If you are not a Christian, you are going to hell. It's not unloving to say that. It's unloving to not say that.This tweet by Mark Driscoll got a lot different thoughts flowing.
— Mark Driscoll (@PastorMark) January 10, 2014
I didn't stop believing in hell until about a year before I stopped being a Christian altogether. It pains me that I not only used to think that any number of people were going to be tortured for eternity, but I also in some way believed they deserved it. It fills me with grief and shame when I think about that, to the point that I want to go around apologizing to random strangers for once believing something so hideous.
Now that I'm an atheist, it's a bit strange knowing that there probably are people in my life who think the same way that Driscoll does, or that I used to. Does the aunt sitting across from me at the Thanksgiving dinner table know that I'm not a Christian, and does she think that I'm going to hell for it? That I deserve to go to hell for it? I want to ask.
Anyone who tells me I'm going to hell is wrong. Anyone who tells me I deserve to go to hell is an asshole.
That doesn't happen all that often, but on occasion it does. What's more common is that someone will make a comment that about how nonbeliever are bound for hell without knowing that they're talking about me. I should tell them. I want to know what they'd say.
People try to use hell to scare people into believing. That doesn't work on me. I don't know how it could. You could tell me that there's a monster under my bed and that I need to sleep with the lights on or else it will eat me, and I wouldn't do it because I don't believe you.
If you told me that most people do it, I won't believe you.
If you tell me stories about a lucky few people who have survived monster-under-the-bed attacks and lived to tell of its horrors, I still won't believe you.
If you point to ancient books that tell of the monsters, I won't believe them, either.
And no matter how much you appeal to the fact that it's really, really easy to take the safe bet and sleep with the lights on, it still wouldn't matter.
And it would be much, much easier for me to choose to sleep with the lights on than for me to choose to be a Christian. I don't even think that is a choice I am capable of making. I don't know how to unlearn so much of what I've come to know and understand so I can go back to believing in something that ridiculous based on evidence that tenuous. And even if I actually was capable of making that choice, I don't think that I should. I guess I'm willing to risk my soul just for the sake of being intellectually honest.
But there's more to it than that. If hell really does exist, I'm going there. I have to. It's the only moral thing to do if the alternative is worshipping the being that created something so evil and unjust in the first place.
I once told someone that if I did become a Christian again, I'd have to be a universalist. And if I was wrong, if there was a hell, then it wouldn't matter how strong my faith had been or how much I truly, deeply loved Jesus. I'd have to go hell.
He said that that was the saddest thing he had ever heard in his life. I think he needs to get out more.
"But aren't you afraid of going to hell?" That's one of those questions that people love to ask when they find out they're talking to an atheist. And of course I tell them no, I'm not afraid at all. Because it isn't real. There's no good reason to think it is real and several good reasons to think it's not.
And that's not a bravery thing. I don't think that it's courageous of me to not be afraid of hell. It requires very little bravery to offer to fight a monster you know doesn't exist. But not everyone gets that.
It doesn't just bother me that I used to believe in hell. It bothers me that I did so casually. Like it wasn't a big deal, or not that important. Does that mean I didn't really believe in it? Or was I just that unthinking that I never examined what that belief meant? I suspect more the latter. And I think the same is true for a lot of people who believe in hell.
I feel like I want to warn them.