Facing Hell

Gary Lenaire


“As Bertrand Russell pointed out a century ago, the major religions make incompatible claims about God and about what human beings must believe in order to escape the fires of hell. Given the sheer diversity of these claims, every believer should expect damnation on mere, probabilistic grounds.”

-Sam Harris, God’s Enemies Are More Honest Than His Friends


We all qualify for somebody’s hell. If you are Catholic then you are supposedly going to the protestant Hades. As a protestant, you can look forward to the Muslim Jahannam. Many of those subscribing to karma unwittingly promote a metaphysical hell as a punishment for evil doing. This goes on and on and on. If you add up all the religious prerequisites for all the world’s religions, we all go down as sinners.


From the Muslims perspective Christians are viewed as atheists, even though they claim to believe in the one true God. I am quite often called an atheist though I have never felt it necessary to make that claim. We are all atheists in the eyes of someone’s religion and therefore allegedly heading toward someone’s version of hell. If you are a Christian, why should the threat of your god’s hell be any more real than other religious threats? Your mythology is no more real than any other version.


There is arguably nothing scarier than the idea of hell. Everlasting torture is the imagination’s greatest horror. Scenes of fire, agonizing screams, and immeasurable torments fill the heads of millions of children as they listen to their Sunday school teachers. Why do religions teach such grotesque, cruel, and unforgiving doctrines? The Bible is abundantly clear that God creates and predestines (from before the foundations of the world) those who will be saved from and condemned to hell. If you don’t believe in Jesus Christ, according to biblical Christian theology, then you are damned. We can logically surmise that if people are going to hell then it is because God, who is allegedly all powerful, allows it. Not only does God allow it, He created it. According to the Bible, Satan did not create or send people to hell; people are not the architects (or the key holders) of hell. God is. I made the following statement (2006):


At the beginning and end of every day and throughout eternity, the God of the Bible reserves the right to be justified in all of his actions. These actions can be saving people or condemning people, even though the people that he condemns were never even considered for heaven. The act of pre planning and then gathering all the ingredients of a person; the DNA, atoms, cells, fluids, flesh, personality, etc., is quite a deliberate undertaking. To go through all of that for the one purpose of visiting and revisiting pain on the emotions and nerve endings of that person throughout eternity is a cruelty unmatched by any human sin. But it is not unmatched by the human imagination.


The Bible, which was written long before science could detect biological evolution, tells us that Adam and Eve sinned against God while living in the Garden of Eden. As a result of this silliness, we humans are now considered sinners. The Bible is very clear about this. It is also clear that Jesus Christ, who is described in the New Testament as the Second Adam, died and rose from the grave so that God’s people could go to heaven. The first Adam sinned and everyone subsequently received the curse of death. The Second Adam died and rose again to lift the curse of the first Adam. However, the lifting of the curse doesn’t apply to everyone. The Second Adam will only save a limited number. The curse was universal but the lifting of the curse is not universal. The biblical God, who many think is a loving god, creates people with emotions and nerve endings and then tortures many of them in hell forever. The biblical God is not even close to being a loving god, by any stretch of the imagination. And hell is not a loving or even just belief.


This step is an important one because the teaching of hell is so very damaging. If you were raised in an environment that threatened hell then you are far more likely to be affected by it. If you, like me, spent a considerable amount of time believing that the Bible is without errors, you have probably experienced the mental abuse that goes with it. So, my dear reader, let’s face this awful subject together. 


The ancient world was in many ways far crueler than ours. Punishments were swift and barbaric. Criminal sentences very often exceeded the crimes. Vengeance was the norm and despots ruled with the sword and…fear. Punishment was usually extreme and painful. It suited the ancient mind to embellish upon nature and assign ghastly torments using superstitious imaginations.


The conceptual history of hell is as old and culturally diverse as the people who dreamed it up. We, here in the 21st century, didn’t dream it up; we have inherited it. In like manner we have inherited all of the world’s religious myths passed down to us from former thinkers. Those ancient religionists span the globe. Babylon, Indus, Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome, and Israel are but a few of the cultures who contributed to the terrible myth known in the English language as hell.


Why has hell been taught in the church? From its beginning, Christendom has faced a huge problem: many people refuse to convert. In order to uphold control in the community, the priests have insisted on the “universal sin” of Adam while denying “universal salvation” of the second Adam. The reason for this is to scare people into converting. If you tell the people that “all” will be saved, then very few people will convert to Christianity and then the church has no money, influence, or power. The writers (priests, bishops, etc.) of the Bible understood this fact very well. This is probably why the Apocalypse of Peter was rejected from the final New Testament canon. In it, the apostle Peter wrote that Jesus would eventually save all people from hell. And the church couldn’t swallow the idea of forgiving everyone. That would require too much love and no control over the people! 


God, we read, will save only a limited number of people. Many people die after never believing or even hearing about Jesus. In the Bible, if Jesus loves a specific person, then that person will be saved. Jesus says in John 14:6:


“I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.”


And in John 6:44,


“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day.”  


The New Testament clearly says here that the only way to come to the father is through Jesus. Likewise, the only way to get to Jesus is to be drawn by the father. In the above listed verse, John 6:44, the ancient Greek word for draws literally means dragged. This very same Greek word, helkuo, was also used in Acts 16:19, “…they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities.” Drawing water from a well is indeed different from dragging a person across a marketplace. Listen to that same verse translated in more consistent English:


“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me drags him; and I will raise him up at the last day.”


So when people say things like “Jesus loves everyone” they are very wrong, according to the Bible. God actually hates many people. That hatred sends millions to hell. Why? Because God created them with an ability to resist being drawn (dragged) to Jesus. That, for a lack of more sensitive and culturally-adjusted comparisons, is Charles Manson rhetoric.


Many Christians proclaim that God is a celestial gentleman who would never force someone to believe in him. They say that he would never insist salvation on the free will of man. In response to this I ask a question: Then how did you and I get to be sinners in the first place, according to the Bible? Was God a “celestial gentleman” when he forced (created) you and I to be born as sinners? It’s OK to force people to be born into painful sin but not OK to force peaceful salvation. Many Christians gladly accept the idea that their god will force hell but will not force heaven. Forgiveness is optional but judgment is mandatory. If God allows all humans to be universally cursed by the first Adam (regardless of their will), then all humans should be universally blessed by the second Adam (regardless of their will). Jesus, the Bible says, was born in this world, died and rose again all apart from my will. Why should it suddenly be my choice or will to be saved now? None of the other decisions involved or included my choice.


Jesus Christ is commonly known as a peaceful and forgiving character. However, Jesus mentioned hell more than anyone in the Bible! Morally any person who is profoundly merciful could never subscribe to eternal punishment. Conceivably, a judge, leader, or jury could, in an extreme case, utilize annihilation as retribution or punishment. But how can everlasting torture be considered justice? If sin is an eternal crime deserving of hell then why would a just God allow man to do it? It is because the Bible was written by an ancient culture dominated by men. Those writings reflect their cultural perspectives. Severe and unfair punishment was common in ancient practice. And because humans most often design their gods to reflect their own attributes, a Jewish sky god of brutality emerged. The merciless Yahweh writers were later met with the Greek and Roman Christ Cult writers. As a result, the biblical God is an amalgamation of thousands of years of mythological and theological figures. He is the ink from innumerable pens; a messiah who stands as the final sacrificial lamb in promise of eternal life. Christ, as the resurrected solar god, is a fusion of many deities. He, as directed by Constantine, ushered the transition of a closed Jewish order into an interracial, international religious enterprise.  


If you really do believe the Bible is the “Word of God” then you believe in a god who is a merciless monster. Also, what if I am wrong and this monster is real? Then I can rest assure that I spent my days with way more love and mercy than he (I don't kill or torture anything). Think for a moment, fellow human, of the barbaric, disgusting belief of hell. I would rather die and never rise again than rise and go to this monster’s heaven knowing that there are people just like me suffering eternal torment.


In 2006 a Roman Catholic priest in Chicago did something that caused a lawsuit (and this time it wasn’t a priest accused of pedophilia). After a Sunday service, parishioner Angel Llavona called priest Luis Alfredo Rios on the monsignor’s private parish phone line. He left the following message:


Father Rios, this is Angel Llavona. I attended mass on Sunday and I have seen poor homilies, but yesterday broke all the rules. Chicago Sun Times, October 3, 2007  


Llavona is a school teacher who had volunteered at the church in education services from 2005 to 2006. Rios, at the time of Llavona’s critique, was new in his role as priest at the Rockford church. On October 1, 2006 Rios played Llavona’s phone message to all the parishioners during two Sunday services. After the message was played, Rios made the following comment to the church parishioners:


This is the person in charge of religious education here last year. That’s why it is no surprise to me that we had the kind of religious education we had. That’s why we didn’t get altar boys. What should we do? Should we send him to hell or to another parish? Chicago Sun Times, October 3, 2007  


Llavona had left a private phone message intended for Father Rios and him alone. Instead of calling his parishioner in to meet face to face and talk privately, the priest humiliated the guy in front of the entire church. This kind of public humiliation and threat is nothing new. Priests have been horrifying and embarrassing parishioners for centuries. The church has always stricken fear into the hearts of anyone who might criticize the leadership of the church. This is always about control. This fear can be the threat of hell or the embarrassment of being publicly chastised. But hell is always the card the religionists play when they want to really strike fear into the hearts of disciples..    


Who is Rios to threaten someone with hell? He is a priest. In the make-believe world of Catholic theology, many priests, bishops, and Popes have thought it acceptable to threaten eternal punishment. Only this time the parishioner is fighting back. He has filed a law suit in McHenry County citing emotional distress and defamation of character. Father Rios may think he is the judge of eternal life and death but I think he is going to find out that the he is not the judge and jury of this world. The McHenry County court will take jurisdiction over this very real matter.


There’s a lot of people who would love to send you to hell. Can I, for a brief moment, speak on your (our) behalf? Every time we consciously ponder the Judeo-Christian idea of the “holiest of holies” we are left to assume the following:


         We are inappropriate for entry into that place.

         We are not appropriate because we are dirty, evil, wrong.

         Only the unnatural, divinely cleansed, or super-human being can enter such a place.

         Anyone who doesn’t eventually enter it goes to hell.

         Therefore, natural beings and their filth cannot go into this most holy of holies.

         Nature is the sad, lonely and poor cousin to super-nature.

         Repent of yourself

         Repent of Nature.

         Nature is evil.


Nature is evil to the believer because nature is slowly showing God to be a fool. One word to theists is enough to make them shutter: science. Send yourself to your own hell, theist, we are done fearing you and your sickening, sadistic, and eternal role playing torture fetish. Your hang-ups are crowding your own closet. You hate nature so much you blame all of your stupid inadequacies on it. You can’t face reality so you choose religion as an escape.


Desiring Heaven

Writing this section I am sitting on an upstairs deck in a beach cottage a few dozen kilometers south of Limon, Costa Rica on the Caribbean Sea. It is about 9 P.M. and after a beautifully warm day of surf and sun it is suddenly pouring with rain. With a cold drink and a Cuban cigar close by, if there is a heaven, I envision it something much like this.


The Bible has way more to say about hell than heaven. That isn’t surprising given the effectiveness of threat. The church has understood for centuries that the threat of punishment is a highly motivational scheme. This has been the greatest tool for recruiting converts over the centuries. Converting people means that the church can then control or conduct (politics) and money of the people.


Walk on water? Rise from the grave? Live forever in heaven? OK, sounds good. Who do you think, if anyone, will discover how to do these excitingly wonderful things? The good folks who brought you sexual oppression, the Crusades, Spanish Inquisition, and Jerry Falwell are not my first choice. Yeah, I think I’m gonna have to go with the scientists. You know, those heads who cure diseases, design space ships, and discover distant galaxies. I side with those thinkers…the JPL pocket protectors. If enough time elapses and evolution smiles, those bookworms will perhaps discover how to stroll on liquid or live for eternity. However, if history is any gauge for the future (and it is) then religious idiots will continue to thwart science, oppress the weak, and promote ignorance. Science is the pinnacle of human achievement; religion, if you will forgive the vernacular, sucks.


Nobody knows if a heaven exists or not. Let me repeat that. Nobody, nobody, nobody knows if a heaven exists or not. So, let us reason with one another. Most of us want to live forever but no one knows for sure because there is no evidence that any of us can really believe. If there was such evidence, we would be flying through the death process with ease. We can’t really lie to ourselves; if there is strong evidence for something, we simply accept it. Why? Because that kind of evidence has been proven to consistently work, again and again. It keeps us honest, so to speak.


If heaven does exist, in all probability its attendance will be equally compulsory as death.


Accepting Mortality

 “I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young, and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is none the less true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting.” -Bertrand Russell, on God and Religion


Mortality is a strange aspect in our lives. Most of us avoid the thought of our own demise. The one thing I find interesting about air travel (other than being pampered in first class on occasion) is the seeming closeness of death. I sometimes think about my death when the jet takes off. Even though riding in an automobile is much more dangerous I still feel safer when I drive. Why? I ride in cars way more than I fly (and I fly a lot). I consciously kid myself that I am safer when I drive a car, though I know I am not. It is conditioned into my mind that driving is safer because I am on the ground, even if I am hit by another car. The statistical fact that jet crashes happen way less than car crashes continually evades my mind partially because of my local and limited experience in this world. This lack of exposure to reality causes a false belief that is very strong indeed.


I am talking about genuine belief here. If you truly believe something, you don’t need to reaffirm it to yourself or others. If you really believe in something, such as gods or that cars are safer than jets, you don’t find yourself constantly trying to prove that belief. You simply know what you know while casually and necessarily agreeing to those thoughts. As a result, all people you notice rejecting your core beliefs are uninformed or simply fools to you. If you are the type of person who desires to believe in talking snakes but lacks real conviction than you must continually reaffirm your desired belief with yourself and other would-be believers. Sunday sermons and theological discussions commonly pacify your addiction to faith. These doubt-evading measures bring limited comfort to people who claim to be believers but really lack true belief. Another example: if you completely accept that the world is flat, there will be no uncomfortable feelings of doubt that the strange sailor Christopher Columbus might be on to something. Further, you will be completely convinced that Copernicus is wrong when he declares that the Earth revolves around the Sun. No affirmation is necessary because you truly believe that the Earth is flat and that the Sun revolves around it. Likewise, if you have been exposed to reason, reality, and common sense then talking snakes will be very hard to believe in. Only a dishonest thinker will attempt to convince the mind to evade the obvious truth. Religion is perhaps the most successful instrument at this deceptive task.


People die. We all eventually die. That is a powerful fact. As twilight approaches, we often acquiesce to ideas that wax hopeful, (i.e., spiritual). People instinctually seek survival; physical as well as mental. The mental side of survival can be seen in the spiritual movements of the world. Humans have been seeking the fountain of youth from the moment death became a conscious reality. 


What happens when we die? Neither you nor I know what follows the last breath we take. Scientifically, we surmise our last breath to be the end…and that is the highest probability we can currently know. We have no proof to the contrary--none. Stories, fables, dreams, sermons, and novels about eternal life and near death experiences do not prove anything. Nor do they disprove anything; how could they? They are anecdotes; not verified information to responsibly base your words and actions upon.

Our short life span coupled with not knowing what follows death (if anything) has caused billions of people in history to make ignorant, presumptuous, and arrogant statements about eternal life. Humans have come from a long line of survivors. Our very genes fight for continued existence through replication. This is who we are. Our egos want to live forever due in part to the instincts we possess. Those instincts are biological, they fight to survive. It makes perfect sense that we would hope and struggle for everlasting survival. The fact is we just don’t know what happens when we die.


Science has the humility, reality, and accountability to admit when the facts are just not in. Religion, however, is the arrogant messenger of certainty when in many cases there is no verifiable evidence. I am not required to negate or affirm the possibility of an eternal life in order to make meaningful choices in this one. On the contrary, we live to the fullest once we truly realize that this is probably all there is to experience. Religion is a crutch for the ego; that ego desperately wants to live forever but rationally knows that the clock is ticking. Therefore, our short life span coupled with not knowing what follows death produces choice conditions for gods, faith, and religions to prosper.