An Ex-Christian's perspective on Christianity and the many questions that have emerged as a result of de-converting.
Leaving the Fold
Friday, 18 April 2014
The Problem of Hell
The Problem of Hell
Among the many writings by Christian’s used in evangelism, is the audio book 'Kingdom of Affabel' by John Bevere. The main characters in it are a group of friends named after certain attributes that sounds a bit corny, such as a guy named Independence and a woman named Charity. At the story’s climax this group of 5 friends are whisked to a kingdom that alludes to heaven where they are judged by the king, King Julian, as either worthy of entering the kingdom or being banished. Of these 5 friends only 2 make it into heaven the rest go to a realm of banishment that is obviously meant to allude to Hell. One is unfairly banished due to the actions of another character but that was not the only issue I noticed with the story. One striking moment in this audio drama is when the girl named Charity asks the character who is an allusion to the Holy Spirit, a wise old sage named Sageous, if her friends made it into heaven as she has not seen them nor learned of their fate yet. When Charity asks about the ones who did not make it Sageous deliberately avoids answering the question and it is little wonder why. Had he answered it honestly instead of brushing the inquiry to the side, the entire mood of the audio book would have been changed dramatically especially if Charity had become distressed or broken down (which would have been more realistic) at the news her friends were condemned and the entire purpose of the audio book, to convert people, would have been ruined. That’s because there are problems with Hell that, although Christian’s may not admit it, they are uncomfortably aware of. Hell, whether it was originally part of Christian belief or not, has unfortunately become a cornerstone for Christianity as it provides a need for salvation in order to avoid it. Without Hell, as far as Christian’s are concerned there is nothing that we need to be saved from.
As the step-son of a pastor I was brought up constantly being reminded of the dangers of Hell and developed an enormous fear that simple acts of disobedience would cause the same God who apparently claimed to love me to turn on me in an instant and condemn me to an eternity of suffering in a fiery pit. Now I find the idea of teaching a child that, to be totally abhorrent. Not only that, what of children born to non-Christian parents, say someone in India who is more likely to be Hindu, or someone born in the Middle-East who is more likely to be Muslim. They will grow up believing their religion is the correct one because that is what they are taught to believe. So does that mean they will go to Hell because they were born into a society that isn't Christian, whose values they have come to reflect? There are non-Christians who follow what Paul calls the 'fruits of the spirit' (see previous), do they go to Hell while someone who only converts on their deathbed after adhering to none of these fruits goes to heaven? How is that just?
Hell never appears in the Hebrew Bible and nor do the Jews believe in it. It first appears in the King James Version of the Old Testament wherein it has been used in place of the words netherworld, the place of the dead, or Sheol meaning the grave. Neither word is used to refer to the fiery pit of torment that is the Hell of the New Testament. Despite this, some Christians say the Jewish idea of netherworld or oblivion where your soul ceases to exist is the same thing despite neither the New Testament nor Jews agreeing with this. At worst in Judaism the most sinful of souls were destroyed in a fire often compared to the one that burned outside Jerusalem, this was quite far from an eternal punishment and the condemned simply ceased to exist. There is much conflicting opinion among Christians as to whether or not Jews believe in hell with some Christian’s responses implying, though rarely said directly, that the Jews have been reading their sacred texts incorrectly for the last millennia or two. This is countered by some who suggest that God has blinded the Jews from seeing the truth. If he wants them to believe in Christ, why would he do that? It makes no sense that he would not only decide that the Jews were not his chosen people anymore as Paul implies but that he would deliberately blind them so that they would not realize this, and according to doctrine, would not be saved because they did not believe in Christ. Perhaps in Galatians when Paul mentions that all have heard of Christ and therefore have no excuse in not believing in him, he is referring to a specific group of people namely the Israelites and not everyone worldwide as is frequently presumed. The place that became Hell, probably originated from the temporary punishment reserved for the unrepentant in Judaism or in the case of the worst offenders, the destruction of their souls.
The very idea that all non-believers including friends and kin (in many instances) of believers have an eternity of torture in a fiery pit waiting them does not make God sound benevolent. I would not wish eternal damnation in hell on my worst enemy regardless of what they had done. Nor do I think eternal torture is befitting for a finite crime. God, in theory at least, has all creation, everything, under his complete control including the so-called ‘curse’ of sin. If he is powerless to act against the curse, then he is not omnipotent. Surely, there were many other ways to deal with this ‘curse’ if that is what it is. Hell instills such fear in people, that there are undoubtedly many who call themselves Christian not because they follow Christ out of loyalty but out of fear of what awaits them if they are not subservient to God. It has been proven throughout history that fear is an extremely powerful and highly insidious means of controlling people, not befitting of a benevolent God. This fear also conflicts with the doctrine of ‘free will'. If such a thing existed a person’s eternal fate would not hinge upon whether or not they chose to worship God and acknowledge Jesus as their lord and savior (as most pastors would put it).
A question posed for Christians to consider is this: If God allowed you to swap your place in heaven with a loved one’s place in hell, would you do it? Thereby forfeiting your salvation and ensuring theirs. Responses to this question elsewhere have been varied and at times distasteful. The distasteful answers made me glad I was not a member of the answerer’s family. Based on previous responses to this I am quite sure that Christians are not comfortable with the idea of hell. Whether mild and sub-conscious or not, it still commands fear or discomfort in all that believe in it. Nobody likes the idea and it would be a worry if they did. Another question which seems to get quite varied responses from Christians is: does God still love the people that he sends to hell? Unfortunately many times the answer I have received has been no because God only loves those who have chosen to love him and his son. This does not support the idea that God’s love is unconditional because only loving someone if they love you in return is by no means unconditional love. Also, of the people I have heard of (or met) who do not get along with their children through little fault of their own. Very few (I would hope not any), have desired to see their child severely punished or tortured for not loving them. To many parents, and hopefully most if not all, severely punishing their estranged child through torture, would be the last thing on their mind.
Early Catholicism believed, and some denominations still do, that infants that were not baptised and died go to hell. This makes God sound like a tyrant who makes it a crime to simply be born. Some Christians continue to believe this, but they do not make it well-known as the idea is considered barbaric even among believers. For parents who believed this, it caused considerable grief especially for those who had to endure the loss of a child due to a miscarriage or the child being stillborn. Now a common belief is they go to heaven, this would make these infants far luckier than anyone else as they never have to know the fear of hell nor the ‘curse’ of sin. This also makes the stance many Christian’s have against abortion a little odd since the soul is saved from any risk of being damned, I will not expand on this further due to the immense controversy surrounding the issue and not entirely relevant for a blog on the topic of Hell.
I often wonder how much pressure Christians who spread God’s word realize they are being put under. If they do or say the wrong thing to someone who turns them off becoming a believer, even if it were by accident, they are potentially jeopardizing that person’s soul. For a pastor, or any evangelist, that is an enormous responsibility. The very idea that by doing the wrong thing you could have some responsibility for someone choosing not to follow Christ and then ending up in hell was not a pleasant one. I could never be an evangelist if I thought I might bear some responsibility in someone ending up in hell. This was one of the reasons why I was never eager on evangelising. The idea of accidentally doing this was terrifying and is one aspect of Christianity that ex-Christians, particularly those who were all too aware of this problem, did not miss. That and I am more of the belief that evangelism should be limited to those who express an interest in Christianity and certainly should not including anything hell related. Sure, some say that God will guide you and you will not make a mistake, but that does not explain why some pastors have made slips when preaching which I have seen cause offense more than once.
What is the point of eternal punishment? An eternity of burning in a fiery lake sounds like some twisted idea of torture. One of the primary reasons for punishing someone is to dissuade anyone else from doing what they did. Certainly laws often operate in such a manner. If those in hell are separated from others, then there seems no point in punishing them merely to act as dissuasion. Punishments are also meant to dissuade the offender from repeating the same actions, yet there is no way of telling how effective eternal punishment would be if the individual is never given another chance, given the fact the punishment is eternal. Far from solving the problem, it may make the tortured individual more hostile towards God and Christians just as prisons don’t necessarily make inmates who are in there for a long time into more productive members of society.
It is often said that Hell was not meant for humans, according to one bible verse, and was meant for the angels who rebelled. This does not explain why humans go there given God had the foreknowledge of humanity sinning (presumably from the bible) and total foreknowledge of who would and who would not go to hell before they were even born (an unpleasant thought to be sure). This would make more sense if God was not omniscient and was not in control of any of the circumstances that would lead to the fall of man and was not expecting Satan to spite him after exiling him to Earth (which does not happen in the Old Testament as seen in the Book of Job where Satan is on speaking terms with God in heaven). A few things would make more sense in the Bible if God was not omniscient and man’s rebellion took him by surprise, and his plans did not always go the way he had intended them to go. However, this would in no way be considered to be in line with any current theological interpretations of the Bible. Although Christian denominations may have distinct differences at times, I am quite sure they agree that God is omniscient. I do not however claim to understand how omniscience would work. Being omniscient and knowing everything that will and will not occur seems to eliminate any point to existing. The state of being omniscient makes it also very odd that God gets angry, how does one get angry at an event they always knew was going to occur and that is completely within their control? The way Paul describes the day of God’s wrath seems to be like it is an impending doom, that is inevitable and not within God’s control, and which he also planned, which makes no sense whatsoever. If he was angry at people then I would loath to know what happens when holding on to such anger for several millennia, a human could not hold on to that amount of anger without developing potentially serious psychological problems for even a half a century.
Things which can be considered sinful and land you an eternity of pain in a fiery pit of torment range vary considerably between denominations, things such as murder and the seven deadly sins are more universally agreed on between Christians. However other things that are worthy of eternal punishment seem very extreme. Some Christians think that prioritising an ill family member, friend or just prioritising other relationships in general above God is enough to make God condemn you to to Hell for an eternity, sounds like somebody got jealous (God is apparently a jealous God, from Exodus 20:4-5). Most people would find it a bit trying if they had to contend with this level of jealousy from a partner. Likely this apparent ‘sin’ of not prioritising loving God over other people enough is inspired by one of the more weirder lines apparently spoken by Jesus in the gospels:
“If any man come to Me and hate not his father and mother, and wife and children, and brethren and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple“ - Luke 14:26
One story regarding forgiveness retold by several pastors, with some variation in between, is of a boy who is charged for an offence and taken to court. His father turns out to be the judge and chooses to pay the son’s penalty. This among many other things is used as an analogy to God, or Jesus, paying the penalty for our offenses, namely sin. None of the pastors who have told this story would have ever said that the judge then told his son to serve him or suffer some punishment, in the case of God, an eternity of burning in Hell. Hell is a fear tactic, albeit a powerful one designed to keep believers believing and fearful of doubting their faith or backsliding for fear of losing their salvation.