On One Hand

June 25, 2009

Why I don’t believe in Hell

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 8:08 pm

To most people the philosophy of Hell is a non-issue. If you are agnostic or atheist or from a religion that doesn’t believe in Hell, you think, why should one believe in some mythical place invented by some other group of people, with no evidenciary basis, and a lot of reasoning based on premises that can’t be proved? If you are a believer you say of course there is a Hell, but I’m in the right church and I’m not going, so what do I care?

But if you grew up Roman Catholic, like I did, a physical place called Hell is a founding part of your religion, and something you learn to fear. Whether you are Catholic or Protestant, Christian doctrine teaches that all people are sinners, and having even the slightest, tiniest unforgiven sin on your record means you are damned for eternity. Jesus is the atonement for your sin; accept Jesus as your Lord (meaning accept him as God), and because Jesus died on the cross, your record is wiped clean! He was punished in your place! By his love and mercy you are free!

The fate of your non-Christian family or friends notwithstanding, there are some hardships to accepting this with glee. Catholic doctrine teaches that most people lapse into “mortal sin” from time to time, so you must repent and go to confession to re-gain grace. Mortal sins are seen as a rejection of God so they aren’t automatically forgiven like other kinds. If you die “in sin” before you get to confession, you go to hell. Mortal sins include big, obvious things like rape, murder, genocide, torture, adultery and intentionally offending God.

They also include everything sexual you can think of, even if it doesn’t seem that harmful; in Catholicism, ALL sexual activity outside marriage (even if there is no penetration), masturbation, or even “deep kissing” (according to my church’s youth group leader), are mortal sins. Even entertaining sexual fantasies can be a mortal sin. Acting on any sexual impulse the Church doesn’t like is damnable, so if you are one of those rare individuals attracted only to the same sex, you are taught that you will either die a virgin, or find yourself, at many points in your life, in mortal sin you must repent.

Nowadays they don’t teach the littlest kids about Hell. You grow up vaguely aware of the fact that the world’s worst people go there, but it doesn’t affect you or anybody you know. I remember telling my parents I thought the Book of Revelations was hooey because there’s no way God would be so cruel. At Catechism they only talk about heaven until you’re 13 or 14 years old – they don’t want to piss off your parents by scaring you – and then they spring it on you when you’re a hormoned teenager and you really want to do the things you’ll be condemned for. That’s when you learn that not only is there a real Lake of Fire somewhere in the universe for bad people like Hitler and Timothy McVeigh, but MOST people, far more than half, end up there: society is full of hellbound miscreants who are the either wrong on religion, don’t believe in God at all, reject God at the end out of bitterness, stop going to church out of laziness or apathy, or most commonly, die in sin. (Like they have sex with their teenaged girlfriend before marriage, you’ll be informed.) But you are one of the lucky few, your church instructors explain: you are Catholic, so don’t have anything to worry about, just so long as you don’t have the wrong kind of sex or have sex too early.

Well, not exactly. I knew I didn’t have any choice but to have “the wrong kind” of sex, since I was attracted to men, and was reasonably terrified of facing either a loveless life or hellfire. I started to avoid hot things like campfires and ovens because they made me think of Hell. I remember resolving, at one point in my adolescence, that I would avoid sex forever, become a priest, or at least be some kind of a hermit, only rejoining society for Mass on Sundays. That hardly seemed like something God wanted for me – they always taught us that you feel God’s plan for you deep in your heart, and my heart was not telling me that locking myself up to avoid temptation was it – but I figured God would at least understand why I had to do that. The urge to find love and a family, and yes, to have sex too, was gripping.

Then one day I happened across a book on Islam in my high school library. I was sixteen years old. It was called The Life of Muhammad, and must have been written by someone prejudiced in favor of Islam because I distinctly remember finding the random line: “Muhammad didn’t believe sexuality was sinful, like the Christians did. He taught that it was a gift from God to enjoy.”

Hallelujah! That was my answer! I was elated. Maybe I was wrong about Catholicism all along – purritannical old Catholocism – maybe Islam was the way to go! I had always had a hard time understanding doctrines like the Trinity or saints, and now here was this progressive, joyful, affirming faith, that probably didn’t – I hoped – probably didn’t have any problem with gay sex as long as you did it in a committed loving relationship akin to marriage.

Well, again, not exactly. And by that I mean that when I opened up the Qur’an there were far more vivid depictions of Hell than I could ever imagine, along with explicit condemnation of fornicators, idolaters and adulterers, and there were some pretty negative statements about homosexuality from every apologetic resource on Islam I could find Online.

By making myself aware of the existence of another faith, I was opening Pandora’s Box. Because with it, a famous line of thought called Pascal’s Wager was blown to smithereens:

Pascal’s Wager states that it is better to believe than to disbelieve. You can never “know” for sure if God is real, but belief is ultimately safer if you’re wrong. If you choose to believe in God and He does not exist, you may have sacrificed a few worldly pleasures you’d rather have had but after death it doesn’t matter. But if you choose not to believe in God and he does exist, you face eternal punishment – which is infinitely bad. Any rational person would choose to believe.

Had I not considered other faiths I’d find Pascal’s Wager compelling. There may not be a Fire and Brimstone God – most of the things I experience or observe lead me to believe that dogmatic, traditional Christianity is false – but with so much to lose, why not just go with it and save myself from the nasty consequences? There is the strict and forbearing God verses the all-loving God to consider, so I’ll just live by the strict God’s rules to be safe.

But now we put Islam, and its own strict God, into the mix. Fundamentalist Muslims believe that a person who worships Jesus Christ as God is worshipping a false God since Jesus was only a human prophet. Worship of something false is considered the ultimate, gravest sin in Islam, and anyone who does it goes to Hell. Pascal’s wager would insist you be Muslim to be safe.

But then Christians tell you Muslims are going to hell, because they deny Christ – all those who deny Jesus Christ burn forever in the Lake of Fire. Pascal’s Wager is ruined, because there is risk of going to Hell no matter what you believe.

It gets worse, as I soon discovered. Protestants believe that Roman Catholics are hellbound for believing in the saints. Roman Catholics believe that Protestants (or at least Catholic apostates who become Protestant) are hellbound for forsaking the sacraments. Jehovah’s Witness believe that anyone who isn’t a Jehovah’s Witness is going to hell. Muslims think all the other groups are going to hell. All those groups think Muslims are going to hell.

And there’s absolutely no evidence out there making any one religion seem better than any other. They all have their arguments, but they all require leaps of faith, unanswered questions, moral presumptions and random guessing.

I was paralyzed from believing anything anymore. I was terrified to pray to God, because I feared that I was more likely than not praying to the wrong god and committing an atrocious sin. I remember riding in a car with my mother once, staring at her face, and thinking God, whichever religion you come from, would you please just, at least, save HER?

The God I prayed to was a God I feared and hated – I realized that the Christian depiction of the damned as bitter and spiteful towards God (rather than just ignorant to God’s existence) could be right. I never asked to exist in the first place, and now I was entwined in this horrible trap in which nothing I could ever do would guarantee my safety from the most horribly unimaginable fate, a fate far worse than never having been born. It seemed that life was not a gift but a curse, because chances are you would lose. The “God Loves Everyone” theme I’ve heard all my life was no longer a guarantee – what if he doesn’t love everyone? That seemed more likely than not. Many religions teach that God loves some and hates others, and at least some groups within both Islam and Christianity teach that. Could God just create a being for the sole purpose of tormenting it in fire forever? Would that be immoral, or is everything God does automatically moral just because he’s God?

I had to figure out which church was most likely right, but they all seemed to have equal merit in the reasoning behind them; go to a Islamic website and you find all these reasonable, rational-seeming points to explain why God having a son is just ridiculous, God dying on the cross is just ridiculous, and it’s perfectly logically reasonable for someone to go to Hell for disrespecting the infinite being who created her or him by denying its existence or worshipping something else. Similarly, I would go to a Christian website, which would have lots of scriptural quotes explaining why there must be some awesome sacrifice – that of Jesus on the Cross – to redeem humanity, and that God doesn’t want you to go to Hell, but simply has no choice if you reject him by rejecting Jesus. Go to a Protestant website, and find an essay on why Catholics are the group of people damned to hell when the Bible says “some will cry Lord Lord but he will not hear them.” There was absolutely no way to know who was right and who was wrong. The only thing that was clear was that God made the stakes very high without endowing the universe with clear guidelines.

God, for me, was like the Jigsaw character who set the traps in the Saw movies. You must figure out which box to get in, amidst incredible stakes, or face an awful doom when the timer on your life runs out, a trap door opens in the floor and anyone who wasn’t standing in the “right” spot or on an acceptable range of spots will plunge into lava. Find the right religion or burn for eternity. As in the Saw films, the tape recorder gives you some convoluted argument about how you actually got yourself here through your own deeds, that there is some moral lesson in this, that the being who put you here is actually benevolent. But really you are forced to play a game while different sources are providing completely different sets of rules, they all say they have the “official” rules but you have no way of knowing who is right, you are aware that the vast majority of people fail, your intellectual ability to uncover the secret or discern truth correctly is said to be determinet of your worthiness and you are informed that you will actually deserve whatever ultimately happens to you.

And the more of this confusing bullshit you expose yourself to hoping it will give you some answer, the more you realize that the possibility of pleading ignorance is gone, because you have now had the unique opportunity to “know and reject” every single faith or version of God that is out there. You literally have to reject them all but one, but that rejection could be the gravest sin. You wish you had been born mindless and not had to make that choice. Would God send a human vegetable to hell? How about a person with an IQ of 25? Of 50? At what level of awareness does a person become religiously responsible to follow the rules, in Calvinism? In Catholicism? In Greek Orthodox? In Islam? That kind of perspective on the nature of the universe makes you bitter.

I grew up a devoutly religious person – far more spiritually-minded than my parents taught me to be. I looked for answers and questioned my thinking where most people would simply accept that what they mused or were born into was capital-T TRUTH. Ordinary people invent religious ideas for themselves all the time, and live them as if they were on authority. They think everything they believe came to them through their own church, but they innocently pick up bits from other religions here and there – some phrase a motivational speaker once told them will get misplaced among their mental library of Bible quotes, or some political principle about responsibility will get filed away as the words of Christ. Most aren’t aware of the contradictions entailed therin. When their preacher offers something that gives them comfort, they take it. Going to church is a place to feel better about the weekend, not to save your soul from cosmic doom. For most people, faith and religion are processes of finding comfort and security. But my ability to do that was utterly gutted from me by this turmoil. I don’t know if the God I prayed to when I was eight or nine years old was real or imaginary, but I have never regained the comfort and acceptance I once received from that being.

I found a lot of sense in Hinduism or Buddhism, which, though are not without their punities, teach that everything is temporary. An atrocious, obvious sin in Buddhism sends you to a Buddhist hell for a long time, but when you paid your dues you get out. Lesser sins have lesser consequences. So maybe there’s a chance that something your own faith says is imperative (like sacrificing a goat to God) is actually a horrible sin (most Hindus and Buddhists think killing animals is wrong) and you will be punished for it thorough bad Karma. At least, then, that Karma is limited; a billion years from now, you aren’t going to be facing the same agonizing torture you faced 900 million years earlier all for innocently slaying that goat. As an effect of your deeds you may feel the pain the goat felt, to whatever extent your level of consciousness compares to the goat’s consciousness – which could be awful, while it’s going on – perhaps you cut yourself pretty badly – but you ultimately overcome it. The stakes are much lower, and it’s much easier to believe that God or the gods or the Ultimate Spirit wants as many people as possible to do well.

Other parts of my mind will tell me that it was never a worry to begin with. These are the rational reasons religions believe in Hell the way they do: not because it’s true, but to survive. Early Christians were eager to convert the Jews – we know through sound historical records how bitter, even hateful, powerful Christians were toward those who didn’t convert – who didn’t accept Christ’s divinity and refused to join their Christian movement. How do you confront the Jews? Voila – tell them that anyone fails to accept Christ, even if he or she believes in God, will burn. It’s directed right towards Jewish people.

Similarly, when Islam was founded 600 years later, the new faith was being laid down on a cultural crossroads, in a region full of Christians, Jews and idol-worshipping polytheists. They are your competitors and rivals for land, population and power. How do you confront them? Tell them that the Trinity is false, their idols are false, there is only one God, and if they fail to join your movement by hanging on to those beliefs, they will burn, because their own beleifs happen to be the single most offensive concept to God, more offensive than any grotesque deed or sin.

I could also point out how beleifs in Hell are based largely on scripture, and scripture accumulated over long periods of time through ambiguous circumstances. The people who wrote the Bible 30-70 years after Jesus died had never even met him. The Qur’an was committed to memory for a generation before it was scrawled onto tree bark and finally on paper. How could either religion trace a definite, infallible link to God? And we know the Christian Gospels become more critical of the Jews in order that they were written – Mark is very friendly to Judaism; John, written decades later, says that only those who accept Christ will be saved. So religions must drift towards being more punitive than their founders intended them to be.

Still, there is always a what if to plague me. I don’t believe in anything now; I am formally agnostic – I hope that there is some kind of continuation of life after death and I think it’s possible but I can’t put money on that. But the neural pathways that were formed during my teenage years of terror are still there. You could say I have a religious kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome, more commonly known as “Catholic Guilt” that many ex-Catholics never manage to overcome, because sometimes certain images or ideas set me off and I can’t get them out of my head for days or weeks.

But my ultimate understanding of the issue is, if there is a God, for that God to send nonbelievers to Hell would be immoral. And if God, though infinite, is immoral, it would be immoral to worship him, though the smart thing to do and the thing for anyone to do would be to capitulate because the stakes are so high. It’s a moral conundrum of the most profound kind, and impossible for me to accept except out of sheer terror. When I am feeling calm and rational, it’s easy to step out of it.

No “beleif” is total; every person sort of beleives in the supernatural and sort of doesn’t. That’s an idea I’ll get into more fully another time, but I think that even the most ardent athiest has a grain of faith from time to time, and the most ardent beleiver has doubts. We evolved to beleive in spirits and its impossible to excize that part of our brains, even if it isn’t based on fact. But we also exist in the material world, even if we think our souls are somewhere else. Both those facts put us somewhere between belief and unbelief.

So I am agnostic, and I tend to leave unknown things to the unknown, rather than disengenuously profess knowledge. But the part of me that does beleive is certain, in spite of some reservation, that there could not possibly be a Hell.

Still, I suffer from a sort of post traumatic stress syndrome. The right kind of imagery or conversation will put me in flashback mode; I’ll find the thoughts popping back into my head many times over the subsequent days and weeks, and I’ll have to retreat to a lonely place so I can process. This is my “Catholic guilt” that never goes away.

To me, the worst part of the doctrine is not how ardently people believe in it – I can understand why people become fixated on something that is obviously so terrible, and if you think it’s real, then it is extremely important that you know to avoid it. It’s not how seriously they take it I find offense with, it’s how lightly they take it. Or to be more specific, how gleefully they discuss bad people going there or how convinced they are that, if hell is real, it’s a good thing that it is. They say people who go to hell “deserve” it; that it isn’t some cruel aspect of the universe that we must avoid, but is rather an eternal outlet of petty justice. I hear people talk about murderers or thieves going to hell, or wishing it on political enemies or even people who wrong them in their everyday lives. Wishing damnation upon another human being is far worse than wishing them death – its certainly the worst thing a person could ever will. I understand why “God damn” was once the gravest cuss word that a person could utter.



  1. What was your confirmation name? I picked “Christopher”, because I had a crush on Christopher Robin.

    If Hell exists, it must be continually under construction, and probably privatized, like American prison. It must be ever-expanding to accommodate the heinous souls that are heinous at ever-increasing rates. If it’s not woefully understaffed, then it must have some sort of trustee system, with especially weaselly damned souls in minor positions of limited authority. So it’s like high school, maybe, which I could believe.

    My mother is a Thunderstorm Catholic (a partly cloudy agnostic.) She only Believes when tornado sirens are going off, or thunder rattles the roof. I only believe in an afterlife when I am really tired, and briefly consider masturbating before falling asleep, but then imagine all my dead relatives watching, and clucking their tongues in dismay. When I was eleven, and my grandfather died, I had a hard time changing clothes and bathing, because I was told that he would “always be watching over me.”

    When I was an adolescent and Catholic, I believed that my choices were becoming a most celibate priest (which was like having a note from home that protected one from contact with breasts and vaginas) or having sex with men in restrooms (I was familiar with this option, because I had already been accosted in a men’s room.)

    Eventually I rebelled against Catholic doctrine because I felt as though it consisted of apologizing for being a really terrible person and promising (especially late at night when I couldn’t sleep) never to do any of the terrible things again, while realizing that I would most certainly do just that, and repeat the steps, ad infinitum, for the rest of my life. It seemed, eventually, too exhausting to sustain.

    Sloth has continued to serve me well since then, preventing all sorts of neurotic behaviors from taking root. Including organized religion and using fabric softeners.

    Comment by mwittier — June 26, 2009 @ 6:17 am | Reply

    • Re: What was your confirmation name? I picked “Christopher”, because I had a crush on Christopher Ro

      Haha, thank you!

      Comment by ononehand — June 26, 2009 @ 7:01 am | Reply

    • Re: What was your confirmation name? I picked “Christopher”, because I had a crush on Christopher Ro

      Oh and by the way – my Confirmation name was extremely uncreative; I chose Saint Matthew. But it sort of suited me because I identified with the Tax Collector, who everybody hated, but was revealed at the end to be important enough to have the first gospel named after him.

      Comment by ononehand — June 26, 2009 @ 6:32 pm | Reply

      • Sister would have liked you.

        Matthew’s a smart/sexy name though; it’s not like you picked “John”, which about half of the boys did.

        I remember some poor sweet kid in my catechism class chose ‘Paco’ as his Confirmation name, and had a huge row with the nun-in-charge about it (Sister Michael, also known as Our Lady of the Backhand.) Eventually, she had to cave and allow it, because someone produced documentation of a St. Paco in the Phillippines, I believe. But she did manage to stop a girl from choosing ‘Robin’ as her Confirmation name. If Sister Michael had the slightest inkling of my rationale (Christopher Robin seemed sweet, and thoughtful, and a likely power-bottom) I’d probably have been burned at the stake. In Indiana, which seems redundant.

        On Confirmation Day, right after being smudged, I got in trouble for swinging my hands at my sides on the way back to the pew; I was so relieved that it was over that I forgot to clasp my hands in fervent prayer.

        Did you do confession in the spooky confessionals, or en masse, at Mass? The whole “everything is cured by a rote droning of the three prayers you managed to memorize” is pretty odd, too. Not as odd as whispering about calling your sister names through an elaborately carved wooden screen, though.

        Comment by mwittier — June 26, 2009 @ 10:11 pm

  2. I grew up in a rural Southern Baptist church, fairly heavy on the damnation and sinful worthless humanity angle, but somehow it never really took for me. I never got the sense that my feelings/desires for other men were wrong or immoral, though I understood that they would cause me problems with family and society and thus hoped/expected for a long time that I would grow out of them and find a girl. But somehow that just never happened and eventually I understood that it wouldn’t and moreover was glad that it wouldn’t. Finally going to college and being exposed to ethics and philosophy and thinking outside of the narrow confines of my upbringing was immeasurably helpful.

    I wonder if the kind of, I dunno, shabbiness of my religious experience made it less impactful to me. I mean there wasn’t this whole sense of thousands of years of tradition and power that the Catholic church has behind it, with all the rites and rituals. Maybe I just never had a problem loving myself; I think the damnation/repentance angle works most powerfully on those who are highly self-critical to begin with; I’m too lazy for that!

    Every now and then, usually when I’m lying in bed before falling asleep, I will be struck with the powerful and terrifying reality of death and the likelihood that it is the final cessation of consciousness after which there is nothing else. I hate the thought of not existing and would really like to believe that there is some continuation of self, not the cartoon religious afterlife of streets of gold and lakes of fire, but some kind of conscious being and preservation of identity. But my coldly rational side considers this extremely unlikely and a form of wishful thinking.

    Thanks for the post; it was a great read.

    Comment by whitman22 — June 26, 2009 @ 1:52 pm | Reply

  3. I’ll think of more to say later, probably, but for now–I did not have the same experience of being Catholic as you. I managed to grow up with only a nebulous idea that Hell was out there, and as a teenager, my Catholic youth group leader gave us the idea that it was something you created for yourself, on earth. Hell is feeling disconnected from God and from other people, and sin is what creates the disconnect. Right here, and right now. And that is about where I ended up, in terms of my personal beliefs.

    Comment by agent_k_says — June 26, 2009 @ 6:20 pm | Reply

  4. Catholicism

    Matt, your questions on belief are very similar to mine. I was a staunch Catholic of 32 years. Then I finally listened to John Cardinal O Connor (No Catholic can be prochoice) and left for the Unitarians.
    Right now I’m still very lost toward finding a spiritual home. As for another life, I know it exists.
    Matthew Shepard through Matt Wilson and Chris M led me to you. As you might know about Fred Phelps (godhatesfags.com), he distrubed me greatly over where Matt went after suffering such a horrible death. (His bill is stalled in the Senate again.)
    One day I was lying in alpha state during my lunch hour in a dark room. I felt his presence, and he let me know that he was all right. I still pray for souls, and I was quite fervent that the little blond guy be happy in heaven.
    The hierarchy would have driven me out of Cathlocism just for their perversion of sex, their silly vow of celibacy, and their disobedience of Christ’s command to render under Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. (They’re at is again in Maine to repeal gay marriage.)
    So, I kept the Catholic morals, not because I fear hell, but because they are still a guidance. I also try to keep as many already passed on my side. Terry Fox, the Canadian hero, comes to mind, even though he was Baptist. We’d disagree over salvation by faith alone, but he made it, so it doesn’t matter.
    After studying the Reformation five times, I finally came to the conclusion at humans simply cannot know what God wants, so we are left with our own resources. We all must find our own path.

    Comment by poimen — June 27, 2009 @ 11:02 am | Reply

  5. I just listened to the whole thing. It’s interesting, but not something that should take a philosophy professor to understand. I always listen to “philosophers” expecting that they’ll come up with something so profound as to be irrefutable – something I couldn’t have possibly thought of on my own – and what ends up happening is that they point out a lot of things I already considered. It’s only the confidence with which he states his unproven conviction – which matches the confidence of evangelicals – that makes me feel sort of better.

    I liked the comment that someone in the audience made towards the end – saying, essentially, that if something is infinately bad, how do you deal with the minute possibility that it could be true. Morriston went on to say oh there are minute chances of a lot of things being true – similar to what I pointed out about the Muslim God, the Jehova’s Witness God, the Mormon God, all with their small chances of being real and sending the others to hell. I know where the kid in the audience is coming from, and I guess the only difference between him and me is that I got mixed up reading about all the other religions that had their own connundrums.

    Comment by ononehand — July 1, 2009 @ 4:32 am | Reply

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