The Unfundamental Conversion

So Much Bigotry Comes Down to the Doctrine of Hell

March 26th, 2014 | Posted by Lana Hope in Missions | Religion

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.

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  • sgl

    minor quibble: i’d suggest that soteriology rather than hell specifically is the difference. eg, i could believe in hell for hitler, stalin, mao, slave traders, etc, and heaven for gandi, etc, and still come out being able to see other decent people as people, rather than hellbound sinners. but the belief in salvation thru correct belief is, in my opinion, deeply deeply flawed.

    my view of fundamentalist soteriology is like overhearing one small child saying to another, “mommy and daddy love me more than they love you”. how much investigation do you need to do to make an educated guess that that’s the opinion of the child saying it, not the actual belief of the parent? the belief that god only talked with one small tribe of people in the levant, sent a whole series of prophets, and then came down himself, and never once sent a single prophet to any other tribe on earth? that smacks of human ethnocentrism far more than an omnipotent all-loving god.

    lastly, i’d say inerrancy is a deeply problematic issue with all these topics too, particularly with gays. having watched several bart erhman videos talking about the complexity of the process of how the bible came to be, and the contradictions in it, it’s really hard to support the notion of inerrancy the way many/most fundamentalists view it. (and most of them don’t know and intentionally avoid learning about what scholars know about the bible and it’s contradictions. once again, soteriology scares them away, as their afraid of losing their correct belief. and the “get out of jail free” card of blind belief is far more enticing than the hard work of loving your neighbor. and power-hungry leaders, whether religious or not, always seem to prefer blind belief to reasoned discourse.)

    so i’d generally agree with you, altho i’d make the minor shift towards soteriology and inerrancy being the problem, rather than hell specifically.

    • Lana Hope

      Yes, you make some great points.That’s why I say I don’t believe in the traditional notion of hell although that’s confusing since technically, the traditional notion comes from the Catholics. I personally believe that hell is in the heart and that people like Hitler will continue to experience hell until they repent, but certainly there is room for much disagreement here and yet still agree that the majority of people will not be (or experience) hell. I’m also up to admit that I could be wrong to a degree, but I would not worship a God who sent people to hell; people would have to send themselves there.

      Also, great point on the inerrant scriptures. However, there are some Christians who believe the Bible is inspired and still believe it’s okay to be gay. They believe people have misunderstood those scriptures. I admit that I am not there. I personally believe that the New Testament writers were sexists and bigoted. I’ve studied the scriptures about women, and I believe that many of those scriptures were disliberately misunderstood (for example, the word submit is not in Ephesians 5 like we were told; it’s not there. That’s deliberate on the park of church leaders and Bible translators). But I’m just not able to say we misunderstood them all. Paul lived in a sexist age, and I don’t expect him to be totally otherwise.

      But the thing is, that was 2000 years ago, and the church (and all other religions) needs to change with the culture.

    • You have a point about soteriology, but the idea of believing in hell for Hitler, if you mean for eternity, has an issue of it’s own: it’s not just. Even Hitler, is made to suffer, say, 5x every suffering he ever caused another (I pick this because there’s a place in the bible where a thief has to pay back 5x what he stole), plus some just punishment for his sins against God, his punishment could not last for eternity. Maybe 5 million years or more, but not eternity.

      (There is an argument that hell is eternal because, though we are finite, God is infinite, and sin against him therefore carries an infinite punishment/consequence. I find this incredibly unconvincing. Besides the fact that it paints God as caring more about his reputation or justice or something than His *children*, it’s illogical. Say my 5yo hits me in a fit of unjustified anger. Should she be punished as an adult (file assault charges, etc.) because even though she’s only a child, I am an adult, and her sin was against me? )

      So, I believe in either a purgatory-type hell with restorative discipline and ultimate repentance, or perhaps, for some like Hitler, annihilation (possibly after a period of retributive justice, but I’m not so sure retribution is God’s nature, even towards monsters like Hitler).

  • That freedom is increased when you give up the notion of heaven and complete when you give up the notion of god. Then all your relationships become genuine.

    • Lana Hope

      If you don’t believe you can earn heaven or impress God, then relationships are genuine whether or not you are religious.

      • I don’t know if you can simply drop the afterlife from theology – and alter its religious forms accordingly – and still be religious. But I do know this lack of concern for an afterlife is not typical even in a tiny minority sense in any religion I have studied. Eschatology (and apocalypticism) is an essential center to most and on this plank is built the various prescriptions to successfully survive the end times. (A good review and criticism of why New Atheists consider this particular belief in all its forms the “ultimate wickedness” and “ultimate stupidity” can be found here).

        • I did.I don’t need an afterlife theology as part of my faith.

          • Then what role for God in your life that is qualitatively different from someone without a role for any god?

          • I don’t know tildeb. God’s role in my life is unique to me, and doesn’t have to be like anyone else’s. I see no value in attempting to determine the eternal fate of someone else. I have no real concerns about my own, or if there is such at thing at all.

            Others having a different view has no bearing on mine. I came to my conclusions for personal reasons, and conclusions I didn’t arrive at lightly. I feel that shedding the afterlife assumptions allows me to be freer to love my neighbor in a capacity that is at least as grand as I feel I deserve for myself, if not more so. It is what I feel God wants me to do, and I’m content with that.

          • Oh, I’m not trying to change your mind or argue about personal stuff; your comment piqued my interest and curiosity about holding a notion of religious belief – presumably about divine agency or agencies – active in the quality of your life as you experience it that is somehow qualitatively different from my atheistic outlook… one whereby I also think that “shedding the afterlife assumptions allows me to be freer to love my neighbor in a capacity that is at least as grand as I feel I deserve for myself, if not more so.” I don’t honestly know where or how a notion of god affects that outlook, so…. I thought I’d ask. If it’s too personal, that’s fine and I’m sorry to intrude. Hey… nothing ventured, nothing gained.

          • Lana Hope

            I think for me, I believe in God just as I beleive in the sun. I don’t believe in God because he makes me a better person. I believe in him because he exists, and I can’t not believe in someone that I know exists. I suppose I believe in God for the same reasons you don’t believe in God.

        • Lana Hope

          Although Buddhism is well known for reincarnation, I can testify from living in Asia that very few are remotely worried or thinking about the afterlife. As a friend told me, I don’t know where I’m going to live next year, why would I worry about the afterlife? I think Christians tend to be obessed with the afterlife, but it is not inherent in all religions. BTW, the Hmong, an animist group, believe neither in heaven nor reincarnation. Again, afterlife looks very different in different religions.

          So I think it’s possible for Christianity to shift its focus.

  • What does ‘perish’ refer to in John 3:16? ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only Begotten Son that whosoever shall believe in him shall not perish but have eternal life’. What is this perish thing referring to and why did Jesus die in the first place if hell is a made of scare word concept?

    • Lana Hope

      I still believe in hell, but it’s not a literal place. Every day you and I make a choice to create hell or create heaven. Even in the afterlife, we may reap this, and will have to repent in order to experience heaven. But no, I don’t believe it’s a literal place.

  • Lana, you did a great job describing your experience and expressing your views on hell. It really came across clearly. I agree with you–believe in hell creates enormous dysfunction in the way we relate to others.

    • Oops! I failed to subscribe to comments…

    • Lana Hope

      Glad it was clear. It’s good to come down to earth sometimes in my posts!

  • Thanks Lana. As I think you saw, I gave the concept of hell a serious bashing in a few recent posts of mine, but I did it in a way that wouldn’t get through to a lot of conservative Christians. You, on the other hand, have a shot.

    • Lana Hope

      Unfortunately, Christians don’t want to hear it. But I shared your post a while back nonetheless.

  • Pingback: So Much Bigotry Comes Down to the Doctrine of Hell | Wide Open Ground | This is Important()

  • While I still believe in a rehabilitative view of afterlife (sort of hell theology, but could just as easily be a purgatory like place in heaven) you and I agree 100% on what hell does to theology, and witness.

  • I am in the same boat as Libby Anne now, and so I can see now how it feels to be “loved” with that weird possessive fear of hell moderating all your conversations and interactions. It is obvious now why non-Christians were polite and distant to me in the past – I was the one creating distance because I perceived them as dangerous and in danger.

    • Lana Hope

      Sara, I’m still a theist, but I’m also very distanced with my home community for the same reason. I’m tired of being a disappointment.

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  • Lana Hope

    Oh no, I don’t believe God sends Hitler to hell for all eternity. As I said, I believe that only we could put ourselves there, and I think there is ALWAYS a place for restitution. I am hopeful everyone will eventually be restored, but if on the chance that everyone is not restored, it would only be because we chose to stay apart from him. God can’t be absolutely loving and force people to stay in hell for eternity for a crime committed in finite time.

    For what it’s worth, I also don’t think hell is punishment. God doesn’t need to punish us. He is too rich and mercy for that. But some of us may not be ready to fully enjoy his presence because we are too broken. And that is where I can see room for a place of purgatory.

  • Does forbidden-fruit-eating merit eternal punishment?

    Dear Christians, have you ever stopped to think about what the Christian story really says: Someone committed a crime. There is a severe penalty for committing that crime. And there is one means to avoid the penalty for that crime and to expunge the record of the perpetrator of that crime.

    Crime: Forbidden fruit eating.

    Penalty: A lifetime of hard labor, disease, war, rape, torture, starvation, agonizing physical death, and horrific eternal punishment/torture in the after life.

    Means of Restitution: A human sacrifice.

    Dear Christians: Isn’t it obvious? This is an ancient fable. No one living in the modern 21st century should believe this tall tale. It isn’t true, folks.

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