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What Happens to Christianity When People Stop Believing in Hell?

The appeal of hell as a part of the faith package appears to be in decline, even among Evangelicals.

Three years ago, my sister, who had long struggled with mental illness, hit her limit and jumped off a freeway bridge. She lived.

She was rushed to the county trauma center, and by the time I arrived from Seattle she was hooked up to an array of life support technologies and monitors. Brain trauma made it hard to know how much she understood of her situation or our conversations, and to know whether she would live.

One night, while she was in this state, I said to her, “Katha, I don’t know if you can hear me, but I want you to know that we all want for you whatever you want for yourself. If you want to fight this thing and try again, we want that. If you are sick of fighting and ready to be done, that’s ok too.” While I spoke to her, a nurse was doing record keeping at a computer terminal near the foot of her bed. Some time later when I got up to leave, he approached me and said, “You know, if your sister dies right now she will go to hell.”

I was too flabbergasted to respond—incredulous that he would say this to me in a public taxpayer-funded hospital; even more incredulous that he would say it where she could hear, if she could hear. I thanked him for his concern and left.

The Lake of Fire, Everlasting Punishment, Perdition, Gehenna, the Inferno, the Abyss, Outer Darkness Where There Shall be Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth . . . . Hell has many names and conjures many images—all of them aimed at triggering a sense of horror. Some of these names and descriptions arguably can be found in the Bible—the Christian New Testament at least—and threats of eternal torture used to be a fine way for Christian ministers and missionaries to win converts or keep “the faithful” faithful.

Famed Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards (“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”) waxed eloquent on the topic, elaborating why simple annihilation was insufficient punishment to satisfy the demands of divine justice. Two hundred years later, Billy Graham drove tent revivals across America by pounding pulpits about the threat. Anglican author C.S. Lewis, beloved of modern Evangelicals, said, “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next” (Mere Christianity).

I think of heaven and hell as donkey motivators—carrots and sticks. What is the most glamorous eternity an Iron Age peasant could dream of? Streets of gold, gem encrusted walls, white robes, no work, and eternal youth. How about the most horrific? Monsters, darkness and agony, burning and thirst that never end. Give me a drink,the rich man in hell begs Father Abraham in the book of Luke, just a drop on the end of a finger. But Abraham instead reminds him that he already had his turn at the good things in life.

For two millennia, the threat of hell has been one of Christianity’s core assets. It provided the recruiting tool known as Pascal’s Wager, defined thus by the Oxford dictionary: The argument that it is in one’s own best interest to behave as if God exists, since the possibility of eternal punishment in hell outweighs any advantage of believing otherwise. Better safe than sorry.

I once knew an elderly lawyer who had been a nontheist for decades though raised in Christian fundamentalism. As death approached, he confided that although he knew hell couldn’t be real, he couldn’t stop thinking about it and wondering and worrying . . . What if I’m wrong?

I understand the fear; as a child in an evangelical family I asked Jesus into my heart several times, just to be sure. Hell is a scary place. For many people the threat of eternal damnation, instilled in childhood, is so powerful that they simply shut out any questions that might undermine their assurance of salvation.

Because the specter of hell is so frightening and has worked so well for two millennia, some Christian leaders are responding to the modern growth of skepticism by doubling down on the threat, working to make it more visual and visceral. A traveling theatrical production called “Heaven’s Gates and Hell’s Flames” makes its way from megachurch to megachurch illustrating the anguish of the damned. The website Catholic Answers analyses Church doctrine and assures believers that hell exists and is already populated with sinners. Come Halloween, we can expect another round of Evangelical “hell houses” aimed at wooing fright-loving, fun-loving teens and then convincing them the danger is real.

Pascal’s wager routinely makes the rounds of the internet as an argument for faith, often coupled with C.S. Lewis’s forced-choice “trilemma”: Jesus was a liar, lunatic, or Lord—Which one are you going to pick? (Note that both the wager and the trilemma are readily dismissed. Lewis omitted, for example, the fourth possibility that the Jesus of the Bible was mostly legend, while Pascal fails to note that committing to the Christian god may condemn you to another god’s hell. Eternal ice, anyone? There are, after all, lots of versions of eternal torture to choose from.

But increasingly, the specter of a divine torture chamber may be something that turns people away from religion rather than chasing sheep into the fold and keeping them there. Facebook memes compare the Christian god to an abuser who says I love you so much that I’ll hurt you if you don’t love me back.Vyckie Garrison, founder of No Longer Quivering, uses the “Power and Control Wheel of Abuse” to illustrate her former relationship with Jesus. New Calvinist fire-brands like women-are-penis-homes mega-pastor Mark Driscoll may wax eloquent about universal human depravity and eternal torture, but Christians broadly are becoming reluctant to say that anyone who doesn’t share their faith is going to be tortured forever—even if that is what they think.

When actor Robin Williams committed suicide in August after a long running battle with cyclical depression, Trent Horn, who writes for Catholic Answers, tweeted, “The rules for talking about Robin Williams: Don’t say where he is now, don’t promote your own cause/message, do pray for him and his family.” I sarcastically translated his tweet as, Don’t say what you think. Don’t say what you think. If you absolutely must talk about it, talk to someone who’s not listening.Because the bottom line is this: for centuries the Catholic Church identified suicide as a mortal sin and denied a Catholic funeral and burial to those who committed suicide.

In actual practice these days, once a suicide has occurred Catholic priests often scramble to avoid blaming (and so condemning) the victim. They point to mitigating circumstances like depression and suffering, which may diminish the free and conscious choice of the person in question and so his or her eternal culpability.

But even today, the United States Council of Catholic Bishops—acting as god’s authorities here on Earth, so they believe—have pitted themselves against death-with-dignity laws that allow for rational suicide of terminal patients. They argue instead that dying men and women whose suffering can’t be relieved should be taught to embrace a Christian belief in redemptive suffering. (See Number 5 of the Ethical and Religious Directives that govern Catholic healthcare.)

That brings us back to the topic of hell, because the whole point of the Christian hell is that suffering there is not redemptive. It is, somehow, simultaneously unendurable and endured eternally and fair, created and administered by a deity who knew in advance that most humans would end up there and yet who created us anyway because loves us so much .

This is where the moral house of cards collapses, and the value of hell as a recruiting device may as well, because it is increasingly difficult to convince educated people that they and their friends and children deserve infinite suffering for finite failings—or that a god who acts like an Iron Age tyrant (or domestic abuser) is the model of perfect love. A group called Child Evangelism Fellowship aroused intense opposition in Portland last summer in part because outsiders to biblical Christianity were appalled that insiders would try to convert small children by threatening them with torture.

And so, increasingly the time-honored Christian doctrine of hell is being put into a dark closet where the folks most likely to shine a flashlight on it are anti-theists like me who would rather see it exposed to the bright light of reason and compassion or universalist Christians who question whether it was ever biblical to begin with.

The appeal of hell as a part of the faith package appears to be in decline, even among Evangelicals. According to a 2011 survey, while 92% of Americans claimed some sort of belief in God, only 75% believed in hell. A 2013 Harris poll put belief in the devil and hell at 58 percent. As one theology professor, Mike Wittmer, put it: “In a pluralistic, post-modern world, students are having a more difficult time with (the idea of) people going to hell forever because they didn’t believe the right thing.”

The decline in hell-belief may be due to the same factors that seem to be causing the decline in Bible belief more broadly—globalization and the internet. It gets harder to imagine oneself blissfully indifferent to the eternal torture of Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, and atheists when those people have names and faces and are (Facebook) friends.

Even so, for many Christians the notion that sinners will suffer for eternity offers some lingering satisfaction. This is possible only because most people who believe in hell also believe, at least on the surface, that they are part of an exclusive club that isn’t going there. When Pentecostal Bishop Carleton Pearson transitioned from preaching hellfire and brimstone to preaching what he called, “the gospel of inclusion,” most of his congregation wasn’t ready for to go there. He lost church, friends, and livelihood.

Ultimately, Pearson moved with his wife and family to Chicago, where he launched a “radically inclusive spiritual community.” Retired Anglican bishop, John Shelby Spong, author of Why Christianity Must Change or Diepraised Pearson’s transformation: “The God Bishop Pearson is serving is a God of love, not judgment; a God of universalism, not sectarianism; a God of expansion, not control.” Spong called Pierson’s Gospel of Inclusion “intriguing, provocative and hopeful, a surprising twist in our ancient faith story.”

Radical inclusion means that Pearson opens the door even to even humanists and atheists, not as potential converts but as potential spiritual kin. Without a hell to send them to, what else is one to do?

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