The first crisis

Deconstruction Part 4 - or how I learned to stop worrying and reject the idea of Hell

I love Isaac Asimov. Well, his later works probably aren't as good. Maybe it's better to say I like Asimov. Except he had a problem with misogyny. Ok fine. I appreciate Asimov for his contributions to sci-fi while also recognizing his flaws as a human and as a writer.

I bring up Asimov because his works, particularly the Foundation series have been a big influence on my own work.[1].  Without delving too deeply, the "Foundation" is an exiled scientific community that must work to soften the blow to civilization caused by the declining galactic empire. The community faces of series of "crises" in which individuals rise up as heroes to prevent the Foundation's destruction.[2]

I've defined my deconstruction in those terms. Seminal moments that shaped my faith and my realization that I had to walk away. My crises did destroy my faith but in doing so they made me a better human.

If you're new and you haven't read Part 3, I encourage you to do so as I'll be making reference to it.

It's a natural part of the human experience to ask the supernatural, or the universe: "Why?". As conscious beings, we're cursed to the eternal struggle of finding meaning in the random occurrences of everyday life. This is doubly true when things go wrong. In the previous part, I described how Evangelicalism answers the existence questions with the idea that we're here to serve God and in doing so he will make our lives better.  Poverty, sickness, failed relationships, or whatever other hardships we experience as humans are either "lessons" by God or a sign that you're not really in his good graces.

Late in 2010[3], I was diagnosed with bladder cancer. As far as cancer goes, this is little-league cancer. It was caught early and dealt with. I'm also lucky in that in the thirteen years since, it hasn't recurred.

But in the early stages of finding out, working through a treatment plan, and dealing with the fear and the what-ifs, there was the asking of "why?".  Not just from me but from my family and my church.

The common trope is to turn to faith in a crisis. "There are no atheists in foxholes" so the saying goes. You face the prospect of death and you promise the supernatural to be a better person if only they might save you. Or you plead that you are a good person for hope of an afterlife should your body fail. Instead, I put my faith in the medical staff that took care of me.

This illness perplexed people in my church. There had to be a reason that a healthy man in his early 30s would get cancer. They all prayed, of course, and gave God tons of credit when things turned out okay.  I was viewed with suspicion anyway for being somewhat liberal and against the grain so while it was unsaid, I got the feeling there were questions whispered in the halls about God punishing me and what sins I might be committing behind closed doors.

My "why" focused on God, and on the promises of my faith. Becoming an object lesson didn't sit well with me. Why would a loving God strike me with a potentially fatal disease? Surely he had the power to invent a less harmful and yet still convincing method to save others. And if I was being punished for something[4] I had no idea what sin would warrant such a disproportionate response.

Cancer, I surmised, is when a cell's programming goes haywire and it replicates out of control. The tools that tell it to stop are broken and the replication programming forms a bad cell. It's your own body attacking you from the inside which is why it's so hard to find a singular cure.  The occurrence is random, a fluke of modern medicine allowing us to live past thirty in the first place. For the first time, I stopped asking why and allowed myself the comfort of random chance. There isn't a reason it happened, it just did and God didn't have to be part of it.

The seed of doubt was planted, and a worse question formed. If humans can be victims of random chance, why does God allow that to happen? Now the typical evangelical is going to answer with one of the same options: punishment, lesson, or both! I allowed myself to ask a follow-up question: Did God really have the power to prevent it? And I allowed myself to surmise the answer might be "no".

To be clear I didn't get cancer and then immediately become an atheist (I'm not even certain I'm an atheist now, the answer to that question is complicated). And it's not like I hadn't thought of the questions before. The difference was that I stopped pretending that the Evangelical response was good enough. Before the cancer, I put the question out of my mind, I doubled down on the church answers and I tried to "Christian" harder.

Evangelicals will often claim that those who left "never believed in the first place." They can't fathom a world where people take issue with their worldview. They reason that a leaver is angry with God or has been tempted by Satan in some way[5]. It's never about their own actions.

But I did believe it with everything I am. I wanted there to be a loving God who guided me personally in my life. I wanted there to be a punishment for those who harmed others. I wanted to believe that evil exists as a force and that people's actions could be attributed to it. I wanted it to be real and I spent a long time pursuing it, even when I couldn't feel it. I lived in fear that it was real and I had been deemed unworthy and cursed to Hell.

Ironically, around that time I came across a theology on Hell I hadn't encountered before. Having cancer made me seek answers from places outside the church and I came across an article or a blog[6] that discussed Christians who no longer believed in Hell, rather they believed in "annihilation", the idea that Christians would still go to heaven but unbelievers would see their souls destroyed and they would cease to exist.  

I'm not going to whitewash it and say that even that idea has some problems but at the very least we go from a loving God that tortures people to a loving God that lets people die natural deaths and rewards those that believe. In that moment it was an idea I could latch on to. I didn't discard the things I believed but Christianity became brighter because the fear lifted. Maybe I wasn't worthy, but I became okay with the concept of ceasing to exist. I pulled the first thread.

Thanks again to those of you who have subscribed. Please share these posts with others who you think would be interested! Every view helps!

Part 3

1: There are elements of Foundation but also themes from The Last Question as well as doses of many other things.

2: I'm not accepting complaints about spoilers. The books were written in the 1950s, you've had time.

3: 2010 - 2013 ended up being a whole series of crises. There will be more posts

4: Probably for the time I buried my dead gerbil outside my sister's window at midnight (true story).

5: A surprisingly large number of people believe in literal Satan

6: Sadly I don't recall a link or an author for the particular piece I read. I'm very sorry.

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Jamie Larson