Lately I find that the subject of hell is on my mind once again. This isn’t because I feel afraid or nervous about the afterlife. No, my preoccupation with hell stems from the fact that some of the Christians I know tend to threaten me with it. When their circular logic, mental gymnastics and pleas for me to just “have faith” all fail, they resort to what they think to be the ultimate trump card and “proof” that they are right: hell. “Well, you know that death is not the end for you, right?” The implication, of course, is that if I don’t repent of my “sins” and come back to their belief system, I will be roasted in the fires of hell by Almighty Yahweh for all eternity. They claim to truly believe in hell and think that declaring it to be a reality is going to sway me and make me change my mind. But even when I was a Christian, the concept of hell deeply disturbed me. I found it to be morally repugnant and incompatible with the idea of a righteous and loving god.
Coming from a religious family was like being surrounded by belief at times. People who were not Christians were viewed as unbelievers and the “lost”, and they would go to hell if they died without confessing Jesus Christ. At the conclusion of every sermon, the preacher at church would make an emotional plea, imploring anyone in the building who was “unsaved” to come forward and “repent”. In my everyday life, however, I interacted with many people who were considered to be “lost”. In school and later in the workplace, I interacted with individuals who either had religious beliefs that differed from mine or had no beliefs at all. One who stood out for me was Mr. Nagel. Mr. Nagel taught Law and Society during my freshman year of high school. He was one of the best teachers I have EVER had. I can remember going to him in tears once, frustrated with being attacked for “acting White” by other Black students. Mr. Nagel listened and empathized completely. He encouraged me to not let the teasing change who I was and to never dumb myself down to gain approval from others. Mr. Nagel was an amazing and decent man. He was also a devout Ashkenazi Jew, who always took leave to observe Yom Kippur. To me, Mr. Nagel was an upright human being. But according to what I was taught at church, none of that would matter if he died without accepting Jesus as the Messiah.
Throughout my life I have continued to encounter people of different beliefs. I’ve had friends from nonreligious families, who opened their hearts and homes to me. And when my daughter came down with a near fatal case of pneumonia at two years old, a skilled Jewish pediatrician, Dr. Eisenberg, headed the team of specialists that saved her life. But in the faith I was raised in, all that would be irrelevant for these people in the final analysis. If they didn’t accept Jesus, they would be condemned to eternal torment. Yet people like Rev. Slickback would be granted eternal life in heaven with Jesus-all because of what they professed to believe.
I knew I wasn’t supposed to question this. I knew I was supposed to accept this. It was what the Bible said. It was God’s will, and I wasn’t supposed to question him ever. But it just didn’t seem right! Why should a Christian be saved and not punished for the wrong that they do all because of “belief”, while those who actually lived decent lives would be condemned to hell? It was difficult for me to picture these people being eternally tortured and to view it is a righteous thing. It made me sick. It was hard for me to accept that the only thing that matters in this life is whether one says “Jesus is Lord”.
I vociferously disagree this way of thinking. It offends my concept of justice. But when I discuss this with Christians and Muslims alike, they tell me that I am the one with the problem. Objecting to the idea of human beings being eternally punished based on belief alone makes me the evil and wicked one. Questioning it makes me lost and confused. Valuing the lives of my fellow human beings and simply asking that we be judged on what we do makes me an immoral person. But if I was to agree with them, it would be all good. If I was to say that it is just and right for people to be cruelly abused without mercy for eternity, then I would be on the right path. Yet they say I’m the one with the problem…