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Ignorance is Bliss, or, The Joys of Not Thinking about Those Enduring Eternal Torment | Righting America

by William Trollinger

“The Cry of the Damned Souls in Hell,” produced by Holiness Revival Movement Worldwide

A few years ago here at the University of Dayton a very bright evangelical graduate student took my M.A. class on Protestant Christianity. While we devoted some time in this class to the study of evangelicalism, she wanted more, and pitched the idea of doing an independent study with me. As she put it in an email to me, “I would love to get into all the messy stuff that we didn’t get to in class . . . I’ve been going crazy on Netflix watching documentaries like ‘Jesus Camp’ and stuff about Westboro Baptist – probably not good for my soul but sooo interesting.”

Of course, I said yes. I created an independent study course entitled “Contemporary Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism.” And one of the books I assigned was Doug Frank’s masterful and disturbing A Gentler God: Breaking Free of the Almighty in the Company of the Human Jesus.

In Part One of this book Frank “takes a long, hard look at the God who hides within and maintains the institutional structure of evangelical Christianity,” a God who “does not give evidence of a truly loving heart” (22-23). Frank grew up in this world, as did I, and he is right to say that the business of many evangelical sermons is to convince listeners that God loves them while also ready to “send them to the lake of fire.” As Frank puts it, 

The “conversion formula” insists, of course, that God devised his plan of salvation because he loves and wants us to be with him forever. It also assures us that God continues to love us even after we reject his plan of salvation. But if we happen to die before we’ve changed our minds, then he sends us to a hell of constant, unbearable pain. This translates as: God shows us his eternal and unconditional love by rejecting us if we reject him – by sentencing us to unspeakable agony and declaring that he has no further interest in us (43).

In an effort to make this point as vivid as possible, many of these sermons and revival messages are quite specific in detailing the stark contrast between what it’s like in hell as opposed to what it’s like in heaven. But taking one step back from these sermons, all sorts of logically and morally troubling features emerge. For example, in analyzing one of Billy Graham’s stock revival messages Frank notes that, in Graham’s telling, 

The people in hell are crying [in agony, while] the people in heaven are laughing, as if they are not touched by the agony of the lost, a group that surely includes personal friends or family members (45).

My M.A. student found A Gentler God to be a compelling and extremely unsettling book. We spent a fair amount unpacking what Frank had to say about the God envisioned by evangelicals. Regarding the above observation, I suggested that she check in with the folks in her evangelical Bible study group, asking them if/how, when they are in heaven, they will think of their family members and close friends who are suffering eternal torture in hell. So she did, and her anecdotal report was that  

What I’ve heard most often is kind of like the “ignorance is bliss” option. That we know of them, but we are incapable of anything but joy [in heaven]. So I guess that would mean that we don’t think of them?

This is very much in keeping with responses to this question that I have gotten over the years from evangelicals and fundamentalists. And I confess that I have not known what to do with such a response. Your mom or dad or child or sibling or best friend have been condemned to conscious and eternal torment – torture that goes beyond hundreds or thousands or millions or billions of years – and you simply forget about them?

But all this is very much in keeping with Answers in Genesis’ [AiG’s] Ark Encounter. As noted in  earlier posts, visitors to the Ark are told that the global Flood killed up to 20 billion people (!), and that this Flood is a sign of what’s ahead for billions of people, who will be condemned to “conscious and everlasting punishment in the lake of fire (hell).” But according to AiG, the Noah family on the Ark ate great food and created art and read books and generally had a great time, oblivious to the slaughter going on outside the boat. Bringing the point home, the Ark has a “keepsake photo” placard near the door that supposedly stands in for the door that God shut and locked before the waters rose. 

That is to say, visitors to Ark Encounter are explicitly invited to imagine that they are in heaven, and explicitly invited NOT to think about all those billions who, as they understand it, are condemned to hell. So if, say, mom has to endure horrific torture every moment for the rest of eternity, well, I am in heaven . . . so forget about her!

To be fair, if you believe in this notion of hell, how else could you imagine heaven? What sort of heaven would it be if you had to be thinking of people you loved being tormented forever? 

And yet, if we are going to take these notions seriously, isn’t it possible that the truly loving action would be to leave heaven and join – suffer with – those who are suffering in hell?

Talk about radical love.