Living in Fear of Hell
From childhood through my teenage years and into college, whenever the topic of hell arose in conversation or whenever I was presented with some depiction of hellish torments, I would feel my heart descend into my gut–sometimes gently and noticeably only a little, at other times with the momentous speed of a great plunge. I would on occasion awaken, heart pounding, from nightmares of demons and devils and their hunger for my soul. Satan and his minions were very real to me and very active in my imagination. To keep them at bay, I wore a scapular and held on to other pious arms.
These terrors have long since passed. I no longer live in fear of hell, a state that, for me, is somewhat irrational. As someone who does not rule out the existence of such a place or the possibility that I may find my flesh eternally cooked to well done (unwell done?), I really should still respond to these prospects with at least a little fear and trembling. Such would be the appropriate responses, no?
That I don’t fear eternal tortures suggests perhaps that I presumptuously believe myself to be safely among the elect or perhaps that I really, deep down in unexplored pits, disbelieve in the existence of hell. After all, if I were captured by terrorists and threatened with torture, no doubt I’d be a nervous wreck, unable to eat or relax or function in a dignified manner. I face the possibility of eternal torture, and yet my bowels work just fine. I don’t lose sleep. I don’t worry. I don’t think about hellfire when diving headfirst into some delicious sin or even afterwards when I feel guilty for having done wrong. I make no efforts to feel the appropriate fear that the prospect of hell should elicit. I’m troubled only be the hurts I cause this side of eternity.
If I wanted to be optimistic, I would say that I am not afraid because I recognize that God, who loves me and died for me, is perfectly trustworthy. I can trust him and be not afraid. This is the reasoning of apologist Mark Shea, who argues that hell should not keep believers forever in a state of servile fear because God wants everyone to be not afraid and to be rather in happy, loving communion with him. Speaking to the overly scrupulous, Shea remarks:
Hell is not a threat by God. It’s a diagnosis of the stakes for which we play and the consequences of being the sort of fallen creatures we are in the sort of universe this is with the sort of God who made it. When the doc says “If you persist in your behavior without change you will get liver cancer and you will die” he’s not threatening you. He’s stating a fact. The cancer is not being sent by the doc to kill you. It’s the fruit of the stuff you are doing. The doc is there to heal you. But the healing requires the diagnosis.
Jesus’ diagnosis is that our race is sick with sin. Hell is the fruition of a life obstinately ordered toward sinful selfishness. The endstage of sin is hell just as the endstage of cancer is death. It’s not an extra added punishment for sin. It’s just what sin fully is. So it’s not something God does to us. It’s something we do to ourselves.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and God takes us where we are. But it does mean that God has no intention of you remaining in servile fear. The irony of your position is that the thing God is most unhappy about is exactly the thing you are most unhappy about: that you don’t have a relationship of love with him. He hates that you live in bondage to servile fear more than you hate it, because he loves you and desires your peace, freedom, and happiness. He doesn’t want you to be afraid any more than you want to be afraid.
This sounds awfully nice, but the comparison here doesn’t really work. God doesn’t just diagnose the sickness of sin and promise healing; God created a universe in which horrific eternal suffering is a consequence for not living according to the moral rules of the universe–rules everyone, everywhere breaks. Rules that are almost always difficult and impossible to follow all of the time. Hell may not be a threat from God, as Shea says, but if it’s part of the universe and might be the whole of your future, then it’s rationally something to fear. Like, a lot. Any religion that preaches the possibility that you will go to hell preaches the message, “Be afraid.” That God has also said “Be not afraid” doesn’t cast the reasonableness of fear into the outer darkness.
I gave up worrying about hell because I grew tired of the misery that often came it. I don’t believe the state this worry left me in was particularly healthy, so I feel no obligation to bring back the fear. I can live with the inconsistency of believing that hell may be but not fearing it, but I’d be lying if I said that this inconsistency hasn’t given me pause to question my beliefs.