I receive a good many emails and private messages from friends who still struggle with the fear of Hell.
The curious thing about this is that most of these people have quit believing in God for all intents and purposes. Most of them have left the religions of their youth (or of their young adult lives), and yet they still fear everlasting torment. But how is that even possible?
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It makes a lot more sense once you realize that religious beliefs are rooted first in the heart, not the head. Faith tenets enjoy their privileged position in the mind, not because they earned their spot through rigorous logical demonstration, but because they got a free pass at some point thanks to a combination of good timing and familial and/or romantic entanglements.
The notion of Hell, for example, is absurd on a number of levels. But its absurdity is quickly eclipsed by the blinding light of irrational fear. And once you’ve effectively made someone feel the way you want them to feel about a thing, changing the way they think about it becomes a cake walk. You get to bypass their critical thinking and attach an idea directly to the limbic system.
This is why, even after leaving a religion, the fears it produced can linger for a decade or more. Emotional associations are more powerful than well-reasoned lines of argument. That’s why the most successful religions lean so heavily upon appeals to emotion and to people’s senses of tribal loyalty (“It would break your mother’s heart”).
Thus it behooves us once in a while to review the reasons why anyone who’s thinking soberly should reject the notion of posthumous torment. And incidentally, I deal with those who reject the “Lake of Fire” version in favor of the “Outer Darkness” one here.
Seven Reasons Why Hell Doesn’t Make Sense
1.) For me, it started with realizing there are no good reasons to believe people come back from the dead at all.
Losing a belief in Hell was an unavoidable consequence of losing my belief in supernatural things in general, including life after death. I won’t go into all the reasons why here because I don’t want to focus on that today. Many people who reject the idea of Hell will still hold very firmly to their belief in other supernatural concepts, and while I can’t go along with those myself, I still call that major progress. They were likely persuaded by the many other reasons for disbelieving in eternal torment. I’ll list a few of them here, and I’d love to hear from you if you have any more to add to the list.
2.) Logistically speaking, the doctrine of Hell makes a category error by alternately claiming it’s physical and then not physical.
It’s like it can’t make up its mind.* Do you suffer physically in Hell? That would require a body, and bodies wear out and disintegrate. I suppose you could claim that after being miraculously reconstituted (bodies decompose), it’s no big deal for God to miraculously keep replenishing your physical existence so that the damage inflicted upon you in this torturous state can continue indefinitely.
But that puts God in a position so actively involved in your suffering that he becomes a monster, and they can’t have that (unless they’re Calvinists, then they’re fine with it). So they try to remove him from the process, but bodies can’t just come back from the dead—nor can they live forever—without some kind of divine intervention. So you have to choose which it is. Either God is directly responsible for the torture of Hell’s victims, or else this cannot be a physical state at all, despite the way the doctrine is usually presented.
Related: “Absolving God From Hell“
Many just go the other way and say it’s not physical, and there’s no resurrection. You just die and your soul immediately goes to Heaven or Hell, without a body. But this presents all kinds of other problems. For one thing, it contradicts the very book which brought us the concept of Hell in the first place. Both Paul and the book of Revelation speak of the dead being physically raised in order to be judged. It’s super sketchy to get an idea from a book and then completely change key elements of the idea just because aspects of it are objectionable, especially if you then turn around and claim you’re following the book. You’re clearly making this up as you go, and you could show a little more self-awareness about what you’re doing.
The feelings we feel are inextricably tied to our bodies. You can change the way you feel by tinkering with the chemistry in your brain. If you doubt that, you would benefit from even a cursory look into how things like depression, schizophrenia, and bi-polar disorder work. Without bodies to generate the feelings we feel, the notions of torture and anguish make no sense at all. And like I said, bodies wouldn’t just go on forever without some kind of constant divine intervention. So we’re back to seeing Hell as a direct work of God’s “hand.” Which leads me to the next reason you should disbelieve it:
3.) Punishment that has no redemptive or rehabilitative purpose is useless and morally deplorable.
As a teacher and a parent, I know how to recognize punishment that teaches a lesson. I also know how to recognize blind rage and unproductive wrath. I can tell the difference. The former is redemptive in that it leaves its recipient in a better state afterwards because it is corrective. The latter serves no purpose other than to make the angry authority figure feel better.
Which category do you think Hell would fall under? Do the people who go there get a chance to learn from their punishment? What kind of person punishes people for things they’re no longer in a position to change? It makes no sense to wait to punish people only the second after they can no longer change their destiny.
4.) It also makes no sense to withhold any clear evidence of the existence of this punishment until the moment it becomes your inescapable destiny.
I am so tired of hearing “If you were running toward a cliff, wouldn’t you want to be warned?” The reason that’s such a bad analogy is that cliffs are real things. You can go look at a cliff if you want to see one. The person doing the warning has clearly seen the cliff and knows for certain that it’s there. That’s not at all the way warning people about Hell works.
We are discussing an invisible, unprovable plane of existence which has no empirical evidence at all, and yet you’re talking about it as if you have seen it for yourself. But you haven’t. No one has. So stop talking about it as if you know it’s as real as a cliff. And please consider how little sense it makes that people would be punished by something for which there is no clear evidence up until the moment it is too late.
Related: “Is It Loving to Warn People About Hell?“
5.) The punishment doesn’t fit the crime.
In fact, for most, there is no crime at all. Criminal behavior includes things like murder, rape, genocide, grand theft, and an otherwise violent disregard for human life or property. Most people don’t engage in criminal behavior, and when we catch the ones who do we still don’t torture them. What kind of sick solution is that?
Even the most atrocious of crimes results in a death penalty, but that is over within minutes. Anything beyond that we call “cruel and unusual punishment” and we won’t go there because it’s “inhumane.” What an interesting word. Evidently the word “humane” means something more compassionate than the word “divine” would indicate. Humans would only punish someone for a short time in order to spare him constant agony. Evidently God is not as good as people are.
6.) The duration of punishment renders the crucifixion nonsensical because, if it takes forever to pay off the sins of one lifetime, you can’t pay off the sins of a billion lifetimes by suffering for twelve hours on a Friday.
That makes no sense at all. And yes, I know there are many who reject the very notion of penal substitutionary atonement, but those people already have no qualms with cherry-picking which parts of the Bible to accept and which ones to reject, so they’re likely to disbelieve in Hell anyway.
Some continue believing in Hell but reject the idea that it’s a punishment; but again, you have to come to grips with the reality that you are disagreeing with the very source of the doctrine you say you hold. It makes no sense to say that Hell is real when you got that idea from a book you so clearly don’t trust. It unambiguously speaks of Hell as a punishment for sins, so own it. If you’re going to redesign the doctrines of the Bible to suit your own preferences, you at least need to stop defending the legitimacy of the book itself.
Related: “Hell 2.0: Same Eternal Punishment, Now With Fewer Flames!“
7.) Jesus may not have believed in Hell himself.
I saved this one for last because it matters the least to me personally. I’m not convinced that we can even determine what the real Jesus said or did, and many aren’t convinced there ever was a real Jesus in the first place. I happen to think he was a real person, but that we’ve virtually lost him to so many layers of embellishment and competing oral traditions that it’s nearly impossible to figure out what the guy really said.
But some care immensely what Jesus believed, and a growing number of those people are beginning to argue that we’ve misinterpreted what he said about Hell. Some say he was only speaking metaphorically about the here-and-now consequences of an unhealthy life. I’m not personally convinced Jesus is a good example of what “a healthy life” looks like, but I’ve dealt with that elsewhere.
Personally, I would rather not see your rejection of Hell rooted in a need to continue basing everything you believe on what this guy said because I don’t revere him the way you do. But that may not be something I can change. So instead, let me just point you in the direction of the pastors and writers who have worked through their own understanding of the teachings of Jesus and found that they no longer believe he really said what people think he said about the matter.
If you want to go on that trip I’d recommend books like Love Wins by Rob Bell or The Last Word and the Word After That by Brian McLaren. It’s no coincidence that both of those men have left the traditional pastorate, nor is it a coincidence that they’ve been branded as heretics by the guardians of Christian orthodoxy. But I also can read the signs of the times well enough to know that Christianity is in the midst of another reinvention. Many like these two are leaving the doctrine of Hell behind, and it will be interesting to see what becomes of that. I find it difficult to imagine a widely successful Christianity that doesn’t feature a belief in Hell, but I guess we’ll see. For the time being, I think there are far too many reasons to keep beating this dead horse. It’s time to bury it and move on.
Postscript: Why Pascal’s Wager Sucks
A Muslim friend threatened me with Hell one day by arguing that if there’s even an outside possibility that I am wrong about the prophet Muhammad, I should choose to honor him just in case I am wrong, because the downside to being wrong about him far outweighs the benefits of my being right.
Sound familiar? Well, later that same week I had a close family member use the exact same line on me about Jesus. You see the problem here, and I think I laughed out loud at the time (which really upset him). At least two religions claim mutually exclusive rights to my soul, and each one threatens me with eternal damnation if I don’t choose the right one.
I’m literally damned if I do, and damned if I don’t. Pascal’s wager makes an offer that’s useless because it fails to establish which damnation I’m supposed to fear. I just don’t see its appeal anymore. Besides, you can’t be afraid of something you already don’t think is real.
All you have to do is get out a little—venture beyond the confines of your own provincial world—and sample the equally dogmatic beliefs of other religions. This may truly do you some good. Broaden your horizons a little bit. The more you listen to what people in other parts of the world believe (and at other times in history), the more you will learn to see what you were taught to believe in more realistic perspective.
And no, I don’t mean reading only Christian books about what’s wrong with everyone else’s religions. I mean asking those people to tell you about their own beliefs in their own words. If you do that, you will likely find that your faith’s Hell is just as unbelievable to those outside your tradition as theirs is to you.
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* Whenever I note the Christian afterlife is vaguely physical and non-physical at the same time, I’m told these are just mysteries and I need to get over it and try not to think so hard about it. If I may use another teacher illustration: I often catch my students trying to cheat and when I ask them for their stories about what happened, they contradict each other. Imagine if they responded with: “It’s a mystery, Coach. Try not to think too hard about it.”
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