The Problem of Hell

June 13, 2016

Bassanio: Do all men kill the things they do not love?

Shylock: Hates any man the thing he would not kill?

William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene 1

I’m not a theologian. I do not claim to understand the doctrinal intricacies of the religion in which I grew up (liberal, Episcopalian, Christianity) let alone those of the thousands of other religions around the world. But like many people, what moved me away from religion (including a brief sojourn in Universalism) was the concept of hell as understood by the general believer, not by the academic or apologist. Hell was, I was taught, an unspeakably bad place. A place of torture, torment, and pain that would last for all eternity. And so I became unable to hold the existence of such a place, where people were actually sent, as consistent with the idea of a loving God.

But hell existing, and in particular that kind of eternal torture hell existing is pretty much a mainstream belief in both Islam and Christianity. 58% of American adult Christians and 76% of American adult Muslims in 2014 stated they believed in hell as a place “where people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry are eternally punished.” And there can be little doubt that many of those believers in hell also believe homosexuality to be a sin, and one, if not repented of, that will result in being sent to hell upon death. For example, 82% of evangelical, born again, or fundamentalist Christians in 2012 stated a belief that homosexuality is a sin.

Now, the overwhelming majority of this extremely high number of people is more than willing to wait for the Day of Judgment for LGBT people to get their just desserts and be cast into the eternal pit of fire. But in a world of religious radicalization and assault weapons, it doesn’t need a large percentage to want to speed up God or Allah’s work to have a tragic impact. Today, 49 people, 49 members of the LGBT community, lie dead, and 49 families have lost a child, parent, sister or brother.

The preachers who shouted from the pulpit that these 49 people, whose sole crime was going out to a club to have a good time, were deviants, were sodomites, were perverts, and would be tortured for all eternity by a loving God for no reason other than who they chose as sexual partners, cannot now cry crocodile tears and pretend to mourn their violent deaths. While the ministers and imams who rail weekly against homosexuality did not pull the trigger on the AR-15 – that was done willingly by Omar Mateen, whose individual responsibility shall not be understated – they loaded the magazines he used.

Preaching a deserved eternity of torture against a group of people dehumanizes that group. If God, or Allah, the perfect, unflawed, ever-loving Father, himself is willing to torture a group for all time, how worthless must that group be? How valueless is their life, their happiness? When firebrand religious ministers and radicalized Imams spout attacks on abortion providers as baby murders, accuse homosexuals of targeting children for abuse, or blame Jews for killing Jesus or murdering Islamic children, they lay the foundations for the next murder like that of Dr. Tiller, the next Pulse Nightclub Massacre, or the next Kristallnacht.

When you dehumanize a group by damning them to never ending pain and torture, you legitimize attacks on them. And these attacks aren’t solely in the form of the tragic murders we witnessed this weekend in Orlando. They also take the part of an assault on civil liberties. If homosexuality is a sin, then we must, surely, protect our children from it. If it is to be grudgingly tolerated, it must be hidden behind closed curtains. By preaching eternal torment for homosexuals, one legitimizes LGBT couples being verbally and physically harassed on the streets, for having the gall to display their perversion in public. One legitimizes exemptions to anti-bullying laws in high schools, because the religious kids are, after all, simply trying to protect their friends from a lifetime in hell if they continue in their depravity. One justifies denying LGBT the right to marry, to adopt, to live life to the fullest. And this can, and does, of course, roll on to their allies. Only last week the director of CFI’s Secular Celebrants Program, that proudly performs marriages for same and different sex couples alike received, at her home address, a Bible verse packed 10 page diatribe full of threats for performing such marriages. We see law after law seeking to justify discrimination against LGBT people, whether in restrooms, hotels, employment, or even bakeries, based on purely religious grounds.

It isn’t enough to condemn the murders in Orlando (though some religious groups are, sickeningly enough, refusing to do even that and are celebrating it). As long as homosexuality is seen as a sin worthy of eternal torture, the LGBT community will be seen as less than human by religious extremists across the spectrum. It is the job of faith (and non-faith) leaders to consider the true impact of their rhetoric, to stop dehumanizing others. Hate crimes such as this do not occur in a vacuum. So forgive me for doubting the sincerity of your prayers and condolences when next Friday, or next Sunday, you will go back to decrying the sodomites and seeking to deny LGBT people basic civil rights.

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Image: Display of solidarity at the US Embassy in Warsaw, photo by MiłośćNieWyklucza. 


#1 Sam Halverson (Guest) on Monday June 13, 2016 at 7:48pm

Your statements - that God sends people to hell - isn’t a belief of all Christians. Those who are truly touched by the love of God and recognize that “scaring” people into following a loving God isn’t consistent with Christ’s teaching will tell you that God would never send people to hell. In fact, Christ came to save people from having to be punished for their sins. Now, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a hell. It’s biblical and people choose to go there (even in this world people choose a life of hell rather than something better). So, I guess I’d say please don’t lump all Christian teaching into one theology. There are those who look for punishment and take joy in seeing people suffer for their wrong choices. Then there is God who suffers when people whom God loves make wrong choices. Read Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” or - let’s talk about it more here.

#2 Gordon Campbell (Guest) on Monday June 13, 2016 at 10:29pm

Sam Halverson: Sinners choose to go to hell. I’ve heard this subtlety before - from kind-hearted theologians who don’t like cruelty - but I’m unsure of the details.  Can you you just tell Saint Peter which way you want to go? Can you reassess after a few millennia of torment? Or does your mind have to be made up before death? Is Hell not quite as bad as some people believe? And how do you know so much about it?

#3 Ian MacDougall (Guest) on Tuesday June 14, 2016 at 12:31am

Then again, all the interesting people will probably be in Hell: “princes, popes and all sorts.” (GB Shaw).
I don’t know what would be worse: spending eternity doing an eternal fire dance, or singing eternal praise (“glory, hosannah in the highest…” etc ad infinitum) to some divine omnipotent and omniscient egomaniac who has to be constantly praised, even after having come up with a botched Creation and feigning ignorance of the trivial act of Eve in eating a forbidden apple, pear, banana or whatever: which was the source of all wars, murders, rapes and other crimes ever after.
‘Nuff said.

#4 Sam Halverson (Guest) on Tuesday June 14, 2016 at 7:53pm

Hi Gordon. I didn’t mean a literal “choice” (like in Monty Python`s Life of Brian - “Crucifixion for me, please.”). What I’m pointing to is that because of people’s choice, in life (not connecting with God/not having faith) their choice sets them away from God’s presence. It’s not that God sends them away. Rather,  it’s that they can’t find their way to God. God is doing everything (within the parameters of giving us free will) to bring humanity to God, but if we can’t see our hear God, we’re eventually lost. For me, that’s why God came as Jesus - to show us love, not condemnation, and to be with us - even in the depths of hell.

#5 MJ (Guest) on Thursday June 16, 2016 at 9:03am

“The kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”  And so is the kingdom of Hell.  Children in 3rd world countries living on garbage sites don’t have any choice. Children being molested by sick-minded bullies don’t have any choice.  “Hell is for Children.”  People in the U.S. are so spoiled and uneducated.

#6 Rjc (Guest) on Thursday June 16, 2016 at 9:20pm

My son is gay. He did not choose that, but was born that way. Don’t even be so stupid as to tell me otherwise. He was made by God? Why was he made that way by a loving God just to be sent to hell for it? Is God just playing with his life? Why would a loving God do such a thing? And yes, people in the U.S. are incredibly spoiled and ignorant.

#7 Sam Halverson (Guest) on Friday June 17, 2016 at 9:02am

Hi Rjc - You ask some great questions. I (a Christian) don’t believe God “made” someone a certain way. That would also be saying that God decided to make me brown-eyed or any other characterization. There are some, yes, who think God has decided every little thing about someone - eye color, disability, illness, height, attractions. Many of these folks would also believe that everything that happens is because God chose it to happen. That totally takes away free will, which is something very important to God. God does not make someone a certain way and then punish them for that - especially not to eternal punishment. I’m sorry if someone has told you that. They are misrepresenting the God of scripture and especially the loving God that Christ shows us. (You have seen that clearly. I wish others could see as clearly.)

#8 Rjc (Guest) on Friday June 17, 2016 at 2:08pm

Thanks Sam. You get it. That’s good.  And yes, I agree that god (if there was one) did not “make” people the way they are. They are simply born the way they are; they have no choice in the matter. I see so much hate from Christians that I rejected it. I was raised in the fire and brimstone of Kentucky. You know what I mean.  When I go back to visit my family now if I were to tell them my son is gay I would be ridiculed, my son would be ridiculed, and we would basically be tossed out of the family. There are just too many Christians like that for me to ever go back. But I know that there are some that are good, that do care, and do see that people are different and not by some “choice”. My son happens to be one of them.I am so very proud of him and I’m also very proud of his two siblings that are straight.

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