Zealots and the Fear of Hell

The very first chink in my Christian faith armor was when I denied a literal traditional hell. I believed in "conditional immortality" at one point. And it was then that I was allowed to pursue my questions, because I thought to myself that hell wouldn't be that bad if I'm annihilated. That's when I began to develop the freedom to question the Bible and to pursue my questions. Of course, in pursuing these questions I eventually came to deny the existence of hell and the Bible as the word of God itself. But for me that's when it started.

Today there is violence between Israel and Lebanon. And while no one can say this is purely a religious war, the elements of religion are plainly evident, especially when militant Islamics (like Hamas, and Hezbollah) want to destroy Israel as part of what they understand the Koran to say.

And then there are Christians who are so zealous for their faith that they consider anyone who questions their faith as a personal attack on them. They too are zealots for their faith.

But why? Why are these religious people so zealous for their faith? Why? Is anyone that zealous in defending their favorite Baseball team, or in defending the historicity the founding of ancient Rome, such that they will personally attack someone who denies it (well there might be a small select few regarding a baseball team, but Christians as a whole take our questions personally).

It's the fear of hell, I tell ya. And it's a horrible doctrine, especially when someone believes that babies go to hell and then still believes this after his wife miscarriages, which is a terrible painful parental experience all by itself that I sympathize with and wish on no one!

Fear of hell. That explains the zeal of the zealots in this world. It's a cradle to grave intimidation that causes otherwise intelligent and caring people to be stupid and fearful and zealous for their faith.

Tell me this, Christians, if it weren't for the fear of hell, how zealous would you be for your faith? How willing would you be to consider the questions we pose here at DC? How does the fear of hell itself affect how zealous you are to defend your faith?


Chris Wilson said...

Its interesting that Christendom's concept of hell is so inaccurate. What would most Christians say about the verse at Rev 20:13,14 "The sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them; and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast in the lake of fire."

So the dead will be delivered from hell. Hell is actually another word for grave. The Hebrew she'ohl and the Greek haides don't refer to an individual grave but refer to the common grave of mankind.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Chris, but I suppose you could do the same textual analysis of the word "church" and maintain Christians don't understand what the word "church" means either. But in both cases the English words for "church" and "hell" communicates in our language, so we use them. We use words in their generally accepted dictionary sense unless we specify a technical definition as we communicate.

But the fear of hell keeps Christians from entertaining their hidden doubts, which in turn makes them zealous for their faith since they suppress them.

Tell me this, Christian. No matter how confident you are that a particular sports team in the past was the best one ever, you can still more rationally entertain the question of whether or not a present team is better, since you don't fear hell if you entertain such a question.

Chris Wilson said...

I find it easy to criticize and lose faith in the Giants. Nothing is at stake.

You are correct that fear is an undercurrent of emotion in Christianity. But nobody claims that this is the proper motivation to be a Christian.

You do your job at work to make a living, to feed your family, to feel pride in your accomplishments. It enables you to buy the house, the car, send the kids to good schools and hopefully retire comfortably. You perhaps love what you do and think you are very good at it. You are motivated to succeed at work to obtain these material and psychological benefits. However, there is an undercurrent of fear because to lose your job, say in a tough job market, means you could lose it all. Maybe your boss has it in for you. One false move and your gone. Even if you don't give it much quarter, fear is also a motivator in your worklife.

The same with our faith. We are properly motivated by our appreciation and love for God for the gift of life. We are fearful of displeasing him and we let that motivate us as well.

Mark Plus said...

Of course, "going to heaven" doesn't really solve anything, assuming that such a place exists and that one can go there. What if you arrive in heaven, and then choose to rebel against god?

Or in other words, what if god lets you into heaven with the foreknowledge that you'll rebel, much like the way god allegedly set up satan?

Saying that satan rebelled because of "pride" misses the point. Pride might provide a sufficient reason to cause a rebellion against god in heaven, but other sufficient reasons besides pride could also make you want to tell god to stuff it. Or perhaps an entity in heaven can rebel for no apparent reason at all. The satan story provides a powerful argument against the claim that "believers" have eternal security in heaven. At the very least, satan's precedent shows that an inhabitant of heaven can have an overwhelming itch that even heaven can't scratch.

Chris Wilson said...

Absolutely true. In fact, after the millenial reign of Christ, Satan, who has been confined, will be loosed again, and people will once again be asked to decide with whom their loyalties lie.

Anonymous said...

Sure there are other fears for the Christian. But hell is the greatest fear of all.

openlyatheist said...

"Absolutely true. In fact, after the millenial reign of Christ, Satan, who has been confined, will be loosed again, and people will once again be asked to decide with whom their loyalties lie."


Could you site some material on this? I would like to read more about it.

Thank you,
John D.W.

paul said...


I never got to the place of thinking hell would not be that bad.

My own fear turned out to be the proverbial double edged sword, i.e., the fear of being wrong or deluded. This fear caused me to believe and then caused me to step away from those same beliefs saying: "I don't really know that."

"Christians" believe "God" is the ultimate answer. While a "christian" may not have all understanding or knowledge about life, they have the hope of eternal life where all questions are answered, all pain ceases. Who wants to give that up? There's nothing on this earth that can equal such an absolute notion.

For me, it came down to "to thine own self be true." Having the affirmation of other people saying "yep, you're right as rain" wasn't enough when there were all these unanswered questions. I feared being wrong.

Chris Wilson said...

John DW- The passage I refer to in my comment comes from Revelation 20:7-9

7 Now as soon as the thousand years have been ended, Satan will be let loose out of his prison, 8 and he will go out to mislead those nations in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Ma´gog, to gather them together for the war. The number of these is as the sand of the sea. 9 And they advanced over the breadth of the earth and encircled the camp of the holy ones and the beloved city. But fire came down out of heaven and devoured them.

slaveofone said...

hmm, well, I'd certainly call myself zealous for Christ and faith...and I don't even believe in hell.

Was it your fear of an eternal spiritual damnation that made you turn to religion in the first place? I guess, then, I'd be the opposite. I'll tell you the greatest fear I ever had...if fear is even a powerful enough word for it...existential despair. I hoped there was a hell, because at least then I would serve some purpose in fueling its flames.

tn said...

While the fear of hell may be a motivating factor, I think it's only a small piece of a larger picture. In reality, these are people who have put everything on the line for their god. If they're wrong, then they believe there's no point in living. If their god doesn't exist, then they've lost their imaginary friend that's always been by their side. They're suddenly in a world with shades of gray and situationalist ethics. They have to make choices on reality's terms. A loss like this could hurt the believer too much, perhaps go into shock. He's got too much invested in the pyramid scheme to give up, even if a mountain of evidence is piled up on his doorstep.

Hell makes them content, in a way. They know it's real and can conjure it up, control it, in a way. Such a scary idea, of a burning lake of fire and gnashing of teeth, when harnessed by the believer, can be an attempt at subverting it. They can control their fear, just in the way they can control the choices and attributes of their god and what they believe is good. While there is an ever-present fear of Hell, as slaveofone pointed out in passing, there is a greater fear of an absence of it. To die with no continuation, either in everlasting torment or a garden paradise is too much to bear. Life must have a purpose to them. To die knowing that you lived a lie is unbearable. I almost feel sorry for their dedication to such a falsehood.

Anonymous said...

While the faith itself is based on the fear of the unknown of the non-existence after this life the zealousness is based on the fear of hell. As someone pointed out earlier hell is preferable to non-existence for christians but that is not enough for them to be zealous. The fear of hell is what actually drives them to be zealous. The fear that Yehova will tell them: "Hey, remember when you read Loftus' post on DC? Why didn't you replied to affirm your faith? You're too pasive for my Heaven so take the elevator to the basement". Somehow, in the back of their heads the christians know their god can very easily get pissed off and they try not to give him any reason to send them to hell.

zilch said...

Christians have many different ideas about what Hell is, from "absence of God" to "eternal burning in the Lake of Fire", and about who will go there. Most of the Christians I've talked to are certain that their idea is the right one.

Truth is, the Bible is not really clear about it, as about many things, and thus will support all kinds of notions depending on the kind of cherry-picking you do.

In any case, the "eternal torment" version of Hell, whatever its Biblical justification, has proven to be a powerful meme. Since we know we will die, and most of us wouldn't mind living forever comfortably, the idea of an afterlife has a way of gripping the imagination. No wonder that it has evolved over and over again in the ideosphere as an effective hook to gain converts and enforce the Law.

Unknown said...

When I was a born-again xian, what I feared most was oblivion. I never believed in hell - well I did when I was a small child, but dismissed it later on. To suffer through life only to end in oblivion seemed to remove all purpose from my life. Actually my fear of oblivion was what drove me to study religion (to try to prove to myself that it was true). This ironically is what led me to atheism. Now I see beauty in life despite there being no God. I no longer fear oblivion (but I'm not looking forward to it either) ;-) I want to live for a long time -- as long as I'm happy.

John, you may be on to something, as I may not have ever questioned my religion if I did fear hell.

Anonymous said...

Chris compares the Christian's fear of hell with the motivation to do well at work.

"However, there is an undercurrent of fear because to lose your job, say in a tough job market, means you could lose it all. Maybe your boss has it in for you. One false move and your gone. Even if you don't give it much quarter, fear is also a motivator in your worklife."

Some employers will deliberately create such fears to 'ginger up' their workforces, and it underlies much of the employment abuses of Asia 'sweatshops'. If it isn't a good thing there what makes it 'good' in religion?

And in many cases good employees in no danger of being laid-off with good employers who would not want to lay them off still torture themselves with these paranoid fears, to the detriment of their lives and those of their families. It's sad to read of Christians like Chris arguing that a little fear is a good thing.

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Daggoth said...

For any one life, fear which has no solid basis is a cage of the mind.
The idea that someone will choose to live in a cage of fear, wether it be fear of suffering, fear of death as a true end, fear of oblivion(as in, being forgotten after you die), fear of being wrong in the end, fear of punishment in the afterlife.. in other words, fear of something that you have no reason to fear based on your own experience (or at least reasonable logic) prohibits the full enjoyment of life, as it takes from the life you would've lead, if you had lived to experience life, if you had paved and trodden your own path, instead of walking fear. And not living fully could be defined as partially dying, death of the soul if you might call it that. Why poison yourself with religion? over some textbooks?, over some witty remarks?

The human being is confined to the human body. Stick to that, at least through the duration of the life you are going to live in it.