Fighting the fear of hell and eternal torment
Different visitors to this site are at different points of their de-conversion journey. However, I’ve been noticing an increasing number of people at the point where their fear of Hell and eternal condemnation is keeping them from getting any further.
This isn’t a point that everyone reaches. For some, the same arguments which cause them to doubt the existence of a god (problems with scripture, the existence of multiple religions with contrasting views, logical problems with an omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent deity creating a world where evil happens, simple lack of evidence, etc.) also keep them from being able to believe in a hell enough to fear it.
For others of us, it was studying the contradictory and confusing Biblical descriptions of Hell and how to avoid it that helped us realize that the hypothesis of God made no sense. By the time we came to doubt God, we already had lost our fear of hell.
But when you wake up at two in the morning from a nightmare inspired by Sunday school depictions of eternal torment, not everyone finds logic and reason to be persuasive enough to chase away fear. Some find, at times like these, a story can bring more ease than a rehearsal of facts.
For de-converting (or even faithfully believing) Christians troubled by thoughts of Hell, I like to recommend two books. Both were written by believing Christians. Both operate on the premise that God exists and is benevolent. I don’t expect either to be of any help or interest to atheists or agnostics (though I could be wrong), but fears need to be faced where you are, not where you’d like to be or where you think you’ll be ending up. I’m writing this post under the premise that some de-converting Christians might need to face their fears about de-converting as Christians before they can let go of their Christianity.
The first book is The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. It’s a story of those residents of Hell who take the gracious opportunity to leave Hell and enter Heaven. The story goes to great lengths to show that those who reside in Hell are there because they choose to be and discard any choice to leave. The afterlife is portrayed as a continuation of this one, on a different field. Life is still all about coming into closer union with God, but how to do so is much clearer.
The second book, Good Goats- Healing our Image of God by Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn and Matthew Linn. It’s a very short book that is easy to read and works off the premise that God loves us at least as much as the person who loves us most. They look carefully at biblical depictions of Hell, and consider that the word “eternal” does not mean “forever” but “outside of time” or (as they put it) “in God’s time”. Hell is not forever, but only for as long as the being who loves you most (and has your best interests in heart) feels is necessary.
Both of these books helped me past my fear, allowing me to get to the point where I could actually question their basic premises- but others have written posts on what scriptures and soteriology (salvation theology) imply about God’s morality and what the world around us tells us about the likelihood of God’s existence. I won’t repeat them here.
What I will repeat is a re-telling of a Bible story that may aid those still struggling. I don’t present this as a substitute for facts or reason, but as an aid for those it might help, so that they can reach the point where they can objectively view and accept what their reason tells them.
A re-telling of Luke 10:25-37.
One day, a theologian decided to challenge a street preacher. “Preacher,” he asked, “what must we do to be saved?”
“What is written in the Gospels?” the preacher replied. “What do you read there?”
The theologian answered answered: “It is through Jesus that we are saved. We must believe in Him.”
“You have answered correctly,” the preacher replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But the theologian wanted to justify himself, so he asked the preacher, “And who is this Jesus that we must believe in?”
In reply, the preacher said: “A man was walking downtown, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stole everything, even his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him to die. After he died, Jesus came to him, wearing a frayed loincloth and a crown of thorns. Blood dripped from his hands, feet, brow and side. He was beaten but not broken, and there was a fanatic gleam in his eyes when he raised his head to snarl,
“Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” (Mt. 25:41b-43)
Again, Jesus came to him, blond and blue-eyed with a sad smile and a pure white robe. He sat in the midst of quiet children and clean sheep and gently told the man,
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Mt. 7:21-23)
A third time, Jesus came to him, almost unrecognizably: a young, Jewish man with traces of sawdust on his faded blue jeans. When he saw the man he took pity on him. He went to him and healed his wounds, tears of compassion falling down his face. Then he took the man up in his arms, and carried him to our Heavenly Father. “Look after him,” he said, “I have paid for any debt he may owe.”
“Which of these three do you think was a saviour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The theologian replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
The street preacher smiled, “Go and do likewise.”