TLDR: Belief in the Hell God is unfortunate. Worship of this God is a Major Character flaw that puts you on a Path of Darkness and closer to Hell.
Billions of people in the world today actively worship a God that they believe is going to torture even more billions of people for eternity. This should worry you, especially if you are one of them.
In a previous post, I discussed how Hell is pointless because it fails to meet any of the moral justifications for punishment. Furthermore, I demonstrated that its existence would be completely alien to any genuinely loving, just, merciful and Good God. Indeed, the most rational explanation for the origin of the idea of hell is that it is a technique for controlling people through fear.
Today, I would like to discuss the psychological implications for a belief in Hell and why the worship of a Hellish God is the sign of a significant character flaw.
This doesn’t suddenly become OK because God holds the leash.
(Specialist Lynndie England holding a leash attached to a prisoner, known to the guards as “Gus”, who is lying on the floor. Image and Image text from Wikipedia entry on Abu Ghraib.)
I was raised in a devout Roman Catholic household, attending mass every week, going to private Roman Catholic schools and receiving the Catholic sacraments. From my earliest days I was surrounded by Roman Catholic iconography, thoughts and assumptions. During my teenage years, my parents were heavily involved in their local church and in the emerging Catholic Charismatic Movement, which was a bit like Pentecostalism Lite for Catholics.
In those days, my sense of the connection to the Divine was embryonic, but real enough for me to never question the existence of God. I seriously considered becoming a Priest, at least until the age of twelve, when my sense of adventure lead me to decide instead on a career in the Australian Navy.
For many people, such a story would be the beginning of a rant about how they were permanently scarred by their early exposure to abundantly overt religion. Fortunately, my parents were genuinely spiritual and caring, providing me with an environment in which I felt secure, loved and valued. For this, I am in their debt.
It was around the age of seven that the concept of Hell began to seriously register on my small mind. Hell isn’t a big part of modern Roman Catholicism, but under the influence of my strict Catholic nun teachers, religious education and my own emergent understanding of death, it emerged as a very real concern for my future.
As a child I was continually getting into trouble. Today, I’d have been diagnosed with ADHD and most likely medicated back into “behaving”. Childhood tantrums aside, was I never deliberately mean, or nasty, but I was forever getting underfoot, forgetting what I was supposed to be doing and generally leaving a wake of chaos. Unsurprisingly, I was continually getting into trouble and aggravating my parents, who often responded with less than dignified anger to my troublemaking.
Over the course of months, I began to believe that I was a bad person and that I was going to go to hell. While I wasn’t obsessed with the thought, it was certainly an issue that began to prey upon my growing mind.
After yet another episode where I pushed my mother’s buttons once too often, it all became too much for me and I burst into tears, wailing about how I was going to go to hell because I was such a bad child.
My mother could have responded in one of three ways. She could have agreed with me and used the threat of Hell as a tool of control, she could have ignored my worries and let them fester, or she could have had one of those miraculous adult conversations that parents so often don’t seem to have with their children.
Thankfully for me, she chose the third path. Comforting me, she made it absolutely clear that while I was a naughty child, I certainly wasn’t a bad child and that there was nothing that I had done that would warrant my going to anywhere but heaven. She made it clear that I was just a child doing childish things and that her love for me wasn’t dependant on absolute good behaviour, but was unconditional and forever.
I doubt that my mother would even remember the event today, but for me it was truly transformational parenting and the sort of behaviour that I try to emulate when I am working with people spiritually.
Her comforting reassurance was enough to help me realise that the fires of hell were not in my future. Given how vividly I remember the event decades later, it will surprise few to know that it was with great relief that I went to bed that night.
I was fortunate. Over the years I have encountered dozens of people, whose parents took the exact opposite path to my mother. Since childhood, these people have been tormented with the “reality” of Hell and the belief that they could easily find themselves there. They invariably carry deep emotional scars and a foreboding sense of guilt just for being themselves and not being able to adapt to the dogmatic straightjacket into which they were born.
Invariably, the straight jacket isn’t discarded as an adult, which in turn leads to hypocritical behaviour as a person seeks to be their true self, while presenting a false face to the world in order to maintain their social acceptance. In many cases, the expression of the true self is regarded as somehow evil (even when it is obviously not) and held by the individual as being further proof of their ultimate damnation.
In several cases, these people have engaged in systematically self-destructive behaviour, almost as if they seek to act out the self that they have been told they are, at the expense of the self that they aspire to be. These behaviours have included everything from self-mutilation, to alcohol and drug abuse, to violent and otherwise antisocial activities. This behaviour then feeds into and provides justification for the Hell narrative.
Should the straightjacket be discarded, the result is often significant social and family disharmony, up and including penalties, such as being disowned, disfellowshipped and rejected by one’s entire social support network. The person becomes free to plot their own path through eternity, but at significant cost.
Whatever the outcome, in my experience, inflicting the belief in Hell on children to the extent that they believe that it is a possibility for them, is uniformly destructive to the welfare of those children.
Make no mistake: Teaching belief in the Hell God is child abuse.
What is Hell?
Let us pause and consider what we mean when we speak of Hell. Both the Islamic Quran and the Christian New Testament are equally definite about Hell, although the Quran is especially graphic in its descriptions of the torments that await.
Judaism is mostly silent on issues of life after death, so Heaven and Hell don’t feature significantly within its theology.
At the most basic level Hell is considered a place of eternal torment (Matthew 13:41-50, Mark 9: 43-49; Sura 4:56, Sura 19: 29 ) . Once you are there, there is no getting out Luke 16:26; Sura 22: 19-22, Sura 47:15) so it is not like the doctrine of Purgatory, where there is at least some hope of escape.
Both the New Testament and the Quran make it clear that this is a destiny that awaits not only those who do evil in the world, but also those who reject the very teachings of Jesus, or Mohammed, respectively.
In other words, irrespective of which religion you are talking about, literally billions of people are condemned to eternal torment, not because they were evil, or caused harm to others, but because they couldn’t bring themselves to believe the unbelievable, or because much of their benign and even generous behaviour was considered sinful by someone else’s God.
Psychological Impact of a Belief in Hell
This belief has to be about the biggest psychological screw-over in history. To understand why, we need to put ourselves into the mind of a person who genuinely believes in the Hell God. So, for the remainder of this discussion, I’d like to ask you to imagine what it must be like to actually believe in this God with the same strength as you believe that the sun will rise tomorrow morning.
Firstly, our God has no problem with sending billions of people into eternal torment, so what on earth is going to keep us safe? How can we ever know that we too aren’t destined for the fires of hell? Short answer: We can’t!
God knows our every thought and deed and no amount of pretence is going to fool him, irrespective of how much our hypocrisy might fool others.
When burdened with this belief we aren’t just walking around with a possible death sentence over our head, we are walking around with the certain knowledge that the slightest transgression or doubt could land us in the fires of Hell.
Without massive self censorship of our thoughts and behaviours, our doom is almost guaranteed.
But even if we, as Hell believers thinks that they we in the clear, imagine what must it be like to live in a world where most don’t share any belief in our particular God?
Every day, each of us talks and interacts with many perfectly wonderful and admirable people, many who would willingly take great sacrifices on our behalf and perhaps even give their own lives in defence of ours (think police, firemen and ambulance). But because they aren’t followers of our God, we must face the undeniable “reality” that all of these amazing, generous and compassionate people are destined for eternal torture.
Unless we are a sociopath, how can this not play havoc with our mind? Unless we were the most emotionally and morally stunted people on the planet, how could we not see that this represents the utter repudiation of love, justice and mercy? In holding that fundamentally good people deserve eternal torture, we are turning morality on its head.
That all these wonderful people are destined for Hell, can only play havoc with our sense of right and wrong. When good becomes evil, and evil becomes good, any and all barbarism in the name of religion can, will and has been justified.
Most of us know good and evil when we see it. There is a reason that we cheer Luke Skywalker, over Darth Vader, or Harry Potter over Lord Voldemort. This is because we recognise that irrespective of their beliefs, the former represent the forces of Light and growth, while the latter represent the forces of Darkness and decay.
Once we believe in the Hell God, there is no real point in cheering any of these characters. None of them are believers, so they are all destined for eternal torment in the fires of Hell, irrespective of how good, courageous and loving they were during their lives. There could be no joy in these stories.
For the Hell Believer, there are no happy endings.
Staying in the mind of the Hell God believer it seems clear that they are already well and truly on their way there. Fear cannot help but be a major part of their lives. If not fear for themselves, then fear for those that they love and care about. In many religious communities, apostates are shunned, cast out and even killed. Fear of Hell for the individual very quickly morphs into actual Hell for the community.
The idea that belief in Hell has a corrosive impact on people’s wellbeing is supported by recent, robust scientific research that shows belief in Hell is significantly correlated with and causal to unhappiness.
Fear of eternal damnation leads to fear of any idea, or ideology that contradicts that of the Hell God, and the very denial of the universe discovered by science. The logical conclusion of belief in the Hell God is a repudiation of reality itself, lest the self be distracted from worship and end up in the fires of Hell.
Worship of the Hell God as a Character Flaw.
Belief is something that is largely out of our own control.
We believe things because we encounter sufficient evidence for them and for a child raised on a diet of Hellfire and Brimstone, this evidence, in the form of social, cultural and parental “proof” has been frequent and often overwhelming.
If you doubt it, just try to believe that you teleport thousands of miles in an instant, just with a single thought. With the exception of people suffering some sort of psychosis, I’d suggest that you’ll find it impossible to believe something so obviously out of touch with the reality based universe that most of us inhabit. Such is an utter contradiction of the reality that we’ve experienced our whole lives.
We can’t deny our own reality, even if we don’t necessarily all agree about what it looks like. For example, I have a schizophrenic friend, who routinely tells me that dead people are in the room and that UFOs hover over his house. Nothing I, or anybody else says is ever likely to dent the certainty of these beliefs.
In my experience, it is difficult for people raised within the Hell God traditions to ever fully escape the existential dread of this worldview. It can take an enormous amount of work and personal self discovery before they are finally free.
Multiplying this by Infinity doesn’t make this an act of LIGHT.
(Image: German citizens forced to confront the reality of the death camps after the Nazi defeat in WWII.)
Worship, on the other hand is a voluntary behaviour over which we have control. While we might believe that a particular God exists, it is up to us whether or not we decide to Worship that being, or follow its dictates.
Now, some may argue that Worship follows naturally from the existence of God to the believer. If you believe it is inherent that you worship. But, I’d disagree with this, and to illustrate I’ll use the example of an earthly leader.
Followers are to leaders as worshippers are to Gods. But whether we choose to follow a particular leader is something that we decide. Our decision to follow isn’t entailed by the fact that someone is a leader.
Not only this, but if the leader is barbaric enough, we have a moral obligation to not follow them, irrespective of what penalties might befall us.
For example, if our leader is Adolf Hitler, or someone equally abhorrent, most would suggest that our moral obligation not only involves not following them, but in the active obstruction of whatever diabolical plans they might wish to implement.
Resorting to the Nuremberg Defence in these situations is rightly regarded as a moral cop-out. Our own personal culpability is not rendered null and void, simply because a leader orders us otherwise.
Similarly, if our God-Leader orders us to obey Him, we have a similar moral obligation to refuse those orders if it is clear that this God-Leader happens to be a servant of evil.
Those of us with even a shred of compassion and empathy rightly quail when presented with images of the victims of humanity’s inhumanity to each other. Whether it is the holocaust, victims of crimes such as rape, murder or assault, the torture and abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, or the brutal killings of the modern Islamic Fundamentalist we not only recoil from these acts, but understand that at they represent evil and the forces of Darkness at the most basic level.
Multiply these by Infinity and you have the depths of depravity that the worshippers of the Hell God seem to think is not only acceptable behaviour, but admirable to the point that the perpetrator must be idolised and elevated above all other beings.
Now, one might argue that in light of the brutality presented by such a barbaric and omnipotent being, the logic of Pascal’s Wager becomes even more convincing. Irrespective of what one might know to be the ethically correct thing to do, worship of such a being is an act of self-preservation, much as the following of an evil leader is also an act of self-preservation.
The Nuremberg Defence might have been a copout, but at least those people were still alive and well to make that defence, rather than being dead, or irredeemably broken by torture. Far better to stave off eternal torment through worshipping an evil being than try to face it down and face pointless suffering.
I certainly understand and sympathise with that argument. I doubt that I would have the courage to face down the barbarians who rage throughout our own world, let alone one who holds my infinite destiny in His sociopathic and heartless gaze. While I would hope to have the courage to spit in the Hell God’s face on Judgement Day, I can’t fault those who do not.
On the other hand, at least now we are being honest about the true nature of the threat and acknowledging that the Hell God is evil, rather than loving, merciful and just. Surely the moral reasons for opposing that being are just as real as those for opposing any other evil.
The greater the Evil, the greater the moral imperative to oppose its influence.
Irrespective of the justifications put forward, worship of an Evil God of Darkness is indicative of a flaw of character that mirrors that of any follower who obeys and idolises an evil leader.
Whether it represents a lack of empathy and compassion, cowardice, willful ignorance about one’s own path, or even a true commitment to evil and the Path of Darkness, worship of the Hell God is a sign that something Dark lurks within the breast of the worshipper and a sure sign that they are perhaps closer to the Hell that they see for others than any Heaven that they hope for themselves.