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Jan 28 2014

Congratulations! You’re Going to Hell! 1. Hell is an Empty Threat

Hell pisses me off. It took one sick, evil fuck to come up with the concept of believe-or-burn-eternally. Brilliant, though: terrify believers and potential converts with the worst possible fate if they don’t do what you say, then give them relief from that terror by promising heaven if they just follow instructions. And really, it doesn’t take much to convince them, because you catch people while they’re young and/or vulnerable, ensuring those threats of eternal torment grip them and refuse to let go.

Of course, the people making this threat are generally sure they’re saved and have nothing to worry about. Or they’re just parroting what they were taught as children. And they don’t think of the consequences, don’t care, or actually want their listener to cower in mortal terror.

Image is of several people suffering in a pit of lava. Lava pit, Hell, Haw Par Villa, Singapore by Jpatokal / Wikimedia Commons.

Lava pit, Hell, Haw Par Villa, Singapore by Jpatokal / Wikimedia Commons.

Hell is the gun religion holds to your head to ensure you’ll never leave. A thing so awful that you won’t risk questioning, just do your utmost to believe.

People: that gun is empty.

You may be one of those folks whose childhood was tormented by fear. I know people, far too many people, who spent entire nights awake in their beds, frantic, terrified they hadn’t prayed the right way or didn’t believe strongly enough or had made that one fatal mistake that God would never forgive them for. Children who sobbed in the darkness and repeated the Sinner’s Prayer again, again, again, hoping it would save them. Praying again to hedge their bets:

Now I lay me down to sleep… I pray the Lord my soul to take.

I loathe the people who did this to them. Oh, I know many of those folks were convicted Christians, utterly convinced this was the right thing to do for their kids. I know many of them just wanted to make sure their kids were saved. Hey, say these words, and hey Presto! God won’t let Satan burn you forever! Problem solved!

While the children cowered with that gun to their heads, waiting for the trigger to be pulled.

The gun is empty.

And then some of them grew into adults who still lived in fear of hell. Trying to walk the narrow path. Trying not to piss off God. Still lying awake some nights, crying, begging Jesus to save them.

Some of them grew into adults confident in the knowledge they’re saved. And they’re so relieved the gun’s no longer pointed at them that they turn it on others.

The gun is empty.

An unloaded Remington New Army Model 1858. Image and caption courtesy DarkSaturos90 via Wikimedia Commons.

An unloaded Remington New Army Model 1858. Image and caption courtesy DarkSaturos90 via Wikimedia Commons.

Some of those kids grew into adults who gradually, after a long and terrible struggle, had the courage to look for bullets, and discovered that the gun wasn’t loaded. Either they came to believe God was too loving to condemn his children to suffer forever, or they realized there almost certainly is no God who gives a shit what humans do, or they found the evidence pointed overwhelmingly to no gods at all. No gods, no Satan, no hell. All made up. They were lied to.

But that lie is so horrific, the idea of hell so vivid, that some never can stop wondering if there might be a bullet in the gun after all.

People, the gun is empty.

In fact, that gun never even existed. Just a finger pointing from a pocket, an illusion created by a human hand.

Purple ink on notepaper drawing of a hand with two fingers and a thumb making a gun.

“Gun Fingers” by nickoswar / deviantART. Some rights reserved.

Don’t let it threaten you any more.

15 comments

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  1. 1
    grumpyoldfart

    It was even worse in the Old Testament days when the Levites behaved like mafia standover merchants and the death threats applied to the here-and-now, not just the afterlife. (See Exodus 30:11-12)

  2. 2
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    Some of the wisest words I’ve ever read were written on this topic :

    I take that to mean that if I were not an atheist, I would believe in a God who would choose to save people on the basis of the totality of their lives and not the pattern of their words. I think He would prefer an honest and righteous atheist to a TV preacher whose every word is God, God, God and whose deed is foul, foul, foul.

    I would also want a God who would not allow a Hell. Infinite torture can only be a punishment for infinite evil, and I don’t believe that infinite evil can be said to exist even in the case of a Hitler. Besides if most human governments are civilised enough to try to eliminate torture and outlaw cruel and unusual punishments, can we expect anything less of an all-merciful God?

    I feel that if there were an afterlife, punishment for evil would be reasonable and of a fixed term. And I feel that the longest and worst punishment would be reserved for those who slandered God by inventing Hell.

    Pages 337-338 “Life After Death” chapter in ‘I Asimov : A memoir’ (Asimov, Bantam, 1995.)

    I think Isaac Asimov was spot on right here although I do also wish there was some sort of Cosmic Justice, some sort of Karma even though there’s probably not.

  3. 3
    richardelguru

    Heh! Heh! that little prayer took me back, though you’ve got to get the rhythm right…

    My parents were typical British Well-You’ve-Got-To-Put-Something-In-All-Those-Damned-Forms C of E. My Mother did seem to believe in a ‘Guardian Angel’ (possibly really) but not much else. When I was little however she taught me a bed-time prayer: I remember it to this day (which is sixty years after the event, so those old-time Jesuits were on to something apart from the obvious predation when they wanted to ‘get ‘em young’)
            WhenIlaymedowntosleepIpraythelordmysoulwillkeep.
            IfIdiebeforeIwakeIpraythelordmysoulwilltake.

    A cheerful message to impart to the very young, and it was the closest I have ever come to religion. We never went to church (apart from the odd architectural excursion) or anything weird like that, so I suppose I was always an atheist (apart from that garbled 4.7 seconds or so every night, till the prayer went the way of all little things of the very young).

  4. 4
    Menyambal

    Yeah, it’s hard to take the Christians’ claims of being (a) nice, and (b) persecuted, seriously when they’ve got the hell fires burning behind their eyes.

    As best I can make out, the classic Hell really isn’t in the book, a lot of it was built up just because the Christians wanted it.

    And the gun is truly empty.

    Great writing, great post.

  5. 5
    khms

    Oh, they’re persecuted all right – by their own religion.

  6. 6
    busterggi

    Yeah, the ‘Sinner’s Prayer’ always creeped me out when my parents made me say it – why would god want to kill me in my sleep, where would my soul go if he didn’t take it? Terrorism by parents.

    And why can’t believers present Heaven as a place actually desirable to go to? Really, an eternity on your knees ceaselessly singing and praying to a despotic deity who’s waiting for an excuse to condemn you in a 7th Heaven minute? That is a true Hell.

  7. 7
    machintelligence

    The following comment appeared in Hank Fox’s blog back when he was at FTB.I wish I had thought of it myself, but Brownian really nailed it.

    Brownian usingreason • 2 years ago
    Oh, no need to worry about the heat. I was just kidding about going to hell. There’s no one there.

    Consider these points:

    1: Heaven has an army. Angels, flaming swords, non-iron chariots, all that. And what is an army for but to defend that which needs to be defended from enemies, external or internal? So heaven is vulnerable.

    2: Hell is full of history’s most tactical masterminds. Alexander, Hannibal, Sun Wu, they’re all there. And if the stories of hell are true, they don’t want to be.

    3: Hell is the worst possible punishment God could come up with. He’s got nothing worse. So what possible deterrent could there be against trying to break out of hell and overthrow heaven? Try and fail, you’re no worse off than if you hadn’t tried at all. You’re still in hell. And if at first you don’t succeed, there’s always tomorrow.

    4: Heaven and hell are both eternal. Infinite in time. If something has a non-zero probability of happening, given an infinite amount of time in which to happen, it will.

    5: Nobody’s heard from God in a long time. Generations ago he was meddling in the day-to-day affairs of mortals, smiting this city, turning that one into a pillar of salt. These days he seems to have turned off his cellphone ringer and didn’t even bother to set his out-of-office email autoresponder.

    Therefore, the inescapable conclusion is not just that heaven will be overthrown by the denizens of hell, it’s highly likely that it’s already happened, and the God that Christians pray to is just a head on a pike.

    All of that notwithstanding, I love the idea of a BBQ joint in the afterlife. I just hope we can get set up while angels’ wings are still plentiful enough that we can charge a reasonable mark-up.

    I wonder if they carry salmonella.

  8. 8
    rq

    I believe it was Metallica that put those words to good use
    We had a (I believe) translated version of this prayer, but the Latvian one had four verses and was a lot milder (none of this dying in one’s sleep, but about god keeping an ever-watchful eye overnight, and about forgiveness for the day’s sins – still not pretty, but far less gruesome).

  9. 9
    CaitieCat, in no way a robot nosireebot

    I am so, so glad my parents saw through all this bullshit before I was born, and raised me without this evil idiocy.

  10. 10
    Usernames are smart

    Just in case, I inoculated my offspring against teh stoopid by explaining that there was no hell (& no magic sky daddy).

    Hopefully, it’ll protect them when they go visit grandma’s house for Xmas (she’s a thumper), although I’m always up for a booster shot trip to the natural science museum. ;)

  11. 11
    Susannah

    Now I lay me down to sleep… I pray the Lord my soul to take.

    That prayer scared me to death when I was a kid. Because I knew he would take me to hell.

    It still scared me when I was 50 and no longer believed. Because, what if I were wrong? What if I were really going to hell now? It took another 5 years to get rid of the dread.

  12. 12
    rowanvt

    One of my earliest memories is as a 5 year old, crying, while praying myself to sleep. I was absolutely terrified that I would do something wrong and God would send me to hell. Even when I rejected God at age 14 as evil, I was still terrified of him. I didn’t follow the deity anymore… but I still believed he existed. And so I was absolutely terrified of hell still, but my principles wouldn’t let me follow the God of the bible. The panic attacks over hell didn’t stop until sometime in my late 20s. It is a complete relief to ponder it now, and have no fear. Hell does not exist. There is nothing better than that fact.

  13. 13
    rq

    I always pictured god as a giant, all-seeing eye hovering constantly over my head due to the Latvian version. It wasn’t pleasant, though somewhat milder. *shudder*

  14. 14
    b. - Order of Lagomorpha

    I’ve never understood the (primarily) Christian obsession with death. They decorate their churches with images of a guy in the process of being tortured to death. If they don’t have a crucifix, they decorate it with a cross–nothing like a torture device to liven up a room! They constantly preach about dying, about hell, about torture–what about life? Or love? Or the beauty of the natural world? It might get a short look-in, but then it’s back to death. “Oh, I saw a gorgeous rainbow yesterday! It reminded me of God’s promise that he won’t attempt to drown his whole creation again for, you know, exercising their free will the way he didn’t want them to. Yay!”

    I do not and never will get it.

  15. 15
    Numenaster

    I will always be grateful to my mother for choosing to alter that awful rhyme before teaching it to my brother and me. We got this instead, which didn’t scan, but also didn’t cause nightmares all by itself.

    Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep
    And in the morning when I awake, please make me good for Jesus’ sake.

    Mom said the original gave her nightmares when she was a child, and she didn’t want to do that to us too.

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