I am often asked, “Why does the idea of eternal Hell for unbelief make you so angry? You don’t even believe it’s a real place! Why would an imaginary place make you so mad?” Well, there are a lot of ideas that are simultaneously untrue, imaginary, and dangerous.
The belief in eternal punishment in Hell for unbelief should be treated as an assault on your humanity. People who believe in eternal punishment in Hell for unbelief should be treated no differently than Neo-Nazis who preach that Jews aren’t really human or Klansmen who believe that Africans aren’t fully evolved. This is a long and winding blog post, but if you’ll indulge me a moment, I will try to move you toward seeing this idea for what it really is: bigotry.
Close your eyes and make yourself choose to believe the following: strawberry ice cream makes car engines run faster and smoother, so scoop in right in. Believe it now. Do it. Just let go and believe it. Trust me. Just trust me. Well, you’re not going to trust me on this and you don’t have to. You have a lifetime of experience to let you know that this isn’t true. You would have to have a nearly pathological trust in me to actually put ice cream into your car on my word alone.
You can’t choose to believe something. You believe something, or you don’t. I don’t choose to believe that the moon exists. I didn’t choose to stop believing in Santa Claus. I don’t choose to trust loved ones. Choosing to believe in something that flies in the face of your life experiences is a recipe for mental anguish. Choosing to believe something you know deep down isn’t true will drive you insane.
Words exist for a reason. There is a difference between the word “belief” and “know”. Without getting into deeper epistemology, simply put, things we “know” are things we have verified for ourselves through personal, direct experience. I know that I had eggs this morning for breakfast. I know that my son said something funny to me last night at bath time. I know that Asagiri is a real town in Japan because I live there. I was there. I experienced those events “directly”. We can have a separate deep philosophical discussion about whether our direct experiences are “real”, but for now let’s use the idea of direct, personal experience in contrast to the idea of “belief”.
“Beliefs” are things that I hold as true without personal, direct experience. We hold beliefs as true without directly verifying it for ourselves. We all have beliefs. We have a lot of them. Beliefs are linked to our life experiences. You don’t believe that dogs have a long prehensile nose because you have had a ton of experiences with dogs. Trust is also an important part of belief. If someone told you that some dogs have long prehensile noses, whether you believed that person would depend on how much you trust them. If that person was a stranger, you’d probably think “Nah, that guys full of it”. If that person was a loved one, an expert, or a person in authority, you may think “Hmm, I should give that some thought”.
So, beliefs are built on life experiences and trust. Those are both things you have no control over and both things that have profound impacts on your life. They are, in many ways, who you are.
We can’t choose what we believe. So, eternally punishing someone for something they believe (as separate from how they behave) is like punishing someone for the color of their skin, or their height, or where they were born. Especially that last one because much of what we believe is the result of where we were born. Saying that someone will go to Hell for being a Hindu is much the same as saying that some will go to Hell for being born in India.
Many Conservative Christians don’t even deny this when pressed. Since the 90s, there has been a trend within Conservative Christianity toward Calvinism which includes the doctrine of Predestination, that God determined before he created the world who would be saved and who would not. So when you ask them, “How can God eternally punish someone for being born in India,” they’ll shrug and respond, “Isn’t God mysterious?”
Scratch a Calvinist and uncover a White Supremacist.
Imagine a Native American whose ancestors were murdered and had their land stolen from them by white men shouting out the name of Jesus and brandishing crosses and Bibles while they did it. Can you ever imagine this person having a favorable view of Christianity? Can you imagine how abusive it would be for someone to demand he accept it or face eternal punishment? Horrific.
Imagine a God who would demand that Native Americans bend the knee to his abusers or demand that they believe something their rebels against their entire being. Imagine the blind stupidity of a person who believes this injustice and simply shrugs, “Welp, God sure is Mysterious.”
That’s not an abstract theology idea. That has very real world consequences that affects relationships. You need to understand that a person who believes in Eternal Punishment for Unbelief will never, ever treat you as an equal human being. Their entire experience of you hinges on a single superstitious belief created to puff up their own sense of superiority over you and they will even attack your humanity to maintain it. Eternal Punishment for Unbelief is a blatant erasure of your humanity. It claims your accomplishments, your struggles, your victories, your failures, all of your experiences in life do not matter. The only thing that matters is that you bend the knee to their pathology and validate their superstitions.
Any demand that you forfeit your humanity to accommodate superstitious nonsense needs to be vigorously pushed against, hard and unapologetically. If you don’t, if you stay silent in the name of diversity and peace, you will lose yourself and society in the process.
“But they can’t help what they believe, right? After claiming that we can’t help what we believe, how can we demand they stop believing in eternal punishment for unbelief?”
That’s a very important objection. I’ll answer that in the next one.