Hell Conversation

Recently I had the following blog post show up in my feed (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unfundamentalistchristians/2014/10/atheist-and-christian-argue-about-hell-guess-who-wins/) It’s an interesting discourse and will only take a minute or two to read, so I recommend it.

The blog post frames its idea in the context of a conversation between a Christian and an Atheist. I doubt that the conversation featured is a real conversation, as claimed, but I do agree with the conclusion and it does go some way to explaining my current position on hell and the Christian god.

In my Christian days, I certainly held the position that hell was the destination of everyone who did not pray a prayer of commitment. You could do it as a child or in your dying moments, so long as the commitment was genuine you were heaven bound.

In reading the conversation depicted in the blog post linked above between the Christian and Tom, I tried to answer Tom’s criticisms as I would have when I was a Christian. I found it difficult. As time moves on, I find it harder and harder to dig out the old Christian justifications that I used to have on the tip of my tongue. I know I would have steered away from the negative aspects that Tom focusses on and made my responses about the redemptive nature of conversation and how salvation is a rescuing of us from the pit of hell. The thing that this Christian message misses is that this hell that salvation supposedly saves us from is a hell that is made by the same god who is trying to save us from it. Why not just do away with hell completely?

If hell was something that was external to god and outside of his control and therefore we were all doomed to that torment unless we accepted his rescue, then that would be a more palatable position. That is not possible in the Christian doctrine because that would mean that god is not able to do and control everything. It creates a place where god has no control and Christian doctrine denies that possibility. Therefore hell has to be something that god controls and he dictates who goes in based in the apparent free will choice of loving him.

Imagine I were to give a choice to my daughter of sleeping in her comfortable bed at night or sleeping on a bed of nails based on her telling me that she loved me. I would be criticised for being a bad parent. My unconditional love for my daughter means that I will give her a comfortable bed to sleep in every night, regardless of what she says or how she behaves that day. Yet the Christian god, who I am told loves me, will treat my eternal soul with less compassion than I treat my daughter. On that basis I think I can say that I am better than god! (That might be an intentionally provocative sentence).

In discussing this blog post with my wife, I had the chance to put forward to her the position that maybe God intends everyone to go to heaven anyway. This is an idea that was given in a comment on a previous post (https://confessionsofayec.wordpress.com/2014/10/11/i-dont-like-that-i-wont-see-you-in-heaven/)

Both my wife and I agree that the idea that everybody goes to heaven anyway is daft and logically doesn’t follow the Christian message. If everyone really went to heaven then the whole point of salvation and life of Jesus effectively becomes irrelevant. Yet these are central to the Christian message and so I can’t see how that idea could possibly work. I’d love a supporter to explain it to me.

As an atheist I find the hell doctrine of Christianity incoherent. More than that, it actually undermines the salvation message by allowing this sound argument against the all-knowing and all loving god that it tries to back up.

I don’t like that I won’t see you in Heaven

In my view, one of the hardest discussions a couple can have, when one of them has deconverted, is one that involves hell and the afterlife.

The simple fact is; the partner that remains a Christian must at some point consider their views on hell and how that affects their deconverted spouse. It matters not if they subscribe to annihilation or eternal damnation or any other form of hell, the bottom line is that they must come to terms with the idea that their earthly partner will no longer spend eternity with them in heaven. Christian theology has a high focus on the afterlife, which means that this could be a particularly painful or distressing process.

My creationist view of hell was always one of eternal damnation. I never saw it as cruel or vengeful; to me it was simply the just deserts of the faithless as their punishment for sin. If, having known the consequences, they still chose to not follow Jesus, then who was I to feel sorry them? So I didn’t.

The fate of my deconverted brothers did concern me. I also had a moment after my grandfather died when I needed to know that I’d see him in heaven. Not knowing the destination of his soul caused me some distress for a while. I eventually came to terms with not knowing but it wasn’t a situation I particularly relished. This is the damage that such extremist views cause.

It’s with this knowledge that I am relieved that my wife never shared the same view of hell that I did. She takes a much more liberal interpretation, saying that hell is simply separation from God, IE not being in heaven. She doesn’t see it as the physical place of punishment that I did.

Even with this much milder post death placement, she still found time one night to say she didn’t like idea that I’d not be in heaven with her. For a brief moment I thought I glimpsed genuine distress at the thought but she wouldn’t be pressed on it and instead preferred not to talk about the subject. I don’t know how much Mrs limey had thought about it up to that point or even if it’s entered her thoughts since. I suspect the latter is not much because when she says something is not a subject she wants to consider anymore, she tends to mean exactly that.

As a result, we’ve not discussed the subject since and I don’t intend to push her on it. For our specific situation, the path we’ve agreed is to leave that one alone. I suspect that this will be the same for many other couples in our situation. There is no benefit in having the conversation because there isn’t a common ground for us to move towards, it’s not like it’s a discussion on where we should take out next holiday.

I do wonder if this is precisely the kind of situation that has led to Universalism, the belief that everyone eventually ends up in heaven anyway. This seems a particularly insulting cop out and makes no sense to me at all. I genuinely struggle with how this can even be justified theologically, which is why I wonder if Universalism came about because some people simply can’t deal with the idea that there are those they love who will go to hell. It’s also a great example of how religious belief is twisted by individuals to suit their own perspectives and must surely be seen as evidence that religion is manmade not god made.

I’ll ignore completely the issue of how heaven deals with multiple partners. Both of my parents remarried Christians and I’m not particularly keen on either of their second spouses (an understatement) so that’s an angelic orgy I’m not even interested in being around for. If ever there was a reason for avoiding heaven, I’ve got the jackpot covered!

I appreciate Mrs limey’s honesty in saying it’s not a subject she wants to revisit. It’s also hard to see where there would be benefit in the discussion. I’d deny the existence of both heaven and hell and she’d express disappointment that I won’t join her in heaven and I’d say, well of course I’m not going to heaven and I don’t really care because dead is dead and I’ll not be any the wiser. Deep or meaningful theological discussion isn’t really going to happen there. This isn’t a subject where a meaty and healthy discussion can happen. Subjects like the evidence that other apes have a concept of fair play or right and wrong have much more going for them in that respect.

Personally, I think Mrs limey is right in that it’s a subject best left alone. It works for us because, as I’ve lain out above, it’s not going to make for a long discussion and there is no possible end point where we would feel we’ve had a fruitful conversation. Other couples in this situation may choose to find their own ways of dealing with it, but I don’t think there are many options that don’t end with one partner feeling depressed at the thought of eternal loss.

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.