Many Christians — especially those of a liberal/progressive bent — now believe that non-Christians will be annihilated after death. Queasy over the notion of their “Loving” God eternally torturing unbelievers in hell, these Christians say that God will instead obliterate non-Christians, wiping them from the pages of human existence. Some Protestant Christians think unbelievers will be tortured for a certain amount of time, and then, having satisfied God’s torture-lust, will be burned up and remembered no more.
While it is certainly possible to selectively read and interpret the Bible and conclude that God will annihilate non-Christians, the historic Christian position remains God torturing conscious people for eternity. In recent years, thanks to authors such as Greg Boyd, Clark Pinnock, and John Stott, Evangelicals have become more sympathetic towards annihilationism. The question I want to raise in this post is WHY they have become more sympathetic to this view.
What causes staunch, Bible-believing Evangelicals to abandon the doctrine of endless punishment? Have they changed their view as a result of diligently studying the Bible? While I am sure that some Evangelicals have abandoned this doctrine for intellectual reasons, the real reason is more emotional in nature. By carefully examining increasing Evangelical support for same-sex marriage, I think we can understand why many Evangelicals no longer think non-believers will be eternally tortured in hell (actually the Lake of Fire). Younger Evangelicals — having watched their parents and grandparents turn Evangelicalism into one of the most hated American religions — want to put a kinder, gentler face on Christianity. Many of them — deeply affected by postmodern thinking — have moved leftward, away from the culture war and the endless battles over doctrine. No longer wanting to be viewed in a negative light, younger Evangelicals strive to be accepted by the world. More accepting of evolution and science, tolerant, temperate Evangelicals genuinely want to be liked by others — bristling when lumped in with culture warriors and Fundamentalists.
These worldly Evangelicals know and associate with people older Evangelicals have, in times past, consigned to the flames of hell. It is hard for them to look at Lesbian Angela, Gay Harper, and Atheist Laura and think these friends of theirs will be endlessly tortured by God. As in the case of gays and same-sex marriage, once people actually meet and know people who are happy unbelievers, their viewpoint often changes as well. Their parents and grandparents — fearing contamination by the “world” — walled themselves off from the influences of non-Christians. Younger Evangelicals — often educated at secular colleges — are more comfortable among non-Christians. Once exposed to the “world,” it is unlikely they will return to the Fundamentalism of their Evangelical forefathers.
As atheists, should we be appreciative that some Evangelicals think God will annihilate us some day, and not endlessly torture us? Ponder for a moment the fact that many annhilationists think God will — for a time — torture unbelievers before turning them into ash heaps. How is this really any better than eternal hellfire and damnation? The fact remains that the Christian God will reward or punish people based on beliefs. Believe the right things and a home in heaven awaits. Believe the wrong things and God will erase your name from the book of the living. I get it…many Evangelicals are tired of being viewed as mean and hateful, and Liberal and Progressive Christians are weary of being lumped together with Fundamentalists. However, the fact remains that annihilation is a form of punishment reserved for those who are members of the wrong religious club. This means that good people will be burnt to a crisp for no other reason than that their God was some other deity but Jesus. Forgive me if I don’t find such beliefs “comforting.”
Here’s the good news. Many Christians, having tried on annihilationism for a time, eventually realize that it is just endless punishment-lite. Once annihilationism is abandoned, universalism awaits. All paths now lead to eternal bliss, so there is no need to evangelize or argue doctrine. Imagine a world without theocratic demands of fealty, arguments over theology, or threats of God’s judgment. Why, such a world would be heaven on earth — a heaven where even atheists are welcome.
Stacy Long, a writer for the American Family Association, admits that when taking the Bible at face value, the Christian God comes off looking more like a murderous psychopath than the loving, doting father Evangelicals say he is. Long writes:
Often we read the Bible and have a hard time making the connection between God’s role in the Old and New Testaments. How do we reconcile Jesus’ teachings of God’s love and longsuffering, of kindness to our fellow man, of redemption and sacrifice for all people with the Old Testament instruction to pillage and conquer the Canaanites with instant death for one who so much as laid a careful hand on the Ark of the Covenant with stoning an entire family because one man went astray.
The Christian God’s optics problem is one of the reasons often given for people leaving Christianity. If the Bible is taken at face value (literally), especially the Old Testament, God is a vindictive, petty, petulant, narcissistic son-of-a-bitch deity who doesn’t deserve one second of obeisance and worship. From the Father God perspective, the Christian God is a father who neglects his children, refuses to meet their basic needs, and physically abuses them when they fail to meet his exacting, perfectionist standard of living.
Even in the New Testament God has an optics problem. What kind of father allows his son to be brutally tortured for the crimes of others? While the Christian God certainly is viewed in a better light in much of the New Testament, he returns to his Old Testament self in the book of Revelation, a 22-chapter story of God’s slaughter of the human race and the destruction of earth. Perhaps God suffers from multiple personality disorder or is schizophrenic. Perhaps from Matthew to Jude God is well-medicated and refrains from returning to his murderous ways. In Revelation, tired of the calming effects of anti-psychotic medications, God goes off his meds and makes up for lost time by slaughtering billions of people.
While Long recognizes that God has an optics problem, she attempts to rehabilitate God’s psychopathic resume by suggesting that God operates according to a different moral and ethical standards than sinful humans. Long writes:
And so, God’s ways are not our ways. But even when His ways seem strange to us – unlike what we know of Him – His ways are still the same, and He is still good.
So, maybe it is not so much that God’s actions are inscrutable, as our understanding of them is precarious. Not that we lack some secret key to biblical exposition, but simply because we are not God. He’s looking at the picture from a whole different angle, and what He sees may be very different from what we see. What He knows and understands may be completely unknown to us. In short, what we may misunderstand and call bad, He may call good.
Over the years, as I have attempted to challenge Evangelical beliefs by pointing out God’s immoral behavior, Christians have reminded me that it is impossible for us to judge God using human reasoning. According to Evangelicals, God’s ways are not our ways. Where do they get such a notion? Right out of the Bible:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8,9)
According to Evangelicals, God’s behavior can never be questioned because his ways are beyond human reason and understanding. In other words, God can do whatever the hell the wants because he is God. The Apostle Paul, when questioned about God choosing to save some people but not others, wrote:
For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth. Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth. Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will? Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? (Romans 9:17-21)
Simply put, Paul is saying, Shut up! How dare you question God! God is God and he can do whatever he wants to do.
Take the birth of Jesus for instance. Looking at the story from a human viewpoint, it is a completely tragic affair. A girl gets pregnant out of wedlock, her fiancée is compelled to marry her against his own inclination, they are forced into an arduous journey through unfriendly terrain, they are destitute and homeless when it comes to the time for childbirth, and the whole thing ends with a lot of innocent infants being massacred and Jesus’ parents having to flee for their lives to a foreign land not knowing if they will see their home and families again. For a sad tale of a couple who really get their lives messed up, that beats Romeo and Juliet hollow. Oh, and then that baby who came into the world through so much trouble and pain ends up being horrifically executed as a criminal and denied by His closest friends. And yet, from our retrospective understanding of God’s purpose, we celebrate His birth as the sweetest, most joyous event of all time.
Long, as every Evangelical, reads the Bible selectively. When Evangelicals read the story of the conception and birth of Jesus, all they see is the wonderful babe in the manger — God incarnate who came to earth to save sinners. While rose-colored-glasses wearing Evangelicals know that there are morally perplexing and contradictory aspects of the incarnation story, they shut their minds off from reason, believing instead that their God would never do anything that was not for their good.
So then, God raping a virgin teenage girl and making her the surrogate for Jesus is okay because these heinous behaviors led to the birth of Jesus, the savior of the world. Is this not why many Evangelicals believe that there should be no abortion exceptions? According to Evangelicals, if a woman is violently raped and impregnated by a psychopath, she still should be forced to carry the fetus to term. Why? Well, look at how things worked out for Mary. She carried her fetus to term and that fetus became a miracle-working prophet, a God-man hybrid, who was violently tortured and executed so his blood could be used to wash away our sins. Amazing and wonderful, right?
God, who is all-knowing and all-powerful, could have chosen to impregnate Mary another way (by having Joseph impregnate her and then supernaturally turning the fetus into Jesus, the son of God). In fact, he could have provided a different method of salvation. But, he didn’t. Evangelicals often focus on the heathen ruler who massacred all the male babies in Bethlehem and the surrounding area under the age of two. What an awful, murderous man, Evangelicals say. Wait a minute, couldn’t God have stopped Herod’s slaughter? Shouldn’t God, who is the creator of the universe and the divine human puppet master, be held accountable for what happens on his watch?
Evangelicals argue that God cannot do wrong, and that he is morally pure. When confronted with Bible stories that suggest otherwise, Christians rush in to defend their God from charges of immorality. I get it–the Christian narrative must be protected at all costs. If God is shown to be culpable for his behavior, why that would mean that he is not a deity worthy of human fealty, fidelity, devotion, and worship. And this is exactly what Evangelicals-turned-atheists such as I believe. Even if the Evangelical God exists, and he doesn’t, he would not be a deity worthy of our devotion and worship. We refuse to bow in worship to a God who has spent the last 6,020 years murderously working its way through human history. We refuse to bow in worship to a God who considers sickness, disease, starvation and war “good.” We refuse to bow in worship to a God who had stood on the sidelines of human history doing nothing as blood flows in the world’s streets.
I know all the excuses Evangelicals give for their God’s behavior. I used them myself in sermon after sermon, and they were little more than defenses of the indefensible. God has the power necessary to radically change life on earth, yet he does nothing. Outside of helping Granny Louise find her car keys and helping Tim Tebow keep his virginity, God is largely AWOL. When will Christians realize that their God is not who they claim he is? Anyone with a modicum of reason and basic observation skills can conclude that the God being peddled by Evangelicals is a work of fiction.
Evangelicals are forced to ignore or reinterpret vast portions of the Bible in order to main the Christian narrative: that God is a kind, loving, long-suffering deity who desires to save people from their sins, that he is a God personally involved in the affairs of the human race, right down to giving each of us the breath to breathe. I ask, dear Christians, where is this God of yours? Outside of your minds, where can I find this God? Better yet, based on what I read in the Bible, why should I devotedly worship the Christian God? What is there about your God that deems him worthy of my love and devotion? From my seat in the atheist pew, if I knew of someone who behaved in a fashion similar to the Christian God, I would advocate for his immediate incarceration and execution. Such a loathsome creature does not deserve life. In every way, the Christian God is worse than the most vile of humans. Why would I ever want to worship such a God?
Simple, Bruce, if you don’t, God will torture you in hell for eternity after you die.
Utica, Ohio is having its annual ice cream festival. A woman and her husband decide to attend the festival. Hopping on their Harley, off they drive to Utica.
The traffic is busy, and the husband knows he had better be careful.
But off in the distance, a woman grows impatient with traffic. She’s in a hurry, wanting to get home. She makes a decision that will have catastrophic consequences a few seconds later. She quickly makes a u-turn, and much to her horror there is a motorcycle coming right at her.
It’s already too late. The husband does what he can to avoid the oncoming car, but his wife, the mother of his three children, is thrown from the Harley and her head hits the pavement.
And just like that, she’s dead.
Every dream, every hope, and every opportunity of tomorrow is now gone.
Being a Christian family, we turn to our God and ask why. We pray for strength and understanding. The heavens are silent, and they remain so even to this day.
In a moment of anguished religious passion, someone says, if one soul gets saved through this, it is worth it all.
No, it’s not. How dare we reduce the worth of a life, this one precious life, to that which God can use for his purpose. A husband has lost his wife and his children are motherless. Her grandchildren will never know the warmth of her love. Her sister and parents are left with memories that abruptly stopped the moment their sister and daughter hit the pavement.
No, I say to myself, I’m not willing to trade her life for anyone’s salvation. Let them all go to hell. Give us one more day when the joy and laughter of family can be heard and the family is whole. One more day to enjoy the love and complexity she brought into our life.
One more day.
(In honor of my sister-in-law Kathy Shope Hughes who died on Memorial Day 2005)
Every Evangelical-turned-atheist has had a Christian zealot pose to them the question, what if you are wrong? Over the past seven years I’ve been asked this question numerous times. Devoted followers of Jesus genuinely fear for my soul and don’t want me to be tortured by their God in hell for eternity, so they hope by asking this question they can get me to reconsider my decision to give God, Jesus, and Christianity the heave-ho.
This question is often followed by some form of Pascal’s Wager. Of course, those asking the question don’t realize the hypocrisy of their question. As a practicing Christian, shouldn’t they be joining the Muslims, Buddhists, Mormons, and every other religion that says there is some sort of life after death? Shouldn’t they make sure all their bases are covered? Christians wants to hold me to a different standard from the one to which they hold themselves. They are certain the Christian God is the one and only true God, so they see no reason to ask of themselves, what if I am wrong? Even among Christians, there are uncounted Christianities, with differing beliefs and practices. Which Christianity is the true Christianity? Is recent commenter Susan-Anne White’s Christianity true Christianity? Is Bible Believer’s (blogger at the Galatians 4 website, who just so happened to have mentioned me again on his blog) Christianity true Christianity? The Baptists think their version of Christianity is true Christianity, and the Church of Christ, Catholicism, and Greek Orthodoxy do too. Two thousand years in the making and Christians can’t even agree on basic beliefs like salvation, baptism, and communion. Yet, rarely do any of them contemplate that they could be wrong.
Could I be wrong about God, Jesus, Christianity, the Bible, and the plethora of other Gods humans have created since they were able to walk upright and reason? Sure, and I could say the same about many of the things I consider factual or true. As one who values science and the scientific methods, my belief in God or lack thereof is based on evidence and probabilities. While I self-identify as an atheist, I am agnostic on the God question. It is possible that a God of some sort could reveal itself to one or more humans at some future point in history. Possible, but not likely. As things now stand, I see no evidence that would lead me to conclude that a God of some sort exists. While science has not answered the first-cause question and may never do so, it has built an intellectually satisfactory explanation of the world we live in. While this explanation frequently changes thanks to new evidence, I see no reason to retreat into the pages of an outdated, contradictory book written by unknown authors thousands of years ago. Just because science doesn’t have the answer to every question doesn’t mean that God is the answer. Scientists are willing to say, I don’t know, and then they go about trying to find out what they don’t know. When’s the last time a Christian theologian, Catholic Pope, Muslim cleric, or Evangelical preacher has done the same? Certainty breeds infallibility and ignorance, both of which lead to people accepting as fact the most outlandish of ideas. (i.e. virgin birth, resurrection from the dead, hell in the center of the earth, heaven in the sky, creationism, miracles, perfect religious texts)
When it comes to the Christian God, the Muslim God, the Jewish God, or any of the other Gods that humans currently worship, I am quite confident that these Gods are no Gods at all. Is it possible that these gods exist? I suppose there is a minuscule chance, but the odds are so infinitesimal that it would be a waste of my time to even consider it. Life is too short to spend one moment of time considering the existence of Odin, Zeus, Lugh, Dagda, Haniyasu-hiko, Jesus, Kane, Pundjel, El Elyon, Shamayim, Guamansuri, Wakan-Tanka, Bochica, Lao-Tien-Yeh, Altjira, Loki, Atlas, Coyote, or any of the thousands of other Gods humans have at one time or another conjured up. (see God Checker: Your Guide to the Gods)
I live without fear of hell or fear of being judged by a God. The hell and judgment that I see on this earth comes from the hands of humans, not a God. If there is a God, he is definitely AWOL. Someday, I will die and I think that will be the end of it for me. What if I am wrong? What if there is a God waiting to settle the score with me after I draw my last breath? I guess I will say, oops, my bad, and I hope she will look at my life and judge me accordingly. I hope she will judge me not by the things that I did or did not believe, but by how I lived my life.
Many Christians, especially those of the Evangelical persuasion, believe that salvation is secured by believing the right things. While they love to talk about love and grace, the true foundation of their faith is a commitment to certain beliefs and propositions derived from their understanding of the “infallible” Bible. Believe the wrong things and hell will be your eternal resting place. Virtually every Evangelical who stops at my blog to spar with me tries to get me to believe the “right” beliefs. Rarely, does any one of them say anything about how I live my life. BELIEVE THIS AND THOU SHALT LIVE, is their gospel.
If not believing Jesus is the virgin born, second person in the Trinity, who came to earth, lived a perfect life, worked miracles, died on the cross and resurrected from the dead, and ascended back to heaven, ends with my rendition to the Lake of Fire to be tortured day and night by the God who created me, so be it. I have no interest in such a religion, and I have no interest in such a God who is only interested in what I believed and not how I lived.
If, somewhere beyond my next breath, I keel over and die and I find myself in the presence of the Big Man of Upstairs, I hope he will judge my life by how I lived, and if he does so I am confident that everything will be just fine. And if not, if what I believed is what really mattered, then I guess I will burn in hell with a lot of other good people. Coming soon to a corner of hell near you, The Hitch and Bruce Almighty Show.
From generation to generation, Ohio children are taught the myth of the woolly worm. Each fall, woolly worms, the caterpillar form of the Isabella Tiger Moth, make their appearance, and like Punxsutawney Phil who predicts how long winter will last, the banded woolly worm predicts how severe the coming winter will be. The blacker the woolly worm the worse winter will be, or so says the great woolly worm myth.
Like the mythical Jesus of the Bible, the woolly worm and its magical weather predicting power lives on as parents tell its story. Few will bother to investigate this claim, choosing to believe that the mostly black woolly worm they saw is a sure sign that snow will blanket Ohio for most of the winter.
Earlier, we piled into our car and headed to Tinora High School to watch our 7-year-old grandson’s flag football game. We traveled southeast on Ohio Hwy 15 for a few miles and then turned north on Evansport Road. A mile or so up the road:
Polly: Oh no, a black woolly worm. You know that means we are going to have a bad winter.
Polly, showing her dislike of winter: Maybe I should run over him.
Bruce: He’ll got to hell if you run over him.
Polly: How do you know he’ll go to hell?
Bruce: He didn’t persevere to the end.
Polly laughs, and Bruce says: He’s not one of the elect woolly worms.
Polly and Bruce have a hearty laugh, giving God nary a thought.