What’s the best way to respond to ‘threats’ of Hell?

This post came up on Pharyngula last night, together with a response by a reader. It dealt with some politician claiming that Christianity is a humble philosophy, and PZ points out that there’s nothing humble about claiming to be the chosen people of the creator of the universe. I agree, and personally I think the Church of Sagan has a much more humble philosophy. But a Christian reader responded, and it wasn’t half ironic, for a lot of reasons.

He claimed that Christianity is not arrogant whilst also claiming that non-Christians will go to hell. In other words, Christians are better than non-Christians because Christians will go to heaven, either because they’ve been saved by the creator of the universe (not humble), or because they’re morally superior (a dictionary definition of self-righteousness – also not humble).

He said that PZ, despite all of his degrees (none of which are in theology so I don’t know why he mentioned them) and “power” (:-/), still doesn’t understand Christianity or humanity. He then completely misunderstands atheists by saying PZ isn’t a Christian because he doesn’t want to accept God. He also doesn’t seem to understand why atheists often use the scientific method (FYI, it’s because it gets results), seeing it as some kind of agenda. Fail.

Another delicious layer of irony icing came when he said “No matter what proof is given, you will never ever believe in things beyond the this natural world.” Surely the next logical question is to ask why the hell he’s emailing PZ who clearly will never change his mind. He then didn’t offer even a single piece of evidence throughout his whole response, despite making a great number of unsubstantiated claims, ranging from the fairly mundane “if a person did reject God and they died that person would end up in Hell”, all the way up to something that AFAIK isn’t even supported scripturally in “Hell is not meant for people, it is meant for other spirit forms that you don’t believe in.” From my hazy recollections of Revelations, hell’s primary function seems to involve people.

Nevertheless I think the juiciest cherry came right at the end, “I may not like what you say, but I would not want you to go to Hell.” Surely this is quite significant, and yet he just sticks it on at the end and doesn’t explain what he means. It’s quite clear here that this guy doesn’t think atheists deserve to go to hell, but that’s what he believes will happen. So he disagrees with God’s judgement. This isn’t like other times when Christians disagree with God, such as the quite explicit condoning of blood sacrifice and slavery in the Old Testament, when they’ll often come up with some kind of excuse like, “those laws were intended for the Israelites at that time, they don’t apply now”. With other, less extreme examples, some Christians also explain the difference between modern morality and Biblical obedience by saying that God’s moral standard is better, so no matter what we believe is moral, we should follow God’s moral standard instead.

But this is different, this guy disagrees with God, and doesn’t seem to be ashamed or contort his way out of it with word-games. Surely if God is omniscient and all powerful, this guy should agree with everything he says because it will be right, right? It’s very strange behaviour, and it reminds me a lot of how Jeff Dee from the Atheist Experience deals with callers when they talk about hell. When someone says ‘if you don’t believe in God, you’ll go to hell’, he sees it as a threat. He explains why more fully in that last link, but basically it doesn’t matter if hell exists or not, the sentiment is what’s important because they’re saying ‘if this place exists (which they clearly believe), then you deserve to go there’.

(Btw, the rest of this post will be a fairly dry response to this point, if you can’t be arsed reading it, don’t bother, I don’t mind.)

I disagree. First of all, very obviously, it’s not a direct threat, it’s more like a warning. The caller is warning Jeff about something that they believe will happen if he doesn’t be careful. Almost like “don’t step on that railway line or you’ll be electrocuted” or “stay away from that neighbourhood at night or you’ll get shot”. He’s right that it doesn’t matter if the punishment is true or not, it doesn’t matter if the line isn’t electrified, it’s still not a threat. There’s no comment on whether or not Jeff deserves to be electrocuted or shot, indeed the very fact that they’re warning him indicates that they don’t think he deserves it (well, maybe they do think he deserves it after he’s finished yelling down the phone at them). To be honest, even if the caller does think he deserves it, I wouldn’t call it a threat. It’s certainly an insult to say you deserve to be tortured forever, but it’s not a threat, it’s a consequence of your own actions, from the Christian point of view.

But Jeff makes the further point that if the caller doesn’t think he deserves to go to hell, they shouldn’t be a member of the religion which says that will happen. I don’t think that’s true. The caller could theoretically have a perfectly good reason to believe that God exists, and if that’s what he believes is true, he’s not going to believe otherwise just because he doesn’t like an implication of their belief. There are implications of atheism that I don’t really like. I really miss the community feeling, and maybe other atheists might wish there was a heaven, but it’s not something that’s going to make us change our beliefs. As I’ve said it does indicate a sort of interesting cognitive dissonance where God knows everything, and yet he’s wrong in this particular instance. But that’s perhaps a reason to modify your beliefs, not a reason to stop being a Christian altogether.

So should we get angry about Christians saying we’re going to hell? It’s definitely not a threat. It could be an insult, in which case I’d point out that the notion of hell is very much absent from a lot of the Bible, and that if it did exist it would definitely be immoral (you can’t justify eternal punishment, God rewards belief over deeds, for example). But it could be a warning, in which case I’d respond to it in exactly the same way as I would Pascal’s Wager. As long as the theist isn’t acting on their belief and treating atheists like scum because they’re going to hell, I wouldn’t take it personally, and instead argue rationally (or even scripturally if possible) against the position they’re taking.

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