Outer Darkness

As a teen in church camp, I heard a Pentecostal evangelist propose the following thought experiment as an illustration of eternity:

Imagine a solid, stainless-steel orb the size of the earth, suspended in space. The only object ever to come in contact with this ball is a single, ordinary moth. Every hundred years, the moth gently grazes the massive ball with one wing as it flutters past. After another hundred years, the moth returns to do the same thing, and so on. When the moth manages to wear the steel ball down to HALF its size, eternity has not yet begun. Heaven has not yet begun to rejoice. Those in hell have not yet begun to suffer.

A charming sermon for a throng of credulous children to be sure, but I prefer to give the preacher the benefit of the doubt. If he genuinely believes that eternal suffering awaits those who do not accept salvation, nothing could be more reasonable than to “scare the hell out of” everyone.

To imagine any eternity, even a pleasurable one, used to induce nervous stomach pains, never mind an eternity of perpetual misery. I don’t wish to discuss the injustice of hell as I’ve done in the past, and frankly, I don’t hope to make much headway with those to whom it isn’t self-evident that “forever” is an unjust torture sentence for (biblically, often minor) transgressions here on earth. Today I’m compelled to observe something that frustrated me as a believer: just how few Christians live as though the threat of hell were real and imminent.

Countless times, I recited the steel ball thought experiment to Christians I worried were in danger of becoming “lukewarm.” It was difficult for me to understand how a believer could view each moment as anything less than a dire emergency as we all teetered on the precipice of endless joy or suffering. I couldn’t go to the movies or make it through a work day absent intrusive fears that the Lord Jesus might suddenly return in terrible power and judgment. Why was I the only one this worried?

For one, most Christians enjoy a blithe confidence in their heavenly inheritance. But that doesn’t explain their apparent lack of terror for their unbelieving loved ones. Do Christians simply trust that God will take pity on all unbelievers in the face of so much biblical evidence to the contrary? Perhaps casual, Christmas-and-Easter Christians who choose their religious beliefs a la carte can rest assured on this point, but I was evangelical, a fundamentalist, as were my brothers and sisters in Christ who contentedly sang “Glad Day When Jesus Comes.” To this day they sing, “No more sorrow, no more pain,” with great anticipation, forgetting that the end  to sorrow and pain is reserved for the very few. For the rest, sorrow and pain are just beginning.

Not all believers forget the sad fate of the masses. There are many who, like me, just cannot ignore a fact of such obvious import. For those to whom the threat of hell is not a vague symbol but a potential reality, the only rational response is a deep, preoccupying concern, if not an all-consuming one. This concern has many expressions. Some true believers rave on the street, others fly themselves into buildings, and others sob bitter tears for their souls and the souls of their loved ones.  In my experience and observation, there is just no healthy or productive way to face a prospect as horrific as hell. Even what good we choose to do is tainted by it, for those who do good on threat of punishment are right to question their own motives.

Whatever the expression, a sincere belief in hell carries significant psychological repercussions, which could explain why most Christians partition their thoughts on the subject, if not ignore them altogether. The only viable path a Christian can take, if he wishes to live a happy life and believe the Bible’s claims, is not to take hell seriously and simultaneously believe he does. Christianity places many such constraints on our thinking, and as absurd as they sound when you “just go and say them like that,” our brains are remarkably eager and adept to the task.

I didn’t  cease to believe in hell as a way to escape it I always knew how ineffective that would be –  but I do take solace in the fact that the ultimate injustice of hell can only be a source of torment in this world. That nothing occurs after death may sound bleak, but it is vastly preferable to the notion that even one sentient being will endure terror and torment without end. Given the abundance of very real threats to our wellbeing, the fact that the most sinister threat of all is an empty one is worth celebrating.

I earned my Bachelor's in English at the University of St. Thomas in MN with a minor in Philosophy. I'm a former evangelical Christian who enjoys reading and writing about evolution, psychology, and religious issues.

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