Ok, I have a question for any ex-thologians, current theologians, recently de-converted Christians or anyone else with thoughts on the matter.  It comes from an interesting situation.


On the weekend, my 60 year old mum went skydiving.  Pretty proud of her courage, but she was a bit anxious leading up to it and in her typical fashion, took it to the melodramatic length of writing us all notesd to read in case she died.  We all said "thanks for the lovely thoughts but don't be silly" and of course the jump went fine and she loved it.


However it did get me to thinking.


In her note to me she said some very nice things about being proud of me, and her love for both me and my wife,  but also that her biggest hope in life was that I come back to faith, and "return to believing that god is love and welcomes you with open arms"...  or something like that.


Of course, one cannot believe that which oine knows to be false, even if one wanted to.  It goes against the nature of the human mind.  And even if i could, I would consider it the biggest tragedy in my life if I suffered a brain injury that caused me to believe such dangerous and silly nonsense again.  I am free of that (and have been these last 10 years) and can and will never return to such an infantile world view.


So I am certainly going to dissapoint mum in that regard, although I do not want her, when it is eventually her time, to leave this one life we have feeling anxious about my eternal soul.  Like I said, the simple thing would be to, when she is getting closer to the end of her life, pretend that I have become a Christian again, but this would go against everything I value and hold to be important.  However, neither do I want to be calous and just say "Mum, I'm never going to believe and that's it" which will leave her with an ongoing anxiety up till the end f her life that her son will be in hell for eternity.


So I have come up with a plan.


I need to cure my mother of her fear of hell.


I have no desire to try to de-convert her, to destroy her faith, or convince her that I am right about the non-existence of god.  her faith works for her and as long as it's not hurting anyone else, that's fine.  It gives her comfort, but part of it also causes her pain as it has convinced her that my not sharing her belief has eternal consequences.  So I do need to tear down that part of the belief, so that she can be at peace about my atheism.


The fear of hell is one of the most ingrained and damaging components of Christianity.  It has been used to control people for centuries and has caused many otherwise intelligent people to relinquish their intellectual honesty and, white knuckled, hold onto unjustified beliefs for der life - beliefs that they really do know deep down have no basis.


It also causes huge distress in those who believ it about their loved ones who do not.  In all these ways and many more as well, the teaching and belief in hell is one of the most insidious and nasty elements of Christianity, not to mention something that would make god, if he did exist, a sadistic, childish, petulant and nasty dictator.


But many many committed Christians, people who have faith that does provide them comfort and eace, do not believe in the now somewhat medieval view of hell.  Unfortunately, my mother's brand of evangelical fundamentalism does believe in a literal hell as a place of eternal torture and suffering.


So I would like to talk to my mother about her belief in hell, encourage her that for her own peace of mind she would be well served to read soem books by trusted Christian authors who challenge the notion of hell, and come to an understanding that the doctrine of hell is not needed for her faith, and is indeed the antithesis of the loving god in whom she professes belief.


Of course, I could outline to her that facts that a belief in hell was not something that has been existent from the start in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and in fact developed slowly and crystalised quite late in the history of monotheism.  I could point out that Jesus almost certainly did not have a belief in hell in the same way that she does, but she would dismiss that as the scepticism of a non-believer, and shut her ears to the facts the same way that she chooses to remain ignorant of the basics of evolutionary biology or the development of the documents that now constitute the bible.


So I need to be able to direct her to thinking about hell, that comprehensively destroys the notion of eternal suffering and torture, from inside her own sphere of belief.


If people have suggestions of Christian authors who write well on this topic, or have their own ideas about arguments that can cure Christians of hell fear, I would be most appreciative.

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I am so glad your wrote this! I have a similar situation.  I so want to be open about my beliefs, but my parents are fundamentalists as well, and I just don't want to ruin what is left of their retired lives.  They have just entered in to that time when they are supposed to relax and enjoy life.  I don't have the heart to bog them down with the ever-present fear that I will be tormented in hell forever!


I have thought about talking with them, and using the bible to my advantage.  There is a verse somewhere about if you raise a child in the way they should go (meaning religion of course) then when they are old they will not depart from it.  I want to tell them that if they really believe the Bible, they should not worry because I am already set to return back to religion - it may not be in their lifetime, but according to the Bible I will do it.  They should, "have faith".


I also want to somehow ask them how they could support a god that would give me the intelligence to question and yet be willing to torment me forever when I see the lack of religion as the more intelligent choice.  I want to ask them to look at me, closely, at what kind of a person I am.  How much they love me, and then think about the type of god that would put me into everlasting hell. Then, try to get them to think maybe that "hell" they think of is not quite what it was described as.  I want them to question the existence of hell itself, maybe then they can accept my beliefs without worrying that I will be cast into a lake of fire.


I say this knowing that I don't believe any of it, that I would just be using "their" logic to try to convince them that the hell they think of doesn't exist.  I, like you, don't want to take their faith away from them, just tweak it a bit. 


If you do find any good information, please pass it along to me.  I'll add you in my circle so I can keep up with the progress.  It's nice to meet another atheist who is respectful of the beliefs of family, even when those beliefs are contradictory to your own.  So many atheists give me a hard time for trying to find a way to make peace with others as I make peace with myself.


Thanks for sharing!


I for one am very interested in curing our loved ones of this great and unjustified fear. If I had the answer I'd be a millionaire. Both of your suggestions seem to have some validation to them. However lying to a dying mother to ease her fears doesn't seem very moral. And good luck trying to change the mind of those holding on to such dogma. Keep us posted on what you decide and the outcome.

On another note I'm interested in what you said about Jesus, the meek and mild, having a different conception of hell. Maybe I have forgotten and please enlighten me, but Jesus talked about the place where he worm does not die and how men will gather sticks at the end times and burn them. He also mentioned how he sheep and goats, wheat and tares would be seperated ...some into the loving arms of god and the others into everlasting torment. I pretty sure Jesus conception of hell is what preachers teach today. Our understanding of this punishments comes from him. If I missed something please tell me. I do admit that I have to research he history of hell and how it came to be known, from the Greek and norse traditions.

Hi Glen,

Unfortunately, there is no explanation which would satisfy a fundamentalist. There are specific references, even by Jesus as to the fiery torments e.g. it is better to enter life maimed than to have both hands and enter hell "WHERE THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE, AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED MK 9:43-44. And there's the story of the rich man and Lazarus LK 16:23-25.


Now of course, more sophisticated christians see this as allegory with as you say imagery supplied by the medieval church and the superstitions of the masses but you will have a hard time convincing her.

In my opinion,  tell her with heartfelt honestly that you are a person who loves the truth and that it was your love of truth that led you down this path.

Tell her that while you understand how she feels, that you do not agree but that you love her and want her to be happy for you.

Remind her that she has raised you to be a strong and independant person of character and that she should be proud and comforted in that.


That's probably the best you can hope for.


I actually posted this in two places, and got some really thoughtful and great responses in both places. I'll post the reply I made in the other forum here as well - you'll be able to tell what the gist was of the people I specifically replied to.

But first, I'll respond to a couple of thoughts here. L Hunter (what's your first name - i feel funny calling someone an initial - unless you like that, in which case, i will just keep right on!) I couldn't agree more with you about it being wrong to lie to a dying loved one (not that my mum is there yet, ive still got a few decades to work on her beliefs!) - I wasn't suggesting that path, but i guess stating that given that path is, in my view, morally reprehensible, I'd want to find some other way to rid her of her anxiety. And John, you might be right about fundos just not being able to change, but I hope there is a way. Actually i think my folks have already moved on some points, just due to my being able to present them with reasoned arguments that they would otherwise not hear. The one I actually get angry about and really strongly tell them that they need to reassess because their dogma causes real damage to real people is their homophobia, and I think I am slowly breaking through on that one.

L., also, about jesus talking about hell, it's not so much that he gave a meek and mild friendlier version of hell, but if you look at the traditions about what Jesus taught in his Jewish context, (looking at the gospels as a late and theologically driven source, but through textual criticism being able to have some idea of what teachings actually went back to Jesus and what were later creations by his followers) it seems fairly safe to say that Jesus was firmly rooted in the Apocalyptic tradition of turn-of-era Judaism. He believed that "the end of the age" was coming in the very very near future ("truly I say unt you this generation shall not pass away before the son of man comes in glory"), and that the resurection and the kingdom of god was a very physical and very earthly kingdom - a human kingdom on earth ruled by a king who followed god's laws, and where evil people were excluded. In this tradition, it is very common for the words he used to describe Gehenna (the pit - a physical place outside Jerusalem where rubbish was dumped) as a metaphor for destruction of god's enemies, and for exclusion from the coming kingdom. So with a little deeper understanding of Jesus words than the fundies enerally have, it is easy to show that what he said doesn't support their notion of a metaphysical place of eternal torture.

Actually, I've found that studying in some depth Christology - what Jesus actually is likely to have taught and done as opposed to what the christian orthodoxy says about him - has been very useful in both my own journey and in convos with my family and friends - there's just so much that they take as truth without even knowing a fraction of the well established scholarly facts of the matter. A couple of good authors on these topics are Bart Erhman (especially his book "Jesus Interupted") and John Crossan.

ok, here's the response i posted on the other forum:

Really great ideas there - thanks everyone.

Jason - yes, the notion of universal salvation is one that is actually proposed by some evangelical writers as well, so may be a way to lead with mum.

And I do know of people who's parents have adopted that thinking in order to be able to live with their kids' atheism. In fact, one of my wife's friends is an atheist, and his dad was a seventh day adventist minister (as is my wife's dad). Anyway, this guy's mum adopted a universalist approach to salvation, which then lead her on a path of questioning why belief in the right thing was necessary at all. She is now an atheist.

And Prog Rock Girl - yes, it can take a while for some folk to shake that last vestigal fear of hell once they have moved on from religious belief - it is a powerful fear - which is why the church has been so successful for so long. Personally, i used to still get twangs of that fear, but am glad to report that over the last 5 years, that fear has become completely extinct in me. I hope that it can for others that feel it too - it's a really nasty little last kick in the guts from religion!! (and one of the nastiest doctrines of Christianity in general).

If anyone is interested, I did find an evangelical writer who is known for being rather unorthodox, who has a book out shortly that deals with this very topic. His name is Rob Bell, and the book is called Love Wins... it might be interesting - I'm sure it will still be full of ridiculous myth, but if it at least challenges the fear of hell from within the Christian tradition, then taht's a start.

I'm working on the same issue myself, from the opposite perspective.  I left christianity early in life, but when I later went through a difficult period I had fundies praying/preying on me and it re-ingnited all those fears I had growing up.  No matter how many times I find information telling me that hell is not real, that it was made up later in the church, that there were rewritings in the bible, it doesn't seem to stick in my brain for long enough to "take."  I have to keep re-finding and re-reading arguments against it whenever I feel "triggered." 


It's bad enough to think you go there when you die, but I could deal with that.  What makes it even more scary is when people say that hell is on earth.  It feels like the devil or any demon could approach and hurt me at any time.  And according to literalists there are angels, devils, demons etc. all around us.  So that really freaks me out, especially coupled with the fact that many other religions and spiritual paths also believe in psychic attacks and demons, too.  So I don't have to just stop believing in christianity to feel better, I have to stop believing in all the other stuff, too, and that's taking a long time to do all that research.


Anyway, what has helped me with the hell part of it is this site that I found from ex-christian.net

If Hell Is Real: http://tentmaker.org/ifhellisreal.htm   It's a Christian site, so your mom will hopefully feel comfortable with it since they are serious believers.  At the bottom of the page there is a scholar's corner with links to even more information.  One of which: http://www.what-the-hell-is-hell.com/HellStudy/HellChart.html  says that new Bibles are being printed *without the word hell!!*


This http://www.tentmaker.org/books/Prevailing.html talks about how universal salvation was the way of the early church.


http://www.tentmaker.org/articles/how_hell_became_eternal_vincent.htm  How Hell became eternal


I hope this helps!!












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