Goya’s famous painting of the god Saturn devouring his son.
Hell is, to me, the second most concerning aspect of religion (most religions have some “punishment” built in for negative reinforcement.) right behind Heaven. To me, Heaven is a greater concern, because it stands next to this world and diverts the attention of those waiting for it. It makes our most prized possession- our existence here- seem like a terrible thing to many believers. To those who would believe in Heaven, this world we have here is a trial. A test. A pain-filled experience that was not meant to be a home for us. It is a place of half-truths, and struggle, and it is temporary. You should look away from it and “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full on his wonderful face/and the things of earth become strangely dim, in the light of his glorious grace.” To me it is sad that so many people are turning away from all that we have. Which is a lot.
But Hell is what I want to talk about today. Religions evolve naturally the same way that organisms do. If they do not, they fade away. Survival of the fittest. Zoroaster just couldn’t cut it. So his religion is gone. I want to talk about this more in another blog post, because it’s one of the most interesting things about religion to me. But anyway, religions evolve in two main ways. They evolve to meet the basic needs of people (comfort, control, community, etc.) and they evolve to gain and keep followers. Some of the tools they evolve can be very sweet. Like a cute dog that has been bred to be adorable. Or like a fruit tree developing delicious fruit so it will be eaten by an animal and the seed will be spread by said animal. (The world’s true pooper-stars…) some evolutionary tools of a religion can be very powerful and scary. Just like the fangs of a snake or the claws of a bear. They can do damage.
Hell is not a real place. Anyone who has read our blog should not be surprised that we don’t think there’s a lake of fire that has been set aside for those who don’t love God. (Because God wants to know so badly that we really do honestly love him that he gave us free will… but he’s a little concerned we might not, so he created a big burning lake just to seal the deal for us.) But “Hell” is really just an evolutionary tool of religion meant to help it thrive and survive against other religions and grow in size and influence. (Why do you think almost every religion contains some version of “Be fruitful and multiply in the same way that many nations call upon their people to do their civic duty and have many strong children to insure the future of the glorious country of ____?”)
Hell exists to scare people into conversion, and to scare people out of leaving. And it’s incredibly effective. One of the most famous sermons ever is “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” by Jonathan Edwards. It compares the average believer to a tiny spider, being held by a tiny silken thread by a furious god over hell’s flames. That’s good evolution. Those are sharp fangs. Many people have been converted in part by that “fire and brimstone” sermon or others like it. And we’ve already discussed Pascal’s Wager HERE.
And it scares people into staying in as well. As “out” on religion as I am, and as sure as I am that I’m not going to suffer the flames of hell, it still pulls on me every now and then. The other night I watched a movie in which the protagonist is assassinated at the end. When he was shot and killed, my mind wandered to the idea of the last moments of your life. I thought about the last moments when I may have some time to reflect and realize that this is the end. And that eternity does not await me. (Thankful for that. Eternity can’t possibly be a good thing.) And then I thought about dying. And then I thought about how I would feel, if just after dying, I woke up. I had passed through a “door.” Afterlife was beginning. Uh-oh. I imagined my realisation that God was real and I was wrong and the abject horror that would overcome me upon realizing that I was now quite literally, a sinner in the hands of an angry god.
Now I have a very active imagination. I actually have to listen to podcasts to fall asleep to keep my mind from just endlessly wandering at night. I’m very ADD and my friends know that I’m constantly in my cell phone or online trying to continuously stimulate my mind. (I blame excess television during my formative stages.) But still, it’s remarkable that I can be so at peace with what I believe and even write and evangelize against my former beliefs with assuredness, but even still, an occasional thought will creep in… my old imaginary friend, waving his gun in my face, gnashing his teeth at me.
It only lasted a few moments. But it was and is proof of a powerful psychological tool.
So this is what I refer to as the “New Hell.” The Old Hell is the mythological place most religions teach about some form of where the non-believers will have their comeuppance. The New Hell is simply the consequences religion is actually capable of delivering on for those who leave it behind. The true fangs that can bite.
I want to hear from you on this by the way. I’m calling on our atheist/deist/agnostic readers to join in this conversation, and I’m calling on my co-author, Jon with no H, to join in as well. Tell me your stories of your “consequences” for leaving. How did religion “bite” you? Did it “bite” a loved one who you had to tell, or can’t tell? I feel like it would do us good to read each other’s stories, and for believers to read these stories as well.
I’ll start… This weekend I’m at a destination wedding, seeing many of my friends from college. Some of them I haven’t seen in five or ten years and it’s awesome to reconnect. I went to a christian school and majored in ministry though, and I have many former friends here who are active ministers. I decided that without making myself a big center of attention, which is never a good idea at a wedding, I would privately let a few of my friends know about where I am now. I told them about my journey, about leaving faith behind (not “losing” faith, mind you. I haven’t “lost” anything. I willfully left my faith. I didn’t “fall off the horse,” I just bought a car is all.) They are good friends and no one has condemned me, or been angry or belittling. Just the opposite, actually, the response has been heartfelt, respectful, and not at all dismissive. I’m really grateful to have friends like that.
But this morning I overheard one of my oldest friends talking to another person who was in on the conversation last night. He described the news of my deconversion as “heart-wrenching.” He didn’t know I could hear him.
That’s an understandable response. He’s been taught that I’m going to burn in hell for eternity now. Instead of taking pleasure in that, it pains his heart. I can understand that. It means he loves me. God is using that love. He is using it to bite him with His holy fangs. He is biting him in front of me, and blaming me for it. And I feel pain. Pain that my choice that I see as perfectly logical and legitimately freeing is hurting my friend. That it’s breaking his heart. That’s the holy fangs of God biting me.
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
-William Blake (First and fifth verse)
Now tell me your stories of the holy fangs of God. And believers, you’re of course welcome with your opinions as well. But I really want us to share, so that we can acknowledge that this a testable, repeatable phenomenon. That God truly bites.
-John with an H.