The Fear of Hell

In my life as a Christian I have heard a few sermons on the subject of hell, but none has really made much of an impact on me. Certainly not enough to stick in my mind, I am unable to recall any of these sermons, let along count them. I don’t think the number is huge, but there have definitely been a few. What I recall best is various conversations and varied opinions on the subject.

I pretty much always believed that hell was a real place; after all, you can’t have a real heaven and not a real hell can you? Many others I know take the view that hell is just not being in the presence of God; in other words, hell rather than being an actual place is simply not heaven. I always had an issue with that logic as you can’t have you next life not in heaven and not actually be somewhere else. The counter to that is the always convenient get out clause of “you can’t know what the afterlife will be like”. Hell therefore would always be a subject on which you could guarantee a variety of opinion, but very little meat to back up a viewpoint.

The teaching that I can best recall on the subject has always focused more on the assurance of being saved rather than the fear of not being saved.

The Trouble with Reading

My long held views on hell came when I read the book “The Road to Hell”. I found it an easy read and I found the conclusions logical and there was nothing that I objected to in the theology. Even now I will agree that if you are going to profess faith, this book on hell will be a useful guide.

The biggest single impact the book had on me was its warning to those with the responsibility of teaching others. The book made the point that all the teaching that Jesus gave on the subject was to his disciples (and possibly also those who already followed him) I can’t remember if that second clause was made in the book, that’s me covering my own memory; it was about 17years ago so I can’t claim to be recalling it perfectly. The key point being that the teaching on hell by Jesus was not to those who were unsaved but to those who Jesus was training to be his fishers of men. I never did check the bible to confirm that fact as claimed so I would welcome comment from anyone who has made that check.

The point that is made is Jesus would not have reserved his teaching on hell for those he was closest to if it wasn’t of critical importance to them. If hell was for the unsaved, why preach it to the converted? The conclusions drawn on the subject parallels with other biblical subjects that issue warnings to teachers, specifically “it would be better for a millstone to be tied round your neck than to lead one of my flock astray”. The essence being that hell is preached to the followers of Jesus because it was a warning to them and not a tool to be used to scare people into conversion. More crucially, it’s a warning to those who would lead and teach.

There is much more in the book about hell than just this and I think what I have recalled above probably just comes from a single chapter. It is however, my take away message from the book and what struck me most on reading it.

Motivating fear

At the time that I read the book, I had been in youth work for about five years and would be for most of the next decade. The message of the book did serve to focus me somewhat. I wanted to make sure that the message I gave was true and in keeping with the Bible. I didn’t want to invoke a hellish punishment by leading young people astray.

On balance I think its an unhealthy form of motivation but I also think that its also a good way of reminding those with responsibility and authority that they do have someone that they are answerable to and that they can’t manipulate with impunity. For those that still believe, I think it can be a good reminder of who holds ultimate authority and it is certainly more useful than preaching hell, fire and damnation to the unsaved.

 

The Prophesies of Jesus’ Crucifixion

Last week one of the church members preached a sermon on the prophesies of Jesus’ crucifixion. It was an interesting sermon and despite having spent many years as a Christian and been to a quite a few Christian conferences, it is not one I think I have heard before. This made a nice change and, given the Easter period, nicely topical too.

The sermon basically said that there were 33 specific prophesies related to Jesus’ crucifixion and then ran through a list of each source prophesy. Time constraints meant that the fulfilment of each could not be gone into, but the reference for each fulfilment was helpfully out up on the OHP. Certainly a lot of effort had gone into the sermon and for me, it was the first time I’d really sat up and paid attention to a sermon in a very long time.

Is self-reference valid?

A big problem I have with this sort of claim for the fulfilment of prophesy is that the prophesy and the fulfilment and the interpretation is all held within the bible. Prophesies and fulfilments really do need to have reliable external sources to back up both ends of the claim. Using the bible to self-reference its own prophesies has got to be an obvious opening for criticism even from the most ardent of believers. More than that, each fulfilment appears to be retrospectively matched with the prophesy that is deemed to fit best. This is something that I find deeply unsatisfying.

I won’t dwell on this though, so moving on…

Thinking Sceptically

I can’t remember all of the prophesies discussed and I certainly didn’t count to see if there were 33 mentioned in the sermon. What I did do with each one though was run a quick mental check to see if I thought that each prophesy was specific enough and how well I thought it matches the fulfilment without too much call to interpretation.

What I did find was that in my opinion too many of the reported prophesies are not specific enough for my satisfaction. I found that this even applies to the more famous ‘Servant King’ prophesies found in Isaiah.

Back at home after the service my wife asked me what I thought of the sermon and I briefly explained the above and how I found it interesting but not convincing. I found myself being a little surprised when she used the word ‘sceptical’ in her own description of her thoughts about some of the items. This surprised me as I didn’t expect it, her faith is not going through the same crisis as my own, so it was surprising to hear her use that phrase. Maybe my own experience is having an effect on her. Pushing her in the same direction that I have just travelled in matters of faith is not on my agenda so I am not going to pursue it. I guess we’ll just have to see what transpires in that matter.

Striking the Heal and Broken Bones

There is one prophesy that I wish to pay more attention too because it’s the stand out item that I took away from the sermon.

The sermon made reference to the traditional idea that crucifixion involved crossing the feet and nailing them to the front of the cross with a single nail going through both feet. However, recent evidence apparently shows that this is probably wrong and the more likely way of nailing the feet to the cross is one foot either side of the vertical and one nail through each heal securing the feet.

Reference was then made to the Fall from the Garden of Eden and the serpents curse, which involved mention of the serpent striking the heal of man. This is apparently now a prophesy for the method of Jesus’ foot attachment to the cross. This is what I mean my retrospective application of a loose phrase that is not a specific prophesy.

My wife agreed with my concerns over this item but she did also point out that the Genesis phrase used is an odd phrase and why would it be said like that if not intended for future reference? She makes a good point, however one should also consider that this is being taken from the English translation, the original language version should really be used here to see what the actual phrase was and how the English translation fits with that context. This actually applies to all of the prophesies to be honest, so it raises the valid question of why should a sermon such as this be taken seriously when it only refers to the English language version of the Bible?

I then pointed out that surely a nail driven through the heal to secure that foot to a cross would effectively render the heal bone broken, thus negating the no broken bones prophesy. My wife suggested that was being overly picky and that the context of the no broken bones prophesy is specific to the practice of the Roman soldiers breaking the legs of the crucified in order to hasten death. She makes a good point, again.

My own memories of the no broken bones prophesy is that it was a literal and wider prophesy relating to the whole life of Jesus. Now that I am older I am happy to accept that it’s a more specific intention and that the heal bone issue is not covered, however it is another example of how non-specific the wording combined with retrospective application leads to joining up events in a manner that suits the reader. As such, I can’t accept this as reliable prophesy and fulfilment.

After the sermon, I had asked the church member in question the same question about the heal and the broken bone and he said it was a good question and he would talk to a Christian doctor he knows and come back to me. We’ll see what happens on that one.

Personally, the whole sermon was interesting and engaged me, but ultimately I found it intellectually and spiritually unsatisfying and it confirmed for me that my decision to move to atheism is the right one.

Coming Out – part 2

Having started to admit that Christianity no longer meant anything to me (https://confessionsofayec.wordpress.com/2011/12/12/the-coming-out-begins/). I decided that I should be open with those who know me differently. That is the internet form of people I have known for most of the last decade and who view me as the tolerant Christian. I do my best to avoid discussions on religion with this group because it never goes especially well, and quite frankly, they have always been my world away from my religion (https://confessionsofayec.wordpress.com/2011/06/01/when-friends-are-unkind/).

So, about a week after the discussion with my wife detailed above I put a short post up that basically said it was official, there is no god. They all would know what I meant and if anyone wanted to know more they could ask.

The first responses were a mixture of surprise (the majority obviously did not expect it), interest in why and congratulations.

A few, who admitted to having been brought up in some form of Christian faith, wanted to know how I felt; was my world view shaken? Did I need someone to talk to? I was touched by this obvious care and concern, but it wasn’t needed. This was not a new thing to me; it was just new to them.

It was far easier to be fully open and honest with them than it was in my conversations earlier with my wife. Deep down I feel I am a cowardly let-down for not having been fully honest much earlier. I have tried to put into words my feelings and justifications for that but I have failed. I am simply unable to properly explain why.

Some of the friends asked for a reason for my apparent turnabout. I was succinct in my response, just saying that it was because of greater scientific understanding which removed the foundation of my faith. I hinted there was a fuller version of my story available but that I was not sure about making it open to them. No one objected to that, in fact they were very supportive of that stance and no one pushed further. It was enough for them to know, a debrief was not necessary.

So, for the moment this blog’s readership remains as those who are outside of the circle of those who know me. However, there is more than enough here for anyone who knows me to recognise me. If that happens and I am questioned that I shall admit it but I am currently holding off from actually telling anyone about it.

Actually, not quite true, I have told my brother it exists and he is interested in reading it, I’ve just not sent him the link yet. That aside, I have pondered on letting my atheist forum friends know about it, maybe I’ll let a couple of them know about it first. My hesitation is that doing so feels a bit like the boy trying to plug the leaking dyke with his finger. Once the water starts to seep through there is no stopping it.

Suddenly I realised that Atheism was the Only Choice

The side effect of my increased understanding of the scientific method and the impossibility of a literal creation was that more and more of what I had accepted in The Bible was rejected as false.

I can’t remember exactly when it was but over a short period of time I realised that rejection of formerly held Biblical truths could only result on one thing, total rejection of The Bible. I did consider for a while if I could hold my acceptance of Evolution along with the belief in a personal God. The problem that caused me was that it didn’t fix the fact that key events in the Old Testament didn’t happen and if certain key events in the Old Testament didn’t happen, then the New Testament was equally in doubt and therefore Christianity as a whole had little to defend it.

It didn’t take much for me to realise that the end result of the road I was on was the abandonment of my Christian faith. I could not embrace my new scientific understanding and my enthusiasm for more and keep a Christian faith. It simply wasn’t going to happen for me, there were too many questions that resulted in The Bible being wrong or questionable.

So rather than spend years battling with my faith, I decided to shortcut the torment and make a conscious decision that Christianity was bunk and go from there.

While it was an easy logical conclusion to make, there were many things that I needed to consider. How do I tell those I love? Especially my Wife! How will this affect my morals? What do I do about going to Church? How will this affect my views on death? This last one was key as at this time my mother was very ill with Pancreatic Cancer (more on this in another post that will come).

Those first weeks Post Atheism were a bit weird.

It was a few years ago now so I don’t recall those weeks especially clearly, but there are a few things that still stand out for me.

The first one is that I questioned my morals and their source. I hadn’t realised it until then, but my mind-set wad been very heavily engrained with the idea that morals and goodness come from the Holy Spirit and I was good because I was a Christian. Abandoning that must then surely mean the abandonment of my morals. I found myself asking questions about what was now acceptable, could I lie more readily? Steal from work? Cheat on my wife? You know, the sort of things those horrid godless people do all the time!

Well, it turns out that I was still just as unhappy with the idea of any of those things as I was before. So there would be no sin binge, as it were.

Tell No One

At this time I resolved that my state of faith would be a secret until I could work out what to do with the news. My biggest fear was how my wife would react, I knew that if it had been the other way round I’d have likely been devastated and I didn’t want to do that to her. This meant that I also would not tall anyone else because I didn’t feel it would be right to tell anyone else when she didn’t know.

Later I would seriously consider confiding in a close friend first and there were a couple of occasions when that very nearly happened. It just never seemed to be the right place or the right time.

What I did start to do was expand my reading of blogs. I looked for and found several blogs of people who had also come out of Christianity. This gave me a form of release as I could read now read (and participate if required) about similar experiences and not feel alone and unable to express my concerns and frustrations.

Science Podcasts helped my understanding

Along my way to questioning the literal interpretation of the Old Testament stories, I got into listening to science podcasts.

The timing was quite fortunate really. Not long after the USA holiday which sparked my questioning (https://confessionsofayec.wordpress.com/2011/07/10/the-first-nagging-doubts/) I changed job and found myself working from home for prolonged periods. The result of this was I installed iTunes on my PC and started investigating podcasts. Some of the podcasts I found very difficult to listen to because in amongst the science there were many disparaging remarks about belief and faith. I found it extremely difficult to listen to those comments, but I continued because I found the science interesting and it was that that fed my mind.

I did also try out some creationist podcasts to try and balance my intake and challenge what I was hearing. To be perfectly honest, I found them deeply wanting. The scientific content of the creationist podcasts was weak and invariably the presenters would try and use biased logic to argue against evolutionary science. The result was that I very quickly abandoned the creationist podcasts and continue to consume as much science as I could.

By now it was clear to me that I was no longer a literal creationist.

 

The biggest side effect in embracing an old earth and the truth of evolution was the Old Testament sections that now came under the spotlight.

Old Earth, means no Genesis Flood (https://confessionsofayec.wordpress.com/2011/08/04/noah%E2%80%99s-ark-gilgamesh-or-just-a-story/) for starters. I also came to realise that other well-known Biblical stories were not quite as I had believed (https://confessionsofayec.wordpress.com/2011/09/20/poor-poor-joseph-what-you-gonna-do/).

The latter realisation had me questioning the Bible much more. Its one thing to accept the Bible as the word of God while also holding that Evolution is true; however, I seemed to be going further and was questioning the accuracy of key Old Testament accounts.

Following the scientific podcasts and learning about what was reliable and what was not was making me think more critically and sceptically about when I had previously believed.

What in the Old Testament Could I Trust?

 

This became a problem for me and was a question I asked myself a lot. The bottom line was; if I can’t trust the Old Testament, then the New Testament, which hinges on the Old Testament being reliable, can also not be relied upon to be the inspired Word of God either.

Greater scientific understanding had definitely left me with a problem…

Poor, Poor, Joseph, What You Gonna Do?

Having already accepted that the Creation and Flood stories in Genesis were not true, (https://confessionsofayec.wordpress.com/2011/08/04/noah%E2%80%99s-ark-gilgamesh-or-just-a-story/) and (https://confessionsofayec.wordpress.com/2011/06/05/the-problem-of-adam-and-eve/).

The next major event in Genesis is the very well known story of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers and ending up being the 2nd in command inEgypt.

First, Fast Forward to the Ending

Outside of the Bible, there is very little evidence for the Joseph story and the one of the best ways to test it is to examine the story of Moses and the Exodus fromEgyptbecause the two stories are effectively two parts of a longer narrative. The Moses story cannot possibly be true if the Joseph story is not true. While the Joseph story does not rely on the Moses story being true, it has little or no relevance without the Moses story.

The biggest obstacle in the validity of both stories is the simple fact that there is no Egyptian evidence whatsoever for the Israelites having been resident there. Without any correlating evidence, the Biblical narrative is nothing more than hearsay. The Egyptians, well known for recording lots of their history in their hieroglyphic writing, have either not seen fit to record the arrival, enslavery and departure of the Israelites, or the events simply didn’t happen as describe din the Bible.

Believing something just because its in the Bible, even though nothing else supports its story, is not wise.

The Red Sea or theSeaofReeds

This is very fascinating. The story the Exodus fromEgyptsays that the Israelites escaped through theRed sea, walking across dry land because the sea was parted, thanks to a miracle.

However, there is much confusion and discussion over what the source term actually refers to, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crossing_the_Red_Sea). Does it mean what we know now as theRed Sea? Does it really meanSea ofReeds orReedSea and if so, what body of water is that referring to?

Its not just the crossing and associated miracle that is the problem but also the places that are mentioned in the route to and from the crossing point. Not all of these locations are identified with modern locations and so cross referencing these with archaeological evidence is pretty much not possible and so not only is there no evidence for the Israelite residence in Egypt, but there is also no evidence for their flight out as documented in Exodus.

Without Moses, there is no point in Joseph

If there is no evidence for the Israelites having resided in or exitedEgypt, then it is not at all unreasonable to conclude that they were never there. It is for the Bible to prove that these stories are true and that proof is lacking.

With no Exodus and no Moses who was brought up as the grandson of a Pharaoh, then the story of Joseph is rendered irrelevant and equally suspect. More likely he never existed, my guess is its more likely that, like Adam and Eve and Noah’s Flood, his story is based on a pre existing fable.

Noah’s Ark, Gilgamesh, or Just a Story?

Noah's sacrifice

Image via Wikipedia

I had never previously doubted the account of Noah’s Ark.Yet, once I started to have doubts about the young age of the earth (https://confessionsofayec.wordpress.com/2011/07/10/the-first-nagging-doubts/), I found that I was now critically analysing key events in the Bible. Specifically, key events that rely on and require a young Earth. Such as the Genesis account of Noah, the ark and a global flood.

Basic Problems with the Global Flood Account

The most obvious issue with the account of the global flood is the volume of water required. There simply is not enough water in our atmosphere to produce enough rain to fill the earth up with water to the height of a mountain. The Genesis account also mentions waters of the deep, which some have interpreted to mean great reservoirs of water below the earths surface opened as a result of earthquakes and water flowed up from them. The problem with this is that it would require huge reserves of water to cover the entire earth, reserves which simply have not been found. Something truly miraculous would be required to cause a global flood.

Then of course there is the issue of the animals. All those animals need feeding and, more importantly, watering. The carnivores would present a specific problem, plus there would have to be very strong and very significant means of separating them apart.

Post flood, there is the very real problem of how to explain that the species of animal are unique to specific parts of the world, the indigenous animals of Australia are the most obvious example.

So the believability of the global flood is found wanting, yet I managed to unquestioningly believe it for many years.

So what of Gilgamesh?

The Epic of Gilgamesh (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epic_of_Gilgamesh) is a fascinating story, it probably best you follow the link or do your own searches on it rather than me repeat it all here.

The tale predates Noah’s Flood and it is suspected in some circles that the story of Noah’s Flood is a direct retelling of the Gilgamesh story, wrapped up for a different audience and several cultural additions. This is how myths, legends and stories evolve over time anyway.

Gradual Realisation

One of the key moments in me realising that the Flood account was not a real event was a documentary about the Flood, which expanded on some of the evidence I have indicated above. That same documentary drew parallels with the Gilgamesh account and I found myself compelled to question what I had previously accepted as true.

So, now I was not only questioning a young Earth, I was now questioning the validity of the Bible, or at least the validity of a literal interpretation of some Biblical passages.

Genetic evidence

Recent DNA analysis has shown that Adam and Eve could not have existed (https://confessionsofayec.wordpress.com/2011/06/05/the-problem-of-adam-and-eve/). I would go further and suggest that this evidence also puts into doubt the possibility of Noah and his extended family being at one point in time the only human inhabitants on the planet.

A Christian’s Duty is to Procreate?

I can’t remember exactly who said it, what exactly was said, or even what the context was; but sometime in the late 1990’s something hit the news about it being the duty of all married Christians to procreate.

I know it was the late 1990’s because I remember where my wife and I were living at the time and we only lived in that flat for 3 years. I also remember raising this issue on a Christian newsgroup at the time, this was in the days before internet forums and blogs became the method by which opinions were discussed and recounted.

The source of this statement must have come from the Church of England, because it wouldn’t have hit theUKnews headlines if it had come from any other church demonization. A brief internet search has failed to find the source, but then searching for anything over ten years old on the internet is practically impossible these days.

At this time, my wife and I had been married for about 5 years, were childless through choice and were both very involved in our local church. I was involved in the youth work and my wife both the youth work and the worship group. Our commitments were to a level that would have been impossible if we had children.

Its unfortunate that I don’t remember exactly what was being reported on because that information would be helpful now in putting my reaction into context. What I do remember is not very much balance in the response of the Christian leadership that was interviewed on this story. They all seemed to make an effort downplay the potential offence of this dictum, while not actually saying it was a wrong thing to say. At least that’s my memory of the story, and it could by that my position at the time was slightly biased.

For me, the biggest issue was that it was not the message I had received from any of the churches I attended and no one I knew personally backed up this message. However, what was also clear, looking around me, was that my wife and I were most certainly in a minority, being married for so long and still being childless.

Offended, hurt and upset

I found the statements, as reported on the news, upsetting. How dare these religious leaders dictate how I should live my life when they know nothing of the context of my life. I also could not reconcile the instruction to procreate with any passage in the Bible. Yes there are passages about having children, but there was no insinuation that a marriage without children was an incomplete marriage.

I brought up my feelings on the Christian newsgroup I frequented, I remember it being a specificallyUKfocused one, but in reality I can’t be certain how many of the posters were actuallyUKbased orUKnationals.

In my post of complaint I recounted how my wife and I were devout and how we both enjoyed making ourselves available to the church and how we served it lovingly. The decision to have (or not have) children had not been made, we were simply enjoying the life we had as a couple and the available we had to our church, which would be much more limited if we’d had children.

The responses I got were even more hurtful. This is the only time I can honestly say that I have been hurt, upset and offended by the Christian community; the fact that it was over something so personal made it doubly worse. I think of the many people on that list, only two made a positive comment back to me, one describing our attitude and ‘lovely’, the rest backed up the premise that as married Christians, my wife and I had a duty to bring children into the world.

I have no idea if the on-line Christian culture at the time was mainly from the more is fundamental Christian or if this really was what the mainstream believed and I had simply missed it. Either way, it deepened my feelings of betrayal by those who I felt should have been understanding and supportive.

 

Still a dedicated Christian

In hindsight its easy to point to this event as a starting point in my move away from Christianity and in the narrative of this blog it probably gives that impression. The truth is, I don’t think that’s the case. That point was almost 10 years away still. What this event did do for me was form a distrust of entertaining on-line Christian discussions. It wouldn’t be long before I abandoned using that particular newsgroup altogether and I didn’t actively engage in any other Christian resources after that.

Becoming more Fundamental

The net effect of my deliverance experience (https://confessionsofayec.wordpress.com/2011/03/28/the-dramatic-deliverance/) was a greater level of fundamentalism.

Coupled with my creationist beliefs, the experience cemented in my mind that the Bible was not only true, it was absolutely and literally true. That meant not just a literal 7-day creation but also the physical hell, the rapture and everything in-between.

My fundamentalism went even further than that though. It went on to avoiding certain ‘unchristian’ things and actively embracing ‘Christian’ things. One example was, on seeing a popular artist of the time by the name of Enya labelled as New Age, all music of hers was avoided. When a fellow Christian was spotted with her music they were told they should not be listening to her.

My own music collection was scrutinised, though I don’t recall throwing anything away. I did however start purchasing far more Christian music, not in itself a bad or unhealthy act, but it was an indication of the obsessive fundamentalist mindset that was brewing.

By book collection was pared down, books like Gremlins (the book of the humorous Christmas movie by the same name) and an entire series of fantasy novels were consigned to the bin. Yet somehow fantasy from a Christian author was okay. Why should something be better or okay just because a Christian produces it?

My clothes changed too. At the time there was a Christian T shirt maker in the UK who sold many different Christian designs and slogans and I’d typically choose to wear them unashamedly when out and about.

Its easy to laugh about it now and its easy to feel saddened when the same things are witnessed in other people. Yet, when its you it all seems so normal and natural and you wonder why no one else sees it the way you do.

I must have been quite infuriating to be with at times.

 

Brief Recap

Before going into my adult experiences of Christianity and young earth creationism I thought it would be a good idea to give brief recap of my beliefs and level of Christianity moving from childhood.

The posts that come under the category of ‘The Beginning’ give the salient points of my upbringing to the age of 18.

What I believed, either through direct teaching or through assumption.

  • God made the world in 7 literal days
  • Up until the time of the biblical flood, there had been no rain, the rainbow account was the first occurrence of a rainbow, ever
  • All the characters mentioned in the bible, and their adventures occurred exactly as stated. This includes:
  • The spiritual gifts listed in the bible are real gifts that humans can and do use
  • God is a personal god of love and has an interest in us as individuals.

In terms of my own Christian dedication, I had no doubt I was a Christian and I had no issue with going to church. I considered it important that I did, the thought of not going to church just didn’t feature. I attended many different churches of different denominations over those early years.

As a person I had very low self esteem, thanks to my parents marriage breakup, controlling step-mother and step-siblings, English public school and probably other factors too. I recall not having much freedom to find and express my own views, opinions and ideas.

Christianity to me was defacto and unquestionable. There had been boys at school in England who challenged Christianity, but the school itself did not, with the majority of teachers being practising Christians. There was even a school Chaplin.

So at 18 years old, I was to leave home in Zambia, with a plane ticket for England and make my way in the big bad world. Of one thing I was certain, I would be looking for a church to attend with the same seriousness as I would be looking for a job.