How Can Christians Who Worship A God Who Says Atheists Like Me Are Going To Hell Still Think They Are Loving?!?!?!
The Nature Of The Frustration
I was furious today.
Blinding rage. Just…stupefied with rage and anger.
I could not figure out why on earth Christians I knew believed in hell and weren't obsessed with questioning and investigating the concept -- most seem to just accept it on faith.
I was broken up about it in my last months as a Christian. Why weren’t most Christians? Why did I see them smiling and laughing and able to get on with their lives while believing this atrocious concept about me? How could they pretend they cared about me while at the same time being so selfish that they held onto this concept of hell so that they could be part of a celestial club that was headed to heaven?
I was so angry I could hardly think straight. Absolutely, blindingly furious. I needed to figure this out. It was a frustrating disconnect that I had to resolve.
I think I’ve figured it out, at least in part. I don’t like it. But it is what it is.
“But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur.” -- God in Revelation 21:8 (NIV)
Christians are, for the most part, individuals who have thought that they were worthless at some point in their lives. Individuals who were overwhelmed with guilt and pressure and shame. And Christianity gave them the opportunity to claim that, in spite of that, they are decent people. It gave them a valuable life when they thought their lives were dead and empty.
So it allows them to laugh, to smile, to enjoy the world around them. It may be a fake, false story. But it gives them a hope that allows them to think they are valuable in other parts of their lives.
That’s why doctrine is something very few Christians actually care about – ultimately, it’s not about doctrine. It’s about feeling like they belong in the world, like they’re part of it – and doing so requires, in the Christian's mind, distancing themselves from anyone who might remind them of that worthless person they would naturally be if the fairy tale wasn’t true.
"In order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned." -- Thomas Aquinas
In other words, to feel like he belongs in the world, a Christian feels like he has to distance himself as a saved Child of God from himself as a non-Christian, which requires him to distance himself from the status of non-Christians in general, and hell allows him to do that without becoming a hermit. Ultimately, it’s not about me. It’s about the Christian and who he wants to be. It’s about his desire to think that he is a meaningful part of the world.
"What bliss will fill the ransomed souls,
When they in glory dwell,
To see the sinner as he rolls,
In quenchless flames of hell." -- Isaac Watts (author of It Is Well With My Soul)
That would explain why the Christian doesn’t want to investigate the concept of hell too closely. In the Christian’s mind, everything that makes him a decent human being – including his ability to love you – is connected to his belief in the Christian God, which includes a belief in hell. So if he said you weren’t going to hell – in his mind, he would be saying his life as a "valuable" Christian was no better than his life as a "worthless" non-Christian, in effect making both your life and his life worthless. And because life would be worthless in his mind, he thinks that he would then become callous to you, as he would no longer have God propping up everything that is good about him.
“The view of the misery of the damned will double the ardour of the love and gratitude of the saints of heaven.
"The sight of hell torments will exalt the happiness of the saints forever. . .Can the believing father in Heaven be happy with his unbelieving children in Hell. . . I tell you, yea! Such will be his sense of justice that it will increase rather than diminish his bliss." -- Jonathan Edwards
So, I see the Christian as in a difficult position. He wants to love the atheist he knows well, who is his good friend. But in order to be the kind of person who would love an atheist, he feels he needs to believe he is a Christian headed towards heaven; and in order to believe that he is a Christian headed towards heaven, he has to believe that if he wasn’t a Christian, he would be going to hell; and if he thinks that HE would go to hell if he wasn’t a Christian, he has to believe that you will go to hell as long as YOU'RE not a Christian, as well. Follow that train? So, long story short, in the Christian’s mind, in order for him to be the kind of person who can truly love or care about an atheist, he has to believe that the atheist is going to hell.
"All our love for and joy in others who are with us in heaven will spring from their doing the same, and love and pity for hell's occupants will not enter our hearts." -- J.I. Packer
Yes, there is some selfishness at work here – the Christian is, indeed, selfishly trying to save himself, even if that means letting a lot of people be condemned. But, at the same time, some understanding can happen here, as well, because we’re all selfish. We all want to feel like we’re important, like we matter. And the Christian’s belief in God, in their view, makes them matter to God AS A REPRESENTATIVE OF the entirety of existence. So yes, their belief in God is selfish – but in their minds, it’s what makes them matter to the rest of existence. Indeed, it’s what makes them matter enough to laugh and enjoy life and even enjoy atheists. In other words, by being selfish about his value as a human being, the Christian is able to see his value to others – and I think most Christians and most people in general work that way, although some realize it more than others.
Meaning Without Heaven Or Hell?
And us atheists see great value in the fact that we DON’T need to believe that people are going to suffer eternal torment in order to feel valuable. Many of us often insult Christians who do think they need to believe these things in order to have a sense of worth. I think the insults are helpful, in several places,but in convincing people…if the theory I’m writing here is right, it would be effective to have a multi-pronged approach that had the main goal of showing Christians that life is worth living and can have value without God and without the concept of heaven and, indeed, without the concept of hell. Part of that value is in the ability to live a full, vibrant life without believing things that are false or believing that much of the population is going to hell, but foundationally – perhaps the main thing to convince people of is that it is better to live a life that is based on reality than one that is based on fiction, and that fantasy is not necessary and is, indeed, harmful to the nature of our sense of worth in ourselves and, by extension, other human beings.
Like I said, I’m not OK with Christians believing in hell for the reasons I've discussed here – but at least this theory clarifies things for me a bit.