CAFE NOIR » Tales of an atheist, anarchist, wannabe filmmaker of sorts, and father of three lovable little beasties

For Those Worried that I’m Headed to Hell…

I could be your son, or your brother in law, or your grandson, or your close friend, or even just an old acquaintance. I know many of you are reading this and I’m glad for this opportunity to openly share my thoughts and perspectives with you. I truly can empathize with your discomfort (perhaps even grief) because I myself felt that very poignantly for quite a long time.

I’d like to share something that I came to realize, which helped to push me reluctantly toward this existentially difficult, and oftentimes lonely, but ultimately redemptive path which delivered me from this grief and this crushing cognitive dissonance. Not necessarily toward atheism–that’s where it led me but your mileage might vary–but certainly away from belief in eternal damnation.

It’s a noble thing to try to steer people away from an impending catastrophe that’s rushing toward them. Someone in a position to warn and help European Jews to flee the approaching Nazi demon would have been heroic in doing so. But please ask yourself, as I finally did, whether that’s a fitting analogy for the situation facing you and me.

If you believe with a terrible confidence deep down to your bones that I’m on a path toward eternal torment, then perhaps there’s not much more to say than that I grieve for you, that you would thus grieve for me, and I sincerely hope that it won’t always be so.

But short of that, I wonder whether you might inadvertently be placing such a high value on your own social and intellectual comfort that my eternal destruction (and that of countless others as well) is a price you’re willing to pay in exchange. A sort of Faustian bargain.

Here’s what I mean, from my own past experience:

I wasn’t out there in the proverbial streets, warning people about eternal damnation. (And certainly there are more subtle and effective and less confrontational ways that one could do so than by going the route of the fire-breathing street corner preacher.)

So did I really believe in this oncoming catastrophe, in any way analogous to a “flee the Nazis” humanitarian? No, I couldn’t really say that I did. I couldn’t see any genuinely convincing reason why a perfect and loving God would consign or abandon people to eternal conscious torment–which seemed much more fitting of a Satanic scheme than of a divine plan. Was it vanishingly possible that such might be the divine plan? Sure. But that’s a far and drastic cry from the European situation circa the 1930s.

What was immeasurably more likely was that I had a terrible case of cognitive dissonance. If I were to heed the cries of my conscience and my intellect and surrender belief in eternal torment, what would that mean for my social and intellectual situation?

Would it mean that the Bible is not inerrant? That Jesus himself was disastrously wrong about, at least, this one critically important moral and spiritual issue? Perhaps that Jesus and the biblical writers somehow preached universalism (or at the very least annihilationism?), but that they had been drastically misunderstood or misrepresented on this matter by nearly the entire Christian church throughout the centuries?

No easy solutions. And despite the protests to the contrary of some progressive yet still broadly orthodox Christians, these problems do cut directly to the heart of traditionalist Christianity, it seems to me, any which way you try to slice them. So what did that mean?

That I’d have to forever wrestle with some incredibly convoluted form of traditionalist Christianity? Or that I’d have to try to ignore these (and many other) difficulties somehow–just sweep them under the rug? Or that I’d have to face these challenges head on and try to honestly follow where they led, even if they led away from traditionalist Christianity?

And then what would that mean? That I’d be set completely adrift in the vast existential sea? That I’d have to try to keep quiet about it all if I didn’t want to rock the boat too much within my social circles? That I’d have to forever pretend to be something that I’m not? Thank God, at least, that my livelihood didn’t depend on all of this!

No easy solutions indeed.

Of course, at this stage you know that I finally told Mephistopheles to take a hike. And atheism is where I personally landed, but it’s by no means the only spot one might land with integrity. As I said earlier, your mileage might well vary.

Perhaps in your own case you don’t see Mephistopheles at all. If that is the case, I suspect that you might need to learn how to look more carefully for him. Or perhaps you do see him. In plain sight, or at least in the quiet shadows of the night. He’s a seductive figure. But for your own sake, and for the sake of those you love, turn your back on him. As many within the LGBT community say, it gets better. It gets a hell of a lot better.

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  • Jackie Booth 2.19.16 at 12:10 am

    Hi again, Grandson Jeff! Quite a challenge you’ve thrown out, and I do wonder why you think it necessary to taunt others with such a challenge if you yourself are quite content with your assertions. Can’t help but wonder if deep down under you aren’t really that sure. Auspicious-sounding words and clever phrases, analogies that don’t quite tally up, all make me wonder by what circuitous route this is heading.

    Atheists usually are also some form of Darwinist evolutionists. As an atheist, are you one of these? If so, I’m sure you can answer and explain Stephen J. Gould’s basis for “punctuated equilibrium,” and the basis for evolutionists’ theory of “imaginative extrapolation.” Any sober, logical, common sense explanation for these unproven theories would have to conclude that they are based on – shall we say – faith? Another evolutionary theory that bugs me is the one of endosymbiosis. Theories, all of them, and are un-provable. That is NOT science.

    But maybe you’re some other form of atheist. Maybe you feel no need to ponder how everything came to be. Maybe everything just happened, and if we all just learn to be nice to one another we will find a kind of Utopia on earth, and annihilation will be our end and that’s that.

    I wonder and ponder these things, and can’t comprehend your way of thinking, yet constantly find myself praying for your very soul. Your sophisticated mind might find this foolishness, but no matter…man is still just man, here today and gone tomorrow, and God eternally remains God.

    • Jeff Kesterson 2.19.16 at 10:42 am

      Hi Grandma, of course I enjoy some friendly and spirited discussion so I’m glad to see you do as well!

      I do hope that these ideas are challenging–that they encourage careful (perhaps even uncomfortable) introspection as they did for me. But I certainly don’t intend any of this as a taunt and I’m surprised and disappointed if it came across that way.

      I happen to be quite happy in my atheist skin, not because I think I have all of life’s answers, but rather because I’ve found that theism doesn’t actually help to address any of the deep and profound mysteries of our existence. But to be clear, atheism and Darwinian evolution aren’t really the issues here. One could well be a theist, and even skeptical of mainstream Darwinian evolution to one degree or another, and still reject the idea of eternal damnation.

  • Jackie Booth 2.21.16 at 7:34 pm

    Well, we can skip discussion on the unproven evoloutionist theories for now if you like. Atheists are pretty much all aligned in their rejection of God. Theists can be all over the place in their understanding or lack thereof, depending on the basis on which they hang their religion/philosophy. I’ve read a lot of and am no longer interested in man’s speculations, no matter how learned they seem to be. They remain speculations, simply because they are man made.

    You are comfortable in your atheist skin. All right. But you don’t think the outspoken assertions of a Christian-turned-atheist are a taunt to his Christian family and friends who dearly love him? Surely you jest!

    Been listening to Mozart, Brahms and Beethoven all afternoon. Think I’ll return to their gorgeousness. It’s quite astounding. Where did all that exquisite creativity come from?

    • Jeff Kesterson 2.21.16 at 10:27 pm

      About evolution, I’m sure there will be opportunities to discuss that later. It’s just that for now, I’d love it if we could keep on topic here and I really can’t see how that would be relevant. For what it’s worth, I’m quite sure that mainstream biologists don’t claim to have solved every mystery, though from my own limited explorations into the subject I’ve certainly gotten a strong enough taste of why the nearly unanimous expert consensus is that, to use a specific example, humans and chimps share a common ancestor–the genetic evidence alone there is overwhelming (here’s a brief overview from the Christian organization BioLogos, which offers great resources for digging much deeper into evolutionary biology and theology).

      Certainly my religious perspectives could be offered in a taunting manner, but I really try hard to offer them in a respectful, fruitfully challenging manner instead. And I’m sure I could work to be even more careful about presenting my religious views respectfully, as nearly all of us could. But I get the sense from you here (correct and forgive me if I’m wrong) that it isn’t really the manner in which I offer my views, but rather it’s the simple fact that I offer my views which you interpret as a taunt. Now that hardly seems fair!

      That exquisite creativity? Nearly beyond words, and one of life’s profound and beautiful mysteries. I’m there with you on Mozart and Beethoven, though not as much on Brahms :)

  • […] apply this to your February 18th post “For those worried that I’m headed to hell…” in particular: how I experience that is largely–maybe even solely–my own […]

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