Wrestling with the doctrine of Hell (you know, conscious eternal torment for all those who haven’t been saved/chosen by a sovereign God through no good deeds of their own but only by his grace) plays a role in every deconversion story I’ve ever heard. Nobody goes, “Well I super liked the parts about Hell, but the rest of Christianity just doesn’t hold up for me.” Nope, Hell is where many peoples’ faith goes to die.
Hell was a terrifying part of my childhood. I didn’t like to think about it, it seemed so horrible. Every time it came up, at church, in Sunday School, at home, it was held like a threat over my head. “You have to get saved, you have to follow Jesus, because you don’t want to go to Hell, do you?” They put it in nicer terms, trying to say they were simply warning me of eternal realities and telling me of how glorious it was that Jesus died to save me from that reality. But it was a threat all the same. The passion of my early prayers for my own salvation and the salvation of unsaved family members (who were really the only non-Christian people I knew) was fueled simply and solely by fear of Hell. The tears, the lying awake at night begging over and over for God to save me and my loved ones, none of it had to do with wanting to make Jesus happy. I was pleading for my life, for the life of people I cared about deeply.
Even in my most fervent years of belief, when I was quite the obnoxious little theologian, I could never figure out a way to wrap my head around Hell. I knew all the intellectual reasons, I’ve heard tons of sermons on the topic, read about it in books, and so on: “A god who is infinitely holy is infinitely offended by even one sin and thus the punishment must be infinite” was what they typically fell back on. But it still seemed viscerally wrong to me. I thought about Anne Frank, who spent much of her young life in hiding, and died in a concentration camp. Was it really fair, I wondered, that her short life ended in so much misery and then she had to go to hell too because she wasn’t a conservative Protestant? The more I learned about suffering around the world and throughout history, the more my emotions balked at the logical implications of the doctrine of Hell.
People everywhere suffer incredibly, go through abuse and hardship, are killed in accidents and in horrifically unfair ways at young ages, many before they’d had much of a life at all. In my church we weren’t taught an “age of accountability.” We were taught that every single person from the moment of conception is destined for Hell simply because they are human. People got saved because God chose them, but each sinner, no matter how young, was fully responsible for their own sin. I believed that God knew all the babies who would die as infants or be aborted and had elected all of them for salvation (though why they’d ever be conceived in the first place if God knew they were going to die was a bit mystifying), but it was harder to wrap my head around the thought that people who seemed pretty good, who were fairly young or just lived really moral lives but somehow didn’t have a chance to hear the gospel or understand it, would die and go to hell. Where would God draw the line in electing everyone who was going to die young? Probably up until they could understand the gospel, which to me meant up until they were old enough to understand human language. The implications were kind of horrifying.
When I was fourteen, my grandfather died. He wasn’t a Christian. From the moment he died until many years later, I blocked him out of my memory almost completely because I simply could not accept that logically, he had to be in hell. I couldn’t picture someone I’d known and loved in eternal torment.
I think that’s a completely normal reaction. I think what’s not normal is talking all the time about how everyone except you and your select group of “saved” or “elect” people (a group which is smaller or larger depending on how dogmatic the particular religious group is) will suffer for all of eternity. That’s a ghastly thing to discuss, to have as a required tenet of faith, to defend.
For a while I tried to not even think about Hell at all. It bothered me so deeply, especially when I thought about my other unsaved family members. With the perspective of a young adult, I realized that my dearly beloved family members who were not Christians were living happy, fulfilled lives and weren’t about to turn to Christianity anytime soon. It was quite likely that they were therefore going to hell. I began to have the thought (though I was frightened of it in its half-formed state because it was clearly blasphemous) that: 1. God could save everyone, and chooses not to. 2. Out of these people he’s probably choosing not to save, a handful of them are my family members. 3. If there is even one person that I want to be saved and that God has chosen not to save, I am more moral than God.
My belief in an eternal Hell was fraying and collapsing, and I wondered if I would have to give up on Christianity because of that. My senior year of college, Rob Bell wrote a highly controversial book called “Love Wins,” which made the suggestion (not at all unprecedented in Christian history) that Hell is not eternal. That it’s a place of correction for rebellious sinners and that eventually, every single person will be saved. I breathed a sigh of relief and began playing with this doctrine, thinking about it, seeing if I could accept a Christianity without an eternal Hell. I was horrified when another prominent evangelical wrote a book defending the doctrine of Hell which my pastors recommended wholeheartedly, talking about the doctrine of Hell in warm, glowing (dare I say fiery?) terms. No, I thought, we can’t be talking about Hell like this. If you truly believe in Hell you can only talk about it as the heart-breaking, devastating thing it is.
For the next year or so I was busy fighting battles all over my own intellectual landscape, owning what I actually think to be true versus what I was told to believe. But things came full circle one day last fall when I was sitting in a pretty mainstream evangelical church, and the pastor went on and on in rapturous terms about how amazing Heaven will be, and how God will end all suffering. The sermon was on reconciling the problem of evil and the existence of God, and one of the key points is that God is going to make everything right, end all pain and sorrow and so on and so forth. Then without skipping a beat he segued into a warning about Hell. And I thought, “That’s it. That’s how the mainstream Christian narrative ends: God will end all pain and suffering except for the fact that most people who have ever lived will be in conscious, eternal torment devised by God himself and this is somehow ‘just’ and ‘holy.’”
Hell is an immoral, hideous doctrine that rips all kinds of holes in Christian claims about the nature of God and the universe. If you’re defending both Hell and God’s sovereignty loudly enough, someone’s bound to eventually notice that the God you’re talking about isn’t someone they want to spend all eternity with anyway.