The single most influential idea on my religious outlook is undoubtedly the doctrine of hell. It was hell that sparked my initial interest in religion during my teenage years, it was hell that kindled the scrupulosity which tormented me for years, it was hell that ignited my investigation and subsequent deconversion and it is hell that continues to fuel my antipathy toward Christianity. It’s difficult to envision how my life would have been if I had never believed in hell, but it certainly would have followed a markedly different course.
Every person values and seeks happiness. It’s the ultimate motivation for all our thoughts and actions, whether we pursue it directly or indirectly (by making others and then thus ourselves happy) and even paradoxically when we find it in feelings of sadness. Hell is the antithesis of happiness and is by definition the worst possible concept imaginable. It’s a place (or “state”) of eternal pain and suffering and has been symbolized as an unquenchable lake of fire. And it is, despite its simplicity, without a doubt the vilest concept ever conceived of by humanity.
No person could ever deserve to be consigned to hell, for the pain endured therein would be infinitely more than any pain inflicted by a finite being. Even the most brutal dictators caused only a limited amount of suffering and would be unjustly punished in hell, even by the most vindictive standards of justice. And I find it both laughable and depressing to hear believers argue that an omnimax deity cannot prevent people from being roasted for eternity. This claim can only result from complete ignorance or from a complete lack of imagination.
Whenever I hear Jesus referred to as loving or merciful, I wince. While the gospels do contain some benevolent teachings, these are completely overshadowed by Jesus’ recurrent threat of unending torture for anyone who fails to accept his message. One cannot expect praise for preaching love while simultaneously executing divine blackmail. An objector might arguing that hell is only a metaphor and that Jesus’ threats weren’t meant literally. To this, I respond that this isn’t the Jesus of Christianity but instead a sanitized caricature of Jesus that has been altered in response to moral progress of the past twenty centuries. To claim that the vast majority of Jesus’ followers throughout history have totally misunderstood him and that the true message of Jesus perfectly corresponds with modern western humanistic values is to engage in completely unsupportable historical revisionism.
I simply cannot imagine that the billions of people who profess to believe in hell truly do so, or at least not that they believe they themselves might actually go there. If there is truly even the slightest possibility that one could be tortured forever and ever, then no response is too radical to prevent this possibility from being realized. For many, however, hell is just a place for murderers; everyone else will be admitted to heaven upon death. With this thoroughly unbiblical perspective and because most of us aren’t emotionally close to any murderers, hell is relatively easy to ignore. I would like to stress that this is a very good thing; billions of people obsessing about would result in worldwide chaos. It was, after all, belief in hell which fanned the flames of the crusades and inquisitions. We would all do well to toss the concept of eternal punishment into the trash bin of history.
I would like to comfort my readers by reminding them of a truly glorious truth which finally ended my personal religious struggles and which I hereby resolve to reflect upon each day: Smile! There is no hell!