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.