. The doctrine of Hell is a pernicious and downright evil one, and that terror worked on me in spades as it does on many deconverts before they realize it’s all bollocks. It wasn’t cute or funny to think about someone roasting alive. I guess I really wasn’t a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ because I took Hell so seriously and wouldn’t have dreamed of using threats to proselytize. If being flippant and insouciant about Hell is part of being Christian, then it’s no surprise I deconverted. But somehow I doubt most sane Christians are doing anything but cringing right about now at what I’m describing.

I wish I could communicate how inhumanly brutal and barbaric that mindset, the one that condones and encourages threatening non-believers and being flippant about the lost burning in Hell, looks to me.

I am glad to be out of a religion that condones threats to dissenters. I’m glad to have rejected a mindset that has so many adherents who secretly thrill to the idea of non-believers “getting theirs.” And I truly hope that as time goes on, this kind of hateful, threatening mindset dies the death it deserved decades ago.

Really, I’m sure people who think like this are just sorry it’s not the Middle Ages and they could just Inquisit people and put dissenters to death. Must have been a lot easier. Now they’re down to just making passive-aggressive stabs at those who don’t agree with them. It’s got to be hard to be a control-freak fundie nowadays, don’t you reckon? It was a lot easier when they were more dominant, but now that the world’s waking up and they’re losing a bit of their privilege, they’re starting to lash out. This is just one of the ways they’re lashing out.

That means we’re almost out the door, fellow domestic-violence victims. We’re almost free.


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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,...