On dealing with the lack of hell

May 14, 2011 | By | 21 Replies More

I sometimes listen to AM religious talk radio because I’m amazed at the sorts of the things I hear.  Today, while listening into local St. Louis 24/7 “TruthTalk” Christian radio station KJ SL in my car, I heard a bit of contentious discussion between a radio host and a caller. I believe that the host of the radio show was Bob Dutko.  Dutko has long held the position that “Jesus really is the only way and He really did rise from the dead, physically and historically.”

When I first tuned in, the caller was talking, saying something much like this: I believe that the spirit of God resides in every person, and that people can live good and meaningful lives without belonging to any church. I believe that God will reward them based upon the good things that they do, and based upon how they treat others, regardless of whether or not they follow any religion.  Good-hearted people who do not believe in Jesus or follow a religion will not go to hell.

The host told the caller that his “new age” religious outlook was hopelessly naïve, and that he needed to read the Bible, whereupon he would see that there is only one way to avoid hell is by accepting Jesus Christ as Savior.

The caller protested that there are plenty of “new age” religions out there, “including Catholicism and many forms of Protestant religions,” all of which ignore that there really is only one commandment and that is “love your neighbor as yourself.”  If you do this (said the caller) you will be living a good life.  The caller argued that religions have been responsible for war and needless pain, and that people would be better off without these organizations. He accused the host of being a mean-spirited small-minded man, whose approach has encouraged wars and whose goal is to convince Christians to hate Muslims and to hate anyone else who’s beliefs differed from their own.

The host lashed into the caller again, again calling him naïve and “new age,” and indicating that it is written in the Bible that God would turn family member against family member, and that this is the way it must be, and that only those who follow a religion. Here’s the passage he mentioned (Matthew 10:34-35)

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.  I came not to send peace, but a sword. … A man’s foes shall be they of his own household.”  10:35 For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

The caller hung up. The host chuckled at the caller and assured the audience that there is indeed a hell, and that those who don’t accept Jesus Christ are headed there.

Gustave Dore Illustration of a scene from Dante's Inferno

Hearing this conversation reminded me of a recent article about (the lack of) hell in Time Magazine. Pastor Rob Bell is the head of a Baptist church in Michigan. A few years ago, after receiving a written comment that Gandi was “in hell,” Bell did a lot of thinking about hell, and then wrote a book called Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. In his book, he proposed this blasphemous idea:

He suggests that the redemptive work of Jesus may be universal — meaning that, as his book’s subtitle puts it, “every person who ever lived” could have a place in heaven, whatever that turns out to be.

After proposing this idea, well–you guessed it–all hell broke lose.  Preacher Bell’s ideas have been intensely criticized by those who want to save hell.  Here’s how Jon Meacham’s Time Magazine article describes the debate:

Bell insists he is only raising the possibility that theological rigidity — and thus a faith of exclusion — is a dangerous thing. He believes in Jesus’ atonement; he says he is just unclear on whether the redemption promised in Christian tradition is limited to those who meet the tests of the church. It is a case for living with mystery rather than demanding certitude.

From a traditionalist perspective, though, to take away hell is to leave the church without its most powerful sanction. If heaven, however defined, is everyone’s ultimate destination in any event, then what’s the incentive to confess Jesus as Lord in this life? If, in other words, Gandhi is in heaven, then why bother with accepting Christ? If you say the Bible doesn’t really say what a lot of people have said it says, then where does that stop? If the verses about hell and judgment aren’t literal, what about the ones on adultery, say, or homosexuality? Taken to their logical conclusions, such questions could undermine much of conservative Christianity.

This discussion and radio show reminded me of how starkly different conservative Christians see the world, compared to the way I see it.   Many Christians believe that hell is necessary to keep most people in mind.  I disagree.  Many non-theist societies are model communities where people very much care for each other.   In fact, many non-human animals (dogs, cats, chimpanzees) do exemplary work taking care of their young and supporting each other, even though they are certainly not motivated by the fear of hell.  There are deep biological roots to human empathy. And there is quite a good case that God is not very good. In fact, His creation of hell would be Exhibit A.

I’ll admit that there are at least a few people out there who probably be are deterred from wrongdoing thanks to the threat of hell.   But isn’t it amazing that so many people assume that so many of us are motivated by the fear of eternal torture?   Such a sad view of human nature.   How different it must be to walk around seeing one’s fellow human beings in this light.   Such an outlook might lead one to think that severe physical punishments and wars are justified–that one can treat humans with indignity because they can’t be trusted to act with decency on their own.  Why would we have any need to treat such beings with any respect?   Why, indeed?


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Category: Evolution, Human animals, Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (21)

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  1. Erich, my friend, you are hopelessly ill-informed about the nature of hell. Hell is, quite simply, the eternal absence of God's Love. If you end up with that, it will be entirely of your own account. It sounds to me like you would quickly and easily choose that option.

    All of the wacked-out pictures of hell that you think you know about are metaphors, many by Jesus, to say that living without God is "like that," or "worse than that." Like getting thrown into the lake of fire. It's not an actual lake of fire. It's worse than that.

    Heaven and Hell are logical constructs that go together in a theology that you don't follow. One of these days I hope I understand why all the atheists on this board are so obsessed with a religion that neither belong to nor care about.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Richard: I hope you understand that I don't claim to be concerned about hell. I am convinced that there is no afterlife of any type. My explorations are about what motivates some people to believe in hell.

      And for the record, it's hard for my limited mind to think of anything worse than being eternally subjected to a lake of fire. And it's impossible for me to think of any "God" (if there were a God) as loving if "He" is the kind of God that would invent such a hideous place.

  2. Richard,

    "One of these days I hope I understand why all the atheists on this board are so obsessed with a religion that neither belong to nor care about."

    Are you being disingenuous? We pay attention to this because we live in society that is obsessed with the trappings of this religion and act as if believing in this stuff is some kind of test for being either sane or human. When we claim that we don't believe in it, the reactions range from pity to disbelief to mistrust to hatred, depending. Your question is somewhat like saying a black man in Mississippi circa 1930 "I don't see why you're obsessed with a culture you neither belong to nor cares about you." Not that the reactions we get are that bad, but it wouldn't take much of a push to get it there, especially these days when the country seems poised to undergo a resurgence of evangelical fervor—to follow up the previous resurgence.

    I daresay, your take on the nature of hell—in my experience—is rather enlightened and benign compared to some I've encountered.

  3. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Richard K. Hudson,

    As non believers, we are concerned with the current political activism among Christian Fundamentalists in the USA. Politicians are sharmuta and history shows us that governance based in religion brings forth the worst atrocities. Instead of the religion instilling virtue in the politicians and government, the religion becomes an exploitable resource for the politicians and their parties, and eventually the church as an organization becomes corrupted.

    The Christian belief system has been hijacked by politicians who will do absolutely anything to push their agenda, an agenda which seems to be moving the nation in the direction of a corporate fascist state. In these times, it is important that everyone be able to see the hypocrisy and corruption of the religious right, to prompt the faithful to look at their leaders critically, to see through the jingoism and hyperbole, to truly think about the real world long term consequences of proposed legislation and hopefully awaken those people entranced by these false prophets and to deny the real enemies of freedom the prize they seek: the destruction of our democracy.

    To engage in debate with the faithful demands that we understand the articles of their faith.

  4. Mark et al.,

    I was not being disingenuous, though I do apologize for my somewhat snarky tone; I'm really trying hard with my internet commenting to be more compassionate to the writers. Having said that: you guys drive me crazy!

    You've re-characterized my "obsessed" with your "pay attention." You don't pay attention to the Christian faith, you pay attention to the struggle between Shiites and Sunnis and you pay attention to horrific human rights abuses by other religious people around the world. You pay attention to Arab-Spring enlightened Egyptians mobbing Christians and gang-raping American reporters. You are obsessed with Christianity and your bias is just stunning.

    I know well your claim that it is Christianity's involvement with our political system that is the root of your attention. Alas, it can be no other way. Your belief system influences your politics as does mine. I sincerely believe that your fear of some sort of Christian take-over is highly, highly exaggerated. It borders on laughable and I wonder if you're being disingenuous. I know you'll point to Texas school boards and text books and creationism, blah, blah, blah. There is nothing new about any of this tug of war and it has not fundamentally changed, nor will it. You remind me of my end-time friends who claim "the end is near" upon hearing of a new earthquake or war.

    I've just wrapped up a month-long series on the nature of Hell at my church; all based on the same article Erich cites in his post. We are Methodists and it may surprise you to hear that not a single one of them could remember ever hearing a sermon about Hell.

    Mark, you've often claimed that I hold an "enlightened and benign" view with my religion: I counter that claim with my suggestion that you need to meet some Methodists. It is true that if we could bring our founder back from the 18th century he would, no doubt, warn you of the dangers of hell. But, Wesley and the people called Methodists are more interested in whether you can read or not. Or, whether your consumption of alcohol is a barrier between you and a fulfilled life. And, whether a new well dug in Mozambique is the right way to go or should be buy the village some cows? (My latest crusade is to convince people to give unrestricted to their favorite charities instead of noting "earthquake" or "flood" on their gifts. I hope you'll join me in that.)

    Here's some advice when talking to Christians: when they say "you need to follow Jesus," you say, "what would it look like if I did?" If they're shallow enough to say, "you just have to believe," (which means they haven't been to my Sunday School class), you say, "OK, got it, now what will it that look like after I do?" This will get the debate moving in the right direction.

    Our God intended us to live in this world, not some "fairy tale" as Hawking has noted today. This world…today. He created it that way and we're the ones who screwed it up.

  5. Mike M. says:

    Richard, Here's some Methodist beliefs I have a hard time with:

    1. That people are all, by nature, "dead in sin," and, consequently, "children of wrath.

    (That sounds lovely. How kind and gentle).

    2. The writings in the Old Testament and New Testament are the inspired word of God.

    (I assume that includes all the infanticide, slavery, misogyny, blood sacrifices, stoning, torture and genocide that are encouraged, indeed demanded, by this God in the Bible).

    3. While human beings were intended to bear the image of God, all humans are sinners for whom that image is distorted.

    (Ah, all those newborn baby sinners…such a shame).

    4. The United Methodist Church still officially lobbies for national prohibition, condemns beer and cigarette advertising on radio and television, and tries to ban beer from army and navy establishments.

    (The Puritans are still with us).

    5. The United Methodist Church, along with other Methodist churches, condemns capital punishment, saying that it cannot accept retribution or social vengeance as a reason for taking human life.

    (Why not? It's all over the place in the Bible).

    6. The United Methodist Church opposes gambling, believing that it is a sin which feeds on human greed and which invites people to place their trust in possessions, rather than in God.

    (The Puritans are back again–No more fun for anyone. No poker, no sports betting, no horseraces and no lotto).

    7. The Methodist Church officially considers, "the practice of homosexuality (to be) incompatible with Christian teaching."

    –In addition, the United Methodist Church prohibits the celebration of same-sex unions.

    –It forbids any United Methodist board, agency, committee, commission, or council to give United Methodist funds to any gay organization or group, or otherwise use such funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality.

    (Not very loving, or understanding, or inclusive. WWJD??)

    So, there are some problems I have with the United Methodist Church.

    In comparison, Atheists and Agnostics seem quite a bit more caring, accepting, and, well… dare I say –"Godly."

  6. Karl says:

    WWJD? Jesus would repeatedly forgive any human being who acknowledged they need forgiveness.

    Jesus's last word to most people accused/caught in sin were "your sins are forgiven." But then how often most people tend to ignore the strong "recommendation" to "go and sin no more."

    Jesus, won't condemn any person that truly desires forgiveness, but that doesn't mean Satan (the enemy of their soul) won't ultimately prevent them from continually seeking that offer of forgiveness.

  7. Just to toss a little leavening into the mix, I find it amusing (amusing "Hmm" rather than amusing "Ha Ha") when religions are taken to task for supporting ideas that, in another context, aren't so bad. Here, for instance, are at least three that are arguably beneficial ideas, at least within a limited range.

    Alcohol is a drug. Replace beer and alcohol with heroin and cocaine in your list, Mike, and ask if a national prohibition might not be at least worthy of discussion. (Personally, I think Prohibitions are worse than than the effects of the substances themselves, but that's not an argument against taking a stand on these things morally.)

    I oppose capital punishment myself, not on religious grounds, but on political. So what if a church decides to take a moral stand on something which outside a religious context is still a bad idea?

    Gambling is stupid. I oppose it on those grounds. The fact that billions get removed annually, often from the pockets of people who can't really afford it, for reasons that have nothing to do with anything constructive means that there is a vested interest in keeping it legal, and again a blanket prohibition would be worse than the disease itself, but come on—it's stupid. So why is it worse for someone to oppose it on religious grounds than for me to oppose it on pragmatic grounds when both positions have moral consequences?

    As for the rest, well, churches are saddled with their histories, and you have to ask if the membership actually buys that stuff. The Methodists, like some other mainstream christian groups, have been reforming themselves for some time. They ordain women now, which is also a no-no according to the Bible.

    The Methodists for their part are distinct from Calvinist sects in that they expect actions to speak for one's life and in that vein they ought to be judged more on what they do rather than what hold-overs from Deuteronomy may be wired into their founding doctrines. On that basis, they've clearly been evolving, much like the Episcopalians and some Lutheran sects.

    Just sayin'.

  8. Karl says:

    The only death God condoned as a away of bringing grace to sinners was the death of Jesus Christ.

    Anyone that thinks the purpose of death can be understood by a finite physical creature without any grasp of eternity should not spend their time discussing anything the Bible says about being accountable to anyone/anything beyond an individuals own ideas/values.

    The favorite ploy of Erich is to discount anything spiritually discerned because then there is no other authority but one's own ideas and values to have to acknowledge.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Karl: What I believe is that people shouldn't make stuff up to scare others to keep them in line. That includes claiming that hell exists to scare others.

  9. Karl writes:—"The only death God condoned as a away of bringing grace to sinners was the death of Jesus Christ."

    So all those deaths he ordered in the Old Testament he didn't condone? How does that work?

    See, this is why nonbelievers lose patience with this crap. You can't have it both ways. Either what was written in the books of the Old Testament have nothing to do with the god you believe in or the god of the New Testament is a different god altogether. Either way, the fact that you need both Old and New to make sense of the assumed prophecy around Jesus, you have a pile of morally questionable, contradictory nonsense. Discount the Old Testament god and you invalidate the New. Claim the New is distinct from the Old and the Old loses credibility—which then subverts the prophecy.


  10. Karl says:

    Let’s go back to the simplistic question of "Why tell anyone that anything they do is right or wrong?"

    Someone is sure to test the waters to see if anyone else can justify to them why something really is "right or wrong."

    Even the golden rule dies a miserable death if there is not a "proper" way to treat self and others as well.

    Relative "right and wrong" are pointless declarations unless there exists the possibility of some actual absolute right and wrong at least in precept.

    The Old Testament taught precept as harsh reality, the New Testament helps man get over his inability to live up to the precepts.

    Of course, it would be easier just to knock off all of the precepts so that no one ever had to compare their own behavior and ideas to any precepts.

    The problem them comes down to, who will decide what precepts (which are really basically pointless) if any, are worth anything and which people that believe or don't believe such precepts have any point to their existence?

  11. Ah! Mea Culpa! Before Karl beats me up, I confess, I misread what he wrote. Shame on me. He put a qualifier in there. I think I will stand by my analysis of the problems twixt Old and New Testaments, though, but he is correct within the context of scripture about condoning a death for the purpose of grace.

    Only makes me wonder what all those other deaths were in service to.

  12. Karl, the simple fact is you can't frighten someone into being moral. You can reinforce certain behaviors, sure, but in the person's heart, where it's supposed to matter, retribution doesn't instill anything but fear and a banal kind of conformity that acknowledges power but has little to do with right and wrong. Like it or not, you can't punish people into enlightenment.

  13. Karl says:

    But you can't establish what enlightenment means without some idea of what others would call its opposite that's what I would call contented or even blissful ignorance.

  14. Karl, I've been mulling your last response over most of the day. There's something basically flawed with it, but I'm not sure I can say exactly why. Maybe it's because I'm not sure you can "establish" what enlightenment means under any circumstances—you can only experience enlightenment. It's one of the risks of going out your front door on a particular day, knowing you might encounter something that will change everything—and conversely the risk of never opening that door, knowing probably nothing will ever change. The question is, what will or will not change?

    In a way, enlightenment is like sex—until you've had it, you really don't know what all the fuss is about.

  15. Karl says:

    "Enlightenment" is in the mind of the one who now believes they have experienced life differently from what others have told them its suppose to be like. There must be a difference from past understandings or its simply a new experience.

  16. Okay. In which case it is wholly subjective, so this standard you assert we should have comes from where? In most instances, the characterization that someone is enlightened comes from others, not a self-ascribed condition. I don't believe myself enlightened, but only seeking enlightenment. By that metric, it isn't something you ever achieve (it's the journey not the destination) and anything you've reached serves only as a moving goalpost for others.

    None of which has anything to do with my initial assertion—you cannot punish people into enlightenment and, by extension, scare them into morality.

    Okay, just so I have it more or less straight in my own mind.

  17. Karl says:

    Elightenment, is in the mind of the one assuming someone already is or "is becoming" enlightened. For individual humans this conclusion of "enlightenment" or the "process of becoming enlightened" can not be arrived at from a vacuum of values and ideals. For a human, one has to have arrived at, or be in the process of forming, ones own values and ideals to accurately use the term enlightened.

    Humans that only decide upon the values and ideals of enlightenment from their own set of experiences will not be able to value experientially what others have come to as their own conclusions, and they for certain will also doubt the existence of any absolute set of values and ideals that could be a part of the character and nature of a Creator God.

    Nearly all normally understood human values arise from apposite but opposite descriptive sets of human experiences that we either have an affinity towards or an aversion from. In like manner, humans tend to group and collect understanding of experiences into either aversion(punishment of some variety) or affinity(reward of some variety). Like it or not, somethings are clearly experienced by human beings through the use of punishment and rewards.

    What they chose to do with their experiences is their own business until society say otherwise. The option of trying to make society into their own image or course has been the goal of most anyone that doesn't think society has their best interest in mind.

    If all that is of consequence to human's is their own values and ideals than this is all life amounts to. Who decides what the rules will be.

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