“If hell is not a nice place for those who never have come to the knowledge of salvation, it surely is still hotter for those, who have once tasted the tribulations of hell and yet want to go there to eternal death. It must become still hotter for those who have had a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven and then return to the world from where the way leads to hell.”
—Lars Levi Laestadius, 1853
|Hell Preacher. Composed from one of my photos along with a CC-licensed one by Michael “theparadigmshifter.”|
Laestadians are raised to believe in and fear a place of eternal torment if they should die as “unbelievers” or with “unforgiven sin” on their consciences. Although LLC preachers have not been very explicit about the subject, at least not in recent years, a recent sermon from a preacher in the Rockford, Minnesota congregation reminds listeners of the unthinkably high stakes:
Even in a temporal sense, we can understand what the pain might feel like of the fires of hell. If you’ve ever burnt the tip of your finger lighting a candle or something, you know how bad that hurts. Imagine living in eternity in that kind of pain and agony, like the Bible describes, “wailing and gnashing of teeth.” So, it pays to believe, dear brothers and sisters. [23:00-24:32]It pays to believe, he says, a phrase repeated in many a sermon. This reveals the essential cynicism of fear-based religion. “Belief” is tribute paid to a bullying strongman of a God in order to avoid horrific consequences down the road. It would be ridiculous to tell someone it “pays to hear” or “pays to see” that there is something in front of you. It can only pay to pretend to hear or see, like the townspeople cheering the fashion sense of a naked emperor just before an impertinent little kid spoils everything.
As time goes by, I spend less and less time thinking about Laestadianism or even religion, and even less time shouting at the curbside about it. Of course, the experiences and former beliefs of half a lifetime will always occupy a large portion of my brain, whether I like it or not. Those neurons are gone forever, along with the handful devoted to the term “twerking,” whose actual meaning I steadfastly refuse to learn. But I still sometimes drift off to the sermons on an iPod slipped under the pillow at night.
When I heard this little discourse on Hell during one of those sermons, I pictured how it must have put a little burst of panic into the hearts of those kids who’d listened to worldly music or had lust in their hearts or watched some inappropriate videos the night before. It seemed like a bit more writing might be in order, for the sake of the troubled and former Laestadians whom I know are reading my blog, so I spent some time writing a detailed posting, Healing from Hell Horror.
These currents of fear can run very deep indeed. That, along with all the social benefits of a close and comfortable little group huddled against the world, is why these churches manage to retain as many members as they do. I had to work very hard to overcome my own hell horror. There’s no shame in that, for me or for you. We are just overcoming what the church did to us, and a lifetime of indoctrination is not something everyone can reverse overnight, just like that.
The stakes, after all, are unthinkably high. As I told one of the few Laestadian friends who dared to discuss issues with me in depth after hearing I’d left the fold, I wouldn’t have left if I thought there were a 1% chance of it being true. I could probably work up that level of belief, given the consequences for being wrong about the other 99%. But it’s not true, not even a little bit, including the Hell part.
Take a look at the blog posting if this still has a hold on you, or still holds interest for you. There’s some discussion of the power of fear, a bit of history about Hell, and—believe it or not—a dog story. If you’d rather read something on a less dreary topic, I also have a posting there (with pretty pictures!) on that other long-dreamed of destination for a life beyond the grave, Paradise.
After you do, please come back and offer your thoughts. I’m not willing to deal with the hassle of comments on my own blog, but the thoughtful dialogue that takes place in comments from extoots readers has been a wonderful component of the reading available here. How have the Laestadian teachings about hellfire and damnation affected you? If you’ve left, how did you recover from the lingering fear? Or did it not linger much at all, as with a few fortunate people I’ve spoken with? What would you say to those troubled souls who lurk on these blogs wondering if they will ever be able to overcome the terror of leaving, or even questioning?