Saturday night, during the Mill Avenue Resistance event, I saw a disturbing example of the painful consequences of an insidious piece of Christian doctrine. I saw one of the horrors of Hell.
Allie and her husband were visitors from Texas. They were slightly inebriated after a night out on Mill Avenue, but while this probably magnified emotions, it was not their source. The couple seemed very surprised and confused by what we were doing and what we believed. So much so in fact that they got stuck with us for the rest of the night.
At first Allie, who borrowed one of our microphones, seemed pretty angry at us. As the night wore on though, she changed her tune a lot. She pulled a couple of us aside individually, apologized for her initial tone, and talked to us in a more personal and heartfelt manner.
“I have been through Hell,” she said, her hands clasping mine in a white-knuckled grip, and I could see Hell in her eyes. She told me that she would never be back to Phoenix again, but that we would never be out of her thoughts and prayers. If she never manages to break free of her religion, then I hope she does forget about us, just to spare her the pain.
I could tell that her belief in a loving god and Heaven gave her comfort, but her belief in Hell caused nothing but pain and anguish. Terrible, unending horror which she must face not after death, but every day of her life. It was as if she was trying to rescue us from a burning building, and we refused to come out. The problem is, the flames she sees are all in her head.
At the end of the night as we prepared to leave, she still couldn’t let go of me. She hugged me tightly over and over, clearly suffering from the effects of fire and brimstone Christian dogma laced with alcohol.
Although I would have liked to believe even just for the moment just to ease her pain, I couldn’t lie to her. She was slightly comforted by my admission that (as Christians often request of me) I did and would continue to ask God to reveal Himself to me, so I hope that will at least help absolve her of her guilt at watching us walk off down the road to Hell. As we trudged off down that grim path into the darkness though, her eyes were still sparkling with tears.
We have a fairly adversarial (but generally friendly) relationship with most of the evangelical preachers we see, but this experience reminded me again how difficult these issues could be for some of them.
I still believe that some are preaching either for their own salvation (since the Bible commands them to do it), or to be part of one of the more evangelical communities, but Allie reminded me how much this must hurt some of them. The dogma of Hell for the unbelievers and wrongly practicing believers can be a very powerful and painful motivator for a Christian who genuinely cares about other people.
In fact, when I was a young Christian I had very similar feelings, and while I didn’t yell abusive nonsense and tell people they were going to Hell, I did try to get people to go to church and read scriptures, and I tried to dissuade them from “sinning”.
I guess looking back on it, I was probably fairly annoying at times, and I can still remember how it hurt me to know that the people I tried to help were deaf to my pleas. What really hurt was not so much that they weren’t listening to me, but that I believed God would punish them for the things they were doing. What hurt me was Hell.
It still hurts me to see people harming themselves, but it hurts in a much more human way. I no longer fear an eternity of torment in Hell for myself or anyone else. While not believing in an afterlife makes some earthly tragedies even more painful, I am glad to be rid of the needless dread that the dogma of Hell brings.
Preachers often tell me that I “know the truth”, that “God wrote it on my heart”, and I just choose to deny it. I assure you, if I actually knew these things to be true then as disgusting as I find the concept of Hell, I would do my best to keep myself and others out of it. However I, like at least 80% of the people in the world, do not have the ideas of the Christian god or its sickening Hell “written on my heart”, and there is no credible evidence to convince me that any of it exists.
If there is a god out there, it hides extraordinarily well, and if there is a Hell waiting for the unbelievers, then that god has chosen to put me there. It has given me no way to believe.
The fact that I am not worried about that should tell you how likely I think it is to actually be true.
Allie, if you ever read this, I sincerely appreciate your concern, but I think it is misplaced. If you want to help me, please try to do as much good as you can in this world. If there is another after this, then it will be what it will be. I am not afraid.