Jeff Pearlman

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Fact: Hell doesn’t exist

I’ve always thought Hell was one of the dumbest things about organized religion. It’s just so friggin’ transparent—if you accept the teachings of [FILL IN THE BLANK RELIGION/RELIGIOUS LEADERS], you are destined for an eternity of bliss and joy, where nobody spills coffee and nobody farts. However, if you do not embrace [FILL IN THE BLANK] in your heart … YOU ARE DOOMED TO AN ETERNITY OF FIRE AND PAIN AND TORTURE!!!!!!!!!!

Gimme a break.

This is—and always has been—an obvious play for control. Listen to the church and pay your weekly dues, you’re good. Stay home on Sundays watching The Miz on WWE, you’re screwed. And why? Because God can see your thoughts and read your heart. Literally, this is the reason—the Holy One can somehow sort through the brains and bodies of the world’s X billion people to decide who accepts Him and who doesn’t. Oh, and you can’t sorta accept Him, because God picks these things up. You’ve gotta really, really, really accept Him. Because He knows. He definitely knows.

Ludicrous.

No, ludicrous times 8 gazillion.

I bring this up because, earlier today, the stupendous Michael Lewis directed me toward this article, which tells the story of a North Carolina pastor named Chad Holtz who wrote on his Facebook page that he supports a new book by Rob Bell, an evangelical pastor who doesn’t buy the traditional view of hell as a place of eternal torment for billions of damned souls. Two days later, enough complaints from parishioners led to Holtz being fired by Marrow’s Chapel in Henderson, N.C. “I think justice comes and judgment will happen, but I don’t think that means an eternity of torment,” Holtz told the Assoctaed Press. “But I can understand why people in my church aren’t ready to leave that behind. It’s something I’m still grappling with myself.”

If you haven’t, watch the above video—it’s a promotional segment for Bell’s book, but also an extremely powerful message about hell and our mindless belief systems. Personally speaking, I’m pretty sure God doesn’t exist (certainly not the Judeo-Christian God we talk and read about). But, if he does exist, he sure as heck isn’t what most Christians are taught to believe. From what I’ve gathered over the years, churches tend to treat faith like a game show. Play well, do right—heaven. Spin the wheel wrongly, land on the black square—hell. That’s it. Don’t think. Don’t question. Certainly don’t debate. Just do. Just go along. Just follow, preferably mindlessly. The church says jump, you jump. The church says hell is eternal damnation, hell is eternal damnation.

Again, it reduces life to a game show; as if we’re only here for a test to determine our worthiness to enjoy eternal salvation. God has arranged everything—mountains, Pee-Wee Herman, telephones, Burger King, global warming, teeth, pooping, braces, disease, death, love, hate—merely to gauge our devotion.

That is, to be blunt, inane.

Let me end the suspense. Act as if there is no hell and there is no heaven. Live righteously because it’s righteous. Help the old lady cross the road because she needs help. When you have pre-marital sex, use a condom to be safe. Don’t throw your cigarettes on the ground. Say “Thank you” and “excuse me.” Spend less time playing golf and more time with your kids. Help the earth.

When you die—and you will die—you’ll likely just turn into dust.

It’s OK.

  • http://firerickreilly.com Ctapps

    I hope, for your sake, you’re right. But the assumption that Hell is a contrivance of man, just as the assumption that God has to sift through man’s thoughts and actions, shows, well, a lack of theological understanding.

    • Jeff Pearlman

      or perhaps it shows advanced brilliance. :)

  • http://gashousegraphs.com Erik Manning

    Jeff – First of all let me say I’m a fan of your writing (at least more often than not – just being honest), and I’m sure you’re anticipating passionate responses here from both sides. While maybe it’s been your experience that Christianity is some sort of mindless game that people play to manipulate people. That is not the case in everyone’s life, certainly not mine. I’ve been an atheist, and agnostic, a deist, and even looked into Islam (for some kooky reason, no offense Rany J. if you’re out there) and it was by, in part, using reason as to how I became a Christian.

    And while this has flown under the radar, there is a growing number of philosophers in major, secular universities the past 40 years. These guys aren’t mindless church zombies.

    But that’s besides the point – you say there is no god but we should be nice anyway. Don’t be a jerk, help old ladies, be nice to our kids…but on atheism, why should we do that, other than maybe we like to do it? There’s nothing objective or binding about being a nice guy. If God doesn’t exist, and we’re just all highly evolved animals, what makes moral values and duties objective and binding?

    If there’s no God, then any ground for regarding the “herd morality” evolved by humans as objectively true seems to have been removed. After all, what is so special about human beings? On atheism, we’re just accidental by-products of nature which have evolved relatively recently on some speck of dust, trapped in a hostile and mindless universe and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in the not so distant future.

    Now as far as hell goes, for what it’s worth, the jewish and christian scriptures say that God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked. He compels men to turn towards him of their own free choice, as forced love obviously is not real love at all. But those who freely reject God deserve their awful fate; they thrust eternal life away from them. It is really they themselves and not God who is responsible for the reality of hell. In possible, -if infeasible – worlds in which everybody either always does the right thing or else turns to God for forgiveness, hell does not exist.

    But those possible worlds are infeasible, because so long as people have free will (and that is arguably not the case that we have free will if all we are is physical creatures; that is to say man’s actions are determined by the input of our 5 senses and our genetics). God gives them what they want, which is separation from him eternally.

    Anyway, that’s the take from this mindless Christian. I personally love debating this stuff, so fire away.

    • Jeff Pearlman

      Erik, great message. But maybe the beauty of the atheistic viewpoint is we, as humans, don’t need a dangling carrot. maybe we’ve developed decency, and that’s become a guiding principle sans God or Jesus or a very old book. Wanna know why I give the homeless dude my bread? because he’s hungry. Wanna know why my wife worked in a homeless shelter for years? Because she wanted to help. Not because God wanted her to help—because she wanted to.

      That’s beautiful.

    • Nelson

      Erik, you are missing one point that you stated incorrectly. Jewish scripture does not talk about hell. It talks about the “grave” or oblivian. Hell is a Christian construct coming to the mistranslation by Greeks. The idea of hell comes from Hades. Plus this “good without God” point has been beaten to death. The herd morality you discuss is quite valid. As aware beings, we can achieve a moral set that contributes to the continued growth of our species. Even animals develop this. With that being said, morals are NOT objective. This is proven by the bible itself. The OT stance on slavery and the role of women in the faith is a clear indication of what is considered acceptable. Yet Christians today do not deem this so. Why is that? God is unchanging. Christians realized that for society to progress, they could not continue with a lot of the customs of the “old world”. Christian morality (although a bit behind secular morality), changes with the needs and wants of it’s societies.

  • Jimmer

    Wow…about as off-base as they get. I’ve never heard of a Christian chuch preaching that you “earn” your way in to heaven by being good. Who would judge what’s good enough? How whould anyone know? He provided a guarantee in the act of accepting Christ, not doing good (though doing good is clearly something we’re called to do, it’s not what gets you to heaven…not even close).

    I know you doubt God’s existence. Just explore it a bit more seriously and without cynicism…besides, think of how bad it will suck if you’re wrong…

    • Jeff Pearlman

      Wait, wait, wait—that’s what i was trying to say. God knows you’ve accepted Jesus … because he, eh, just, uh, knows. He can read your heart. Or something.

    • Nelson

      Jimmer,

      Pascals Wager much? Here is a thought. Let’s concede that an afterlife and a Deity exists. How do you get to the Christian God above the thousand of other god’s that has ever existed in man’s history? But guarentee do you have that when you die Zeus won’t ask you, ” what with all this jesus crap?” And no, circular reasoning, the bible tells me so is not it. Just saying.

  • Jennifer

    I believe in the power of the universe, and that perhaps there’s a grand plan behind it all. But not an old dude sitting on a throne behind pearly gates. And condemning souls for not choosing one belief system over another. I can’t stomach the dogma that a billion Buddhists and another billion Hindus are going to Hell because they don’t accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. Hell’s not that big, and God’s not that petty.

  • Steve

    You did a good job of building a straw-man and knocking it down. Congrats. Fortunately not all religion matches your definition.

  • http://gashousegraphs.com Erik Manning

    Hey Jeff,

    I think you’re missing my point, which may be my fault. Let me clarify. I don’t think at all for a second that atheists cannot be moral. In fact, I think some atheists put many Christians to shame in the area of morality.

    But there’s nothing objective duty or nothing objectively valuable about feeding a homeless person because he’s hungry if atheism is true. It might make you feel good in a subjective way. But without God, naturalism is true, and morality is really just illusory. In other words, all we are is highly evolved animals with delusions of moral grandeur. Michael Ruse, a prof. of philosophy and an atheist says

    “The position of the modern evolutionist . . . is that humans have an awareness of morality . . . because such an awareness is of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth . . . . Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says ‘Love they neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves . . . . Nevertheless, . . . such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, . . . and any deeper meaning is illusory”

    So if atheism is true, morality is just a by product of socio-biological conditioning. But that strikes me as implausible, and moreover, self-defeating. Because evolution is after survival, not truth. If naturalism is true, then all our beliefs, not just moral ones, are the result of evolution and social conditioning! Therefore, we should be skeptical of the evolutionary theory itself, since it too is a product of evolution and social conditioning.

    Furthermore, I think it’s just our common, everyday experience that objective moral values do in fact exist. Torturing innocent babies, or rounding up homosexuals and sending them to concentration camps would be wrong no matter if everyone believed it was right, wouldn’t you think?

    So, if objective moral values and duties exist, that is to say that if everything really isn’t “relative” and morals are just subjective – like picking a baseball team to root for or our favorite restaurant – then God exists. And it seems clear from our experience that they do, then God exists.

    • Jeff Pearlman

      Erik, I’m sorry, but this had me sort of giggling:

      “So if atheism is true, morality is just a by product of socio-biological conditioning. But that strikes me as implausible …”

      The idea of morality being developed, naturally sans a God’s touch, through the course of human history is implausible. But a place where the non-believers go … where God sends those who, in their hearts or hearts, don’t accept his son as Lord and Savior, is plausible? REALLY?

  • http://espn.go.com Kit Morgan
  • Nik

    Thanks, Erik. I was an atheist, but thanks to your rock-solid logic (“…if objective moral values and duties exist, that is to say that if everything really isn’t “relative” and morals are just subjective – like picking a baseball team to root for or our favorite restaurant – then God exists. And it seems clear from our experience that they do, then God exists.”), I realized I was behaving morally just to make myself feel better. Thanks to you, I can see that there is a god, and my moral behavior is rooted in a theistic reality. I’d been believing and living a lie, and now I can see the truth. Thanks. Is it ok if I go with Buddah instead of Jesus?

  • Pingback: What the hell, Jeff Pearlman? (Pun intended) « The Gospel According to Erik

  • Jeanne

    i do believe in God (as you know) but I totally agree with you that God is not what people and religion have created him/her to be. God is in fact (I believe) beyond what we are able to comprehend as humans and certainly beyond organized religion and our ideas of right/wrong good/bad heaven/hell.

  • Charlie Church

    Mr. Pearlman,

    Life is all about choices and you are choosing your own destiny.

    You have REJECTED the love of Christ and for that you will be damned to hell.

    You have chosen to align yourself with anti-God and anti-American Socialists instead of American Loving God Fearing Republicans and you have the audacity to mock them on your blog.

    And finally…as a teenager, you chose the Ozzy album over the Stryper album.

    Only accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior and joining the Republican Pary can save you!!!!

  • http://gashousegraphs.com Erik Manning

    Nik – Well, actually Buddhism is probably an atheistic religion, and its teachings more serve more towards moral relativism as I understand it. I know you’re being facetious, but anyway, there you go.

    Jeff – If man is just a physical being, then sure, there is no afterlife. Our bodies just decompose in dirt and that’s the end of it. But I think there is actually good grounds to believe that we’re just more than physical things.

    I’ll explain a bit: Mental states are in no sense really physical, that is limited to just the physical brain. I mean, they have a raw qualitative feel, intentionality, their immediate to the subject having them, and moreover they fail to have crucial features that characterize physical states.

    There’s really not a scientific, naturalistic explanation for the existence of conscious states. They’re really outside the pale of evolutionary explanation. So, it seems rational to infer that we were created by a conscious and purposeful mind, namely God, who endows us with free will. And with that free will we can either reject or accept the God who made us.

    And I think most theologians would say it’s beyond just “believing”. FWIW, the bible talks about even the demons believing. You can choose to love God and have a relationship with him because he loves you, or just go on doing your own thing and reject him. I don’t think hell is this actual fiery inferno where devils poke you with pitchforks, it seems to me it is a place where people go exist after death apart from God, living in shame, regret and most likely anger towards God for their own decisions they made here. As CS Lewis said, hell is locked from the inside.

    • Nelson

      @Erik,

      I find your point interesting and a little skewed. You stated, “I’ll explain a bit: Mental states are in no sense really physical, that is limited to just the physical brain. I mean, they have a raw qualitative feel, intentionality, their immediate to the subject having them, and moreover they fail to have crucial features that characterize physical states.

      There’s really not a scientific, naturalistic explanation for the existence of conscious states. They’re really outside the pale of evolutionary explanation. So, it seems rational to infer that we were created by a conscious and purposeful mind, namely God, who endows us with free will. And with that free will we can either reject or accept the God who made us.”

      I cannot follow your logic. One because it is based on no information except your “feelings”. That is not a vehicle for truth.

      I would direct you to Dennis Krebs, The Origins of Morality: An Evolutionary Account. http://www.epjournal.net/wp-content/uploads/EP103538.pdf

      Here I think you will fid that without evolution, morality actually makes less sense. You might want to review papers on evolutionary development of the brain, it’s senses and those “intangible” emotions you are discussing. The end result is that all of them rely on a physical brain to exist. To say that morality is god given is intellectually dishonest. You’d have to show also those morals in process with the absence of a brain based in matter, which is then subject to the evolutionary process.

  • http://www.hagenhoopla.blogspot.com Wendy Hagen

    It’s late. I don’t have time to fully respond with my thoughts on hell right now. But I read this (and your post about Tim Tebow) and find your perspective interesting. You were so respectful of me and my faith, but it comes across that really don’t like Christians in general. Or maybe Christianity as an institution? Or what you think they believe? You definitely have some misunderstandings about what Christianity is or what the Bible teaches. Granted, there are many who call themselves Christians who don’t set a great example for you, are closed-minded, hypocritical, etc. But have you taken a good look at our role model – Jesus? Do you have any Christian friends? Ones that set a good example for you, who don’t beat you with the Bible, who seem to really trying to live like Jesus did? Who would feed a homeless person because they see a need and want to meet it? Do you know anyone who has given up a lucrative career and financial stability to live on a dirt floor in a third world country to share the love of God because it just overflows from them and who also seek to meet the physical needs of the poorest of the poor?

    I guess what I am saying is – you need to get out more. Experience the world a bit :)
    See that there are Christians out there who are decent people – even though you cannot fathom that they could believe the Bible, or in a God, or in the resurrection. Maybe you should check out a service at Westboro Baptist Church. I hear they are very welcoming to visitors :)

  • Ted

    Wendy, I guess your reference to the Westboro Baptist Church is meant to be “funny”. Or is it an example of the overflowing love of God?

  • Alan

    It always amuses me how those who argue for a divine basis for morality never see the glaring logical flaws in their arguments.

  • http://www.hagenhoopla.blogspot.com Wendy Hagen

    Ted, Westboro Baptist Church. That was sarcasm. Those are some of the people who give Christianity a bad name. NOT overflowing with the love of God.

  • Harvey Wachtel

    I read that Carl Sagan was once asked if he turned out to be wrong about God and the afterlife what he would have to say on Judgement Day. His answer was “but Sire, you should have given us more evidence”. I’ve never quite understood why he thought he’d be so deferential; fear, I guess.

    This brought back the memory of an encounter I had many years ago driving in an unfamiliar part of New Jersey. I had driven down the exit ramp from westbound NJ 4 prepared to make a left to go north on River Road (if the directions sound mixed up to you, you’re not familiar with the architecture of New Jersey’s highways). The ramp intersected River Road at right angles; at the bottom was a traffic signal, red, and in the middle sat a sedan, apparently waiting to cross River Road into the street on the opposite side. There was plenty of room on either side so, with my turn signal blinking, I pulled up to the stop line on the sedan’s left.

    My arrival was greeted with urgent honking. I looked over and saw the sedan’s driver gesticulating vigorously. I shifted to park, leaned over, and rolled down the window. The other driver started berating me for “pushing ahead” of her. Genuinely perplexed, I told her I was turning left. She replied angrily “so am I”. “But you’re in the middle of the road and you’re not signalling.” Her final word: “do you expect me to sit here waiting for the light with the turn signal going?”

    What could I say to that? “You’re really something. You make people guess what you’re doing and then you get angry when they guess wrong.” Maybe it’s sexist, but since she was a woman I let it end there. If it had been a guy, I might have added the obvious epithet, and it wouldn’t have been “Sire”.

    So I’ve got it figured out. Apparently Christians think that God is an a– er, let’s say “a Jersey driver” and leave it at that.

  • Flick

    I agree with you, and have always thought there isn’t a hell or a God. The problem I have with hell is the infinite punishment. Seriously? A person can be a good person, work for their community all their life, BUT if they don’t accept Christ, all the sudden they are doomed to a infinite punishment. Doesn’t seem quite logical does it? And as for the Christian GOD, this blind faith thing doesn’t make sense..there are millions of people that can’t practice blind faith, I’m one of them. It’s not that I haven’t tried to believe..I just can’t do it, so all the sudden that makes me doomed to hell because I’m incapable of blind faith, believing in something that I can’t see or touch. And finally I have HUGE problems with the bible. First it was written by men from their memories roughly a 100 years after the death of Christ. Second, the first canonized bible wasn’t introduced until 300 years after Christs death, and third there are over 17 apocalyptic text, and the one chosen was chosen by men, not prophets, just ordinary members of the church who were chosen with the task of putting it together. And on top of that, they didn’t really want Revelation in the bible, because it would possibly be abused to control and hurt people. The list goes on and on. John Wesley and Martin Luther…all the sudden they are experts and we are to follow what they say. Just their opinions of what the text say and mean. There is so much wrong that it amazes me that even 1 person believes in it.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

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