I realize now that I never actually believed in hell. Sure, there was a time that I claimed to accept christian doctrine as a package deal, a package that included hell, but it was merely one of those items that I readily set aside. I understand that this makes me fundamentally different from many, perhaps even most, former christians.
One of the most common experiences that I recall hearing about from former christians is a crippling fear of hell. An idea instilled in young “believers” as children, the effects of which last long into adulthood. I have come across countless tales of former christians still dealing with extreme anxiety about hell and the idea that maybe, just maybe, they would be going there when they die.
I do distinctly remember being scared of the idea of eternity. However, it was the general concept of eternity, not the place in which I would spend that eternity, which frightened me. Perhaps the fear came from the realization that I could not conceptualize eternity. I simply could not understand what such an existence would be like. How could I? A finite being, living within the dimensions of a finite universe, cannot conceptualize eternity any more than one could conceptualize a brand new color. It was not the prospect of hell that scared me.
Perhaps my flavor of christianity was one that never really empathized hell as an actual place. When pressed, I am sure my pastors or teachers would confidently say that it is a real place and real people go there to be tortured for eternity, but it was never emphasized. Never dragged out and put on display or used as a rod to beat followers into submission. As such, that fear was never a part of my life. I find this somewhat surprising, simply because in so many other ways, my life has often been dominated by fear and anxiety. I understand that I am extremely fortunate in this regard. There are plenty of hurdles for me to jump whilst exiting of christianity, but I will forever be grateful that hell is not one of them.
So why is it that I think I never really believed in hell? Allow me to explain.
I spent fours years in my early 20’s as a missionary to my local city of Vancouver, British Columbia. I went to university in the far suburbs of the city and went in every weekend to engage in street evangelism. I hated it. The evangelism I mean. I loved the community and I loved the dance routines we used as an attraction, but I hated talking to people about religion. It just never struck me as a productive or useful thing to do. Even christians would agree that someone who is not fervent in their evangelism obviously had issues about the doctrine of hell. How could someone believe in hell, as a literal place where actual people will go, and not feel the push to evangelize? I had heard this so many times, yet it never affected me. Obviously, I wasn’t quite convinced of hell.
I have always been an empathetic person. Whenever I thought about the idea of hell, I simply couldn’t imagine it as reality. A very dark part of me (see “Absolute Darkness”) once had no sympathy for non-christians who actively rejected the faith, but deep inside, I understood how unjust and cruel it was to send people to hell. I engaged in mental gymnastics to explain away such concerns. Things got even worse when I thought about people who where never even given the opportunity to hear and accept christianity. Then there were ancient people, those alive before the time of christ. If christ is the only way to heaven, and thus away from hell, how could people alive before him have any chance?
The fact that the old testament made no mention whatsoever of hell made matters even worse. How could so important a doctrine as hell be completely absent for thousands of hears of society?
All of these questions created a weird cognitive dissonance. Though I never really explored the idea as I did many others, if pressed I would have probably landed on the liberal christian idea of annihilation. For those of you not familiar with this doctrine, some christians who find the idea of hell as a torturous lake of fire distasteful, have “reinterpreted” the bible to describe hell as simply ceasing to exist. There is nothing to fear in this for the same reason atheists have nothing to fear in death. Ironically, annihilationist hell is a pretty atheistic idea. I guess I still believe in that, but I also believe in an annihilationist heaven too.
All of this exploration of my previous beliefs about hell are largely pointless. I only recently began to care about the topic after hearing about the horrible fear and anxiety many of my fellow atheists still experience regarding the idea. Likewise, many christians I know are likely equally as scared of hell. Because I never had such fear of it, I thought little about it, but now, knowing so many people live with such fear about a nonexistent place, makes me mad. A lot of things about religion make me mad now, but that is a subject for another post.
Are you someone who experiences such fear? What is living with that fear like for you? How has it changed since deconverting? Has it changed?