Back in 2001, during the height of my religious mania, I saw a mini-series called Anne Frank: The Whole Story. Although it isn’t historically accurate (what happens to Anne Frank after she’s captured by the Nazis is pure conjecture), I was very moved by the story. Of course I already knew about the Holocaust, but seeing the plight of one Jewish family really brought it home. Anne Frank was a sweet, innocent young girl with dreams of becoming a movie star. She certainly didn’t deserve to die in a concentration camp.
The end of the mini-series shows Anne and her sister, Margot, in Bergen-Belsen. They’re both sick and emaciated, but they’re still trying to survive. In one of the last scenes Anne tries to wake up her sister, but Margot passed away sometime during the night. When Anne realizes she’s dead, she looks up at the sky with mournful eyes as if to ask, “God, where are you?” We soon learn that Anne died a few days later. In the final scene, Anne’s father returns to the annex where his family hid for so long. When he sees the wall where Anne had pasted photos of all the movie stars she admired, he falls to the floor and sobs.
After it was over, a horrible thought occurred to me: Anne Frank wasn’t saved! As an evangelical Christian I understood that the only way to avoid Hell and go to Heaven was to repent of your sins, believe that Jesus is the son of God, and accept him as your personal savior. That meant Anne Frank was in Hell. This idea went against every moral instinct I had. How could God send someone like Anne Frank to Hell? This became one of the many questions I wrestled with as I slowly lost my faith.
Some Christians like to think Hell is just a metaphor, but the Bible makes it very clear it’s a real place. In Matthew 13:50 Jesus describes it as “the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” In the book of Revelation it is referred to as a “lake of fire” nine times, and verse 19:20 says it is “burning with brimstone.” There are many other verses about Hell, but you get the idea.
The Bible also says a lot about the importance of belief. There are several verses that say whoever believes in Jesus will be saved. The Bible is also very explicit about the dangers of unbelief. For example, Mark 16:16 says, “he that believeth not shall be damned.” John 3:18 says the same thing, only it uses the word “condemned.”
This is what I don’t understand: Why is belief a requisite for Heaven? Even if I granted the idea that sin requires a holy sacrifice, why couldn’t God apply the benefits of that sacrifice to whomever he wants? What universal law makes it to where Jesus’ sacrifice only works for believers, and why is God bound to that law if he created everything? As Sam Harris said, “It’s a very strange sort of loving god who would make salvation depend on believing in him on bad evidence.”
Now consider the case of Ted Bundy. In case you don’t know, Ted Bundy was a serial killer who raped and murdered at least 30 young women. While he was on death row, he claimed to have “found forgiveness for his sins through Jesus Christ.” Most Christians don’t like the idea of potentially meeting Ted Bundy in Heaven, so when you ask them if he’s up there, they usually hem and haw and say something like, “Only God knows whether he was sincere.” But that response just evades the question. The point is this: According to the Christian religion, if Ted Bundy was sincere, then he received salvation through Jesus Christ and will spend eternity in Heaven. Meanwhile, Anne Frank will continue to burn in Hell (along with any unbelievers Ted Bundy murdered). What a mockery of justice!
Some Christians fall back on the old “God’s ways are higher than our ways” argument. They might even say, “Who are you to judge God?” Of course, this isn’t an argument at all; it’s a copout. If you say God has some sort of justice we don’t understand, then you’re not talking about justice as we define it. And anything that is not justice as we define it is, by definition, not justice. You may as well say, “I’m right and you’re wrong because God says so.” Well I’m sorry, but that’s just not good enough.
Another common rationalization is that people who refuse to believe in Jesus send themselves to Hell. This one makes me angry. Am I supposed to believe that after Anne Frank died she literally jumped into the lake of fire on her own? Of course not. God would have had to put her soul there. It’s akin to the abusive husband who, after beating his wife for not cooking dinner, says, “You brought this on yourself.”
If God exists and he’s a just god, he wouldn’t judge people based on whether they believe in him. He would judge them by the content of their character. There are plenty of good people in this world who simply aren’t convinced god exists. I don’t see how a just god could send them to a place where, as George Carlin put it, they will “suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever.”
If you still insist that God has no choice but to send unbelievers to Hell (where’s that omnipotence you’re always talking about?), then why did God create the universe in the first place? If God knows everything, including the future, then wouldn’t it have been more noble to endure an eternity alone rather than devise a system that he knew would end with the eternal suffering of countless people?
I’ll leave you with this thought: If the Christian religion is true, then Anne Frank and millions of other Jews who died in the Holocaust merely went from one furnace to another.