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  • Writer's pictureAbi Sims

The Belief in Hell: What's the Psychological Harm?


The afterlife has been deeply engrained in various religions and cultural belief systems. Throughout history, the concept of hell, a place of suffering and torment in the afterlife, has been used to shape behavior, instill fear, and create moral codes people should live by. But as time moves forward and we continue to learn more about trauma, there's a growing recognition of the psychological harm that the belief in hell can cause to individuals and society as a whole. In this post, we will explore the psychological harm associated with the concept of hell and its impact on mental health.


Before we dive in, it's important to mention that the "fire and brimstone" version we associate with hell (i.e. endless torment, weeping, gnashing of teeth, demons, worms eating your body, etc.) wasn't introduced until the 18th and 19th centuries through preachers in Europe and America. "The Divine Comedy", a poem written by Dante around 1308-1321, also played a role on how people conceived hell. Therefore, the hell we've come to believe in today actually didn't exist during the time of Jesus. Hell is referenced in the Bible, referred to as Sheol in Hebrew, which can be interpreted as the Hebrew underworld/home of the dead or the Hebrew's concept of the afterlife. They believed that everyone is headed to Sheol after they die, it is dark, joyless, and they remember nothing. Many of Sheol's earliest concepts mirror the afterlife in the Greek Hades.


Anxiety and Fear

The fear of hell can lead to profound anxiety, particularly among individuals who hold strong religious beliefs. The constant worry about whether one's actions are righteous enough to avoid eternal damnation can create significant distress, including panic attacks and PTSD. This fear can manifest in various ways, including obsessive-compulsive behaviors, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, and constant self-judgement and self-monitoring.


The "Left Behind" book series (and later, movies starring Kirk Cameron) written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B Jenkins discusses the rapture, an unbiblical belief that Jesus is coming back one day, at a random moment in time, to rescue those who believe in Him, leaving their clothes perfectly folded, and take them with Him to heaven, leaving behind those who don't believe in Him on earth to endure the Tribulation, which is a span of years where horrific things happen to nonbelievers, including the rise of the antichrist, who will be a person of power and influence working for Satan and trying to get everyone to follow him. There is also a kids series of "Left Behind" books written by the same authors. This belief parallels the belief in hell in that it causes people to live in constant distress and paranoia of being left behind, wondering if their behaviors will cause their moral downfall to hell when they die, or being left behind if they don't die before Jesus returns.

Moral & Emotional Guilt

The concept of hell often comes with an intricate moral code, and any deviation from these standards can lead to intense guilt. Many people, even those who don't adhere to religious beliefs, continue to grapple with feelings of guilt for actions or thoughts that are considered sinful according to their former faith. This perpetual guilt can have a detrimental impact on self-esteem, self-worth, and overall emotional well-being.


Influence on Decision-Making

The fear of hell can influence the decisions people make in profound ways. It can lead individuals to make choices based on fear rather than personal desires or values. For example, someone might stay in a toxic relationship or continue to follow a particular religious doctrine solely because of the fear of eternal punishment. This can prevent personal growth, fulfillment, and autonomy, and it can also promote abuse in relationships.


Intolerance

The belief in hell can create division and intolerance because people may feel a moral obligation to "save" others from the perceived threat of eternal damnation. This can lead to judgment, discrimination, and even conflict among family members, friends, different religious groups, and society at large. It also causes people to view friendships almost as transactional: "If I'm friends with this person, then maybe they'll come to know Jesus and I'll save them from hell!" It impacts someone's ability to genuinely be themselves and have authentic relationships with others because saving people from eternal damnation is always somewhere in the back of their minds.


Impact on Mental Health

The psychological harm caused by the concept of hell can be a significant factor in the development of mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD, and complex trauma. The constant pressure to meet religious expectations, coupled with the fear of divine retribution, can create a toxic environment for mental well-being. In fact, there's a massive correlation between religious trauma, which the belief in hell falls into that category, and CPTSD (complex trauma).


Final Thoughts

As more people recognize the psychological harm associated with the concept of hell, some may begin to question and reconsider their religious beliefs. While this process can be emotionally taxing and challenging, it can also lead to personal growth, increased self-acceptance, and improved mental health.


The concept of hell has been a powerful tool for shaping behavior and maintaining order within cultural and religious contexts. However, the psychological harm this belief causes is a growing concern. It's important to acknowledge the potential consequences of such beliefs and create space for conversations that allow people to explore their spirituality in a more understanding and compassionate way, without the burden of eternal fear and guilt.


 

Abi specializes in religious trauma and is dedicated to helping clients heal from the harm that happened to them through indoctrination by creating a safe space that allows them to explore their own identity and giving them tools to work through their trauma. If you're interested in scheduling a session with any of our therapists, you can visit us here.

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