A reader writes:
You're right, Andrew; saying that people who reject God's love live miserable lives is definitely going to piss off your atheist readers. I generally don't mind your religious posts, but it takes a special level of arrogance to say that people who don't believe in God occupy a living hell. If you want to say that my beliefs will have consequences after I'm dead, that's a theoretically debatable question. But to assert things about my internal mental state (along with an entire class of people) is just stupid.
This description of hell is applied to all of us, Christians and non-Christians alike. It is as much my hell as yours. Another writes:
I have PTSD. As chronic afflictions go, I've heard of many worse-seeming things. Yet I bet it gives a nice flavor of hell as must be imagined by many intellectual religious people.
Not the hackneyed and biblical licking of flames over a flesh that is made forever sensitive to the agony of burning by an unconditionally loving deity, but instead waves of overwhelming regret, disgust, revulsion, and horror targeted at my self and mapped onto every memory that is even remotely unpleasant. This is not the banal make-your-own-hell of mindless internet indulgence or money obsession. It is actual hellish hell, including weeping, wailing, pounding on the wall in despair, and sobbing in genuine fear, loathing, and self-hatred. It isn't all the time, but flashbacks certainly are unpleasant.
And just to think of the love of the god who, after purposefully putting me into the life that led to this situation, assigns to me this condition full time and forever on account of my being insufficiently appreciative. This is the love I am to be punished for rejecting? Your god can go to hell.
Few popular Christian writers have spent as much time engaging honestly with atheism, so I will take your comments about hell being the rejection of god as the good faith description of your spiritual reality that I know it is for you.
Throat-clearing out of the way, though, it is certainly not empirically true that there is anything remotely hellish about my life, and I have rejected your faith (having first been raised in it). Hell is a North Korean concentration camp, or a killing field in Northern Mexico, or perhaps my father's slow descent into paranoid dementia. It is not the life of a happy, middle-aged defense worker with a great wife and two earth-shatteringly beautiful little girls who happen to be frolicking in the bath before me as I thumb this note out to you.
This is where, for me, the claims of the faithful for empiricism run aground. It is empirically not hell, Andrew. Not for me or millions of people like me.
C'mon dude, I'm stuck working on Easter Sunday too, but please try a little harder to maintain some semblance of coherence in your public expressions of faith. One month it's impossible for you to not believe in God, the next it's all about "choice." And the tension between these positions isn't helped by your chalking up the vast quantity of human misery that actually makes life hell to "withdrawing from God's unaccountable, unconditional love" is just silly. People don't choose to be born poor, or hungry, or sick, or mentally ill, or into an abusive family, or to no family at all. None of that has anything to do with "withdrawing" from God's love. It's simply the nature of existence. (A nature which God, were he to exist, could change with the merest flicker of his omnipotent finger. The power of "choice" doesn't do away with theodicy any more than it accounts for children dying of cancer.)
Let me put it a different way: If I could believe in God, and a wonderful world of everlasting paradise in the afterlife, I would. I'd get to see my sister again (dead last year at 26), and my grandfather, and all the other people I know and love who will one day die. My brother would be there too, freed from his paranoid schizophrenia. I would never be parted from my wife, or my children. It would be awesome. Who wouldn't want that?
But I can't believe. So I don't. And "choice" has nothing to do with it.
I suspect that most Christians' belief in salvation does not go beyond a vague idea of not actually dying and instead moving on to a perfect eternal existence, whatever that may turn out to be, so, as you say, we can "…remain ourselves forever." A more focused consideration, however, immediately runs into the dissonance between "perfect eternal" and "ourselves forever." If God did turn out to be the ultimate cognitive behavioral therapist and freed us from our personal demons, would that not equate to a everlasting lobotomy? I, for one, wouldn't expect to recognize myself, and if I did I wouldn't know what to do with myself … forever.
On the other hand, being the who who I know forever is, on due consideration, a reasonable description of hell. My life is not hell currently, but living it in what amounts to an eternal loop would qualify, with or without the demons. The only alternative is some state of eternal, unmodulated bliss and, hey, that would be down-right Buddhist.
You write, "Because in Christianity, unlike Buddhism, we remain ourselves for ever." And as a Buddhist, I would say that is your fundamental mistake, the basic misperception of reality that, in fact, constitutes the fallen state. Remain ourselves for ever? In what meaningful way are you the same "you" that you were when you were 20? When you were 10? When you were born? Aren't you, in fact, simply imputing a "self" onto a continual stream of ever-changing consciousness and experience?