My last 10-15 years as a Christian were increasingly liberal (I would probably have been best described as universalist Christian agnostic), and even in my more evangelical days, I was never big on the idea of damnation, hellfire and brimstone, preferring the seemingly more benevolent idea of Hell as separation from god for those who would rather not be with god anyway.
But, on my recent travels across the northern midwest US, I had a couple of encounters that reminded me of the enormity of the horrors that fundagelicals believe are in store for those who live without Jesus (not to mention the glee with which many of them consider and recount said horrors).
My first encounter was with a religious radio station that I came across while searching for a weather report. The news got progressively more Christian-slanted as we listened. Alas, it was not followed by any weather forecasts, but next came a sermon, titled: "God has a Horrible Plan for your Life". In spite of myself, I decided to listen for a bit. OK, so God has a horrible plan for my life, *UNLESS* I have decided to devote myself to God, so I can be saved and then God will plan good things for me. BUT, how do I know if I have, in fact, been saved? Well, of course, I am not saved by anything that I do, but by my faith, but I only know if I really am properly faithful by checking what I do against various proclamations in the bible. OK, been there, done that. I apparently don't have the right kind of faith, so I guess I get the horrible plan - time to turn off the radio and go off in search of a laundromat in town anyway.
So there we were at the laundromat in L'Anse, Michigan. And on the bulletin board at the front was the second encounter - a large poster inviting one and all to "A Dramatized Real Life Presentation You'll Never Forget": Heaven's Gates and Hell's Flames". This appears to be a production syndicated to local churches, which is designed to put the fear of eternal damnation into the audience by dramatizing cases of individuals getting sent to hell because their names were not "written in the book of life". (For an example, see http://www.mze.com/heavensgates/video.html, though I recommend extreme caution for anyone with casein allergies.)
All of which makes me think about cognitive dissonance, which we recently discussed at our local godless book club meeting. Surely the idea of a loving God sending people to hell must be one of the prime sources of cognitive dissonance for Christians (right up there with the existence of so many non-Christian religions, or even not-the-right-kind-of-Christian religions). But apparently, a little (or even a lot of) cognitive dissonance doesn't dissuade anyone from anything. On the contrary, from what I have been reading, a *little* cognitive dissonance can actually encourage people to more firmly internalize ideas and principles. Hmm - maybe if we rationalists find a way to be a bit less rational, it would make rationalism more believable?!