On hell and cognitive dissonances

Conservative Evangelical apologists (especially Calvinist ones) keep arguing that other worldviews (especially atheism) are not viable so that their proponents have to live in a way inconsistent with their core beliefs.

For instance the great reformed apologist Francis Schaeffer (who had truly a fascinating personality and intellect) wrote:

Every man is somewhere along the line between the real world and the logical conclusion of his non-Christian presuppositions. Every person feels the pull of two inconsistencies, the pull towards the real world and the pull towards the logic of his system. He may let the pendulum swing back and forth between them, but he cannot live in both places at once.”

To the dismay of some of my readers, I agree there is a huge tension between a materialist fighting for justice for all people, loving his wife and children while at the same time being intellectually convinced that humans are nothing but insignificant bunches of atoms in a gigantic multiverse.

Nevertheless I find it ironic that Conservative Evangelicals use this type of arguments because their own worldview is far more despairing than that of a hardcore atheist.

For the large majority of them believe that all persons having died as non-Christians are going to endure everlasting torment while being aware that their pain will never have an end.

Try to imagine for a few minutes what it means.

A touching email was one sent to Evangelical apologist Michael Patton.

“Dear Michael,

Right now I am in a crisis of faith and am in great need of your advice.

[He then talks about the abusive and legalistic Christian environment he grew up in]

Right now, intellectually I believe in double predestination but emotionally I am a Universalist. If I allow my emotions to bleed into my intellect then I will become a heretic and if I allow my intellect to bleed into my emotions I will become suicidal. In other words, I can’t handle the truth, so I lie to myself.

In an attempt to become consistent I read some of Jonathan Edwards. His view seems to be that because God hates the damned, the saints in heaven will also hate the damned and will rejoice over their misery. I thought that maybe we as Christians should do likewise, so I watched a bunch of YouTube videos by Fred Phelps (the “God-hates-fags”, funeral picketing guy). He argues that God hates the reprobate more than Satan hates the elect and that therefore we should hate non-Christians. I grew up with a lot of abusive, unstable, racist, paranoid relatives so I have seen what hate looks like. It’s a very ugly thing, but what’s really scary is that there’s a part of me that enjoys watching Fred Phelps; that enjoys the adrenaline that comes with stomping on another human being with your mind. I watched Fred Phelps the other morning, and for the rest of the day I felt like I wanted to fight somebody, so I decided to not watch him anymore.

My question that I desperately need answering is: **How do you believe in hell without becoming a suicidal psychopath?** All my life I have struggled with mental illness and my main goal has been peace of mind. I have sought peace in religion but many a time it has been an aggravator and not a soother. I am in a part of my life where I’m going through religious change and am afraid that I may abandon orthodoxy for the sake of the emotional stability that I have so desperately sought all my life.

I realize that such is dangerous because even benign quirks in theology will lead to illogical patters in life. Right now I’m very close to deciding to never have children because they’ll probably go to hell (there’s a part of me that suspects that the vast majority humans do) and it is cruel and evil to bring souls into existence that are probably doomed to damnation. They’ll probably grow up in a world ruled by homosexuals and Muslims. I have become so bitter that I have come to often feel that God hates humanity; that He delights in our misery. I still love God, but I’m starting to love Him in a Stockholm-Syndrome, Battered-Woman, masochistic kind of way. There’s a part of me that feels like I should never get married because my wife will probably go to hell, in fact, it may just be better if I become super reclusive and not have any relationships because everybody’s going to go to hell. There have even been times when I felt like I would probably go to hell and that I should torture myself in order to prepare myself for the afterlife. Michael, I think I’m losing my mind.

People have told me that this should motivate me to evangelize but every time I have tried to I make myself look like an absolute nut and push people away from the faith. I think my mental health makes this very difficult and I have come to think that maybe I have no purpose in life. Maybe God just created me to suffer.”

I was deeply disappointed by some of the answers.

“Hi John Doe, as I am sure you know, the Bible says that God so Loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son…Jesus loved his enemies and he calls us to also. It is twisted logic to think that God wants you to hate unbelievers. No, you are to LOVE them, and you are to do good to them (Romans 12). As for double predestination or not, that still does NOT affect how we are to treat unbelievers, because we have no idea who the elect are! You cannot look at a person in the street and know whether or not they will eventually come to faith and be saved. That is why it is ridiculous what the Phelps’s teach about hating people. It is easy to hate people, the natural man is great at that, it is MUCH harder to exhibit love and forgiveness…that should be one proof that hate toward others is not from God, but love is. I can’t tell you whether or not to have kids, but God does command us to multiply, and I think you need to see the Lord as far more Good and Just and Loving than you do, leave the final judgment of people in His hands.”

Whether or not they hold fast to predestination, Conservative Evangelicals typically believe there is statistically a great chance that the person they meet in the street is going to eternally suffer under the hands of the same God who orders them to love him or her.

This sinister future is compounded by the fact that the sins of that individual were made inevitable by God’s original curse on the whole mankind.

I think that the tension between this conviction and feeling the duty to love one’s neighbor is far greater than the one existentialist atheists such as Sartre and Camus faced while trying to improve an inherently impersonal and absurd world.


26 thoughts on “On hell and cognitive dissonances

  1. What bothers me about fundamentalist Christian views of hell is that they seem to think that the Bible gives a unanimous picture of the nature of hell. They think that it’s quite clear that the Bible teaches that hell is (x)–e.g. eternal conscious torment. Yet, it seems quite clear that there are different verses that could be used to support different doctrines of hell. And let us be reminded that Jesus told us to judge for ourselves what is good. Therefore, a Christian is perfectly warranted in adhering to a doctrine of hell that puts God in a favorable light, and eternal conscious tormentsurely not such a doctrine.

    • There are different conflicting theological views in the Bible.

      I agree we should view God as a morally perfect being and this should be our criterion for judging any religious experience.

      I don’t think there is any passage which teaches eternal torment, though.

      At the end wicked people rejecting God will be no more .

      It is important, however, to notice that Jesus never threatened prostitutes or tax collectors but only religious bigots .

      There are many people dying as atheists who are far more worthy of entering the kingdom of heaven than most religious fundamentalists.

      • How would you consider an Atheist worthy? What if God had given them sufficient reason to accept him but they just refused due to some personal sin they were attached to?

        How would you interpret the words of Jesus in Matt 713-14 “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”?

        How would you consider these passages that speak of hell:

        Matthew 5:29; 8:12; 10:28; 13:42; 25:41, 46; 2 Thessalonians 1:8; Revelation 21:8

        Furthermore, how would you interpret the passages that speak of the eternity of hell:
        Revelation 14:11; 19:3; 20:10. Isaiah 66:24; Mark 9:43, 45, 47

        I think the whole logic presented in the post is also questionable. Are we to conclude that just because some people can’t mentally reconcile the existence of hell, it means that Hell does not exist? Some people find the holocause distressing. It most certainly did happen though. So I am not sure our strong feeling that it cannot exist is proof that it does not exist.

        God is merciful, BUT HE IS ALSO JUST!

        • Hello.
          It is important for you to notice that I am not a Protestant and do not hold to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy.

          As C.S. Lewis put it, the same Jesus also taught us that “for God nothing is impossible”.
          Man alone might be weak, but God is going to meet us in our weakness.

          People who won’t get to heaven are those having constantly rejected Him on both sides of the grave .

          The NT passages you quoted harken back to various Old Testament imageries meaning “utter destruction”.

          Sodom and Gomorrah were “eternally burnt” in the OT, but I strongly doubt that the Jews of Christ’s time thought that the fire there was still tormenting them.

          I am going to interview soon Chris Date (a Biblical inerrantist from rethinkingHell.com ) on this very topic.


      • What if God had given them sufficient reason to accept him but they just refused due to some personal sin they were attached to?

      • lotharson,

        Well, could you clarify which sort of Christian position you subscribe to?

        Because there is such a thing as an incorrect Christian position. The concept of hell and eternal punishment for those who sin has been part of Christian doctrine since the first Apostles. It was always held to be a real place where sinners do go.

        I would also like to raise this point to you.

        The argumentation against hell is as follows

        1. People do frequently fall in to sin
        2. If God sends them to eternal fires, that upsets me
        3. Therefore, hell must not be a real place or possibility

        The flaw in this argumentation is that it forgets the other possibility that one repent for their sins and constantly try to not sin.



        Thanks for a fun and entertaining video.

        However, I think you incorrectly thought I was making a deductive argument. I was stating a fact of observation.

        When an atheist disbelieves in God, there main complaint against any religion is that it falsely binds people from doing what they enjoy or force people to do what is evil (chastise the unbeliever, call for repentance (load people with guilt), enforce laws against happiness especially in the area of sex etc.)

        So the Atheist may disbelieve in God due to some mental error in logic or for some argument they thought was entirely logical. BUT, the Atheist does continue to remain and atheist and get invested in their position as they do engage in activities that most Christians for an example would consider immoral (fornication, euthanasia, birth control, remarriage, immodesty, blasphemy etc).

        Therefore, it is not that Atheist became Atheist because they always want to sin. Rather, it is that Atheist remain Atheist with an increasing hostility toward religion because they do become invested in activities that most religions would consider immoral.

        I hope that made things clear.

      • Tony, you asked a number of questions on how to consider various biblical passage on hell, and I will give my answers.

        How would you interpret the words of Jesus in Matt 713-14 “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”?

        It is a wisdom proverb about the importance of seeking the right path. It is not statistical.

        How would you consider these passages that speak of hell:

        Matthew 5:29 “It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” Hell in this passage is Gehenna. Jesus is using the imagery of death and destruction from Isaiah 66. See http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/2013/03/18/jesus-and-the-fires-of-hell/.

        Matthew 8:12. Jesus said to his Jewish followers in regard to the pagan centurion, “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Jesus is using visual language to contrast the attitudes of ‘righteous and holy’ Jewish observers of the law with the less observant ‘sinners’ they looked down upon.

        Matthew 10:28 “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” The word for hell here is also Gehenna; see note on Matt 5:29.

        Matthew 13:42 “They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Jesus uses tells a story about seed, wheat, and weeds. Weeds are thrown into a burning furnace–not people. It is a literary device.

        Matthew 25:41, 46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” This concludes the parable of the sheep and goats. It is a parable to make a point–just like the two parables that precede it.

        2 Thessalonians 1:8 “God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you 7 and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. 8 He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” Paul is consoling a congregation that is undergoing local persecution. In my opinion his language reflects his desire to comfort them and not treatise on what will happen in the future.

        Revelation 21:8 “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” Revelation is a Jewish apocalyptic writing–a common literature of that time. It is written to encourage those being persecuted by the Romans. Apocalyptic is filled with symbolism and graphic detail; it is not meant to establish doctrinal truth. See my upcoming blog post on Thursday or my earlier post at http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/2013/03/21/revelation-and-the-lake-of-fire/.

        Revelation 14:11 “They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever.” As I stated before, Revelation is an apocalyptic book, and another characteristic of an apocalyptic writing is that it borrows from earlier apocalyptic works. In this case the writer borrows from the book of 1 Enoch, which is not considered canonical by Protestants, Catholics, or Jews. See http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/2013/03/20/hell-and-enoch-in-the-new-testament-writers/.

        Revelation 19:3 “And again they shouted: “Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever.” AND Revelation 20:10 “And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” See note on Rev. 14:11.

        Isaiah 66:24 “And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.” Isaiah describes the fate of certain enemies who are killed, piled up in a heap, and set afire. It is not a commentary on future eternal punishment in a burning fire. See http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/2013/03/14/jesus-and-old-testament-imagery/.

        Mark 9:43, 45, 47 “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.'” See notes on Matt 5 and Isa 66.

        I hope this is helpful, and I am open to follow-up questions.

    • Hi Tony,

      So the Atheist may disbelieve in God due to some mental error in logic or for some argument they thought was entirely logical.

      Or simply because they were born without believing in your god – as all children are, and never saw evidence that persuaded them to conclude that a god exists who happens to also be a personal god + the only god + a god that revealed itself in the bible.

      BUT, the Atheist does continue to remain and atheist and get invested in their position as they do engage in activities that most Christians for an example would consider immoral (fornication, euthanasia, birth control, remarriage, immodesty, blasphemy etc).

      If you compare how likely christians are to engage in any of these activities, you will find very few significant differences, and even those differences that do exist are not wide margins. And the differences are not all in the direction you would expect. In most countries, there is a lower divorce rate for atheists compared to christians for example. So, even if your premise were correct, which it isn´t, this would still be empirically false.

  2. The inquirer said: Right now I’m very close to deciding to never have children because they’ll probably go to hell.

    I came to this same conclusion as a young fundamentalist. I suspected that, even if my future children were to follow God and go to heaven, there was a possibility of untold generations before the end of time, and I had no control over them.

    In looking at other great Christians of the past I realized that, in some cases, the majority of their descendants were apparently on their way to hell. I could not assume such a horrible responsibility.

    Before I proposed to my wife, I told her all these things and she agreed. But after we were married for awhile she began to have a strong desire for a baby. I consented, but I experienced tremendous dread over my descendants and felt I had been weak in my conviction.

    Of course, I no longer believe in hell. I no longer believe God punishes us. But for many years I thought these things and I felt guilty for contributing potential descendants for eternal torment.

    I love my son more than anything on this earth other than my wife–even though we do not agree on religious issues. I love him, I respect him, and I have no concern for his being punished by God. I am glad that the vile doctrine of eternal punishment did not rob me of my wonderful son.

    • Thank you for these beautiful and touching words, Tim.

      Fundamentalists are all too often the victims of a nihilistic belief system far more hopeless than hardcore atheism.

      William Lane Craig defends the killing of infants during the Canaanite genocide by saying they would have gotten to heaven and have been…saved from everlasting pain!


      As I pointed out, William Lane Craig provided us with a very compelling reason for practicing large scale abortions and even infanticides.

      Currently the younger generations of Evangelicals are massively giving up their faith.
      I think this is by and large due to the utterly immoral picture of God they have been taught to grow up with.

      Unconsciously they want this monstrous theology to be wrong and find a great relief in becoming materialists.

      Actually I think that in many cases they might be far closer to God as atheists than they were as convinced fundies.


  3. I agree with you very strongly that ‘in many cases [former evangelicals] might be far closer to God as atheists than they were as convinced fundies’.

    That’s a terribly sad story about John Doe. I had a friend who was similarly tormented by the idea of hell, and his friends and family all going there, to such an extent that I think in the end he gave up on his own faith.

    I now think that the Calvinist/evangelical theology of hell for all non-Christians is a deeply dehumanising one, and as such clearly not of Christ.

    I hold a slightly different view from you on hell – I don’t go for annihilation (though I once did), but rather for eternal hope of redemption. I’m not sure what hell is, but my best guess (as you know from my recent post) is the state of a soul completely shut in on itself against all external love and light.

    Do I think God punishes people like Hitler or Osama bin Laden? No, I think they punish themselves (unwittingly). But I also believe that like all of us they can be redeemed, if only they can give up those things that shut them off from receiving God’s love and grace.

    • Hello lovely Harvey.

      It is also sad for your friend. But if he is sincere in his heart, I trust God will reach him in the next life 🙂

      I am not as confident about Fred Phelps or Bin Laden, though. I strongly doubt that they desired or desire to humble themselves before the Crucified God.
      Their whole heart seems to be utterly dominated by darkness.

      Otherwise, I just wrote a post about the nature of faith in light of the New Atheism:

      I would greatly appreciate your thoughts there, and please do not underestimate yourself this time 🙂

      • Well, I’m not sure we can ever judge anyone else’s heart, or the factors that have led to them being filled with hate and darkness – even Fred Phelps. I *hope* that the limitlessly merciful and creative Christ will find a way to redeem everyone, though I’m certainly not 100% confident of that.

        PS wow there are some scary comments on this post!! 😉

  4. I think that some of the cognitive dissonance of the doctrine of hell has as its source modern humane child-rearing practices. In the past, it was a cultural norm for fathers to beat their children as a form of disicipline. Fathers carried a belt so it seemed natural to think that God, the great father, carried a very big belt indeed. But now, more and more children are being raised by parents who refrain from inflicting violence on them. Asking people who have been raised that way to believe in hell is in effect asking them to believe in a heavenly father who is less loving than their earthly father. I suspect that on some intuitive level fundamentalists understand this, which is one of the reasons why fundamentalists like James Dobson advocate the continued use of violence on children.

    My thinking in this area has been greatly influenced by Alice Miller’s book “For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence” (which I read when my wife was pregnant with our first child — I’d like to think that my children benefitted from me doing so since it convinced me of the wrongness of corporal punishment). As the subtitle suggests, she viewed child abuse as one of the roots of violence. I would argue that it is also one of the roots of the belief in hell.

    • Thanks for your insightful analysis.

      This might indeed be one explanation for why eternal torture shocks so many people nowadays.

      That said I believe in some retribution for wrong doing (in general), but in quite a few Biblical texts this is clearly unjust and could not have been ordered by a perfect being.


  5. Ron Murphy

    13 mins · Indianapolis, IN · Edited ·


    Evangelical Universalism is preaching the True Gospel. The Apostles and the great majority of the Church Fathers in the primitive Apostolic Catholic Church taught the ultimate salvation and reconciliation of all mankind and witnessed and preached this, and overcame nearly three centuries of pagan Roman persecution, winning multitudes to the True Gospel–1 Timothy 4:10-11, “For to this end we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the SAVIOR OF ALL MANKIND, ESPECIALLY (not exclusively) OF THOSE WHO BELIEVE! THESE THINGS COMMAND AND TEACH! It wasn’t until the fifth century that the false gospel of a limited atonement and an eternal hell began to set in led by Augustine, Justinian, and others. Many of those who have copied this heresy up to today, have copied this heresy from writings like Augustine’s “City of God”. Theologians such as Augustine (who claimed that he didn’t know biblical Greek) arrive at such a doctrine of an eternal hell of punishment by mistranslating and misinterpreting the Bible–such as changing the Greek and Hebrew literal and correct meaning of words pertaining to an age or ages to–Latin words (and other languages) meaning “everlasting”, “eternal”, forever, forever and ever, world without end, etc.

  6. Excellent points. For what it’s worth, there is an alternative to the typical Evangelical belief in eternal torment, one that I believe is much more true to the Scriptures. I am a predestinarian Evangelical Universalist. I believe it was probably the biggest mistake in Bible translation to the word ‘aionios’ to ‘eternal’.

    God is described in Scripture as one who punishes, but He does so for a purpose, like a wise Father, and certainly not with torment that will never end. Since coming to this belief, I can look around at people and not freak out anymore, but can see that the Judge of the Universe will do right, and the facts are kind. The punishment may hurt for some, but only for a time, just like any effective chastisement.

    You may not care, and this will probably not convince you of anything, but I thought you should know. God bless.


    • Thank you John, it was very interesting 🙂

      You’re warmly welcome to comment on my blog from time to time, since at the moment there are not many universalists in the neighborhood 😦

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