Seeking the Source of Hell

Question from Jakob:
Hello, I am back again. So my fear of hell has came back a little, just a little. So anyway do you know of any good books on the origin of hell and similar Christian mythology?

Answer by SmartLX:
Hell’s a little bit specific for a whole book. There is The History of Hell by Alice K. Turner, which is mostly focused on changing visual depictions of it. All I could immediately find besides that were essays by the devout like this one, podcasts like this one, and of course the mostly neutral fact dump on Wikipedia. If anyone has a good read to share, feel free to comment. (Yes, thank you, we know about the Bible.)

Books on Christian mythology are plentiful, but mostly focused on the Christ story and its parallels in earlier pagan mythology.

I think it might be just as useful for you to read about all the different concepts of the afterlife throughout history to see how plain it is that no living person knows what happens, good or bad. That means no one has the authority to threaten you with, or warn you about, any kind of hell – unless you hear it directly from the other side somehow. Listen out if you like, but don’t get your hopes up.

Where Do Bad Folks Go When They Diiiiiiiiiie

Question from Becky:
I was never a big believer in the Christian God but I did read the Bible which showed me nothing but a vengeful God as oppose to one of love. I considered being a deist but hell has latched into my brain and won’t let go. Worst knowing there is fire underneath the earth seems to support hell even more since Jesus said he was going to the heart of the earth I just want to let the fear go since it was a main reason I believed. How do I let this fear go?

Answer by SmartLX:
You’re suffering from what I call faithdrawal, the continued fear of the wrath of God (including banishment to Hell) after belief in God has faded. As the link shows, I’ve discussed it a lot, because you’re not alone in dealing with it. You realise of course that it’s irrational because in a doctrine where God is responsible for the existence of Hell there can be no Hell without a God, but since when was fear rational all the time?

Let’s look more closely at the apparent piece of support you’ve found for the existence of Hell: Matthew 12:40, where Jesus spends three days “in the heart of the earth”. First of all, that might simply have meant he was physically down in his tomb for that long. If instead it is actually a claim that he was in Hell between his crucifixion and his supposed resurrection, I wouldn’t be surprised at the implication that Hell is deep underground. In the same way that it’s easy to imagine Heaven being up in the clouds, the unexplored depths seem like a perfect place for Hell, and may even have been part of the inspiration for the popular image of Hell. People living near volcanoes and elsewhere along fault lines, in Biblical times as in any other, would have seen and documented literal lakes of fire and many varieties of red-hot wrath spewing from fissures in the ground. Miners all over the world would have noticed the increase in temperature in a deep enough cave (though this might often have been caused merely by lack of ventilation). From the science of geology we now know why it happens in great detail, so the God-of-the-gaps has retreated from the subject entirely. Unlike our ancestors, we know the lava isn’t coming from Hell.

To answer your final question directly, It’s not a matter of letting the fear go so much as the fear letting you go. An irrational fear, like a belief, must be reinforced artificially in the absence of evidence, by various means: acts of devotion, new personal discoveries in the source texts (like the “heart of the earth” thing) and so on. If you recognise on the face of it, and continue to actively recognise, that all support for the reality of the danger is unfounded, it won’t kill the fear but it will leave it with no reason to remain. Over time, and without emotional reinforcement, the fear will fade and leave you. Though it’s frustrating to hear, the less you worry about it the faster it will go, so engross yourself in something else for a few weeks or months.

“Have you considered…” (spoiler: yes)

Question from Aaron:
Hello! Have you considered if Hell is real?

The Bible and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself warned people of a literal Hell, the lake of fire ultimately, where all those who rejected Him and His shed blood payment on the cross for their sins alone (His death burial and Resurrection), will spend eternal conscious torment, forever. He created Hell as the final eternal torment for the Satan and his fellow fallen angels who rebelled against God. But, human beings are given a free will choice to either trust in Jesus/believe on Him and be forever saved (once saved always saved) or to reject Him and end up burning forever in Hell.

As an atheist have you ever considered the idea that eternal Hell is for real? If the atheist is right, then we all die at the moment of physical death and that is the end of our conscious thought. Nothing wasted nothing gained. But if the Bible is right, and indeed Jesus IS, then the atheist ends up burning in Hell forever. Ignoring the various religions (which are all false and easy to prove false anyhow) and sticking to either atheism or Biblical Christianity, which is the stronger position?

I do not want you to end up in Hell. I want you to be saved and end up in Heaven. And the only way to be saved is to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved. All you must do is trust in Jesus Christ alone for eternal life. Faith alone in the shed blood atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ alone period. It is not a life long process like all these religions and cults teach but it is a once for all event in your life. The moment you trust in Jesus you receive Him forever and are forever sealed to Him. “Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption.” Ephesians 4:30.

But to him that worketh not but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly his faith is counted for righteousness.” Romans 4:5.

Much more then being now justified by His blood we shall be saved from wrath through Him.” Romans 5:9

What do you think? I believe in freedom of the individual to believe whatever they want, even if you totally disagree with me. It is your choice my friend.

Answer by SmartLX:
Yes, I have considered the possibility that I’m wrong about Hell, mainly because I’m often asked to. My reaction to that possibility is covered in my piece on Pascal’s Wager. In short, it does not make me want to accept Jesus.

To apply what I wrote directly to what you’ve written:
– You cannot simply ignore the “various religions”. They’re not so easy to prove false if you don’t just rely on the premise that Christianity is true and reason that they contradict Christianity. Even if you could, the gods of the other established religions aren’t the only possible alternatives as there’s an infinite number of gods people haven’t yet described.
– If Christianity has evidence of a kind the other religions don’t, present that evidence as part of a proper argument and don’t bother fearmongering with “what if hell is real?”

Finally, I’m an atheist so you can probably tell which of atheism and “Biblical Christianity” I think is the stronger position. Of the two, Christianity merely makes the greater threats, but the trouble with a boogeyman is that you need to believe in it to be afraid that it’ll get you.

Fear of the Devil – as an atheist

Question from Evelyn:
So I recently accepted being an atheist and I’m fine with it. But even though it’s easy for me to accept that there probably isn’t any God and I’ve been praying to dust this whole time, I still find myself panicking at the thought of Satan. I still have the same fears as when I was religious, and I find myself quickly making sure I didn’t commit blasphemy, or praise the devil. I figure it’s from all the fear techniques people from my religion used to get people to follow them. I wasn’t in any cult religion or anything, just Christian. But looking back the way it was fed to me was quite like the manner of a cult. Anyway, I just want to know if you have any tips for my irrational fear of the devil coming to eat my soul. Thank you!

Answer by SmartLX:
Welcome to faithdrawal, which is the best word I’ve ever invented.

This happens to a lot of people because fear of Hell and Satan goes beyond the intellectual. You’re not frightened of him just because they’ve told you he’s there, or else you’d have stopped being frightened when you became an atheist. Rather it’s been drilled into your subconscious to the point where your emotions bypass rational thought entirely and you simply behave as if there’s a devil. There’s no particularly insidious technique the religious use to achieve this, they just speak and preach to you as if it’s all true until you internalise it as an unspoken assumption.

Fortunately, this kind of conditioned fear needs regular reinforcement to persist at the same strength, and as an atheist you’re not getting that reinforcement anymore. (Some evangelists threaten atheists with hell in an attempt to reach lapsed believers with some last-minute reinforcement, and sometimes it probably works on individuals, but generally speaking it’s a futile effort.) It’s still bad now, I know, but it will fade over time until you calmly look back on your prior fear and see it for what it was, namely unjustified and needless.

If you want to try to speed up the process to save yourself some stress in the long term, equip yourself with a little ridicule. Satan has shown up in popular culture quite a lot recently (try this list), and in nearly every case some aspect of the concept of Satan is held up to the light and found to be silly in some way. There’s not that much media openly ridiculing all religious faith (yet), but criticising and lampooning specific ideas within specific doctrines is fine, and the Devil is a prime target. Go check out some different takes on the character. My personal favourite is Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate, who makes a raucous but really quite robust case that he’s actually the good guy.

Finally, just take a moment of self-awareness whenever you find yourself afraid of something you don’t really think is there. The more you catch yourself at it, the less you’ll end up doing it. And don’t worry, because right now is worse than it’s ever going to feel again.

Dreaming of Hell

Question from Huzur:
Hello. I’m a twenty five years old male. I don’t believe in god anymore. Not until 15 at least. However sometimes my mind scares me, such as going to hell for eternity. So my question is: Do other atheists also ever get any christian themed nightmares?

Answer by SmartLX:
I don’t, but many atheists who were raised as Christians certainly do. Here’s a bunch of them talking about it.

I can honestly say that I don’t remember ever dreaming of Hell or the equivalent. I consider myself lucky that my old Catholic primary school and church were light on the fire and brimstone, and my separation from them was not charged with emotion. While I believed, I was very serious about sin and punishment, but now I just get the odd pang of unexplained guilt.

Depending on the severity of your religious upbringing, the fear you suffered as a child may qualify as clinically defined psychological trauma, and you could now be suffering post-traumatic stress. You don’t need to have been to Vietnam to get this, anything which scares or horrifies a person enough can trigger it. Regardless, if the nightmares and the fear keep up you might want to try counselling.

Richard Dawkins talks about this kind of thing a lot. He goes so far as to label scaring kids with hellfire as child abuse, and suggests that it can in some cases be worse than sexual abuse. That sounds extreme, but there is some terrible indoctrination out there (Nate Phelps, formerly of the Westboro Baptist Church, has a harrowing story) and some very mild and ineffectual sexual abuse (Dawkins himself was fondled by a priest as a child, and merely thought it was “yucky”). His detractors have claimed that he wants to have children removed from religious parents, but of course he’s never suggested anything like this.

Although your experience is not universal, you are far from alone. Take comfort in that, and in the fact that it can get better over time. Maybe you could use some help, maybe you’re fine, but I really feel for you.