When I gave up believing in a traditional notion of hell, I did not really choose to stop believing in hell. It just stopped making sense. Think about it this way. Imagine that someone tells you to believe that elves and ferries are real. Probably you can’t make yourself believe it. That was what happened with me in regards to hell. I saw too much evil in the world, and one day I woke up, and I no longer believed in hell.
Interestingly, although I did not give up a belief in hell by choice, I am constantly amazed at how much more free it makes me.
First, I no longer have to pound people with the gospel.
Now that I no longer believe people go to hell, I’m no longer in a rush to get people saved. In fact, I don’t need to see them saved at all. I need to see them loved and cared for.
When I was living overseas, it literally changed how I did missions. When I believed in hell, I was on tiptoes because I did not want to tell people their relatives were burning in hell, but I was terrified, TERRIFIED, that my friends would end up in hell. Most Christians probably have not been in a situation where literally all their friends are going to burn in hell. When I lived in the US as a kid and was part of the evangelical tribe, I did not have to worry too much about hell because everyone I knew was a believer (a few exceptions, and I did worry about those). When I lived overseas, all my best friends were headed to hell. It was depressing. In fact, I felt like I was living in a graveyard.
When I stopped believing in hell, I was able to be a better friend. I could listen to my Asian friends rant about their daily problems or go swimming with them, or let them teach me how to make their food. I could do it all without worry about their soul.
It also gave me permission to worry about hell on earth more than hell beyond. The bigger issue was suddenly the kid in the brothel, not the healthy adult in our village who was a unbeliever.
Secondly, it’s allowed me to accept my friends – as in genuinely accept them.
Libby Anne last week highlighted how her mother’s belief in hell strains their relationship.
My mother’s firm belief in the reality of hell, after all, is perhaps the most significant problem in our strained relationship. I can’t disagree with her on, well, anything without her worrying about my eternal salvation—without her shedding tears over the possibility that I might burn in fire, screaming in anguish, for eternity. And unless I can make her stop believing in hell, which I can’t, this won’t change. She will, for the rest of her life, cry over her fear that her daughter will suffer a fate worse than anything imaginable on this earth—an eternity in hell.
In fact, I think my mother’s primary goal in life, at this point, is to ensure that each and every one of her children will go to heaven, and avoid the fate of hell. “I just want to see my children in heaven,” she told me during a recent heart to heart. I can’t shake the feeling that religion is more important to my mother than her children, and that she can only value her children through the lens religion provides her. She shows her love for her children by trying to keep us out of hell rather than by accepting us as we are. And that’s really not good for our relationship.
As long as we believe in a traditional notion of hell, it damages relationships with those who are unbelievers. When I believed in hell, I was shy to share the gospel, but I was always terrified that tomorrow might not come. My unbelieving friends could die tomorrow; I couldn’t wait to talk to them until they were more ready because tomorrow was no guarantee.
While I was away at college, one of my good friends lost her faith. After I finished and was in my hometown again, I ran into a friend who chastised me. He said that she was close to me and that she had questions, and instead of answering her question and being her friend, I went off and got a worldly education. Her eternity was at stake, and I let it go. I was selfish. I literally wanted to vomit because he was right. If hell was an eternal place of damnation, he was right. I should be doing one thing and one thing only: sharing the gospel.
Thirdly, it totally damages our relationship with gays.
I’ll grant it that not everyone who believes in a traditional notion of hell is against gay people. However, on the flip side, one reason a lot of people won’t accept gay people is that they are terrified that gay people will go to hell. If we don’t tell them their sin is serious, they will burn in hell. And that is terrifying.
A good example is some of the comments on the news articles about World Vision, a Christian organization who sponsors children’s education and well-being overseas. Because they decided to hire gay people to work for them, many Christians withdrew their sponsorship. Why? Read some of the comments. They range from statements such as, gays will go to hell, to God will cast us to hell and say he never knew us, to God is going to dump his wrath out on us on earth.
Obviously, there is a lot of genuine homophobia in North America at the root of all this, but I also see a warped view of what it means for God to love us. That brings me to my last point.
Fourthly, it has allowed me to accept God’s love.
Hell taught me that God hates sin so much that he would zap us. That’s why he would send gays to hell, or even judge us harshly on earth;. when I stopped believing in hell, I started to believe that maybe God does love us unconditionally. If God was not going to send people to hell, maybe he wasn’t going to bring us hell on earth just because we suck. Maybe he was actually a solution – a solution, instead of the mean guy who blackmails us into belief.
Don’t get me wrong, I was still skeptical of God’s love after I stopped believing in hell. In fact, I’m still skeptical sometimes. It is so engrained in me that God hates sin so much that he would rather not be around us than be in the presence of sin; that made – and still makes – me uncomfortable accepting God’s love. I’ve written about this before on my blog. The pro-gay, feel good churches in America make me uncomfortable, and part of that is I’m only used to churches where God is a God of wrath.
But I’m learning, day by day, that maybe what I was taught is a piece of crap. The turn began when I stopped believing in hell.
Anyway, I’m more content than ever to not believe in hell. If I’m wrong, at least I will die a better person for it.