March 22, 2004

“Hell is an outrage on humanity. When you tell me that your Deity made you in his own image, I reply that he must have been very ugly.” -Victor Hugo

I’ve been emailing one of my Christunfrends on the subject of hell. Hell is the dark underbelly of orthodox Christian belief. Christians are, with some notable exceptions, a nice bunch. Remember the natives of the planet Krikkit? In Life, the Universe and Everything they believe in “peace, justice, morality, culture, sport, family life, and the obliteration of all other life forms.” As I’ve said before, evangelicals are sometimes a bit like that. Only instead of the obliteration of all other life forms, we have the eternal conscious torment of non-believers in Hell (annihilationism being viewed as suspiciously liberal by people like Reform).

<lj-cut> When I was a Christian, if asked, I’d have said that my non-Christian friends were going to Hell. But, like my correspondant, I’d not really faced what that meant. Most Christians consider Medieval pictures of fire and pitchforks a little passé these days, but regardless of that, Hell is conceived by Christians as the total absence of anything good. Choose your own favourite candidate for the worst thing that’s ever happened, and it’s worse than that. Forever.

The justification for an infinite punishment for a finite crime is supposedly that it’s not really a finite crime at all. God is so perfect that the smallest offence against him is as bad as the largest. Or he’s so good that nothing sinful can come into his presence. The latter explanation of the mechanics of damnation absolves God of personal involvement in sending people to Hell, as it’s logical necessity which means that nobody can join God in heaven without the aid of Jesus.

My friend, and presumably other Christians, respond to the thought that their friends are damned with gratitude that Christians are saved, and also with an increased zeal for evangelism. What’s missing from this is a question about how their friends’ fate can possibly be just. If the latter explanation is true, why does God sustain consciousness in the damned? And if he doesn’t deliberately sustain it, why are the damned conscious, as we’re told that in him we live and move and have our being?

And if the former explanation is true, why is he so goddamned tetchy? We have Christians who are supposed to be longsuffering, patient and kind, serving a God who is second to none in his sociopathic perfectionism (“Using an adaption of Anselm’s Ontological Argument, or otherwise, prove this statement about God is true. [20 marks]”). As Terry Pratchett points out in Small Gods, the prophets are better than the gods they serve.

I was attempting to understand how someone can thank God for salvation in the face of the knowledge of the fate of their loved ones. There are a couple of possible explanations. One is that Christians just haven’t thought about it very much. That was my experience. As Andrew Rilstone writes about another unpalatable evangelical belief, the fact that my nonchristunfrends were going to hell was just “one of the three impossible things you had to believe before breakfast in order to hang out with a nice group of people, sing songs and occasionally get a faith-based-buzz”.

The other explanation is somewhat darker. If a Christian honestly faces the reality of hell and thanks God anyway, my impression is that it’s rather like the Stockholm Syndrome, where people who are kidnapped, held hostage or otherwise placed under extreme duress come to love their captors and thank them for any small act of kindness (I’m not the first to have come up with this idea, of course).

S (who, ironically, usually plays God’s Advocate in these discussions 🙂 points out that the true history of the Stockholm bank robbery doesn’t reflect the Stockholm Syndrome as described, and that accusing someone of suffering from the syndrome is a convenient way of dissing your political opponents. I suppose the penultimate paragraph of this article is what I’m talking about. Call it what you like, but, as alluded to by the paragraph beginning “I trust my master”, “Normally, when people say things like ‘You are His possession, he can do whatever He likes with you’, the next sentence is ‘What is the safety word?'” (quote from Steven Carr in uk.religion.christian. I must say I rather like Gareth’s response. And don’t look so innocent, you’ve been around LiveJournal for long enough now.)

Alas, if these Christians are right, this is not a game and there’s no way out. I might be vainglorious, but I’d prefer the Miltonesque “Satan” over such a God any day.

Speaking of which, The Torygraph has a transcript of a discussion between Archbishop Rowan Williams and Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy. Williams is a counterweight to the sort of Christianity which makes me glad I left the church. Perhaps there’s hope for us all yet.