Saturday, November 10, 2012


I've been on a wonderful and terrible and entirely necessary journey lately, grappling with my transition away from faith. I've wanted to skip to the end of it for a while, to be at the point where I can say I'm well again, but I have to journey through some very painful and very rewarding territory to get there. I haven't written here for a while because of this, and because life has been insane and awesome and beautiful and exciting lately, and admittedly a little terrifying.

I was raised to fear. One of my most fundamental emotions is that of being afraid, and it's one I have struggled against for my entire life. I've dealt with crippling social anxiety over being afraid of rejection from people, and I've been afraid of failing or, perhaps more commonly, of succeeding. I've been afraid that I will be crushed by those I trust. None of these fears are unwarranted, as the way I grew up contained a lot of very intense experiences involving all of those things. I've even been taught (somehow) that every good thing is a trap that is designed to make you hope, after which it will crush you, and that cynicism is the way to live, with no faith in people, even if they give you every reason to believe in them.

All of this is terrible, and I'm still processing most of it. However, there was one fear I was taught specifically growing up that I have been grappling with for the past few months.

I fear what will happen to me after my death. Ever since I've transitioned to faithlessness, I've had haunting memories resurface of vivid descriptions of hell. There is fire everywhere, unquenchable fire that burns you eternally, and it never stops. There is smoke and sulfur, to the extent that the very air you're breathing is poison, but you are not allowed to die, and you are not allowed to go into shock or lose consciousness to escape your torment. You are separated from God, the ultimate authority/parental/guardian figure and the meaning of life, the only source of security for you, and he does not want you. You did not accept him in your 100 (or so) years of life, so he will leave you in agony for eternity.

The entire notion, I've come to feel for many years, is absurd. The logic I grew up with, "That's what the Bible says," even before losing my faith seemed entirely hollow and meaningless. How could something so implausible be true?

Yet, when you are told something when you are 6-7 years old, these thoughts don't enter your head. All you can think about is how terrible it is, how much you want to be good and you want God to love you, and how you want to live forever in heaven with him and with angels and all good things and where there is no pain. You make decisions based on the fact that you are terrified over something you have just begun to understand, yet it takes over your brain. It inundates you, and you grow up with it. You learn to hate or love or be angry or vengeful or kind and compassionate based on the things you come to believe.

I learned fear, and I learned that most of the human race will be tormented for eternity because of their lack of belief in Christ. How could I trust these people? How could I believe anyone when they don't have a moral center, when they don't have a god to please? Isn't morality simply a toss up if someone doesn't believe in God?

I had emotions, open-mindedness, charity, sexuality, philosophy, science, other cultures, and humanity demonized for me, and I was told that all of my answers lie in a book I tried to read every day and fell asleep doing so. I did not want to go to hell, so I became a fighter against anything that could threaten my and other peoples' faith. I did confrontational evangelism on the streets of Costa Rica as recent as 9 years ago because I thought it was my duty, my way of keeping people from endless torture for eternity.

Eventually, it came to be framed a different way. In recent years, I stopped believing in a literal hell after I studied the Bible and church history and could only find a solid source for this theology in Dante's Divine Comedy and in a very specific and literal reading of what is admitted to be some of the most metaphorical parts of the Bible by all but the strongest literalists.

It stopped being about not burning for eternity, and it started being about being in God's Kingdom. I reframed the horrifying vision I'd been taught growing up with one of eternal glory in God's presence, and began speaking of how God courts humanity and is a gentleman, so he will not force man to choose him. Hell became less about eternal pain and torment and more about man choosing himself over God, and living with the consequences of that choice. For this portrayal, see CS Lewis' "The Great Divorce," a beautifully written myth regarding the heaven/hell reality. Heaven became the only place where anything is real and about people being larger and more, and hell became about people shrinking into themselves and becoming small and petty and never going anywhere.

Like all theology, it's about people.

Sadly, however, this is only a more palatable version of hell. For instead of flames, there is only cold loneliness. Instead of endless conscious suffering, there is eternal emptiness. Instead of God throwing you there, you choose it yourself, whether you realize it or not. In some ways, this version of hell is more horrifying, because it's something you can no longer be angry at God about, and just as terrible.

"But Daniel, is the question not whether it's horrifying or not, but whether it's true?"

Hell is simply inseparable from Christian theology. I've run from this notion for years, and in many ways, I can understand why people get so angry over a book like Rob Bell's "Love Wins." When the doctrine of hell is threatened, the mythology of Christianity loses its' teeth, and fear is no longer a weapon in its' arsenal. Or, to put it another way, what is the point of getting saved if you're being saved from nothing? Does this not make Christ's torture and death meaningless? Meaningless indeed.

I was 7 when I first learned to fear in the name of hell, and even though I no longer consider myself a Christian, the entire notion still chills me at the most basic level. Because even though I haven't believed in hell per se for years, I am now one of the people that preachers ranted about when I was young. I am a secular humanist, someone who believes homosexuals and women and all people regardless of how different they are are equals. I don't believe in the Bible and I understand the evidence for Evolution and the origin of life. I think the entire notion of hell and scaring people into line with it is absurd.

Yet still, there is a fear that takes hold of my heart when I even think about it. What if I am wrong? What if I will burn for eternity because I've allowed philosophy and my lack of Christian morality and my own desire to do what I want to delude me from the truth presented in Scripture?

Scripture, which I don't believe in and is historically the product of a religion that cannot be trusted. Morality, which is demonstrably not from an ancient book and obviously not confined to a single creed, especially considering how bloody and politically cut-throat church history is. Philosophy, which is an inescapable part of life, as natural to humanity as breathing. The entire notion that I will somehow burn in hell is absurd, but fear makes me take it seriously, and it's 27 years of it that I have to somehow come to terms with.

Like I said, this journey has been wonderful and painful and rewarding and entirely necessary. Be who you are, be intelligent, think critically, and have compassion. Do not let fear dictate your choices.


  1. Dan,

    I am an anti-theist (not just an atheist), and we have a mutual acquaintance (who alerted me to this post). It seems that while you do not consider yourself a Christian, you have still not completely let go of false ideology. That's okay, because you never had the choice to believe it in the first place: You were "instructed" on what was "accurate." It took me a long time to break free of religious concepts as well, and it is a tough - yet valuable and necessary - journey. I commend you on your willingness to examine both the doctrines in which you were raised, and who you are as a person.

    As an aside, Christianity had no concept of Hell until the influence of the Persians was felt. Without this single element, Dante would never have had fodder for his "Inferno," and there would be no Christian "Hell," the same as there would be no Islamic "Hell." Even St. Paul does not go into any great detail on "Hell," though he does speak of being "away from God." The entire concept of Hell is a fabrication, plain and simple.

    By the way, I'm stealing your phrase about "confrontational evangelism." That is clearly a classic. :)

    - Dave

  2. Dave,

    Thanks very much for your feedback here, and it's a pleasure to make your acquaintance.

    I'd say you're right that I haven't totally let go of false ideology. It still influences my life a lot, though I have rejected Christianity as a system. I suppose I am a "recovery" ex-Christian, or something of the sort. Thanks for the observation on that one, it is quite accurate.

    Christianity's concept of hell and its' origins certainly are interesting. I want to read some more about it from sources other than what I was raised hearing about (divine inspiration, NDEs). It is clearly a machine of fear to give the religion teeth and followers. Fascinating.

    Please feel free to steal away! And thanks again.