I recently got a question via email from someone who was starting to question her religion, related to my story about How (and Why) I Went From Christian to Atheist, and wanted to know how to overcome her fear of going to hell.
One of the most frightening aspects for me in deciding to abandon my childhood religion was the potential eternal consequences. After a lengthy examination of what I really believed and what I actually thought was true in the Bible, I concluded that the resurrection accounts weren't as compelling as they had been portrayed to me in church. Most likely Jesus didn't rise from the dead. A lot of Christian teaching is predicated on the idea that this miracle is proof that Jesus was the son of God, so that belief promptly went out the window.
Modern science has reasonable explanations for the origin of the universe and the emergence of life without the need for a creator God. Although there are holes in our scientific knowledge I could see that being more comfortable with not knowing all the answers to life, the universe and everything could actually be more liberating than religiously answering “God did it” to every question I couldn't answer. While there are many modern-day Christians who believe that Darwinian evolution isn't incompatible with Christian teaching, for me the sheer barbarism of the natural selection process rules out an omnipotent compassionate God from coming up with it.
There were just too many inconsistencies for me in Christian theology, so eventually I ditched Christianity and after a brief and indecisive foray into agnosticism, became an atheist.
If I was right, I was now liberated from the need to always follow Jesus as my Lord and saviour and could start building trust in my own decision making and in my ability to be the leader of my own life. I began to treat Jesus and the Bible as just one of many potential sources of wisdom as I picked and chose the best teachings from many different mentors and embarked on the process of learning to be my own man.
But what if I was wrong? Having rejected Jesus as my lord and saviour, traditional conservative Christianity dictates that I should now suffer in hell for all eternity after I die, and frankly that scared me. Reading books by very liberal Christian scholars such as John Shelby Spong didn't do much to alleviate my anxiety, since it appeared that he was just making things up to suit his own preferences. Well fair enough in a sense; he was writing theology after all, which I was increasingly sure was all made up anyway.
I talked to a lot of people about what they believed happened after we die, and found a wide range of opinions. Some Christians didn't seem to know or just didn't think about it. Others were adamant that non-believers were going to hell; some of those exclaimed it proudly while others seemed rather shy about telling me the truth of what they believed. I guess if I believed that an all-powerful, all-loving God of justice would consign someone to suffer in hell for an infinite period of time based on their transgressions in a finite lifetime on earth, I'd be embarrassed about the inconsistencies in my belief system too. Or perhaps they just didn't want to upset me about my potential fate.
The Bible isn't as black-and-white about heaven and hell as you might think, since it tends to use metaphors that people interpret according to their own preferences. I used to get into debates about how the Bible should be interpreted, but once I had decided that it was just a book written by a bunch of men no smarter than me anyway, it became pointless to continue debating the finer points of Paulian philosophy.
Agnostics tended to answer the afterlife question with “I don't know”, which to me lacked a bit of punch. Buddhists and Hindus believe in reincarnation, and that seemed as fanciful to me as transubstantiation or the resurrection. Taoists were more focused on living life in harmony with nature, and that seemed more appealing to me than worrying about what would happened after I died.
Atheists seemed to have the most solid answer to what happens after death: It's exactly like before you were born. There is no pain or suffering; there is just nothing. Your atoms return to the dust and get recycled by mother nature. You feel nothing. Just like before conception. Ultimate peace.
Scary as shit though. We are biologically wired to fear death, and since intense fear is unpleasant, virtually all religions have a go at softening the blow by offering some form of afterlife.
Fair enough, life can be harsh sometimes. If you think life today is harsh, consider what it was like before antibiotics, anaesthetics, vaccines and anti-anxiety medications. Once upon a time if you broke your leg, you probably died; and if you did live, it was in constant agony. If you were anxious, you went the village shaman and hoped like hell that his wacky prescriptions could help you. Our forebears were at the mercy of an environment they didn't understand, and couldn't find food just by going to the supermarket. Their survival was under threat every single day.
Ancient people needed some way to deal with their suffering, and the idea that life in paradise after you die makes up for the challenges of life is very appealing. It's not surprising that they incorporated it into their belief systems.
The consequences of the harsh natural environment aren't the only thing that makes life challenging though: Jean Paul Satre wrote that “Hell is other people”. They seem to have minds of their own. How do you get other people to do what's in your best interests, especially when that appears to conflict with theirs?
This is where heaven and hell theology comes in really handy: By teaching people that they will go to hell for all eternity for breaking your rules, you can manipulate people into doing things that they otherwise wouldn't do if they were simply living their own lives. You can channel someone else's fear of suffering and death into following your own agenda. Plus you can offer incentives by suggesting that they'll end up in paradise for all eternity if they do what you want.
Teach a child that a judgmental God is always looking over their shoulder and that the punishment for transgressions is eternal, and they'll obey your rules even when you aren't around to enforce them.
Some of the Christians I talked to during my deconversion said that they were genuinely unafraid of death, since it meant that they would be with God and Jesus in heaven. They couldn't wait to get there. I think they were kidding themselves; after all, they still had a limbic system that would trigger if they were to step in front of a bus or walk towards a very high cliff. It's easy to say that you're unafraid of death when there is nothing threatening your life. But their belief system did seem to take some of the sting out of death and give them a sense of peace about the whole thing that I didn't have.
Nevertheless, I wasn't satisfied with assuaging my fear of death with theological nonsense that didn't accord with reality. I decided to face my fear head on and renounce the whole notion of life after death altogether.
It was scary, but also liberating. I could no longer be controlled and manipulated by threats of eternal damnation. At first I found it insulting when Christians told me I was going to hell, and I would feel angry. I had a history of internalizing anger, so dealing with that is a whole other story. Over time I've concluded that other people's beliefs are just neurochemical firings in their brain of little consequence to me. Anyway, we all have delusional beliefs. Mine are just different to theirs. Now I tend to feel sorry for people who think I'm going to hell, because they invariably live their lives subservient to some religious leader's control.
Who would want to believe in, and much less love, a God who used such coercion anyway? The whole thing smacks of being invented by controlling people who want to exercise power over others.
So my first real tip for overcoming the fear of hell is to recognize that the whole notion of an afterlife was created by other people to assuage their fear of death. Like any scheme created to avoid unpleasant emotions, it works... but only up to a point. Once you actually face your fear of death, you can live a much more enjoyable life because other people can't use that fear to manipulate you. I don't claim to have reached this level of enlightenment yet personally, but I see it as a more valuable goal than avoiding the anxiety by pretending that I'm going to paradise when I die.
The second thing is to recognize that other people have been using this fear to manipulate you into following their philosophy and do their bidding. Now it may be that these people are well meaning and actually think that doing this is in your best interests, and there is a lot of good in some religious teaching. But in this case they're basically acting like controlling parents do.
Although it's scary to go through the process of working out what's important to you in terms of how you live your life, you'll be a much more satisfied person at the end of the day than if you continue to follow other people's rituals, beliefs and ideas out of fear that if you don't, you're burning in hell for all eternity.
It's appropriate to feel angry when you wake up and realize that you've been fed lies in order to keep you in line. Anger and fear are both threat responses, so learning to face the threat with anger will reduce your anxiety. Learn to express the anger that you may feel about having been indoctrinated with the idea that God is constantly watching your every move and will send you to burn in hell for all eternity if you do anything he doesn't like.
In actual fact, other people made up this whole idea, including the definitions of what God supposedly does and doesn't like in terms of your behavior.
Is truth, Christianity teaches that you get into heaven by accepting Jesus, not by how you behave; but the two often tend to get confused and many people think that the choice between heaven and hell is based on morals. Partly as a result of this confusion we can end up feeling the fear of death when we do something we've been taught is wrong.
The reason we care about morality is that it makes our lives better, not because it makes our deaths better. If you consistently treat people badly, they are likely to respond in kind. Maybe not straight away, but eventually they're likely to treat you badly back. You are likely to make lousy friends if you're a lousy friend. We live in a society that relies on communal goodwill among strangers because we're all interdependent. That's why the better we behave, the better our lives tend to go. There is an objective humanistic reason for our morals; we don't get them just from a holy book nor from the fear of burning in hell.
That said, life is not fair. We'd like it to be, and there's a lot of religious teaching inspired by this desire; but it's all made up. There will always be exceptions to the notion that “what goes around comes around”. While the golden rule of “Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you” is likely to improve your life, it's not going to change what happens when you die.
Hitler is not suffering in hell right now: he is at peace. He feels nothing. He is gone. There is no universal justice that ensures that bad people pay for their crimes after death. You may not like this notion, but part of growing up is recognizing that the universe doesn't simply and automatically respond to all our personal desires and preferences. The upside is that you will not suffer after you die either, no matter what you do on earth.
The fear of going to hell can also become a distraction from dealing with the reality of life in the present. Like all emotions, fear can become displaced from one thing to another. Are you really afraid of going to hell when you die, or are you afraid of moving forward with your life? What problem in life are you avoiding by focusing on death?
Letting go of my fear of missing out on heaven and possibly ending up in hell was ultimately liberating for me. After a lot of research and meditation I concluded that heaven and hell are states of mind, not places that you go after you die. There is a lot of misinterpreted metaphor in religious teaching. Jesus said that to enter the kingdom of heaven you have to become like a child. What do children do? They play. They know intuitively how to enter the state that adult psychologists call “flow”, where we suspend judgement and live in the present moment. This is what heaven is.
Hell, on the other hand, is a metaphor for suffering. By living in a state of fear about whether you will go to hell when you die, you are literally living in hell. Not metaphorically, because hell isn't a place you go when you die, it's a metaphor for suffering and unrelenting fear is a form of suffering. Fixating on the fear of going to hell leaves you living this metaphor instead of living your life to the full. To escape hell, you have to learn to overcome your fears so you can live in the state of flow. Once you're in heaven, you won't be worrying about going to hell.
Fear of this sort is conditioned rather than instinctual. The ultimate antidote for the fear of going to hell is learning to trust yourself rather than your religious conditioning.
Talking to other people who had walked this path before me was essential for helping me through a time which felt like everything I relied on in life was falling apart. I know some people who dispensed with their faith like it was no big deal, but I also know others like me who wrestled with it and struggled. I know what it's like to be afraid of theological ideas that I was taught and internalized when I was very young, and I also know how liberating it can be to grow out of them. If you're going through an awakening and need some support in dealing with your fear of going to hell, please drop me a line.