Question from Alexia:
I would like to know if atheists ever have moments of fear over the idea that they could potentially be wrong, and that there is a nasty afterlife waiting for them? I, as an agnostic theist, do. I feel that if I were to stop believing (the idea has crossed my mind) that I may regret it.
I have had dreams before of seeing hell, and my grandfather had a Near Death Experience where he saw hell and was tortured by evil creatures. I have noticed that in many dreams, near death experiences, and so called revelations, people often report seeing demonic creatures in this so called hell. I would like to get the perspective of atheists. Why is it that if Christians are raised to expect Satan in hell that they never report seeing Satan in these visions, but they commonly report multiple strange beings or creatures attacking them and enjoying it? I read a book from the 1980s about Near Death Experiences by Raymond Moody, and even he says in his research that negative experiencers often report demonic creatures from interviews conducted early on in Near Death research.
What might be the reason for why many of these visions people have involve evil creatures, when the bible says nothing about that? People from the early 1900s have been giving consistent reports with people today in 2017. What would you say, percentage wise, are the odds that a literal hell exists, given the consistency of so many peoples’ “visions” and “revelations” of hell? Is there really going to be multiple reptile looking creatures who enjoy peoples’ misery and torture them forever, swearing at them, taunting them, or is there something else at play here?
Answer by SmartLX:
Atheists do get these moments of fear, but not usually forever. For those like myself who had faith and lost it, the fear of God’s wrath often outlives the belief even though it’s irrational to be afraid of something you no longer believe in. (It’s part of the phenomenon I call “faithdrawal”.) This is to be expected, since emotions can easily defy rationality. I personally avoided this completely by hardly thinking about religion at all for over a decade before realising I was an atheist; my emotional attachment to God and faith had faded away so it didn’t try to reassert itself.
In previous articles like this one I’ve answered the general argument based on the similarity between people’s visions of the afterlife, so read through the link and also just search the site for ‘nde’ to find more on the subject. Here I’ll address the particular question about Satan and lesser demons in Hell. Most Christians get most of their mental images of Hell not from the Bible but from other media, everything from Dante’s Inferno to Constantine to The Simpsons, and sadistic torturer demons have been a fixture in this material for centuries. While you can imagine individual demons looking and behaving any way you like without challenging your theology much, Satan is a major figure on whose appearance the subconscious might be uncomfortable taking a firm position. Thus Satan conveniently does not put in an appearance for people who are just passing through.
And then there are the Christians who do report seeing Satan, which doesn’t really help any argument based on this not happening.
Question from Vlad:
Hello, I was told that Dante’s Inferno was written well after the 6th century. People say hell stems from there. Why then, did this Pope from the 6th century also report hell in NDEs?
Answer by SmartLX:
“Well after” is certainly correct. Inferno is the first part of Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, and was written in the 14th century. That should tip you off to the fact that the concept of Hell does not originally stem from there; it is not nearly that new.
The first known recognisable concepts of a place like Hell come to us from ancient Greek religion, specifically the regions of Hades and Tartarus. The Christian concept is straight out of the New Testament, written mostly in the 1st century but all well before the 6th. Early translations of it use the names Hades and Tartarus, among others, to mean Hell. The major details like fire, torture and eternity are all stated or implied in the NT (here’s a Christian perspective), and even though some have interpreted it differently the basic imagery was widely accepted before long. Inferno merely built upon that which already permeated Western culture.
To bring it all back to your question: someone in the 6th century, let alone the Pope, would have had plenty of hellish nightmare fuel to draw from without the works of Dante. If his claimed experience is similar to modern claims in ways that go beyond Scripture, the similar physiological effects of the events that brought the claimants near death can go a long way toward explaining this.
Question from Vlad:
Do you believe this man? Apparently people say they knew him and that he is totally genuine. They say they went to school with him and he was a total atheist until this experience, where he wrote books about it and became a pastor, but I have my doubts. I feel he may have lied to make a profit.
Answer by SmartLX:
Bryan Melvin certainly made a profit whether or not he believes his own claims. It doesn’t cost much to put out a book with a Christian self-publishing company, and the above video is on sale too.
Atheists do sometimes convert to Christianity and other religions, so there’s really no problem with the idea that Melvin was once an atheist. What’s important is the reasons why people convert, and Melvin’s reason is a personal experience which he really has no way to establish as supernatural as opposed to generated by his own brain at some stage during his cholera episode. If it was real to him, and as intense as it sounds, objective examination of his own state of mind would have gone out of the window very quickly.
Question from Mirek:
There seems to be many hellish NDEs with the same imagery:
A person sees absolute darkness, hears people suffering, feels sadness, coldness, emptiness, then calls out to God or Jesus, and a white light, or God’s hand appears and takes them out.
Here is an example from George Foreman:
Another example is a pastor who was electrocuted when he was an atheist, and saw the same thing, called out to God, was pulled out.
Do these similarities give hell more credence?
Answer by SmartLX:
Not really. The main reason is that multiple genuine NDEs aren’t the only explanation for the similarity regarded by many as plausible. There are two other major factors likely to contribute.
One, the standard NDE story is by now traditional and very well-known. If someone who’s at least familiar with it has an ordinary dream or hallucination during a life-threatening situation, it is likely to follow the same pattern as it’s what the victim expects on some level. If there is no memory or a fragmented memory of the period, the existence of this very specific expectation for the experience can shape a memory over time until it fits very well. And if someone just makes up an NDE story, they will deliberately follow the pattern to match the expectation of their audience.
Two, people going through the physical and mental states associated with near or temporary “death” are likely to have similar physiological reasons to experience certain things, even if they’re not fully understood. The white light in the distance, for instance, is consistent with temporary tunnel vision caused by lack of blood or oxygen to the eyes, growing brighter when the supply returns. Scientific American went into this six years ago.
I can take another approach to your question. Supposed visits to Hell, or samples of what you feel in Hell (coldness, emptiness, etc.) are potent emotional appeals but they don’t make much sense in most Christian theologies. God isn’t supposed to literally pull souls out of Hell, and certainly not after only a few moments. Your judgement happens, then either you stay in Hell forever or you never even see it. If on the other hand God is only showing you a vision of Hell instead of actually dangling you in there, He could supposedly do that at any time, not just when you’re at death’s door.
Question from Kyle:
I was wondering if you agree with me that even if we knew Christianity were true, any moral person would be morally compelled to follow Lucifer not God.
– God kills at least millions, Lucifer killed less than a handful of people.
– 1/3 of all angels rebel with Lucifer to fight a war against an omnipotent being they know they can’t win.
– Lucifer is cast out of Heaven for refusing to worship God.
– Lucifer sees human slaves so he gives them knowledge.
– God decides to torture his most beloved creation, the devil, for all eternity.
List could go on forever.
Answer by SmartLX:
When you don’t believe in either of these two characters a discussion like this is moot, of course, but think how many discussions are had over who is the true hero of Star Wars or Game of Thrones. In that spirit, there is certainly a discussion to be had over which of them is more moral – when you don’t define God as the source and model of morality and therefore incapable by definition of doing anything immoral.
The question in my mind is whether one would actually be morally compelled to follow the more moral of the two. If God controls who goes to Heaven and Hell, you would want to know that following Lucifer was actually of any use to Lucifer before potentially consigning yourself to Hell for no good reason. In most of the relevant theologies there’s no reason to think that Hell stops being an eternal torment if Lucifer acknowledges your allegiance (remember, it’s a punishment even for him), though maybe there’s a Satanist text that says otherwise. And is Lucifer expected to try another insurgency anytime soon for which he’ll need anti-Christian soldiers, by anyone other than the fear-mongering kind of Christian?
Question from Halil:
Hello, I wanted to know what atheists think of this testimony, and if it scares them.
Answer by SmartLX:
Not scary if you don’t already believe. When trying to threaten kids about the boogeyman, they have to believe it exists to some extent before they buy into the fear. This does not do a good job of supporting the existence of God, Hell or an afterlife at all.
Here are some but certainly not all of the reasons why not. Folks are free to comment and chip in.
– The guy had taken a variety of hallucinogenic drugs, some of which (e.g. LSD) can have after-effects causing hallucinations years later.
– His solid Catholic upbringing had primed his brain with all the imagery he needed to subconsciously pull together an authentic Christian afterlife experience for himself.
– His cardiologist didn’t understand how he survived, but his cardiologist wasn’t there for the accident and might not have been able to understand where the electricity traveled even if he had. His survival is a mystery, not necessarily a miracle.
– His conversion came at the hands of a travelling evangelist whose day job is to give people amazing conversion experiences, and after what he’d been through he was ripe for it.
– His back pain appeared as mysteriously as it disappeared. It could have been in his head, or a temporary effect of the electric shock on his back muscles, but it’s not as if a well-known chronic condition was miraculously cured. (In a similar vein, I know of an American healer who would lay hands on people and announce that he had cured small tumours, which had never been detected beforehand and obviously didn’t show up afterwards.)
– This page asks for money at the bottom. They’ll say anything, and since the story is a personal account that no one else can contradict they’re free to say anything.
Question from Halil:
Ok, so on YouTube there are a variety of videos on some pro-Christian channels that encompass interviews of Christians who apparently were sinners, did not go to church, drank alcohol, masturbated, etc. and they talk about how they had Near Death Experiences or visions while they were sleeping where they visited hell. Some describe hell as flames with many demons, and very loud screams, others describe it as a dark quiet place without God.
One experience kind of frightened me. It was about an elderly priest who used to be a firefighter when he was younger. He states that he took drugs often, smoked weed, drank, etc. He said he went to Sunday school for 12 years growing up, but that he never read the Bible. Then he said his parents were not happy that he drank / took drugs, so he stopped. One day, he was at work and somehow got electrocuted, and then he said he could still see clearly, suddenly, he saw utter darkness, and had a life review showing all of his sins ever committed. Then he saw demons, which mocked him, and told him “we got you now” very much like the demons in Howard Storm’s NDE story. This priest also saw fires, called out to God, and His right hand came and pulled him out of the fire. Suddenly he was back at work and people came running as they heard him screaming. Then, he went to the hospital, and decided that he knew that hell was real.
What do you think could be an explanation of this experience? Do these so called “visions” give any of you atheists chills in case it is right? I am not Christian, but do Christians believe that they would see demons in hell? Because many of these hell stories always seem to have demons that mock God and torture the people experiencing them. Also, how could a brain come up with such graphic imagery?
Answer by SmartLX:
The extreme variety with which Hell is supposedly perceived tells you for a start that most (if not all) of these people are not seeing accurate visions, even if they’re telling the truth about what they remember.
This priest’s story has him spending a long time unconscious with his body and brain in an extreme state of distress. He sees many of the most well-known elements of the Christian story of the afterlife: a review of his sins, fires and sadistic demons in Hell because he had sinned, the literal hand of God saving him. If he was brought up in a Christian family or community even without believing, he would associate all these images with death and it’s the first place his mind would go in these circumstances whether in a dream or in a hallucination. Of course no Christian dogma states that God will immediately save you from Hell once you’re already sent there; instead that’s the point at which it’s too late to avoid your fate. As a priest, he’ll have had to find a way to reconcile his own story with the doctrine of his denomination.
Finally, brains came up with all the graphic imagery you’ve ever seen in a book, painting, sculpture, movie or video game. Artists see it all in their heads before they create it, and to their great frustration sometimes the images in their heads are much grander than what they can bring into reality. The dream of a brain near death can be a wild place.
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.
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.
Question from Chris:
I was raised Christian until I found a Jewish website that explained how the New Testament contradicts the Old. I now describe myself as agnostic, but I’m still afraid that there may be a hell. This is stopping me from living my life and while I doubt that I’ll become a Christian again, I sometimes wonder if there’s any chance the Jewish faith was right.
Is there any way that I might be able to let go of this fear? Maybe some way to make a firm decision on whether or not I should be religious? People have advised me to learn more about religion and the world in general; maybe there’s something specific I should look at?
Answer by SmartLX:
Welcome to faithdrawal, which is my word for the lingering emotional aftereffects of strong religious belief, chief among them fear and guilt. That fear might stick around for a while even if you stop believing entirely. The more often you can register that your level of fear is unjustified, the quicker it will fade, but probably only by small degrees.
If you think the Jewish version of Hell is the most likely to be real, it certainly doesn’t warrant the same kind of fear as the Christian Hell because it is NOT a place of eternal torment. Read this Jewish article on the subject: their name for it is Gehinnom, and it’s light-heartedly described as a “spiritual washing machine” that prepares your soul for Heaven. It’s closer to the Christian concept of purgatory; while it’s not something to look forward to, there’s a purpose to the suffering and most importantly there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
So that’s what to keep in mind when you’ve got your figurative yarmulke on, but the rest of the time it’s good to read up on conflicting reports of Hell from different religions, and even different denominations of the same one. It’s the strongest sign we have that no one really knows anything about it, or has any authority to tell you what to fear. Not only that, but the reasons a soul is sent to Hell are mutually exclusive between different religions and denominations. Beyond the obvious fact that you can only proclaim one kind of faith which denies all the others, the rules for living are different all round. That means it’s futile to try to behave any particular way in order to avoid Hell because you’re almost certainly doing something wrong. That sounds pessimistic but it can at least free you from micro-managing everything you do, and give you a sense of community as you’re in the same unreliable boat as everyone else.
You can make a decision about how devoutly to keep to the tenets of whatever religion you choose to adhere to, but how religious you are is not really your decision to make. Your level of belief is influenced by what you see, read and hear. You could immerse yourself in religious media and after long enough you might no longer doubt it, or avoid it altogether and slowly forget, but this is artificially reinforcing a bias and does not reflect reality. Regardless, I can tell you that being more religious is very unlikely to make you less afraid of Hell. If you accept its existence and its specific nature as dictated by your religion, your work is cut out for you as you are acutely aware of what you must do, and not do. You’re also surrounded by people who don’t share your faith, aren’t living right and are therefore bound for Hell, emphasising how easy it is to fall short and pay the price.
Better to get on with life, I say. Just be a person in the world, do what you can to be a good one, improve life for others, have your fun when it’s not hurting anyone. Thoughts of the afterlife tend to take a backseat when you live in the now.