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Really Believing in Hell

(an old blog post from I think 2008)

But I was reminded of the incident later when I received a letter from an American woman in her forties who had been brought up Roman Catholic. At the age of seven, she told me, two unpleasant things happened to her. She was sexually abused by her parish priest in his car. And, around the same time, a little schoolfriend of hers, who had tragically died, went to hell because she was a Protestant. Or so my correspondent had been led to believe by the then official doctrine of her parents’ church. Her view as a mature adult was that, of these two examples of Roman Catholic child abuse, the one physical and the other mental, the second was by far the worst. She wrote:
Being fondled by the priest simply left the impression (from the mind of a 7 year old) as ‘yucky’ while the memory of my friend going to hell was one of cold, immeasurable fear. I never lost sleep because of the priest–but I spent many a night being terrified that the people I loved would go to hell.

That’s from Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion –- from a short section on the trauma, especially to young children, caused by belief in hell: pp. 317-21 (the above passage is from pp. 317-8). If you get your hands on the book, I recommend that short section. This section, and especially Dawkins’s comparing sexual abuse to being taught nasty doctrines of hell were the subject of some great outrage. Though there are other bases for such outrage, some of it was underwritten by thoughts to the effect that it’s absurd to think believing in hell could be as harmful as sexual abuse. Never having been the victim of sexual abuse myself, knowing little about what that must be like, and having nothing useful to say about it, I don’t want to get into the comparative issue here. But some of the outraged seemed to be quite sure that being taught nasty doctrines of hell could not be seriously harmful at all, and that I do want to dispute.

As someone who spent many sleepless, terrified nights as a child –- at just around the age Dawkins’s correspondent was at the time of her trauma –- over hell, I can certainly empathize with the judgment this woman expresses. (Protestants take no back seat to Catholics when it comes to hell-terror, I believe.)

Dawkins describes his interesting encounter with a promoter of a terrifying account of hell as follows:

Another of my television interviewees was Pastor Keenan Roberts…. Pastor Roberts’s particular brand of nuttiness takes the form of what he calls Hell Houses. A Hell House is a place where children are brought, by their parents or their Christian schools, to be scared witless over what might happen to them after they die. Actors play out fearsome tableaux of particular ‘sins’ like abortion and homosexuality, with a scarlet-clad devil in gloating attendance. These are a prelude to the pièce de résistance, Hell Itself, complete with realistic sulphurous smell of burning brimstone and the agonized screams of the forever damned.

After watching a rehearsal, in which the devil was suitably diabolical in the hammed-up style of a villain of Victorian melodrama, I interviewed Pastor Roberts in the presence of his cast. He told me that the optimum age for a child to visit a Hell House is twelve. This shocked me somewhat, and I asked him whether it would worry him if a twelve-year-old child had nightmares after one of his performances. He replied, presumably honestly:

I would rather for them to understand that Hell is a place that they absolutely do not want to go to. I would rather reach them with that message at twelve than to not reach them with that message and have them live a life of sin and to never find the Lord Jesus Christ. And if they end up having nightmares as a result of experiencing this, I think there’s a higher good that would ultimately be achieved and accomplished in their life than simply having nightmares. (pp. 319-20)

(These “Hell Houses” seem to be a variation on an old theme. For some vintage (“classic”) hell-terror-mongering, follow this youtube link.)

When I was around 7, I got that message –- that Hell is a place I absolutely do not want to go to –- loud and clear. And it did terrorize me–And not just worries that I might end up there, but terror at the thought of anyone ending up in such a place. The combination of eternal duration with unspeakable torment really got to me. In a later post I hope to go into the effects – some of them lasting to this day – beyond nightmares.

But I was apparently getting the hell message too early: Pastor Roberts seems to think that 12 is the best age (though I’m here just going by what Dawkins writes). By 12, I wasn’t any longer really terrorized by hell, though I still accepted a very nasty, traditional doctrine of hell – as I did all the way into my early 20s. (When I accepted the doctrine but was no longer terrorized by it, I did find it curious that I wasn’t so terrorized.)

Why do some people who accept a traditional doctrine of hell experience debilitating terror of it, while others don’t? Why was I terrorized at 7, but not at 12? Why does debilitating terror tend to occur among children (though some adults also suffer from it)? These are questions that I hope receive some serious investigation. (And, again, if anyone knows of any studies of this, please let me know.) All I can do is provide my own (non-expert) guess, which is based just on my own case and that of several other people I’ve talked to.

My guess is that debilitating terror of hell is (at least often) explained by the subject getting or having one cognitive ability before or without having another (or having one of them to a much greater extent before or without having the other to a significant enough extent): Having the ability to understand and appreciate the doctrine without (yet) having developed the ability to “quarantine” threatening “beliefs” from having the effects beliefs of that content in some sense should have. (Since this – and especially my use of “quarantine” – is all very vague, perhaps this shouldn’t even be thought of an explanation so much as my guess as to the form that the right explanation will take.)

As I’m tempted to describe it (and I often succumb to this temptation): When I was 7, but not when I was older, I really believed a traditional doctrine of hell.

The notion of belief seems to be a very messy one that I don’t very well understand, but it seems to somehow involve a very complex set of dispostitions: dispositions to act in certain ways under certain circumstances, to have certain emotions under certain circumstances, to form certain other beliefs under certain circumstances, etc. And it’s possible to have some of the relevant dispositions without having others. And in such cases, it may happen that neither “yes” nor “no” is a very accurate answer to the question of whether the subject believes the item in question. To use some advanced, technical terminology: They kinda believe it–and kinda don’t. By the time I was 12, though I still accepted a traditional doctrine of hell, I only kinda believed it, as opposed to my earlier, terrorized self, who really believed it. The “quarantining”of the doctrine wasn’t a simple matter of fully retaining the belief while blocking it from having some of its corrosive effects. Rather, it seems to me, it reduced the extent to which I could accurately be described as believing the doctrine. In that sense, I didn’t really believe it.

That – including such a use of the likes of “really believe” – is how I’ve been explaining this matter since well before Dawkins’s The God Delusion came out. So the following bit really resonated with me (the italics are Dawkins’s own):

‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.’ The adage is true so long as you don’t really believe the words. But if your whole upbringing, and everything you have ever been told by parents, teachers and priests, has led you to believe, really believe, utterly and completely, that sinners burn in hell…, it is entirely plausible that words can have a more long-lasting and damaging effect than deeds. (p. 318)

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