H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks (A comical reference to the hot place, based on the shape of the last two letters)
The Christians I grew up around took Hell pretty darn seriously. They didn’t believe in expiation of sins after death: once you’re dead, you’ve lost your chance, buddy. If you weren’t saved by Jesus before you died, off you go in a handbasket to the hot place. For Reformed Presbyterians, this is compounded by the Calvinist belief that God has already determined who’s headed to the flames, but has not chosen to share this information with humankind.
Of course the above paragraph is a simplified explanation, but sometimes it helps to strip away all the fancy theological terms and state things baldly. I was taught that if you died without believing in Jesus as Savior, you would instantly go to a place of never-ending torment and darkness, and at the Resurrection your body would be consigned to the flames to burn forever without any chance of escape.
This shit fucked with my head pretty badly growing up. I remember sheer sweating terror one night where I had convinced myself I was going to Hell. I still remember how afraid I was as I faced an eternity of screaming agony, sure that I couldn’t do anything about it. After all, if God had predestined me to the flames, there was no way around it—no propitiation, no sacrifice, no acceptance, no forgiveness.
I relaxed a little bit about Hell after that; I think I numbed myself to the possibility of ending up there and tried not to think about it. But I still believed in eternal torment, and I still believed that the unsaved were headed there by the thousands every day. This led to a lot of guilt about not witnessing to the unsaved. Now I know this doesn’t really make sense, because if God had already chosen his people, it couldn’t be my fault if somebody went to Hell. At the time, though, it didn’t seem nearly so clear, and if anyone I knew died who wasn’t Christian, I was full of guilt because maybe I was the one who was supposed to evangelize them and save them from the flames. We were commanded to spread the Gospel, and I wasn’t doing it, or not doing it well enough.
It made me really sad when my grandfather died an “unbeliever.” I couldn’t reconcile myself to the idea of him burning up forever. I just didn’t understand how people could be happy in Heaven when they knew their loved ones were shrieking in the fire. Apparently if you are one of the elect, when you go to Heaven you are purified and happy forever and just…don’t care about your friends and relations? Forget about them? Rejoice in their punishment, since they are sinners? Holy fuckballs! If that’s the way it works, I’m jumping in the handbasket with my loved ones and heading to the Pit, because Heaven sounds a lot more twisted.
I would think for most Calvinists, predestination would take the edge off of personal guilt about evangelizing to the lost. But if you believe that everyone has an opportunity to be saved, like many modern Evangelicals, how do you not spend every waking moment trying to rescue people from the flames? Unrepentant humanity is throwing itself over a cliff of destruction! You should be waving signs, screeching warnings, blocking their path…oh, wait, there’s a bunch of Christians doing exactly that, and it’s obnoxious. Theologically consistent, but obnoxious.
But understanding how some Christians view Hell as a place of eternal, no-escape torment does shine a light on their behavior. If somebody thought you were about to jump off a ten-story building, you’d expect them to try to stop you. That’s what a decent person would do. Unfortunately, there are a lot of well-meaning Christians out there trying to “save” people from the Christian Hell. Their intentions are good, but I’ve always heard that the road to hell was paved with good intentions...
Like a lot of my early beliefs, my belief in Hell slipped away gradually. I had to go from strict Calvinism (God only saves the elect, all others go to Hell) to a belief in free will (you can decide to accept God, and then you will go to Heaven) to the belief that the Divine love is open to everybody, and that the only hell is one you create for yourself. And if you’ve created it for yourself, you’re free to leave it behind.
But what about mass murderers? What about Hitler? A lot of people consign the unrepentant to eternal flames with smug satisfaction. A lot of people do that, some without even really thinking about it. “He got what was coming to him.” “He can rot in hell.” That’s our desire for justice talking. If we lost our sense of justice, we’d lose a huge part of our humanity. Pain and suffering follows evildoers. Karma is a bitch, and we bless her for her bitchiness. But what if even the most evil are not unreachable by love? Maybe, even when we are full of justified anger and hate against the worst of humankind, maybe Divine love doesn’t give up trying to bring them back to goodness, even after death. That’s why I can’t say that I hope anybody rots in hell, because one: I don’t believe in it, and two: I hope that everybody finds some kind of redemption, be it through reincarnations or purgatory or something else.
At least that’s how I think of it. I don’t fear Hell anymore, and that’s a relief. I don’t want my children to grow up in fear, sickened by the thought of eternal flames. I asked my son once if he knew what “hell” was—he said he knew “hail” fell from the sky, and I laughed because he didn’t know, and he wasn’t afraid, and that’s the way a child should be.