Unbelievers and Their Fears of Hell

hell

I am often asked if I still fear going to Hell when I die. I suspect every Evangelical-Christian-turned-atheist, has had, at one time or the other, thoughts about what happens if they are wrong. If Evangelicals are right about God, Jesus, sin, salvation, and life after death, those of us who have — with full knowledge of what the Bible says — walked or run away from Christianity will surely face the eternal flames of Hell. This is where Pascal’s Wager often comes into play. Since none of us can be absolutely certain that Christianity’s teaching are false, shouldn’t we hedge our bets and accept Jesus as Lord and Savior? Of course, the same could be said for EVERY religion. If we really wanted to cover all the bases, shouldn’t we embrace every deity? All any of us can do is make rational decisions about religious belief. I have weighed Christianity, Jesus, God, and the Bible in the balances and found them wanting. Could I be wrong? Sure. But, I am 99.99% certain that I am not. And when it comes to the Evangelical version of the Christian God, I am 99.99999% certain that their God is a myth.

When Evangelicals deconvert, they often minimize the deep psychological marks left behind by their religious past. Intellectually, the notion of an eternal jail in the bowels of the earth is absurd. So is the notion of God fitting non-Christians with an eternal body that will survive endless torture in the flames of Hell (actually the Lake of Fire). And even more absurd is the belief that people who never heard of Jesus will be cast into Hell for what they SHOULD have known. Some Calvinists even think that it is possible that there will be infants in Hell. Since God played a divine sorting game before the world began — you are elect, you are not — there could be infants who are non-elect, and who are therefore condemned to go to Hell.

Rejecting the intellectual absurdities of Evangelicalism frees our minds from bondage, but deep within the recesses of our brain lie thoughts seared into our minds from years of religious indoctrination. Most Evangelicals are cradle Christians, having been born and raised in and around Evangelicalism and its way of thinking their entire lives. Teachings about God, salvation, and Hell make deep impressions on children. This is why many Evangelical churches have programs geared towards “reaching” children for Jesus. Born into sin, these lying, cheating, vile little vipers need Jesus, Evangelicals believe, so they do all they can to win people to Jesus when they are young. Fearing that their children might die before getting saved, Evangelical parents and the churches they attend often psychologically pressure children into asking Jesus into their hearts. It is not uncommon to hear of Evangelical children making professions of faith at ages as young as four or five. Both my wife and I got saved the first time at age five. Evangelicals believe if they don’t reach people when they are young, that it is increasingly likely that these people will NOT accept Jesus as their Savior. Get them when they are young and we will have them forever, the thinking goes.

Former Evangelicals then, must deal with deeply seated beliefs about Hell. Intellectually rejecting these beliefs is one thing; flushing them out of our minds is another. I left Christianity in 2008. I vividly remember nights when I would wake up terrorized with thoughts about being wrong and going to hell. (Christians told me that this was the Holy Spirit trying to get my attention.) These thoughts so bothered me that I sought out the counsel of people who were farther along the path of deconversion than I. I even talked to my counselor about  my fears of being wrong and spending eternity in hell paying for the wrong decision. Everyone told me that my thoughts were quite normal — an Evangelical hangover of sorts. It is naïve for people to think that they can spend decades (or a lifetime as I did) in Evangelicalism and then one day walk away without there being any psychological baggage. Some people can leave Evangelicalism with a single carry-on bag. Others leave with numerous suitcases. Once we are on the other side of faith, it takes time to unpack these suitcases. It is not uncommon for unbelievers to have contradictory beliefs. I know I did. It takes time to sort through these beliefs, discarding those that no longer fit our evolving worldview. Evangelicals raised in evangelistic churches are taught that becoming a Christian is an instantaneous decision. This decision is called being born again — the instantaneous moment in time when people go from lost sinners to saved saints. Deconversion is rarely that simple. While I can remember the moment when I said to myself, I am no longer a Christian, getting to that point was a long — often contradictory — process. And so it is now. I have not arrived. I am still on a journey of sorts. While I know where I have been, I don’t know where I am headed. Christianity taught me that life is all about the destination. Atheism and humanism teaches me that life here and now IS the destination and what is most important is the journey.

Thoughts about hell, for Evangelicals-turned atheists, are vestiges from their religious past. When fear of eternal damnation and punishment arise, attack them with reason. Why am I having these thoughts? Where did these thoughts come from?  Doing this strips these fears of their magical power. Keep doing this, and in time you will learn to laugh at such thoughts when they arise. And just remember as you day by day, month by month and year by year move away from your religious past, these kind of thoughts will eventually fade into the fabric of your past. Come the last Sunday in November, it will be eight years since I darkened the doors of a church. It has been years since I have had a fearful thought about hell. Writing about my past and Evangelicalism has helped to ameliorate my fears. I encourage those who have left Christianity to write about their experiences. Publicly, privately, on a blog, in a journal, regardless of the method — write. There’s something cathartic about putting feelings on paper (or on a computer screen).

I correspond with a number of people who use me as a sounding board. They know that I will never betray their confidences, so they have the freedom to share their raw feelings with me. If you need someone to “listen” to you, please write.

For those of you who long ago left Evangelicalism, how did you deal with thoughts of judgment and hell? Please share your thoughts and substitutions in the comment section.

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18 Comments

  1. Brian

    I was saved when I was about seven or eight…. I could not sleep in my bed because I was having visions from God almighty about Hellfire and exactly how my skin would melt from my arms and how my hurt would be forever and ever. I ran to my mother’s bedside and begged her to help me get right with God, be saved. She sent me back to bed and said my preacher father would look after it.
    Ask me if I forgive these servants of God for striking this kind of horror up into an inferno in their son. Go ahead, ask me.
    Tell me how healing forgiveness is and how my holding this harm hurts me. You don’t have a clue about it unless you were as crazed as I was in my love of Jesus.
    Fundamentalist Christianity of the evangelical strain is a get out of jail free, tax-free abuse of humanity.
    Poor kids…. I feel such sorrow for you, trapped in this kind of hateful, punishing world. Nobody has the right to condemn others for not falling into line with the Christian soldiers. Nobody has the right. If you believe that the big shot God does have any right at all, then please let me offer you and your God an enema and a locked toilet door. Fire in the hole! (Ah jeez, I am being rude…. sorry.)

    Reply
  2. J.D. Matthews

    “If there is a God, He will have to beg my forgiveness.” — A phrase that was carved on the walls of a concentration camp cell during WWII by a Jewish prisoner.

    Like you, I don’t believe in a Hell. But if, for the sake of argument, there was one, I would rather be there, both middle fingers held high, than to spend eternity with such a capricious and unjust god and his hateful followers.

    Reply
    1. Caroline

      Bruce:

      You and all who grew up with these toxic beliefs are amazing. I’ve just discovered your blog (Can you tell? 🙂 and it is so interesting. I’ve been fascinated by the variations in Protestantism for a long time. My background is Catholic, but Catholics don’t seem to switch up the rules as much as Protestants do. I’m not practicing anymore, and respect all beliefs as long as they don’t interfere with the rights of others. I’ve been disturbed since the Reagan era about the growing evangelical presence in our government. I think we should all be very aware whether we are religious or not. I have dear friends who believe some of the things you’ve described, and I just don’t get it. They have often tried to save me, to know avail. I think they mean well, but they have no idea how offensive they are. Christians who try to complete ‘the great commission’ don’t seem to realize that they come across as very phony – accomplishing nothing in their quest to bring more souls to their side. I, like you, agree that the journey is more important than the destination, and if the heaven of the evangelicals I read about is filled with only them and their ilk, I am not interested in joining them there – sounds like hell!

      Thanks for your excellent writing –

      Caroline

      Reply
  3. Nate Klaiber

    I left religion a little over 2 years ago. I remember the first conversation I had with my mother when she asked me “How does it make you feel?” My response was: “I feel free.” Free in a sense that I didn’t have to keep moving a goal post to try and defend something that wasn’t defensible. I was born and raised in the church and it took me 32 years to finally detach myself completely.

    The thought of eternal judgement and hell became sillier and sillier over time, though it was something in the back of my mind as a child.

    Reply
  4. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

    Bart Ehrman’s response to the hell question:

    I suppose the first thing I’d say is that I understand the fear very well, from the inside, as I too used to have it. This was especially a problem for me when I first began to realize that I didn’t believe the Christian message any more, the claim that one had to believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus to be “saved” and that anyone who didn’t believe would be condemned to the eternal torments of hell. One of my greatest fears in “leaving the faith” was: What if I’m wrong? That could be costly. Eternally!

    It took me years to get over it. I have lots of thoughts about the doctrine of hell – and am thinking, in fact, of devoting a book to “The History of Hell” (or possibly “The Origin of Hell”) where I deal with the topic at length. Here let me just say one thing about it.

    I have come to think that if there is a God in the universe, he is either relatively indifferent to us (which is why he would allow such awful pain, suffering, and misery for literally billions of people) or he is good. I’m probably heavily influenced by my past in thinking that he would probably be good. If God is good, would he really want to torture a person for trillions and trillions of years – and that would only be the beginning – in exchange for disbelief of a few years?

    What do we think of humans who torture others for, say, three hours? We think they are among the lowest life-forms in the universe. Do you mean God is worse than that? Trillions of times worse? That he is gazillions times worse than the most malicious and evil Nazi the world has ever seen? I simply don’t believe it. And if someone does believe it, well, I think it would be interesting to explore why people would believe that a good God was at heart totally evil. (I know that people who believe in eternal punishment would say that God is not evil but “just.” But “justice” means, among other things, devising punishments that fit the crimes. We don’t torture people for months for robbery. Surely God is better than us, not worse. Quadrillions of years of torture in exchange for, say, ten years of disbelief is by any standard incommensurate. I just don’t believe it’s true.)

    Reply
  5. Ahab

    I remember the crushing, paralyzing terror I felt as a young person because I feared that I would go to hell. When I lost my faith, I felt like I could breathe for the first time in ages.

    In that sense, religious was traumatizing for me, but it also strengthened my resolve to never live in fear again. I will never give myself over to any system that rules through fear.

    Reply
  6. Neil

    We can’t be ‘absolutely’ certain there’s not God, but we can be ‘reasonably’ certain and that’s good enough for me.

    I never really believed in Hell when I was a Christian (hey – maybe I never was a real Christian, just like evangelicals say!) I don’t know why I wasn’t persuaded by it; maybe for the reasons Bart Ehrman mentions above – God was good, God was love and he would come up with something better than eternal torture for people. Whatever the reason, it’s been relatively easy to shift any residual feelings about Hell.

    I do feel for those who were abused in their churches with threats of hell. Please know that if you still suffer from worries about Hell, that that is a remnant of such abuse, nothing more. You are right, now – Hell doesn’t exist and those who told you it does were wrong. There is no evidence at all that we survive death; no-one ever has and no-one ever will. That in itself is a comfort; no Hell (or Heaven) awaits, only sweet oblivion. Meanwhile, there’s living to be done!

    Reply
  7. Karen the rock whisperer

    “If we really wanted to cover all the bases, shouldn’t we embrace every deity?”

    I recall a cowardly character in the late 1990s movie “The Mummy” who wore a variety of religious medals around his neck from lots of different religions. It was played for laughs, but there’s no question he was covering his bases quite thoroughly,

    I was exceedingly lucky; in my Catholic upbringing, the Nuns who taught me catechism explained that hell was being separated forever from God. No literal lake of fire, no literal utter torture; those were metaphors for the intense despair suffered by those who were separated from God. At home, I was taught that correct motivation for behavior was compassion and justice, not fear of God’s wrath. So hell never worried me much on my deconversion journey.

    Reply
  8. Pingback: Unbelievers and Their Fears of Hell – FairAndUNbalanced.com

  9. JR

    I’m my experience many evangelical parents don’t lay on hell thick. Instead they talk about not being let in to gods party. Being shut out in the dark. This is horrible enough.
    This shows deep down they know how damaging the idea is.

    Why would anyone who believed in hell want to have kids. You have just created a being that could be tortured for eternity. Not worth the risk

    Reply
  10. Christopher Diaz

    I’ve been an atheist for 25 years now. Not believing in a god is easy for me. However, for some reason I am more agnostic on the idea of an afterlife. I have to admit that it is profoundly frightening to think that my existence will cease when my heart ceases pumping blood, my lungs quit inhaling/exhaling air, and the electricity in my brain dissipates. It also makes me really sad that I will never again see my grandparents or my aunt, but I guess it won’t matter because I will no longer exist either.

    Reply
  11. Ian for a long time

    I beat my fear of Hell while still a Christian. I came to the understanding that, if I was one of the elect, there was no way I was going to Hell. If, on the other hand, I wasn’t elect, I was going to Hell, and there was nothing I could do about it. Call me fatalistic, but that broke my fear of Hell.

    Deconverting was much easier, because I didn’t fear Hell the way most Christians do. I had already come to terms with Hell and eternal punishment.

    That’s not to say I don’t have a lot of baggage with me. Fortunately, Hell isn’t in any of those bags. Almost 2 years ago, I got pretty sick and needed surgery; I had no worries about meeting God. Two weeks later, I was told my liver could explode, because of a blockage and I needed surgery very soon. I was at perfect peace. No fear of death or eternal punishment. To me, that was a big test of my beliefs.

    I hope what Bruce has written helps people beat this great fear. Like Hebrews 2:15 says, “And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. ” This could be any Christian, because they are made to fear death , at one time or another.

    Reply
  12. Marc Paladino

    Dear Bruce,
    Forgive me if I’m barging in. I am an active evangelical Christian, however I do not believe in the traditional view of hell. Not for any other reasons than the fact that the Bible does not teach that God has an eternal torture chamber for those who do not believe. Yes, I’m familiar with all the proof-texts that seem to support th ethe traditional view.

    I suggest you look up the site “Rethinking Hell,” and read what Christian Conditionalists are saying. Conditionalism, in short, teaches that immortality is not inherent in man – it is a Greek philosophical notion that is assumed but not actually in the Bible. The Bible teaches that immortality is the gift of God through faith in Jesus Christ who alone possesses immortality. The end of the unbelieving is death – simply death. Many hell-fire passages, if understood in context, refer not to the end of the world, but the fiery end of Jerusalem and Herod’s Temple in AD 70 (the end of the Jewish age). “Eternal” fire represents God judgment and is the quality and finality of God’s judgment, not the permanent burning of a person or persons. It is eternal judgment – not eternal judging.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      I am familiar with conditionalism. You are not the first person to suggest it as an alternative to the historic, traditional, orthodox view of hell. I see conditionalism, along with a host of other revisionist beliefs, as attempts by Christians to put a kinder face on Christianity — especially Evangelicalism.

      God becomes like a man handing out candy to a large group of children. He gives candy to the children that have been good and doesn’t give candy to the rest of the children. He walks by them as if they are invisible. He doesn’t give them candy because they believe the wrong things, were born to the wrong parents, or worship the wrong God. In his mind, these people don’t even exist.

      Conditionalism still leaves us with saved/lost, in/out. It still leaves us with a small group of people who are “special” in God’s eyes; people who get to enjoy the wonders and blessings of heaven. Everyone else? They cease to exist. I doubt that many of the readers of this blog will find conditionalism any less offensive than the orthodox view. Factor in the sovereignty of God and his decrees, we still end up God that chooses who does or doesn’t receive the candy.

      Thanks for commenting.

      Bruce

      Reply
    2. Levi Bullen

      Uhm, do the words EVERLASTING CONDEMNation, smoke of their TORMENT ascending up forever and ever, and unquenchable fire mean nothing to you?

      Reply
      1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

        Yes.

        Reply
      2. John Arthur

        Hi Levi,

        Your god is very cruel! The bible is a pretty barbaric book and not the Word of any god. God is supposed to have commanded the mass slaughter of little children and babies because of what their parents did. He commanded rape, slavery etc. This is preposterous morality. Your god is immoral. And you expect us to believe that barbaric punishment is what we all deserve. Your god is totally devoid of compassion.

        Reply
        1. Levi Bullen

          Look, if He was my God I’d escape that fate. I didn’t make the rules of this planet…..I didn’t ask to be born……and my children didn’t ask to be born.

          I hope I’m wrong and you are right.

          I really do.

          Reply

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