Having said that, I'm also trying to make a point (keep reading).
I've written before, about hell, right here. But at that stage my blog was just beginning, and I wanted to tell a significant chunk of my de-conversion story before getting into this issue too heavily. Suffice it to say, the time feels right to share some of my more recent thoughts on hell.
As I began to strongly consider the fact that Christianity might be false, deliberations on hell became both deeply urgent and deeply personal (for obvious reasons). Surprisingly though, I felt very little fear throughout. Logically speaking, I should have been utterly petrified since, if Christians are right, I am now on my way to an eternity of horrific and unimaginable suffering (separated from both God and nearly all of my family/friends). Why was I (am I?) not more afraid?? As I began to ponder this, it hit me...I'm not afraid because I find the case "for" hell to be alarmingly unconvincing. I think, at a certain point in the de-conversion process, my mind changed, on hell, without my even realizing it consciously. But, what was it that led me to conclude hell is imaginary? Well, there was no one argument. Actually, I now find the Christian hell to be implausible for all sorts of different (but complimentary) reasons.
As such, consider the following to be my "top 5"...
5) The Christian hell is implausible because only part of the Bible teaches it
Yes, you read that correctly. It is indeed true that only part of the book that God supposedly wrote (from start to finish?) even teaches that there is an afterlife, at all, much less a heaven or hell.
Listen to John Loftus, "The concept of life after death mostly developed in the Apocryphal literature during the intertestamental time between the Old and New Testaments (from passages like Job 19:26, Isa. 26:19, and Dan 12:1-3)... ...it wasn't accepted until the second century BCE, in the days of the Maccabean crisis when the return to life of the dead came about. The whole concept of hell developed during the Hellenistic period and then was adopted by the New Testament writers." (from "Why I Became an Atheist")
It seems to me this is problematic for the Christian worldview. Don't Christians believe that God inspired all of the Bible? Is it likely that he would allow entire books, to become part of his holy canon, that hold inaccurate views? But the bare fact remains...some of the Old Testament, in particular, simply assumes that there is no afterlife. I'll have more to say on this topic, especially as it pertains to how Christians latched on to the concepts of heaven & hell, in point number two.
4) The Christian hell is implausible because the punishment doesn't fit the crime
Frankly, this is so plainly obvious, I almost feel silly in extrapolating the point. I need to do so, unfortunately, since many Christians will not accept it at face value. Also, I've found the usual responses, to this argument, to be incredibly weak. The most common one seems to be that sinners deserve "eternal" punishment, because they have sinned against an "eternal" God. But, where is the proof of this contention? It's a pithy (and as such memorable) way of responding to the objection, sure, but is it anything more than a play on words? Hardly. In fact, that's precisely all it is. Do we, as humans, punish people for greater lengths of time based on the greater age of their victim (ie. an older person vs. a child)? If anything, it's the other way around. Thoughtful Christians, of course, will say this comparison isn't applicable (since God is "outside of time", whatever that means, and therefore in a wholly separate category). But when they're done, with all of the philosophical hand waving, I'll still be here asking them for actual proof that sins committed during a finite lifetime are worthy of "eternal" punishment.
I've also noticed that, on the rare occasions, when Christians dare to talk about people "deserving" an eternal hell, they inevitably use someone like Adolf Hitler by way of illustration. But the vast majority of those in hell, according to the Christian worldview, will be law abiding citizens. Not only will they be incomparable to Hitler, in nearly every conceivable respect, they will actually be "good" people by our human standards (did God give us those sensibilities, or didn't he?). Y'know, your neighbor down the street; the one who volunteers at the soup kitchen once a week. That's the guy God deems worthy of eternal suffering (with no chance of reprieve). And it does Christians no favor to argue that hell has different levels/gradations, of punishment, since all of it is still pretty awful by their own admission.
Let's face it, a loving God would never allow a hell to begin with. And to say that he essentially had no other choice (as some apologists argue) is ridiculous. He could have created only heaven, for example, with all of us living in it from the very get go. And if he foreknows that billions of people will burn in hell, for ever and ever and ever, why not prevent those people from ever being born? Why create the human race at all? The questions are nearly endless.
This leads me into my third point...
3) The Christian hell is implausible because it necessarily means that humans are more compassionate than the Christian God is
If, somehow, the human race were able to vote on how Hitler would be punished, what do you think we would decide? Initially, there may be some who would argue for "eternal" torment (mostly the religiously minded, perhaps?) but, after the dust settled, is that what we would wind up settling on? I don't think so. I believe that reason would win out, in the end analysis, and even if we did decide to torture him, let's say, we would not vote for it to be never ending (if such a thing were even possible).
Does this mean we are more compassionate than the Christian God?
Dr. Keith Parsons makes a similar point, in a chapter called "Hell: Christianity's Most Damnable Doctrine" (from "The End Of Christianity")...
"...we now refrain from subjecting even the worst criminals...to the sorts of punishments that the most advanced societies regularly inflicted on criminals just a few centuries ago. Not that long ago criminals were regularly broken on the wheel, roasted on gridirons, torn to pieces with red-hot pincers, drawn and quartered, impaled, crucified, flayed, starved, and so forth. We no longer inflict such punishments on even the worst criminals. Why? It is not that criminals have gotten any better; we have. However odious someone is, we now think it's wrong to boil them in oil, skin them alive, or beat them to death with sledgehammers. Again, why? Are we more sentimental or more tolerant of moral turpitude now than our forebears? No, I think that the unwillingness, at least in liberal democracies, to resort to the old medieval punishments is one of the few unquestionable examples of moral progress."
Would you ever tell someone to "burn in hell!", and actually mean it??
2) The Christian hell is implausible because of its origins
Firstly, many Christians don't realize that the notion of having a destination for the wicked was, at one time, tied to a literal place, right here on earth, called Gehenna. Eventually Gehenna became divorced from its geographical location, but it retained many of the same (fiery) characteristics.
Secondly, as I began to understand more about the apocalyptic nature of Jesus himself (which I discuss here, here, and here) many additional pieces began to fall into place. Listen, as Bart Ehrman explains...
"...Jesus' message--like that of other apocalypticists--can be understood as a kind of horizontal dualism between this age here on earth and the age to come, also here on earth. I call it a horizontal dualism because it can be imagined as a horizontal time line divided into half. At the end of this age, which is imminent, there will be a judgment and we will enter into the new age, on the other side of the dividing line. When the end never came, Christian thinkers reconceptualized this time line and in a sense rotated it on its axis, so that now the 'end' involves not a horizontal dualism but a vertical one. Now it is not a matter of two ages, this one and the one to come, but of two spheres, this world and the world above. No longer is the physical resurrection discussed or even believed. Now what matters is this world of suffering below and a world of ecstasy in heaven above. This duality works itself out in a doctrine of heaven and hell. Why above and why below? Because the dualism remains in place, but has become spatial rather than temporal... ...In short, with the passing of time, the apocalyptic notion of the resurrection of the body becomes transformed into the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. What emerges is the belief in heaven and hell..." (from "Jesus Interrupted")
1) The Christian hell is implausible because there's simply no good evidence for it
I don't think there's much more to be said, on this point, other than to issue it as a simple challenge to Christians. If you have evidence, that hell exists, where is it? I remember reading Bill Wiese's original (2007) release of "23 Minutes In Hell", while I was still a believer myself. These sorts of personal stories seem to be the best that Christians have, on hell, in the evidence department. It's worth noting that I found the book unconvincing, even then, despite the fact that I had no doubts whatsoever about there being a literal hell at that time in my life. I think it goes without saying that I find it even less convincing now, in retrospect.
Before I wrap up, I'd like to share one more quick thought on hell. It's something I could have rightly covered, under point number 3, but I wanted to save it to the end (since I find it to be especially egregious). C.S. Lewis once famously argued that the doors of hell are "locked from the inside". In other words, people are in hell because they choose to be there. On one level this is an appealing argument, for Christians, since it seems to absolve God of responsibility while, at the same time, acting as a handy justification for why hell is eternal. There's only one problem...it's bullshit of the highest order. As I discussed a little, near the end of my last post, there are many, many, many people who don't believe in Jesus for primarily intellectual (instead of emotional) reasons. To imply they will persist in "rebelling" against God, even after death (when they are decidedly proven wrong on the matter), is to assume that there are no sincere (but honestly mistaken) unbelievers out there. Not one!! What do atheists, like me, need to do to convince Christians they are dead wrong about this?
So, there you have it. This is my case, in very brief form, for why the Christian hell is a mythical place. To the Christian, reading this blog, how would you respond to these five points? (Or, will you ignore them?) And are you willing to honestly consider the fact that hell isn't real, or will you just continue to take it "on faith"?