Despite having left Christianity two years ago, the notion of hell is still something that pops into my mind occasionally. Its tendrils of fear can run so deeply that even when one discards their supernatural beliefs for rationality and reason, the idea of eternal punishment upon death often still plagues the nonbeliever. Such is the testimony of its abusive nature, one that Christianity has capitalized on for millenia, and one that Natasha Crain attempts to defend in chapter 4 of her book Keeping Your Kids on God's Side, titled "How can a loving God send people to hell?". Great question, Natasha. So, let's see if she can answer that without betraying her own humanity and compassion.
Describing the "harsh reality" of hell as a "very difficult topic," Natasha encourages parents not to avoid the conversation of hell with their children. Right out of the gate, we've got a serious problem. The parent to whom the child trusts and depends on for guidance more than anyone else in the world is not only portraying hell as a reality, (there is absolutely no evidence to support its existence outside of the Bible -- hell is real because the Bible says it's real?) but is also using it as a fear-based consequence to disbelief. That is a travesty, one in which I was guilty of, too. She then makes an interesting admission, that without a proper understanding of hell, children are likely to "dismiss hell based on a simple 'gut reaction'." Exactly! Because sometimes those "gut reactions" should not be ignored, by child or adult. In truth, the child is having a proper reaction to a heinous concept.
Under the subtitle of "Why does God need to punish anyone?" Natasha defends God's need to punish sin because of his perfectly loving and just nature. (We are talking about the Christian god who created a place of eternal torment for those who don't believe in him, right? Okay, just checking.) She goes on to list several Bible verses that support God's "justness," Deuteronomy 32:4, Psalm 9:7-8, Psalm 33:5, and Isaiah 61:8. I think that it's only appropriate that I offer a few verses of my own.
Exodus 9:12 (ESV) 12 But the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he did not listen to them, as the Lord had spoken to Moses.
If God can harden someone's heart, surely he could have chosen to soften it, instead. Unfortunately, this is the result...
Exodus 12:29 (ESV) 29 At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock.
Loving and just? I think not. Once again, we're talking about innocent lives lost. Moreover, the fact that we can both cherry pick our way through the Bible to characterize God is an indictment on the utter unreliability of the Bible and God himself!
Moving on, Natasha asks, "Who should be punished?" Her answer? "All of us--in the absence of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross." Really? Everyone on the face of this planet deserves to burn in agonizing torment for all of eternity, that is, unless you proclaim Jesus Christ as your lord and savior? Furthermore, she defends the nature of hell by noting that "our idea of what's reasonable has no necessary bearing on what's true." I was afraid of this. Natasha just betrayed her own sense of humanity and compassion, and that is indeed the potential poison of Christian dogma. As a fundamentalist, I was absolutely in the same boat. I don't know how to adequately point out this detachment from one's own sensitivity other than to ask Natasha and any other Christian who believes in hell as a necessary punishment to consider this series of questions.
Who is it that you love more than anyone else in this world? Perhaps it's your children, your husband or wife, a friend. Given that God supposedly loves us as if we are his children, is there any circumstance that you can imagine in which you would feel that that cherished person deserved to spend all of eternity in "an unquenchable fire (Mark 9:48-49), an outer darkness (Matthew 22:13), a fiery furnace (Matthew 13:42), a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 8:12), and a place of spiritual and bodily destruction (Matthew 10:28)"? If you answered No to that question, then you are better than the God you serve.
Natasha concludes the chapter with the following subtitle: "Hell is a Harsh Reality, But It's Also a Choice". Umm, no, it's not. Nonbelievers don't just choose not to believe, anymore than Natasha could choose to believe in water fairies. Most of us have gone through a rigorous process of evaluating the evidence for God from every angle possible. It is often a heartbreaking realization that everything that you thought was true was, in fact, not, one in which families and often marriages are torn apart over. So, no, hell is not a choice. It's an insult, and it should be to Christians, too.
At the expense of being long-winded, I want to make one final comment. In the Hebrew Bible, the afterlife is referred to as Sheol. According to Wikipedia, it is "a place of darkness to which all the dead go, both the righteous and the unrighteous, regardless of the moral choices made in life, a place of stillness and darkness cut off from life and from God." This is obviously quite different than the New Testament's portrayal of an afterlife. Given the gravity of the subject (2/3 of the population do not believe in the Christian God and are therefore hell-bound), shouldn't God have offered some consistency on the matter?