Death and Doctrine, Part 2: On Why Hell Makes So Many Christians Happy

To start, two autobiographical stories.

First, a story. I grew up with a fundamentalist view of things, of course shaped by my ecclesial tradition. That is, when I was younger I believed only my church was going to heaven. This belief made me very concerned with those in my extended family who were Baptist. Didn’t they know they were going to hell? Shouldn’t someone in the family warn them? So, one day, I decided to take up the subject with my Baptist cousin. I was around 13 and he was around 23. So looking back, he was being very tolerant of me.

Anyway, I start to share about how he’s going to hell. And, of course, he kindly disagrees. We debate back and forth on the nuances of biblical texts. And, eventually, I see that I’m just not going to change his mind. And the horror of that realization settles over me: He won’t listen, he’s going to go to hell. I’ve failed.

And I start to cry. Very hard. And I make one last appeal through a storm of tears.

Second story. Around this same age I was invited to give my first sermon at my small church in Pennsylvania. It was to be the Sunday evening sermon. (We had two services on Sunday. A morning service and an evening service for those who could not attend the morning service and take the Lord’s Supper.) The Sunday evening sermon was a little shorter and less formal. Attendance in the morning was around 100 but at the evening service it was down to around 20 or so. It was a causal affair for the most devoted of the church. This was, of course, the crew that came back to attend church twice in one day.

During the week I was mulling over my sermon topic. To kick around some ideas I took a few bible study tracts home from the church. One of these was entitled “What Hell is Like” by Jimmy Allen. Jimmy Allen, you should know, was notorious in my fellowship for these Sinners-in-the-Hand’s-of-an-Angry-God kind of sermons. He could really scare a person into immediate repentance. Well, my first exposure to Allen was this tract and it terrified me. Hell was horrible, terrible! I was suddenly convicted: People need to know about this!

So I decide that the first sermon of my life is going to be on "What Hell is Like." There I was, about 13, preaching at the most faithful contingent in my church, the people who came to church twice on Sundays, telling them point for point just how bad, awful, terrifying, and horrible hell was going to be.

I’m quite sure they all thought I was insane.

But they needed to know, right? Well, late in the sermon the sheer tragedy of hell, the vision of all those lost, tormented souls, just overwhelms me. And I begin to weep. I deliver the last ten minutes of the sermon through a veil of tears. Just sobbing in front of the church.

By this point in the sermon I’m sure they really did think I was insane.

Why do I share these stories? Well, if you know this blog you will know that my views on these matters have changed considerably over time. But regardless, given what I was convinced to be the truth about hell at the time, I want to point out my reactions in both stories to make a contrast.

Specifically, have you ever noticed how some Christians, particularly some of the loudest, most public voices on the Religious Right, seem pleased that people are going to hell? That is, it has always troubled me that so many Christians seem, well, happy about the damnation of most of humankind. True, they may protest against this diagnosis, stating that, deep down, they really are grieving the future torment of liberals and gays and Hollywood producers. But if you look at them, they don’t seem all that sad. Like I did when I was 13. They seem happy. Or at least smugly self-satisfied.

Why is this? Why does hell make so many Christians happy?

I think part of an answer comes from the analysis offered in my last post. Specifically, given the existential anxiety caused by death and exacerbated by the prospect of hellfire, many Christians reach for tangible markers that allow them to verify that they are, indeed, saved. As I wrote in the last post, this is often accomplished by drawing clear ecclesial lines in the sand. We crave a clear circle that encloses the Saved, the Church. Outside of that circle are the Lost, the Damned.

This circle is existentially comforting. But its comfort hinges on its concreteness and clarity. If the line becomes fuzzy or indistinct then it no longer serves its existential purpose: Concrete reassurance of salvation. Thus, the boundary markers of faith, and their razor sharp clarity, become more important (and more prone to provoke an argument) than the essentials of faith. Churches fight over trivialities because those trivialities mark boundaries. And in the face of death it isn’t the core of faith that reassures us. Rather, what is critically important is the boundary and where I stand in relation to it. If everything outside the circle is bound for hellfire what matters most is not where the center of the circle is but where the edge is. The edge, the boundary, is what I need clarified. Thus, churches fight over edges, leaving the center, the core of the gospel, overlooked and unattended. For those who fear death, the core just isn’t as important. It, in a very real way, just doesn’t provide the needed reassurance.

And if all this is so, if the clarity of the boundary is what is so reassuring, then it stands to reason that we need, for existential soothing, a group of people to be clearly on the other side of the line. A clearly defined saved group by necessity creates a clearly defined damned group. And the more clearly defined the better. In short, many Christians need a clearly defined damned group to reap existential solace.

The point? Simply this: The fact that some people are going to hell—clearly are going to hell—is comforting to many Christians. It makes them feel better. About themselves, their world, and, weirdly, about their God. They actually need the damned to feel happy.

So if it seems, sometimes, that certain Christians seem downright giddy at the prospect of millions of people going to hell, well, now you know why.

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17 thoughts on “Death and Doctrine, Part 2: On Why Hell Makes So Many Christians Happy”

  1. Great stuff. I agree with your conclusions about the existential need for an out-group in order to justify your own salvation - ie: the function of hell at a psychological level.

    Of course, Hell isn't just a psychological projection though. It was conceived of long before psychology as a discipline, by people who were largely uninterested in existential crises in individuals. Hell at it's root also seems to be a control tool. It is a means by which the Church shepherds people (note that it's greatest development was in the middle ages when there really wasn't an out-group. All of Europe was Christian). Thus security of salvation seems to be a use that Hell is put to post-reformation in a plural society when the question of "who's saved" is more prominent.

    It is seriously disturbing though when you get the impression that a preacher is excited about millions of people being tortured in unimaginable ways for all eternity.

    Have you read any Girard? He has a lot to say about this. James Alison is my favorite of his disciples.

  2. Richard, intriguing thoughts as always. I suspect that in addition to the reasons you give, another reason some Christians seem happy about people being damned is that their desire for justice (as they view it) outweighs their desire to demonstrate love/grace. It reminds me a bit of some of the more unsettling verses in the psalms in which the psalmist prays for his enemies to be crushed.

  3. First, I have to start by saying that the two autobiographical pieces were GREAT! My reaction to both was that reaction of laughing and then thinking how cute both situations were...HA!

    Second, when I read the paragraph preceding the big question ("Why is this?") I immediately had my explanation as to "why" hit me, before I continued on through your post.

    Now, in a way, I kind of think there might be a connection between what I think I understood your explanation to mean and what I had "hit-me" to be my explanation.

    I think it is possibly a sense of human satisfaction that comes into play when an individual gains self-satisfaction in thinking "I'm right" and "they're wrong." It's that gratification one gets when they get something right and someone else gets it wrong. It’s that sense of feeling like you’re better than the other person.

    Sure, you’re sad they won’t be spending eternity with you, but at the same time you’re chalking one up in your column for getting it “right.” And I think it’s because of the feeling that comes with you feeling you’ve got it right, that one gives off a spirit of being happy.

    Of course, I think most of this “I’m right and you’re wrong” thought processing business occurs subconsciously; nonetheless, I feel it is gratifying to some because, as you say, they “need” the others who are “going to hell” because as I feel, it gives him/her a sense of satisfaction for him/herself.

  4. Great thoughts, Dr. Beck... I definitely appreciate this miniseries.

    I definitely agree with feedingyourmind to stress that most of this is subconscious. I immediately thought of plenty of people who would react and say "I don't want anybody to suffer." But I agree that for many people, this is a subconscious justification that often happens without people realizing it. (Of, course you're the psychologist -- so nothing new here.)

    Jason, I agree. Most people have a serious justice-obsession. It's so hard to accept and practice mercy.

  5. Richard,
    A slightly funny example of your point envolves an argument online involving a believer and a non-believer. The Christian, after just mentioning his deep love for all and his total sadness for a lost stranger even more than a death in his family, finally quoted a long passage from Revelations about the lake of fire.
    He said "I'll see you at the last judgement. I'll be the one on the Lords side and just so you recognize me I'll wave at you just before you get cast into the lake of fire." Wow! Nothing like being right to bring out the love in a person.
    Your personal stories bring to mind some of my embarassing moments. While you're at it why don't you give me a paper cut and pour fresh lemon juice in it. :)
    Rick T.

  6. I don't understand Hell. I don't know what it is or what the concept is. I don't think it is a lake of fire just like I don't think heaven is a place where we play harps all day long on a puffy cloud! But I am taking a guess here, but I tend to think that heaven is just more life. So hell must be no life?

    But somehow I have a problem with all the wrongs in the world not being made right. I have a problem that justice is not being practiced. For some reason I have a hard time thinking that when we die that's it. Nothing happens. I find that kind of tragic. I mean, don't you want justice to be served? I mean if I get raped I would want there to be justice. If my children are murdered I would want justice...I mean there has to be consequences for our choices. Hey, I am all for grace and mercy, especially to those souls who are truly repentant and want second chances...but lets be honest here, we don't know the hearts of men as God does, so who are we to judge?

    The truth is that it is up to God to decide those sort of things. I don't know what hell is or what it's like but from what I can gather it doesn't seem to be a pleasant place to be. But I don't think it should be a motivational factor for my faith. The motivational factor should be the love God has for me and the lengths he has gone through to show that love.

    I don't think it is the Christians place to decide who is going to hell just so they feel secure and safe. That seems sickingly horrible. I find this post disturbing and troubling.... Christians HAPPY that others are going to Hell, yeah, there really is something wrong with that!

  7. Roxanne: I just HAD to comment in reference to your comment. One line you said immediately made me think something.

    I LOVED the line..."I tend to think that heaven is just more life." I loved that line in that it immediately hit me as "what a compliment to give 'life' itself." HA!

    I know that probably sounds ridiculous...HA! And yes, I know I'm so rattling on about a sentence you added to your comment that really wasn't even the main meat of your comment, but I often look too much into what people say and how they say it!

    But I just wanted to say, I immediately thought, "Wow...what a grateful person one would have to be to say 'heaven is just more life'" if it is meant in a way of comparision.

    Now, before I take any flak about how one can NOT compare heaven to something so corrupt as worldly life, here is my thought processing...

    What if one could actually be appreciative enough of what he/she has, or what he/she might believe God has blessed him/her with, that they could envision heaven to be more of what they've been blessed with already.

    That probably doesn't make sense, but whatever...HA! Thanks for that line in your comment!

  8. From those whom I call "fortune-tellers of the soul," I'm always intrigued by the belief that they-know-where (three words filled with assumptions) their neighbors belong (I'd love to unpack this word too!) in the afterlife. Yet when asked to clarify what these places actually are, they have little more to offer than child-like fantasies of a literal kingdom resembling the antiquities OR a confusing collection of vague metaphors.

    "More life" is one of the better guesses to describe heaven I've heard. And if Hell would be "no life" then, logically, no one could go there - which sounds good to me as well. Interested in an atheist's guess?

    If heaven exists, I'd like to imagine it a place where anybody can take advantage of all the good it had to offer instead of an all-or-nothing ultimatum.

    I'd also like to think of heaven as a place where "God" does finally protect all from physical harm. And I'd also like to think of heaven as the best learning environment for everyone to develop a healthy, mature, moral mind of their own (with God's help if they wanted).

    And I'd also like to think of heavenly justice to be a true remembering, a true self-awareness of what are the wrongs we're responsible for committing (intentionally and unintentionally) through knowledge of such things as heightened empathy of the consequences of evil acts on others. (To me, a good God wouldn't need any form of punitive justice administered to people outside of heavenly boundaries to add to the hurt they have already done to themselves.)

    And heaven, to me, wouldn't be a place to take on the kind of innocence that includes an ignorance of evil. My succession of memories defines who I am. To remove the existence of evil in those memories would be a falsification of my journey, and therefore, an annihilation of "me".

    There it is, free to be critiqued. As far as 'What Hell is Like,' my imagination seems to fail me because I just can't seem to envision one.

  9. Richard,

    Because of work and too many pressing commitments, I've had to drop off the earth and into blog lurkerdom. Can that be a kind of Hell? Hmmm.

    "And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him." Rev. 6:8

    Above is the vivid Johannine apocalyptic description about what powers and principalities do when they are threatened and about our complicity with them on a daily basis.

    Theologies that centralize sin and death as opposed to mercy and life simply carry on the heartless work of the powers and principalies, are rooted in fear and anger, and distract us from loving our neighbor. Worst still, they make God an agent of the devil. We are in the world but not of it.

    It seems to me that your first sermon was in fact a form of theological self-abuse and part of the cycle of generational abuse. That your blog and its respondants are struggling with these matters is testimony to merciful hearts and efforts to see the kingdom of this world and its prince for what they are.

    Blessings, life, and mercy.

    George C.

  10. @Aric: "Of course, Hell isn't just a psychological projection though. It was conceived of long before psychology as a discipline, by people who were largely uninterested in existential crises in individuals."

    I don't think this precludes the doctrine of hell being, at its root, a matter of people being afraid of death. You don't have to know much about psychology to know that death is scary and that you can use it to manipulate people.

  11. Hey Richard
    Here is a link you may find interesting... a excerpt from Pete Rollin's new book. In this he is talking about how he sees the notion of religion without religion in Christianity.

  12. Hi all,
    I appreciate all the comments. Musing along with all of you, I think it is clear that the "psychology of hell," if we can call it that, is much more complex than what I paint here. I do think that death concerns are a part of the picture, but many of you make good points about other dynamics: Needs for justice (and these can be good or bad), vindication, and social control. As I think about all of this it seems clear why hell is such a dominating concept: Ontological issues aside, the mere idea of hell is doing a lot of psychological work.

    On a different note, I'm glad some of you enjoyed the personal antidotes. Ah, the days of our youth! And I do wonder if those experiences, per George's comment, affected me far more than I thought they did at the time and in ways I could not predict.

    And I've been thinking a lot about Jerry's comment: I'd also like to think of heavenly justice to be a true remembering, a true self-awareness of what are the wrongs we're responsible for committing (intentionally and unintentionally) through knowledge of such things as heightened empathy of the consequences of evil acts on others. If I may expand, if this is a true view of "hell," and I tend to think it is, may we all desire its transformative effects. As Jesus said, "For everyone will be salted with fire."

  13. Do you remember the song "Jesus is coming soon"? Very upbeat tempo and sung with gusto the words:

    esus is coming soon, morning or night or noon,
    Many will meet their doom, trumpets will sound;
    All of the dead shall rise, righteous meet in the sky,
    Going where no one dies, heavenward bound.

    That ranks right up there with my all time favorite "There's an eye watching you".

    Fear was a huge motivator and our joy at the rest of the lost (although we didn't call it joy) was in our relief that they are what sinners really look like and the relief that follows...."whew...I'm glad I'm not in their shoes".

    Love your blog.

  14. "It was a causal affair for the most devoted of the church"

    I'm sure there's a Calvinist joke in there somewhere.


  15. I just ran across your blog. Excellent posting. And I think you are completely correct. As a person who grew up in a fundamentalist church myself, what you wrote really resonated with me. I could relate to what you were describing.

    I think that hell is one way of people being proved right. If there is a hell, and of course the believer in hell is never one of the people going there, and if there are others who disagree with your theology, then hell is the final arbiter of who is right. It is a way of getting in the last word. It allows you to win the argument--of course, it won't be won for a while, yet (not until both you die and the person you disagree with will die).

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