Last time, I promised this post would consider the purpose of hell. It has been so long since that promise that some of my readers may think that I have actually gone there, but fear not: I have not and neither will you.
Alive and well so far, let’s turn to the cheerful subject of why hell is so important to evangelical Christianity.
1) Without hell, Jesus’ death on the cross is meaningless.
Several years ago, one of my daughters, who was a Christian, said she was worried about going to hell. At the time, I was still a Christian too, but, in the midst of my four-year period of deep questioning, there were some things I had figured out. I assured her, “Don’t worry. The doctrine of hell is ridiculous. A just God would not punish anyone for an infinite amount of time for sins committed in this lifetime’s comparative blink of an eye. Infinite punishment for finite sins makes no sense.”
She immediately saw the truth of my argument and stopped worrying about hell.
And then she thought further: If there is no hell, then we don’t need to be saved from it. So what was the point of Jesus’ death on the cross? And the cross is the absolute centerpiece of Christianity.
Her faith slowly unraveled.
My daughter’s story illustrates one of the purposes of hell. It gives meaning and urgency to the central event in evangelical Christianity: Jesus’ death on the cross. On the cross, he atoned for our sins so we don’t have to go to hell. Without hell, this brand of Christianity falls apart.
2) Hell primes the faithful to distrust unbelievers, and ignore information that contradicts the faith.
As of this writing, the National Association of Evangelicals has chosen to include the following paragraph as one of only seven in their Statement of Faith:
We believe in the resurrection of both the saved and the lost; they that are saved unto the resurrection of life and they that are lost unto the resurrection of damnation.
I am ashamed to say that every church I belonged to over the course of 40 years had something similar in their Statements of Faith.
According to evangelical Christianity, there are two types of people: the Good and the Bad. Those who are not “born again” are automatically Bad. And not just a little bad, but bad enough for perfect justice to require that they suffer in hell forever.
Of course, Christians don’t go around consciously thinking, “That person should burn in hell forever. So should she… and he… and he.” In fact, their dearest wish is that as many people as possible would avoid that fate.
Nevertheless, this division of humanity into “saved” (us) and “lost” (them) permeates the evangelical mindset. Confronted with evidence contrary to their world-view, their reflex is to chalk it up to the anti-God biases of the messenger. After all, the Bible says that “the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure,” so how can a secular person be trusted?
All of us are naturally suspicious of people who are not like us, but evangelical Christianity takes it to the next level by making the out-group worthy of hell. There is no more potent recipe for mistrust. This mistrust of outsiders has the important purpose of keeping people in the faith.
After my daughter stopped believing in hell, she was able to realize that people are not wicked at the core, but a mixture of good and bad, deserving both love and help — not hell.
3) Hell scares people into staying in the faith.
When I left the faith, my Christian friends were, almost without exception, utterly uninterested in why I would do such a thing. However, one gave me a gift. It was the book, 23 Minutes in Hell: One Man’s Story About What He Saw, Heard and Felt in that Place of Torment.
Evidently I was supposed to remain in the faith due to fear of hell. Add to this the doctrine that once you have left the faith you will be unable to return, and you have powerful control over believers’ minds. Quite literally, they will be afraid to think too much.
This is why the doctrine of hell has been so successful at keeping people in the fold, and why it is so vile.
Nobody can speak on hell better than great 19th-century orator, Robert Ingersoll (Why I Am an Agnostic):
All that the human race has suffered in war and want, in pestilence and famine, in fire and flood — all the pangs and pains of every disease and every death — all this is as nothing compared to the agonies to be endured by one lost soul.
This is the consolation of the Christian religion. This is the justice of God — the mercy of Christ.
This frightful dogma, this infinite lie, made me the implacable enemy of Christianity. The truth is that this belief in eternal pain has been the real persecutor. It founded the Inquisition, forged the chains, and furnished the fagots. It has darkened the lives of many millions. It has made the cradle as terrible as the coffin. It enslaved nations and shed the blood of countless thousands. It sacrificed the wisest, the bravest and the best. It subverted the idea of justice, drove mercy from the heart, changed men to fiends and banished reason from the brain.
Like a venomous serpent it crawls and coils and hisses in every orthodox creed.
It makes man an eternal victim and God an eternal fiend. It is the one infinite horror. Every church in which it is taught is a public curse. Every preacher who teaches it is an enemy of mankind. Below this Christian dogma, savagery cannot go.
I can’t be the “implacable enemy of Christianity” and maintain my sanity, but Colonel Ingersoll speaks powerfully. What do you think?