I received this email over the weekend, which I will keep anonymous,
Even though I no longer believe I still find myself AFRAID of Hell. It was beaten into me for so many years it is like a fear that I am finding difficult to shake. So my question is what advice could you give me to get over this fear. Maybe you could do a blog on this topic. It is so difficult to get over this very real fear. I want to enjoy my atheism as you and many others do but this fear of hell is truly hell.
I’ve been an atheist my entire life. I don’t know what it’s like to fear hell. I can’t fully comprehend such a fear, and as such, my advice for getting past it may be insufficient, but I will give it my best shot. Here are a few of my ideas:
1. Exposure. This tactic has long been used as a method to get over many fears. Obviously, you can’t go to hell and inspect the place, but what you can do is read about it. The more you read about it, the less clear your idea of hell will become. You’ll realize that many cultures throughout the ancient and modern worlds have had some awful place that sinners go to for eternal punishment. Just like the story of Jesus was told over and over again with different heroes for thousands of years before Christ, so has the story of hell. Reading about it will show you that it’s nothing but a story. Here are some books about hell that illuminate where the idea of hell came from, all its different manifestations throughout history and the fact that not all of those stories can be true, so the likelihood is that none of them are:
These are a good start, but I would go further. Keep reading. The more you expose yourself to it, the more apparent it will become that there is no consistent view of hell and it’s all just myth.
2. Remind yourself of how unjust the concept of hell is. Here in Canada, we do not have the death penalty. In fact, the longest sentence a convict can get in the Canadian penal system is 25 years (considered life). God punishes people for eternity for lesser crimes than those committed by Canadians serving life in prison. Therefore, Canadians are more forgiving and merciful than God? Further, does it sound just to you that finite sins are met with infinite punishment?
3. Force yourself to see the gaping holes in the story of hell. If a good, well-behaved, Christ-loving family has one member who is not saved – do they really experience bliss in Heaven knowing that their beloved family member is burning for eternity? I’ve heard many Christians explain away this problem by suggesting their memory is wiped of any loved ones in hell as soon as they pass through the pearly gates. So, ultimately, in order for heaven to be truly blissful for anyone who may have a loved one in hell (or even just compassion for those burning for eternity), they basically have to play out a scene from a Will Smith movie. Essentially, they have to be lobotomized to enjoy heaven. What if a mother’s precious only child is the one burning in hell for being a nonbeliever while she is up in heaven? A child who was her life, her everything, her very reason for breathing… if her memory is wiped of that child, is she really herself anymore? That begs the question, what’s the purpose of an afterlife if you’re not yourself at all? See the hole. Ask the question. None of it makes any sense at all.
4. Ask yourself what the purpose is for eternal punishment. What is gained? Punishment generally has a goal to teach some sort of lesson or correct poor behaviour. Why punish at all if there is zero chance the subject can prove they’ve learned from it? Punishing for eternity is an oxymoron. You cannot punish someone for an eternity. If they have zero opportunity to learn and grow from said punishment, well, then it’s not punishment at all. It’s just torture, plain and simple. Torture for the sake of torture. So, what then, is the purpose? Is this just how God entertains himself?
5. Focus on the things that you do know and can prove. For instance, you know you have this life to live. This is factual. An afterlife is something we have no evidence for, but we are all alive now. Reason with yourself that spending the one life you are sure of in fear of a life you have no reason to believe exists, is a waste of this life. You’re wasting what you’re absolutely sure of, in fear of something for which there is zero evidence. Focus on the love of your family and friends, for which there is evidence. Spend time on your passions, for which there is evidence. Set goals and try to accomplish them, strive to build a better you in the here and now. Live your real life before you worry about any mythical one.
6. Read about reality and how this Universe ticks. Expose yourself to awe-inspiring questions, like the ones we all had after watching Cosmos or reading the Demon Haunted World – Could there be life out there somewhere? What would that life look like? Will we ever be able to travel between galaxies and set foot on new planets? If you’re like me, these questions lead to more questions, and leave me with a sense of awe and wonder so huge I can barely contain it. Try thinking about hell after you’ve thoroughly considered the sheer vastness of our universe. Suddenly, it may seem sort of silly.
7. Focus on the idea of a loving god. If you spend your life being kind, fulfilling your obligations, caring for those in your life and just being an all around good person, would a loving god really burn you in hell for eternity just because you’ve used the brain he gave you to think critically? No. That’s not a loving god at all. So, even though you don’t believe in him anymore, there is obviously still a part of you that wonders, “what if it’s true?”. If it is true, and you’ve been kind and good, and he is indeed a loving god, than you have all your bases covered.
8. Keep reading the case against hell. Here are some fantastic resources:
Ultimately, this is going to take time and I imagine it is hard to rationalize. Be patient with yourself and don’t give up. Supplement these points by reading some Joseph Campbell and watching his 6 part interview with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth. Eventually, I would be willing to bet, you will be able to put your fear behind you and finally move on to that stage of being able to enjoy your new found freedom.