Religious belief in hell fills the waking moments and dreams of untold numbers of people with terror, many of whom seek therapy to break the nightmarish fear. Treating hellfire trauma requires knowledge of the client’s religious indoctrination and upbringing, as well as the psychological mechanisms that reinforce the fear. The prognosis appears to be positive; in my experience working with clients, a major or total remission of hell-related fears follows deprogramming of the beliefs that cause the fears, along with treatment of trauma and techniques for managing affective overwhelm.
In fundamentalist religions, believers in hell were taught to dread hell in early childhood, raised with a belief in eternal physical fire and psychological torture that felt as real as your belief in gravity. As the fundamentalist religious child learns to walk and talk, she learns to fear eternal torture by fire as a punishment for her less-than-perfect thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and actions. If it takes root, this all-pervasive, deeply engrained fear can alter human psychology at fundamental levels, making basic cognitive processes and everyday decisions feel like a matter of life and death. During the early years of human development, as the child’s brain develops, the psyche is growing a foundational psychological navigation system, forming neural networks that “hardwire” patterns of emotion and behavior adaptive to survival in the world. An unsafe psychological environment can cause anxiety disorders, PTSD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other mental health emergency strategies to form as adaptations to the situation that is registered by the mind as an ongoing, extreme threat to survival. A religious belief in eternal torture taken seriously constitutes an unsafe psychological environment, reinforcing the threat of extreme violence worse than death as a constant reality.
Thus, hellfire indoctrination may be a root trauma in a client’s life, changing the way the brain responds to life in general. Treating it may also facilitate the resolution of seemingly unrelated problems. When survival is a constant issue, the brain’s fight, flight, or freeze fear response is frequently triggered. During the flight response, the sympathetic nervous system and adrenal glands are overstimulated, pumping large amounts of the stress hormone cortisol and the stimulant adrenaline into the body. A person may experience excessive psychological and bodily anxiety. The brain is trained to habitually activate this response, as neural pathways are formed to facilitate or “hardwire” it, increasing the speed of onset and intensity. Thus, it may be triggered frequently and in an exaggerated way in response to other distressful situations unrelated to fear of hell. A disordered level of anxiety, phobias, or obsessive-compulsive personality configurations may develop. The fight response may trigger high or manic levels of short-term energy, resulting in productivity or aggression during the activation, and depression, burnout, and inability to finish tasks when the energy wears off. The freeze response can result in paralysis and withdrawing from responsibilities and relationships. Dissociation is also a common response to survival threats: leaving one’s bodily and mental experience to escape intolerable emotional distress. Addictive drugs and behavioral habits may be employed to reduce the overwhelm. There is a wide range of additional dysfunctional patterns a client may develop in response to fear of hell, depending on individual personality and other factors.
What Clients Learn About Hell in Church
Clients who suffer from fear of hell usually spent years or a lifetime being indoctrinated by a religious community. Religious communities have many conceptions of hell but one of the most common (and most traumatizing) is the belief in a literal place of eternal torture as God’s judgment for not believing in a specific religious confession of faith. This belief is heavily emphasized in the preaching of fundamentalist, Evangelical, and Conservative forms of Christianity. In these traditions, religious adherents are taught they are born deserving of God’s judgment of an eternity in hell because they have a sinful, fallen nature. All humans deserve hell as the default position because of sin. The only way to avoid hell is to find salvation through Jesus. This means confessing that one is depraved and deserving of hell and believing that God pardons one’s sins through Jesus. It also means committing one’s life to obedience to God and the biblical teachings of the religious community. If a person stops believing this message, leaves the religious community, or lives a lifestyle contrary to the teachings of the faith, they will go to hell. Religious believers are charged with the mandate of converting their neighbors and becoming missionaries to convert people from other religions because anyone who does not confess their doctrine of faith (including other Christians whose doctrine differs on issues considered to be foundational) is destined to burn in hell forever unless they convert.
Hell is therefore a central doctrine of these religious groups, informing their major ideas about conversion, spirituality, and the purpose of life on earth (saving souls). Many hell-believing churches preach about hell every Sunday service during a ritual known as the altar call. This ritual includes an invitation to convert or rededicate oneself to the faith. Parishioners are warned, they could die at any moment and face God’s judgment, so they must make sure they are “right with God.” Preachers often make it very unclear what exactly it takes to be safe from hell, teaching mixed messages about a believer’s level of security within the faith. They may teach some level of assurance, e.g. that faith in Jesus gives us confidence we are safe from hell. However, the Bible teaches that sin takes place at the level of thought and emotion, and preachers often urge their congregants to vigilantly confess all their sins “just to be sure.” The implication is that stray, unrepented thoughts and desires can lead to damnation. Anxiety about unconfessed or unknown sin can lead believers to hypervigilantly confess minute sins in constant terror of hell. Many sensitive believers recall compulsively praying “the sinner’s prayer” for salvation hundreds of times daily to compensate for uncertainty about hell.
Hell is frequently mentioned in church sermons and believers encourage each other to confess their sins and to be in good standing with the community, to “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12, NIV). Many churches put on evangelistic dramas like Heaven’s Gates, Hell’s Flames, a play composed of short vignettes about people before the moment of death making a choice to accept or reject Jesus’s offer of salvation. The play depicts vivid scenes of people who reject the message burning and screaming in hell. Young children are usually in attendance. Churches frequently feature evangelists who share personal testimonies about having died and gone to hell and being brought back to life by God to warn people of its horrors. Evangelistic literature like “Chick Tracts” is distributed, depicting gory images of hell torture. Families and small groups of Christians watch movies with scenes of hell together. Fear of hell is deeply ingrained in the consciousness of religious devotees through a broad variety of mediums.
Certain types of people are more vulnerable to debilitating fear of hell than others. People with sensitive, empathic, or creative dispositions may be susceptible to higher levels of fear and more vivid fantasies of torture. Those who are predisposed to mental health challenges or who are actively experiencing psychiatric disorders are also liable to suffer more intensely. Moreover, non-neurotic individuals who simply take their religion seriously and earnestly apply themselves to religious practice may take doctrines of hell to heart and suffer more intensely than others who are less devoted. All these factors appear to have operated in the man credited as the founder of the Christian Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther. Luther was tormented by the fear of hell throughout his life and based much of his theology and reaction against the Catholic Church on finding liberation from abusive teachings about divine wrath and hell. However, although Luther’s theology was psychologically progressive for his time, he continued to believe in hell and this belief is still heavily emphasized in many versions of Protestant Christianity that follow his teachings.
Fear of hell is also linked to sexual expression in many forms of religion. In fundamentalist Christianity, any sex act outside of heterosexual marriage is considered sinful. One of Jesus’s teachings about sex is used to explicitly link sex at the level of fantasy and desire to the fear of hell:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” (Matthew 5:27-30, NIV)
According to a fundamentalist interpretation of these words of Jesus, even having aberrant sexual thoughts puts one in danger of hell. Jesus suggests castration as a solution, which is usually (though not always) interpreted metaphorically: Christians should judiciously police their sex lives, cutting off their sexuality entirely if that is what it takes to stay on the straight and narrow path. Most unmarried and non-heterosexual Christians find themselves unable to completely restrain their sexuality, engaging in masturbation, pornography, and other sexual activities if not intercourse. Fear and guilt about these activities prevents them from talking about safe sex practices with their partners or learning basic sex education. Clients who leave fundamentalist Christianity (and clients who are currently Christian) often experience huge amounts of guilt and fear about sex because it has been linked to severe fiery torture in their conditioning at the level of thought and desire. Healing from sexual religious trauma is another major area of recovery for most clients healing from religious trauma.
LGBTQIA+ Fear of Hell
LGBTQIA+ populations are uniquely vulnerable to sexual religious trauma and fear of hell. They are targeted from a young age for their sexual identity with specific teachings about how hell is a punishment for homosexuality and sexual expressions that do not conform to traditional heterosexual norms. It is impossible for a queer person to go through life in modern society without experiencing some form of shaming and rejection from religious communities, often by their own families and peers during their most formative years. The Bible contains seven passages that are traditionally interpreted as condemning homosexuality, calling it a sinful perversion of human nature deserving of God’s wrath (Romans 1:26–27). The Sodom and Gomorrah passage is frequently cited as evidence that God’s judgment is pending against a nation because of an increase of homosexual activity in the culture (Genesis 19:1–11). Thus, gay identity is treated as a matter of grave danger and shame, potentially resulting in hellfire condemnation on a personal and national level. LGBTQIA+ clients may need to address their experiences with specific Bible passages to deprogram and process trauma. Additionally, traditional interpretations of Bible verses that reference homosexuality are heavily disputed within Christianity, and queer theology is burgeoning theological enterprise. It may be helpful for LGBTQIA+ clients to be pointed to resources about alternative perspectives. For instance, Gnuse (2015) summarizes the basic critiques of traditional interpretations of the seven Bible passages about homosexuality in his article:
There are seven texts often cited by Christians to condemn homosexuality: Noah and Ham (Genesis 9:20–27), Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:1–11), Levitical laws condemning same-sex relationships (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13), two words in two Second Testament vice lists (1 Corinthians 6:9–10; 1 Timothy 1:10), and Paul’s letter to the Romans (Romans 1:26–27). The author believes that these do not refer to homosexual relationships between two free, adult, and loving individuals.They describe rape or attempted rape (Genesis 9:20–27, 19:1–11), cultic prostitution (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13), male prostitution and pederasty (1 Corinthians 6:9–10; 1 Timothy 1:10), and the Isis cult in Rome (Romans 1:26–27). If the biblical authors did assume homosexuality was evil, we do not theologize off of their cultural assumptions, we theologize off of the texts we have in the canon. (p. 68)
Many LGBTQIA+ clients interpret the biblical authors as having espoused anti-gay prejudices because of their cultural contexts. Therefore, they reject these Bible passages that seem to condemn homosexuality, while still seeing the value of other passages of the Bible and religious traditions. Others reject the Bible and religious tradition entirely. Each client’s unique process of coming out of the religious indoctrination that rejected their sexual identity is to be gently facilitated and encouraged.
It is important for the therapist to realize how deeply the fear of hell may be connected to sexual identity and expression for these clients, which is a core element of selfhood. It is also connected to community and relational acceptance. Many LGBTQIA+ individuals feel forced to leave their religious communities and families because they must do so to find self-acceptance, freedom of expression, and healing from guilt, shame, and fear. Much of the work is coming to acknowledge the trauma and abuse that happened and how this has impacted the client’s sense of self and relational patterns with others. It is also learning to accept and appreciate one’s sexual preference without fear or shame.
Working Within a Client’s Belief System
When addressing issues of religious belief, the therapist is only able to operate within the confines of the client’s belief system and process. It is only appropriate to work on deprogramming beliefs with the client’s consent, as part of the client’s process (not the therapist’s agenda for the client). If a client holds an unhealthy religious perspective on hell and is committed to maintaining it, the therapist’s options are limited. Many highly religious clients spend their entire lives tortured by fear of hell but are unwilling to question their religious beliefs. The therapist may encourage these clients to examine whether there are other reasons why the fear is particularly pronounced, and to see if there are techniques that can be found to reduce it. The therapist may also to encourage the client to take refuge in the beliefs and practices of her religion designed to mitigate fear of hell. Beyond this, it is unethical to pressure a client to change her religious beliefs. Moreover, this course of action would likely be perceived by the client as a betrayal of trust. It could irreparably rupture the therapeutic alliance.
Fundamentalist religions teach adherents to attach religion to personal identity and arm adherents with an array of doctrines designed to ward off threats to deconversion. Highly religious clients are likely to be sensitive to any imposition of the therapist’s beliefs and would be liable to interpret such an imposition as threatening. Therapists who have had negative experiences with religion must be vigilant not to sabotage the therapeutic relationship, resisting any urges to rescue the client by giving this expression in their interpretations and reactions. Therapists do not need to be dishonest about their differing experiences and beliefs, but they should not bring them into the therapy session. Clients are usually willing to work with a therapist who holds different beliefs if they feel assured the therapist will respect their religion.
The Process of Coming Out of Fear of Hell
Fear of hell impacts people in different ways. Many people appear relatively unaffected by teachings of hell and psychologically abusive religious teachings in general, living their entire lives hearing hellfire preaching with no apparent psychological challenges outside the norm. However, this may be merely a surface-level presentation. Just because a person is unaware of fear of hell does not mean it is not present. Fear of hell may still operate at a deep unconscious level. This seems likely, because if a person genuinely believes that gruesome eternal punishment is a real possibility, fear necessarily exists within the psyche, or else we may reasonably question whether the person believes in hell to begin with.
This unconscious fear of hell is often triggered and brought to the surface for people who experience a change of religious belief. The religious devotee has a level of assurance of protection from hell only so long as she continues to believe the doctrines of the religious community. This assurance, known as the assurance of salvation, comes in various theological forms depending on the person’s religious beliefs about salvation, including doctrines of election and predestination, salvation by faith alone, or reliance on continued participation in the sacraments. Some communities teach that faith in their theological formula provides assurance of salvation from hell, while others give more tenuous grounds of assurance, teaching that disobedience and sin must be constantly patrolled and confessed or salvation may be lost at any time. Regardless of its specific doctrinal form, assurance of salvation functions as a psychological reinforcement mechanism that serves the dual function of counteracting some of the anxiety provoked by the doctrine of hell and keeping people from questioning their religious beliefs. If a person follows the dictates of her religious community, comfort results because her safety is somewhat secure from the threat of hell. But if she even begins to question, her safety is in jeopardy, because the assurance of salvation is detracted when a person changes her religious beliefs. Changing foundational religious beliefs is punishable by hell. Thus, critical thinking, the study of other worldviews, life events that produce doubt and cognitive dissonance, and interacting with people of other faiths may be terrifying to the fundamentalist believer because the questioning they involve could lead to a change of belief.
Even for faithful adherents of hellfire-believing religions, the assurance of salvation is never fully guaranteed. Some level of fear of hell remains and is employed in preaching to keep believers on their toes. For instance, in the case of assurance doctrines of election, believers find comfort in the belief that they are elected by God for salvation. However, one cannot ultimately know whether she is among the elect; even those who appear elect may be self-deceived and turn out to be among the damned. In the case of assurance doctrines that emphasize continued confession of sin and reliance on faith, a person never knows whether she has confessed all her sins, and the possibility of backsliding and losing faith is ever-present. Thus, fear of hell is a reality even for fundamentalist Christians who are largely unaware of its presence. (Hospital chaplains commonly report that very committed religious believers confront enormous dread of hell for the first time on their deathbeds because they are forced to grapple with their uncertain assurance of salvation seriously for the first time.) Religious communities are aware that fear of hell can be overwhelming for some of their followers. Therefore, they suggest spiritual practices and continued involvement in the religious community as a solution to the fear they promote with these shaky doctrines of semi-assurance.
For many, the process of leaving a religion prompts debilitating levels of hellfire anxiety because the assurance of salvation is taken away. The lid over unconscious dread of hell is removed; there is no doctrinal mechanism left to contain it. In their struggle with managing doubt and terror of hell, questioners often go back and forth between periods of withdrawal from religious activity and recommittal and trying harder. The intolerable fear, like an addictive drug, draws them back to religious practice that produces more fear. However, fear and religious effort cannot effectively repress newfound realizations about the religion’s abusive practices and intellectual inconsistencies. It is difficult if not impossible to shut out these realizations and return to a previous state of religious devotion because the newfound knowledge does not go away unless another or more nuanced belief system is found that adequately addresses it. Thus, questioners find themselves caught up in a process of deconversion that often feels contrary to their conscious desire to stay in the religion and to avoid the perceived risk of going to hell. Eventually, however, the dissonance between simplistic faith and lived experience becomes overwhelming, and the individual is unable to maintain faith in the religion, even though this entails facing the fear of hell.
This period of deconversion, as well as the years of recovery from religious trauma that may follow it, is an opportunity for client and therapist to cooperate with the healing process that is taking place. It is a time to explore the guiding intelligence of the emotional disturbances and intellectual doubts that are surfacing, which have often been present for years but suppressed by religious ideology. Clients may have to develop proficiency in trusting their intuition, ability to make decisions, critical thinking, and inner core of sovereignty (self-trust, personal responsibility, sense of self) that were outsourced to God, religious communities, mentors, and sacred texts. An underdeveloped sense of self may manifest in overreliance on the therapist’s expertise, demands for answers and quick-fix solutions, and feelings of helplessness and powerlessness in the countertransference. Willingness to voice aggression and combativeness towards the therapist as well as to disagree with the therapist may be taken as signs of progress. The client is living out her struggle to differentiate and individuate in the therapy session, similar to an adolescent’s healthy process of separation from her parents that looks like rebellion. Capacities that have to do will a strong sense of self are needed for the client to take a confident stand against the intimidating assertions of their formerly religious communities and families that condemn them to hell.
Until this milestone is achieved, self-doubt will continue to plague clients and sabotage their progress. The “what if I’m wrong?” nagging question is almost always present for recovering clients: what if I’m wrong about my change of religious beliefs and end up in hell? Any possibility of going to hell, no matter how unlikely, is intolerable because an eternity of torture is so inconceivably terrible. Moreover, evangelists and preachers commonly portray a commitment to their religion in terms of the risk of going to hell. They claim it is prudent to commit to their religion because it is better to be safe than sorry. This conditioning is difficult to overcome because clients will argue (quite rationally) there is no way for finite human beings to establish ultimate certainty on matters of ultimate reality such as the existence of hell.
Religious fundamentalism trains its adherents to think in such absolutes. While absolute certainty is impossible, we can establish a high level of confidence in the truthfulness or falsehood of certain matters. I am convinced that the notion of eternal damnation as it is presented in fundamentalist religious ideologies as a punishment for not believing in a specific doctrinal confessional of faith is one such matter. Moreover, risk is not relevant to assessing the veracity of ideas about hell. Ideologies stand or fall not based on how safe or unsafe they make us feel but on internal consistency, logic, and verifiability. If an ideology about hell does not make sense, risk is a nonissue and the introduction of risk as a factor in assessing the reality or nonreality of hell is a category mistake.
Clients will need to deconstruct their beliefs and fears about hell, along with other religious beliefs that negatively impact their psychological health. While the therapist should resist the client’s unconscious attempts to turn her into a new God-figure who gives her all the answers, the therapist should also realize that religious trauma is rooted in specific teachings and indoctrination. Much of the trauma of hell is located in the intellect. If the intellectual basis of hellfire ideologies is not addressed, the trauma will not be resolved, no matter how skilled the therapist is in her technique. The therapist should recognize the importance of cultivating critical thinking and education for healing indoctrination-related trauma. This does not mean that the therapist has to be an expert in theology to be effective. It does mean that the therapist should be willing to think through ideological dilemmas with the client, offering her own insights and knowledge when it is appropriate to do so. Additionally, the client has a kind of personal expertise on her own indoctrination that can make up for the therapist’s knowledge gap. The client will educate the therapist on the specific ideologies she was taught that relate to her struggle.
It would be countertherapeutic for the therapist to bypass the client’s intellectual process by shifting the therapy session to a different process, such as emotional or somatic work. While such a shift may be appropriate at times for clients who defensively and dissociatively intellectualize, therapists should be aware that their own anxiety about a personal lack of knowledge or expertise may cause them to avoid necessary intellectual processing. In some cases, the therapist may find it necessary to educate herself on religious trauma and theology, consult a specialist, or refer a client out. Clients may also benefit from reading this article and working through it with their therapist, as well as other resources that address their indoctrination in a detailed manner.
Addressing Intellectual Arguments About Belief in Hell
Clients hold a vast spectrum of beliefs about hell, ranging from a literal place of eternal torment to a metaphor for suffering on earth. Even adherents of the same religion may disagree with each other. Most believers in fundamentalist religions like Evangelical and Conservative forms of Christianity believe hell is a literal place of eternal torture for people who do not hold their specific confession of religious faith. Questioning or recovering fundamentalist Christian clients may benefit from knowing that serious religious practitioners within their own religion interpret Bible passages about hell differently. Usually, fundamentalist churches only teach their own perspective. If they bring up the views of other Christians, it is to discredit them as dangerous or demonic. Therefore, most fundamentalists have not had the opportunity to think critically about their beliefs or seriously examine the positions of other Christians who disagree. Engagement with religious people who hold different perspectives is often healing in and of itself. It becomes harder to believe the premise that holding the very narrow faith confession of a specific religious sect is the determinant of an eternal sentence to hell once one is exposed to many different confessions of faith and beliefs about hell, all held by devoutly religious people.
A client may be relieved to know that there are other options and excited at the newfound opportunity to dialogue with other kinds of Christians in a genuine, non-conversionary way. Many clients choose to try out a progressive and inclusive version of their religion, either as a final destination or a step along the way to deconversion, conversion to another religion, or the practice of some other form of spirituality. Regardless of the destination, most people have to find ways of addressing their specific experiences of harm with their religious past.
Many clients will be relieved to discover their religious ancestors did not always believe in hell. Fundamentalist religions rarely teach this, as they generally avoid historical-critical examination of their beliefs. Clients will also benefit from understanding the historical and psychological milieu of the doctrine of hell. Early Judaism (Christianity comes out of Judaism) did not include developed beliefs in hell or an afterlife. The idea of hell in Judaism took root during the Intertestamental Period (between the writing of the Old and New Testaments), or Second Temple Judaism. It was part of a package of new beliefs about the apocalypse (end of the world) and life after death. The Jewish people suffered genocide, exile, and some of the worst forms of human brutality under the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. Many Jews believed this was their judgment for being unfaithful to the Jewish God Yahweh. However, Yahweh seemed to delay judging the foreign nations who oppressed the Jewish people even after they devoted themselves to the exclusive worship of Yahweh. Yahweh appeared to abandon his people, leaving them to suffer and die.
Where was God’s justice? Surely the enemies of the people of God would be punished for their crimes! The Jewish people saw their babies being dashed to pieces before their eyes, their temple was destroyed; all kinds of unspeakable atrocities befell them. They imagined the worst possible punishment on their enemies in order to counteract the severity of the trauma: “Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” (Psalm 137:8-9, NIV). Jewish theologians reasoned that, since they did not see and could not expect God’s justice on their enemies during this lifetime, there must be another lifetime and final judgment after death where God would make things right. Only eternal torture in hell could match the enormity of the wound they suffered. The unthinkable traumas of genocide and exile thus resulted in the doctrinal innovation of eternal trauma: hell.
The idea of hell aligns with the ancient Jewish philosophy of justice of “an eye for an eye” (Exodus 21:24). This idea is based on the metaphysics that evil and sin create a cosmic void, a deficit in the scales of justice that can only be balanced out through a punishment equal to the crime committed. The belief that the gods (or God) balanced the scales of justice through wrathful punishments on lawbreakers was a disincentive for people to do wrong. Governments and religions modeled their systems of justice off this belief. It is still widely practiced today and known as retributive justice. Retributive justice does not aim to rehabilitate people, nor does it consider the socioeconomic and psychological causes of crime. It aims to maintain order by making an example of offenders, utilizing fear as a motivation for obedience to the law.
This model of justice has been questioned in modern times for its overuse, as well as its brutality and ineffectiveness. While some amount of punishment may be necessary to maintain order, retributive justice is not effective on a mass scale when socioeconomic and psychological issues are more primary factors. It does not address root causes. Moreover, where rehabilitative or nonviolent methods are available, they are considered more humane and usually have better outcomes. Additionally, the motivation behind the widescale implementation of retributive justice may be little more than a primal desire for revenge. While a desire for revenge is understandable, revenge is not necessarily rational as an end in itself because it tends to perpetuate violence rather than address it. This is demonstrated in the high percentage of repeat offenders the modern incarceration system produces. Rather than rehabilitate offenders, our justice systems are designed to traumatize them further, which invariably leads to more crime.
On a metaphysical level, meeting evil with violent punishment does not cancel out injustice; it simply creates more of the same thing. Perhaps it would be more godlike for God to “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21, NIV) than multiply evil exponentially in hell forever. It is reasonable to ask why a supposedly infinitely wise, just, and loving God would resort to the most barbaric method of justice possible (if it can be called justice). Is there not a better system of justice than one based on torture and revenge? If finite humans in our modern societies can think of better systems of justice (and every existing system of justice on earth is better than hell), then how can God be said to be just or wise? Additionally, if God’s nature is love and God is said to defeat sin and death forever through Jesus’s sacrifice for all humanity, then why is the fate of the vast majority of humanity an eternity of rebellion against God in hell? Is this not victory for the devil? If God’s vision of the best-case scenario for his creation is eternal torture for most people, is God not more devilish than divine? Furthermore, in fundamentalist belief systems about hell, God’s basis for sending people to heaven or hell is whether they get the right answer on a doctrinal quiz. Does this not make God out to be capricious and sadistic? If God insists on sending people to hell, then he should at least make salvation available to people in every religion rather than just one.
It is important for clients to ask such questions, to examine all their nagging doubts about hell and its logical and doctrinal inconsistencies with the very religion that promotes it. For instance, hell is the opposite of love, which all religions consider to be their most foundational idea. Hell is the opposite of justice and wisdom, which are fundamental concerns of all religions. Hell makes redemption and healing impossible for all eternity, and all religions promote themselves as solutions to humanity’s problems. Consideration of these inconsistencies may in time erode the basis of a client’s fear of hell.
Religious Counterarguments to Questioning of Hell and Nagging Client Fears
Many religious people do question the consistency of eternal torture with their other religious beliefs but their doubts are silenced through an appeal to God’s mysterious ways. Believers are told they cannot question God’s justice because it is beyond human comprehension. As God’s creation, it is not our place to question or judge God; our role is to believe and obey. This teaching is derived from a biblical passage about God’s mysterious justice in predestining people for salvation or wrath: “One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” (Romans 9:19-21, NIV). God has the sovereign right to do whatever God wants, the teaching goes. In other words, God is beyond God’s own categories of right and wrong. God gets an exemption from the standards of love and justice God proclaims in the Bible. Although this thinking may satisfy some, it breaks down with scrutiny. An appeal to mystery is a claim to exemption from logic.
If God is exempt from conventional standards of morality and can do whatever he wants even when it is evil by every known human convention, then saying God is good, loving, or just means absolutely nothing. If this is the case, we cannot know what God’s version of love is, so how does it comfort anyone to say God is loving? God’s love certainly looks nothing like ours, for very few people consider torture to be loving but it becomes loving if God does it. If God’s ways are not subject to moral reasoning, then saying God is good means that good is not defined by good as a concept, but by the sum total of whatever God says and does in the Bible–whether it is good or bad by moral standards. This argument is a radical kind of moral relativism that can be used to justify any behavior whatsoever. Such radical moral relativism is the only basis by which people earnestly devoted to doing good can be duped into thinking the most radical notion of evil is the will of a God of love. If humans are capable of understanding the divine at all, as fundamentalists claim they are, then we must be capable of saying things about the divine that are consistently true. If God is love is a true statement, then God cannot be both loving and the author of hell; either God is not consistently loving or teachings that God wills hell are erroneous because hell is hatred.
Many clients discover (or already know) that they can imagine no good reason for the existence of hell. It does not make sense to them on any single measure, e.g., moral, emotional, logical, spiritual, etc. In fact, hell starkly contradicts all measures of good. Hell is the evilest idea conceivable; evil taken to the ultimate extreme. When clients examine all their core reasons for believing in hell, they usually discover their only bases for believing in hell are: 1) buying into the authority of a religious institution and text; 2) fear. The doctrine of hell has nothing constructive to it; there is no there there. There is no solid reason to its credit, no good that comes out of believing in it, and it makes no contribution to peoples’ lives. If the only reason for believing in hell is not a reason at all but a negative, then the fear of hell has no basis in reality. It has its basis in historical trauma and religious manipulation.
Religious institutions benefit immensely from promoting doctrines of hell. Hell motivates people to attend religious services, donate their money, and spread the fear of hell to others by making converts. Recovering from fear of hell is therefore not an individual matter only; clients also have to deal with the pressure of religious communities and family who reinforce the fear, urging them to return to the fold. Exposing the manipulative nature of hell and how institutions use it unethically to control people will help clients to resist such pressure. Moreover, clients may have to learn to set boundaries in their interactions with their former community, politely declining to engage in conversation related to religious topics or even avoiding contact for a time if necessary. This can be a very empowering exercise.
Belief in hell originates in the authority of the community. Fundamentalist communities base doctrines of hell on their interpretation of sacred texts they claim to be divinely inspired. The authority of these texts is based on the judgment of the historical community that claims it as authoritative. The recovering client may obtain a level of freedom by questioning the community’s authority and relocating it within herself. This can be done by finding alternative interpretations of the sacred text. However, because the Bible contains several passages that strongly suggest a literal hell, it is challenging for most people to rely solely on finding alternative interpretations. Another option is to disagree with the text itself. Fundamentalist Christians teach the doctrines of biblical inerrancy and infallibility, meaning the Bible is without error and reliable in all its teachings. Because they hold this view of Scripture, many Christians are forced to believe in hell as a divine teaching even against their own better judgment. Believers are threatened that if they admit the Scriptures contain error, they will have no way of knowing what in Scripture is true or false. This will lead to a slippery slope into error and deception. The doctrinal basis of their faith will unravel, and they will backslide into hell. Thus, questioning the Bible’s authority and divine perfection is discouraged with the fear of hell. Questioning hell may result in hell.
These ideas may be counteracted by a basic study of the Bible’s many demonstrable inconsistencies. It is true that once one realizes the Bible contains errors and doctrinal disagreements, everything in its pages is open to scrutiny. This is a threat to religious communities who use the Bible manipulatively and psychologically abuse their membership with its unhealthy teachings. However, it is not a threat to religious communities who respect the authority of the individual and use the Bible with care, owning its inconsistencies and denouncing its problematic teachings. Contrary to the threat of fundamentalist preaching, many people admit errors in the Bible and disagree with its teachings on hell yet still benefit from its overarching message.
People who leave fundamentalist religions are also threatened with divine judgments during this life and removal of divine blessing for their disobedience. Eventually, however, clients who disavow fundamentalist claims to authority usually find that they do just fine in life and these threats do not come to pass. Thereafter, they gain confidence that similar threats from the religious community about hell are likewise not to be feared.
Clients may also benefit from examining passages in the Bible that contradict passages in the Bible that teach hell, such as “God is love” (1 John 4:8, NIV). There are claims in the New Testament that strongly suggest universal salvation; i.e. that no one goes to hell. Here are a few: “The Lord [does not wish] that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (1 Timothy 2:3–6, ESV). Is God’s will ineffectual? Does the Lord of creation make wishes and not get what he wants? “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22, ESV). Is God’s new creation partial, or are only some made alive? “God our Savior… wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and people, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people” (1 John 2:2, NIV). So then, God wants all people to be saved, but this desire and intention of Jesus’s death are not all that serious, because God’s wish for vengeance gets the best of him in the end? “The living God… is the savior of all people, especially of those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:10, ESV). Those who believe benefit most from God’s salvation, but God is somehow still the savior of those who do not believe even though he sends them to hell? The salvation this Scripture mentions is meaningless if eternal hell is their end! “For God has bound all people over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all” (Romans 11:32). Is the telos of God mercy on all people or only kind of? It cannot be both.
Biblical inerrantists (fundamentalists) minimize or ignore these passages in favor of the damnation passages in order to maintain their view of biblical authority. Although they claim to believe in the entire Bible, they unconsciously avoid and erase huge portions of biblical teaching in order to uphold their doctrines. Biblical literalists argue that, in order to be faithful to all of Scripture, we must interpret the broader statements of the Bible in light of the more specific statements. Thus, we are told, we must prioritize statements about literal hell and judgment on homosexuality because they are more specific than broad statements like “God is love.” According to their logic, our understanding of love must include eternal genocide (hell) and the condemnation of homosexuals.
These biblical interpreters might do well to heed the wisdom of Jesus: “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24, NIV). Does it really make sense to sacrifice love, the heart of the Scripture, for the minutia of human-conditioned prejudices which have been unequivocally discredited and condemned in modern times for their barbarism? Surely the broad-sweeping, most essential statements about love, justice, and universal reconciliation in Scripture should be prioritized over the minutia when they conflict. Moreover, the Bible is not a univocal text with a grand, symphonic argument. It is a collection of multivocal texts, often cacophonous and mixed in its messaging, filled with contradictory teachings, some life-affirming and others genocidal. We must choose our priorities consciously and through moral reasoning.
In this discussion of beliefs about hell, it is worthwhile to mention another common conception. Some Eastern religions teach that hellish dimensions of consciousness exist as temporary but long-lasting holding places of gruesome torture between lifetimes. These places are the natural result of accumulated bad karma, irrespective of a person’s choice of religion. This vision of hell is ultimately restorative (more like the Catholic purgatory), as opposed to Christian fundamentalist conceptions of hell as a place of unending divine vengeance for not believing or practicing a particular religion. Eventually, the bad karma runs its course in hell, ending the hellish experience. The soul is cleansed, and rebirth ensues. Clients who hold this perspective may be terrified by the thought of such a horrendous fate, even though it is not eternal. If clients are actively questioning these beliefs, the therapist has the option of taking an active stance in deconstructing or reframing the beliefs with the client. Otherwise, as is the case with clients committed to any religion, the therapist has to work within the confines of the client’s beliefs, perhaps by encouraging the client to pursue the solutions prescribed by the religion for mitigating fear of hell. In the case of Buddhism and Hinduism, bad karma is caused by suffering in the mind (hatred, grasping, egotism, aversion, craving, delusion). By practicing meditation and loving service, a person can heal the mind’s trauma and reconnect with wholeness, resolving the bad trauma that might lead to reincarnation in hell. Further psychological critique of this conception of hell and its impact is beyond the scope of this paper.
Even after clients cease believing in hell intellectually, they may find themselves drawn back into their old fears. They may continue to suffer PTSD-like nightmares and intrusive flash images of hell. They should be reminded that they are dealing with years of conditioning that does not usually go away overnight. Moreover, it often takes time for our emotional and neural patterns to catch up with our realizations. Any improvement should be celebrated. However, clients may also lose sight of their realizations and be swayed by old arguments once again. They may need to remind themselves periodically of the reasons they rejected the ideology of hell and how it was used to abuse them. It is also helpful to label hellfire indoctrination as abuse. One of the most convincing reasons why hell should be rejected is how similar it is to other forms of abuse, which people inside or outside of religion almost universally reject. Moreover, it is helpful to frame the client’s experiences as trauma. Healing trauma is not merely a matter of resolving intellectual problems; it impacts the entire body-mind in specific ways that can be addressed in therapy.
Trauma is the hook within clients where old fears of hell take hold again. Clients are susceptible to going back to fears about hell because they have been traumatized by teachings and experiences about hell. Clients may continue to feel unsafe because their trauma has not yet been fully addressed. Until their trauma is resolved, the fear of hell still holds a certain appeal. Old fears of hell tempt clients with a disingenuous offer of safety, even though this offer also results in additional terrible fear. Teachings about hell promise to give clients safety from the fear of hell if they follow the old religion’s commands. But clients are already aware of the double-bind this created for them.
The common struggle of fearful thoughts of hell spiraling out of control is also related to a process in the brain known as amygdala hijacking (Goleman, 2011, pp. 51-78). The amygdala is the main area of the brain that modules the fear response, also known as the fight, flight, or freeze response. If the amygdala perceives that a situation matches up with a similar situation that caused the fear response (fight, flight, or freeze) in the past, the amygdala triggers the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis and hijacks the neocortex (rational brain). That is, the amygdala triggers a fight, flight, or flee reaction before you are able to think about what is happening with your rational mind. You are caught up in a fearful reaction and may have no idea why and have little ability to act rationally. Therefore, clients who have suffered from the fear of hell may be triggered by situations or thoughts about hell even after they have healed from their trauma. The brain has learned to trigger the fear response whenever it faces this scenario. However, the brain can be retrained to process these situations differently over time.
Clients can retrain their brains by cultivating awareness of their thoughts and emotions, learning to recognize when they are experiencing an amygdala hijack triggered by fears about hell. Evidence-based practices like meditation, mindfulness, and embodiment exercises are very useful if not essential in gaining the ability to observe the cycle and modulate one’s response. These practices enable the client to disidentify with the fear response and experience it without being overwhelmed by it. Once a client realizes she is experiencing a fight, flight, or freeze response, she can take steps to calm down the body-mind to the point where she can approach the issue logically again. Coping mechanisms and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may also be useful for deescalating overwhelming fear responses triggered by the amygdala. With practice and time, the intensity and duration of the fear response will lessen, and it may stop entirely. (However, therapists should focus on progress instead of achieving a total cure.)
Many other methods are useful for healing hell trauma. Somatic therapies help clients to release trauma stored in the body and repattern learned responses. Much of the work of therapy relates to processing emotions such as grief, anger, and other emotions related to abuse, manipulation, and loss. Healing from hell trauma is an endeavor that requires the creativity of both client and therapist; every single case is different. Perhaps what is most needed to heal from hell trauma is an experience of the unconditional love that was promised by the client’s religion. Clients were promised that God loves them unconditionally, yet this love was conditioned on obedience. Now that the client is free of coercive religion, a lived experience of unconditional love can be incredibly healing. The client may find this love in a mystical experience, a newfound expression of faith, the human community, or within the container of the therapeutic relationship. Wherever and however it is found, love is the most powerful antidote to fear.
Andrew Jasko, Master of Divinity (M.Div.), Psy.D. in progress, offers coaching for healing religious trauma and spiritual transition, consultation and education about religious trauma, podcast and video interviews, presentations at conferences, churches, and events. Subscribe to his blog https://lifeafterdogma.org/blog/ for new articles, talks, and announcements about retreats. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Bio: Andrew is a former Christian minister turned nondual theologian and religious trauma healer who teaches about the integration of psychology, spirituality, and sacred and secular traditions. He was born the son of a minister and became a preacher and missionary to India, after studying theology at Wheaton College and Princeton Seminary. As a Christian, Andrew’s relationship with God was his passion, but unhealthy religious teachings caused him an anxiety disorder, sexual repression, and spiritual disillusionment. After an agonizing crisis of faith, Andrew rejected religion and spirituality. Then, he had an unexpected spiritual awakening through psychedelics and mystical practices. Andrew writes about these topics and re-interpreting Scriptures through a mystical, nondual lens.
Gnuse, R. K. (2015). Seven Gay Texts: Biblical Passages Used to Condemn Homosexuality. Biblical Theology Bulletin, 45(2), 68–87. DOI: 10.1177/0146107915577097
Goleman, D. (2011). Working with Emotional Intelligence. Random House Publishing Group