Do you believe in any kind of hell?
Oh hell yes. Naturally, any atheist version of hell would not look like any picture painted by bible passages (like Matthew 13:50) that talk about fire and the gnashing of teeth. (This is no threat to me anyway as I wear a mouth guard at night because I gnash my teeth hell or not.) Sure, we don’t buy into a hoofed, horn-sporting red guy, but hell can be real in other, metaphorical, ways.
So what would that look like to atheists? To answer this question, I’ll revisit something I wrote a while back and update it.
Hell for Atheists is inspired by Dante Alighieri who outlined his own version in his poem Inferno in the early 14th Century.
In the Inferno, Dante takes the reader through the 9 Circles of punishment which begin in Limbo (1st Circle) where virtuous pagans and the unbaptized suffer never-ending grief, past the 6th Circle where heretics are locked in burning stone coffins, all the way down to the 9th Circle (The Pit of Hell) where people like Judas Iscariot are chewed endlessly in the jaws of Lucifer. Ow!
Ok, I can see God throwing the book at Judas, but never-ending grief just for not getting baptized? That’s a little harsh.
You’ll notice that each level of hell in my imagination is a location that has to do with being forced to participate in religion. So I give you…
Hell for Atheists
An American Buddhist temple overlooking the ocean somewhere. “American” means there are Priuses in the parking lot, no prayer wheels, and you won’t find anyone inside who’s prostrated himself 300 miles to get there. You can show up when you like, but you are sentenced to meditate, eat a vegan lunch, and do yoga positions that normally would require a car crash to get into. But you can still make happy hour if you let go of wanting that apple martini.
A Unitarian Universalist Church on a fall Sunday morning. It’s not a hard-core service with a lot of pushy beliefs, but your Sunday’s still ruined and you still miss the first half of the football game (at least on the west coast.) Worse yet, you have get up to shower and shave and have to be nice to everyone despite not waking up early enough to get some coffee down your gullet. Here you’re sentenced to singing kumbaya songs and buying someone’s grandma’s THC-less brownies to raise money to fix the leaky roof.
A small synagogue somewhere in the bible-belt. You are sentenced to attend a Passover meal at which the local Rabbi insists on being a full-blown 11 hour traditional Seder. You have to sneak to over to it for fear of being seen by one of your customers at the feed store. You are disappointed to learn that Haggadah is not bread, but in fact a long-ass delay in getting fed that also includes singing songs you’ve never heard nor will ever remember. (Except the dayenu song which will be an earworm for eternity.)
When the food finally comes, you are served pickled herring, bitter herbs, and a gelatinous slab of Gefilte fish, of which you are made to eat seconds, thirds, fourths, fifths and so on…. Oy vey!
A run-down mosque in Detroit. You are sentenced to pray here 5 times a day while facing Mecca on musty, paper-thin prayer mats that never quite dried out after the last snow melt. The only dry mats are from a craft project from the neighboring madrasah and are made from old pencils. The vocals coming over the tinny sound system sound like a goat slowly being run over by a half-track. You are overweight and have bad knees.
A perpetually non-air-conditioned Catholic church in August in Chicago. You are sentenced to an eternal wedding mass which includes taking communion, doing all the Stations of the Cross, and an interminable homily about the sanctity of marriage from a man who’s never been married and never will. You had to go to confession beforehand, during which the priest recognized your voice and knew you were bullshitting him with venial sins to try to get the confession over with quickly.
The groom’s bachelor party was the night before where you were timed to see how fast you could drink juice glasses full of warm Southern Comfort. In church you notice grass stains on your suit, and 4 of your fingers are swollen. You don’t know whether to puke or pass out.
The L. Ron Hubbard Life Exhibit on Hollywood Blvd. Because you gave the church all your money and can no longer afford housing, you are sentenced to an eternity of talking tourists from Des Moines into forsaking the religion they grew up with by trying to convince them that aliens landed on earth 75 million years ago on modified DC 8 airplanes. When Tom Cruise arrives (yes, he’s there too) to inspire the workers, you are punished for laughing at his height. They hook you up to an e-meter with a short in the circuitry and shock you until you salute an animatronic L. Ron Hubbard in his navy costume for stints of 10,000 years.
An Evangelical mega-church in Colorado Springs. Your punishment is for all eternity to procure methamphetamine and gay sex for Ted Haggard. He grabs your neck and gives you two creepy squeezes to thank you.
One Sunday a month, Benny Hinn comes to the church and you have to be onstage as a spotter to catch the fainting believers who think they’ve been healed. You, yourself, have an incurable, disfiguring disease, but Hinn won’t cure you because he’s revolted and, well… he can’t.
A Pentecostal revival tent just outside of Tulsa. You just left a local Drinking Skeptically gathering and you have to piss like an incontinent at a kegger. You keep asking where the bathroom is, but the whole church is speaking in tongues and you can’t understand a word they’re saying. You finally figure out where the can is only to find it guarded by one of the rattlesnakes they used in the service. You decide to pee on the rattlesnake and it bites your penis thinking it a rival.
This sequence loops throughout eternity.
The real Hell. Shit! Just like the book says! Lake of fire, gnashing of teeth (sans mouth guard), nothing but Here Comes Honey Boo Boo on TV, and Justin Bieber on the P.A. – the whole shot. God’s there with a clichéd Satan and they’re both smirking and saying, “We tried to warn you…”