the black hole always freaked me out
Reading Time: 8 minutes Obviously, the outer plane that receives the souls of deceased Chaotic Neutral/Evil players after death. Also clearly the inspiration for that weird scene at the end of The Black Hole. (Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, CC.)
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Hi and welcome back! Last week, we dove right into Hell. That post pointed out how many different religions have featured Hell-like afterlives in their belief system. Today, we’ll dive back into Hell to ask why the idea of Hell fails so hard as a Christian threat.

the black hole always freaked me out
Obviously, the outer plane that receives the souls of deceased Chaotic Neutral/Evil players after death. Also clearly the inspiration for that weird scene at the end of The Black Hole. (Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, CC.)

The Many Nested Assumptions in the Threat of Hell.

First of all, Hell fails as a threat because nothing exists to back up this threat.

When I say nothing, I mean nothing. This threat incorporates a great many nested assumptions. However, not one of those assumptions contains a shred of supporting evidence.

Here are just some of the claims that must be supported before we can even start to consider Hell as a valid threat:

  • After we die, some part of us remains sentient and cognizant — forever.
  • Some kind of afterlife exists, and humans can meaningfully experience it — forever.
  • One specific afterlife exists for all humans.
  • One specific group of people belonging to one specific, surprisingly-recently-invented (archaeologically-speaking) religion knows exactly what that afterlife looks like.
  • All other afterlife descriptions are incorrect.
  • As for the afterlife itself, it consists of a really nice neighborhood and a really nasty one.
  • That one specific religious group of people knows exactly what each neighborhood will look like and how it operates.
  • In addition, they also exactly what people will be going to each neighborhood.
  • For that matter, they also know exactly what all people must do in this current lifetime to allow them (or doom them) to go to each one.
  • We must obey the rules of that specific group during this lifetime. If we don’t, then we will face eternal punishment for disobedience. So the beliefs cultivated and deeds committed in short, finite human lifetimes merit a potentially eternal torture session.
  • Simply believing in the existence of any other description of the afterlife, much less specifically denying the existence of that one specific description offered by that one specific group, may be grounds for experiencing the nasty neighborhood of the afterlife.
  • (Only some of the people belonging to that one specific religious group thinks the above claim is true.)
  • One specific being presides over all of the afterlife — and everything else. This being, called a god, delegates his nasty neighborhood to his worst enemy — along with entrusting his enemy to trick humans into doing stuff in their lifetimes that will doom them to that neighborhood.
  • (But again, #notallspecificpeople. Some of the people in that specific religious group have a much more cruel and unjust belief, often called Calvinism, about who is doomed to the nasty neighborhood.)
  • The god who created this entire cosmology is a completely good god. In fact, he’s so good that human definitions for good don’t even apply to him. That’s how good he is: his good behavior looks exactly like what we’d call pure evil if humans acted likewise.

And again, not one of these claims has ever been tested and found to be supported by credible, objective evidence. Before I buy in on Hell as a threat, I’d need to see support on all of these claims.

However, Christians have never even found support for that first claim.

(Feel free to add MORE claims that Christians make when they threaten people with Hell!)

Another Problem: Christians Have Never Agreed About Hell.

As I hinted at in the above nested list, very, very few beliefs in Christianity could be considered universal. I’ve only found two claims that might qualify:

  • There is probably some kind of a god.
  • In some way, Jesus is important.

Yes, these are literally the only two assertions I’ve ever seen that every single Christian holds. I know Christians like to gatekeep by setting out defined lists of required beliefs, but those are it! As with the above list as well, however, neither assertion can be supported through evidence. They simply represent two basic claims in a religion awash in them.

Aside from these, the earliest Christians failed to agree on any common doctrines. They couldn’t even agree on exactly who and what Jesus was. Their squabbling grew so bad that it took a secular ruler, Constantine, to force them to come to some sort of agreement. Even afterward, the new religion faced constant schisms and heresies. They still haven’t been able to get all of their followers to agree about anything.

Just under 2000 years of Christianity being a thing, and Hell remains one of their most-argued-about doctrinal beliefs. 

So: Which Flavor of Hell Shall We Fear?

The chances of any one specific flavor of Christianity hitting upon exactly the correct beliefs grows smaller with every passing year — and every blossoming new flavor. For all we know, the one correct flavor of Christianity came and went within the first five years of the religion’s invention, and nobody even knows what it was.

Nowadays, a substantial minority of Christians don’t even believe in Hell as an afterlife destination. I’ve heard countless variations on this belief.

  • Make it eternal, but people don’t go there anymore — if they ever did.
  • It’s not eternal, just a sort of purifying workplace to prepare people for Heaven.
  • Or it has sub-neighborhoods (ex: Purgatory) that do that.
  • Absolutely, it is both eternal and a destination to fear. FLY OR FRY, SUCKERS.
  • Good people won’t go there.
  • Good people absolutely can and do go there — if they believe the wrong twaddle. Only correct beliefs save anyone. Plus mouthing the correct psychic apology to Jesus. And maybe taking a quick dunk in water to symbolize rebirth.

And it goes on and on and on. It’s downright dizzying.

Are we supposed to buy in with whoever just comes up with the very worst and most gruesome threats about Hell? Because that seems to be toxic Christians‘ thinking. They keep trying to outdo each other on that count.

If they can’t even agree on the form Hell takes, I’m not going to worry about the people in one specific flavor threatening me with any specific forms of it.

Authoritarians Gonna Authoritarian.

There was a time a few years ago when I kept encountering toxic Christian men who threatened me with some truly unsettling scenarios about demonic rape in Hell.

Yes, a truly unsettling number of men were very certain that I would one day face this exact fate. Many even knew exactly what sex acts I’d be enduring — and exactly what the demons’ genitalia would look like. (Their demons always sported impressively-long penises with biologically-questionable features. The men also tended to assert the same sorts of sex acts. Interesting, no?)

Thankfully, that trend seems to have dwindled away. Or maybe I just don’t tangle with fundagelical men quite as often as I once did.

Either way, their threats always backfired — because I know about authoritarians’ need to manufacture and reach for utterly-disproportionate threats. When authoritarians can’t get their way through force and can’t craft genuinely-persuasive arguments, they reach for those sorts of threats.

It doesn’t matter if the threat is real or not. Heck, it’s almost better if it isn’t real at all. Then, they can really go wild with their imaginations. 

Hell as a Ridiculously Disproportionate Threat.

Watch out for any ridiculously-disproportionate threats. They’re a good sign of a frantic authoritarian trying to find something, anything, they can use to strong-arm marks into compliance. And very little qualifies on this count quite like Hell does.

In real life, we try to make the length of a punishment fit the severity of the crime. What does an eternity suffering in Hell fit? Could it even fit murder? Genocide? Who could possibly deserve something so monstrous? Even the biggest names in evildoing don’t seem to qualify for an eternity of pain. But the Christians using Hell as a threat go to great pains to assure us that even minor thought crimes completely qualify someone for this fate.

In real life, we try to make punishment rehabilitative. It’s not so much punishment as it is corralling bad people away so they can’t harm good people anymore. What about an eternity of pure suffering suggests rehabilitation? Or even keeping good people safe from bad people? There are no parole hearings in Hell, evangelical pastors assure us!

In real life, we recognize end conditions for punishments. We try to prepare prisoners for their release into society, and try to use incarceration as a time to teach these prisoners better and more constructive life skills. All but the very worst prisoners get this treatment. But most Hell-believing Christians don’t go in for any end to Hell at all. It is endless pain and torture.

In real life, we recognize the human rights of criminals under society’s care. We recognize that even the worst criminals are citizens with rights. Thus, they merit a certain standard of treatment. We recognize that torture is unjust and cruel, and we refuse to administer it to criminals because we want to be the kind of people who don’t do that. But again, the Christian god is so incredibly good, we are told, that human standards of goodness cannot possibly encompass him.

In short, Hell is so ridiculously over-the-top that it’s very obviously simply a manipulation tactic. It’s completely and utterly incompatible with any sense of justice, let alone love. (That’s why Christians have never satisfactorily solved the Problem of Hell. They accidentally created a doctrine completely contradictory to their overall claims about their own god, so they’ve had to craft ways to hand-wave away those contradictions.)

Hell as a Threat Designed to Terrify.

When I look at all the facts around Hell — how it’s used, what Christians’ threats about it often involve, how its aspects have evolved over time, one fact above all becomes clear:

Christians designed Hell from the ground up as part of a campaign of terror. They used it to construct threats that would absolutely terrify people. Then, they used the terror they’d stoked to coerce victims into complying with their various demands.

And they designed this threat because they know that lovey-dovey come-ones don’t work. Given how short a time it took Christians to start using threats of Hell as a recruitment tactic, it seems clear that they realized early on that a god of love and prince of peace just didn’t appeal to free consumers in the religious marketplace.

Today’s Christians are probably a lot like those earliest ones, at least in terms of how they engage with a culture that is free to accept or reject them. (Which is the way they’d least like to be like those earliest Christians, I’m sure!) They’ve had to sell their product (active membership in their groups) on its own merits, though many still bristle at this requirement. Since they don’t really know how to sell anything, they lean hard on whatever they think works. And threats work on them, so they think threats will work on everyone else.

In short, friends, there is simply no aspect of Hell that functions as a valid threat. Its utter lack of valid supporting evidence, Christians’ own inability to agree on anything about it, and its sheer cruelty and wanton evil make its status as a made-up threat painfully obvious.

These facts may not sway those suffering from a terror of Hell. I know we can’t reason ourselves out of an irrational fear. But hopefully, it gives those folks a little food for thought.

NEXT UP: The evolution of Hell as a threat. 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,...