Driving down I-71 in Ohio you will see an enormous sign emblazoned with gigantic, flaming red letters that reads “HELL IS REAL.” For some people, this is a favorite way to preach the Gospel.
Atheist apologist Richard Dawkins has been known to liken religion to a form of child abuse. He saves his sharpest criticism for those who preach fire and brimstone to little kids, claiming that it causes lasting harm to their mental health. The I-71 billboard provides some cultural context for his critique.
When Richard Dawkins calls religion a form of child abuse, we should listen up. Not, of course, because he’s right, but because it reveals something of the cause of his disbelief. The “Hell is Real” sign seems to be manipulative and psychologically coercive. The Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, from the Second Vatican Council recognizes that “taken as a whole, atheism is not a spontaneous development but stems from a variety of causes, including a critical reaction against religious beliefs, and in some places against the Christian religion in particular” (GS 19). It shouldn’t surprise us that manipulative modes of sharing the Gospel risk destroying it in the hearts of hearers.
Using the fear of Hell as a tool of evangelization risks presenting God as a moral monster, all too eager to cast us into an unending lake of fire. With typical conciliar understatement, Gaudium et Spes says that “believers can have more than a little to do with the birth of atheism.” Many people reject this cruel caricature of God. In doing so, they do not reject the true God of the Gospel, but only a false idea of Him. When we teach false doctrines or act as bad examples, we “conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion.”
In the Christmas season, which the Church is still celebrating, we rejoice that God has come as a little and gentle baby. Though some may conceal the truth of His mercy and love, He Himself reveals the true face of God. The ancient hymnodist Prudentius, as translated by J.M. Neale and Henry W. Baker, sings of this revelation in his hymn “Of the Father’s Love Begotten”:
O that birth forever blessed,
When the virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving,
Bare the Saviour of our race;
And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer,
First revealed His sacred face,
evermore and evermore!
When we were God’s enemies, He chose to become a little child so that we could become His friends. If He is this kind to His enemies, how gentle and merciful must He be to us now that we are His friends? We should not fear any evil from our God. The message of Christmas is more powerful than “Hell is real.” Rather, it is the liberating and joyful news that Love is real.
Image: Viktor Vasnetsov, God of Hosts