The Ethical Dilemma: My Family is Worried I’m Going to Hell. What Do I Say?

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Hail Hellfire: My fundamentalist family really believes that I am going to roast in hell, and they’re especially concerned since I’m getting older. Is there anything I can say to comfort them?

—Break Out the BBQ Sauce

Dear BBQ,

Timely question as we head into grillin’ season!

You could mention that you’ll be in good company, with people like Kurt Vonnegut, Betty Friedan, and Isaac Asimov—all humanists who didn’t believe in a god or hell. You could point to many prominent individuals living today, such as Ron Reagan and Gloria Steinem, who do good for the world and are nonbelievers like you. You could encourage them to read things like Good Without God by Harvard Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein (even if they may not venture past the title). You can point out all the wonderful charitable work being done in the world by secular organizations like Foundation Beyond Belief. You can note that study after study indicates that atheists don’t seem to be responsible for their fair share of crime or other problems compared with religious people.

What you don’t want to do is show them this dramatization of what happened to a very good woman at the Pearly Gates. Talk about adding fuel to the fire!

There are a gazillion arguments you could make and facts you could cite, but the overriding reality is that it tends to be fruitless to apply reasonable responses to unreasonable notions. The number one reason you don’t believe you won’t burn in hell is that you don’t believe there is a hell. But that won’t change your family’s minds or quell their fears for your afterlife.

So just accept with good humor and gratitude that your family cares about you and your eternal wellbeing, then continue living a happy, healthy, ethical, and productive life here and now, regardless of what may ensue afterwards and elsewhere.

Readers, have you confronted this problem? How did you respond—and did it do any good?

  • greenD

    I’d say, since you can’t prove there is a Hell and I can’t disprove it, we should really just focus on the areas in our lives where we can agree and cooperate. I have a good friend who is a priest, and we have wonderful conversations about how we can all find commonality and work towards helping each other despite our religious differences.

  • PJ Andrea

    I don’t believe in god, heaven or hell as you know. But, If there is the god you believe in, then surely you believe he is a good god and would in fact welcome someone like me and you into his heaven. So I only worry about trying to do good for the eternity of humanity rather than personal salvation. Thanks for your concern.

  • I.M.Not.Better

    On recent infrequent visit I approached this issue with my family after many years of discomfort. I asked my sister if she thought I would go to hell because I no longer believe in gods. She side-stepped the question by saying that it wasn’t up to her, God was the decider. Then I asked her if, while we were in Catholic Grade School, she was taught that Catholics who no longer believed in God would go to hell. She said yes. My last multi-point question was, how do you reconcile the fact that 2/3 of the “good people” in the world are not Christian, and why would you want to build walls between you and 2/3 of the good people in the world, and a wall between us. She later hugged me. I couldn’t recall when she last gave me a spontaneous hug. I think that was a positive sign, but I doubt she changed her thinking much.

    • 12banjo

      The more interesting question is, why do you “believe” that her opinion matters, if it is irrational?

  • Anne K

    anne k.

  • Anne K

    (Solution 1) Assuming that your family is Christian, and that you do good stuff (see below), you could try quoting the Beatitudes (or the one(s) that pertain most closely to you):

    “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
    Blessed are those who mourn,for they will be comforted.
    Blessed are the meek,for they will inherit the earth.
    Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,for they will be filled.
    Blessed are the merciful,for they will be shown mercy.
    Blessed are the pure in heart,for they will see God.
    Blessed are the peacemakers,for they will be called children of God.
    Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

    Not a mention there of needing to believe in God, much less Jesus! In fact, although God in mentioned, Jesus is not.

    Of course, their rejoinder might be that “the Devil quotes scripture for his own purpose”, but it’s nonetheless worth a try!

    (Solution 2) You could try saying “Well, I don’t know about god, but I do believe in good. That’s something we can all agree upon.” This might sound unlikely to defuse the situation, but a few weeks ago a Jehovah’s Witness-type person came to my door, and invited me to come to a service. I of course immediately declined. She then amazed me by referring to the bumpersticker on my car (with the American Humanist Society logo, and the slogan “I believe in good”), and said that she loved my bumpersticker!

  • I would listen to the specific things that they say they believe about their god, and then turn that around and challenge them to actually act like they believe what they say. If they say “god has a perfect plan”, then respond “Then my current disbelief must be part of that plan. You just have to trust that your god will work it out in his own time.” If they say that god works in mysterious ways, then hiding from you is obviously one of his mysterious ways, and mustn’t be questioned. If they say that god is loving and just, then counter that you are honestly doing the best you can with the information you have, and they have to trust that their god will be a fair judge. Find something in their beliefs that you can use to push back.

    • Trisha White

      this is 100% better advice than the article. thank you!

    • ramzpino

      I like that!!

    • Raul Holguin

      Good responses

    • Luminya

      I agree, my family would respond better to your advice than the advice in the article

    • Darlene Watson

      I love your response and I would add that if you say “with the information I have, ” you may set yourself up for an barrage/inundation of “information”.

      • Possibly. That’s why it’s important to listen to your family, and know their position on this kind of thing. If they are the type to start dumping their “information” on you, then don’t use that one.
        The problem is that their indoctrination tells them that they have to choose between accepting your disbelief or holding on to their beliefs, and most of them aren’t ready to trash a lifetime of religion, at least not all at once. If you can find a way for them to accept you while still holding on to their beliefs, you’ll have helped them out of that dilemma. But their solution usually has to come from somewhere within the worldview they already have.

    • David Greer

      Good reply. Remember, though, as someone said, “If you could reason with religious people, there would be no religious people.” The author said the same: “There are a gazillion arguments you could make and facts you could cite, but the overriding reality is that it tends to be fruitless to apply reasonable responses to unreasonable notions.”

      • I think that quote is from the ever-wise Dr. House, good stuff.
        Another quote that also applies here, though, is one that I lifted from Stephen Jay Gould, who lifted it from the Talmud, of all places. “We do not see things the way they are, we see them the way WE are.” We can try to do our best to help our family members cope, but we have to remember that they can only see our deconversion from the way they are now. We can’t rely on trying to change them. And some of them will just be hopelessly stuck in their dogma and bigotry and there’s really nothing we can do about that.

        • David Greer

          Well said. Thanks for the attribution and also for the Talmud quote; I’ll add that one to my quote bank!

      • 12banjo

        To be truly reasonable, you should refuse to attend any Thanksgiving dinners in the future. The whole trope is irrational, is it not? But if you sit there and eat turkey in thanks to Abraham Lincoln’s “sky daddy” (he codified the holiday), you are really being a hypocrite.

    • That’s a subtle set of maneuvers, that regrettably requires you to subsume yourself under their narrative, which is like a kind of petitio principii. They will sense that you are using their terms in the argument, which is logically affirming for them. Good tricks, but unlikely to undo the problem.

      • It depends on which problem you are wanting to undo. If the problem is that they are crazy religious, I agree that it won’t do anything about that. If the problem is that you need to find a way to co-exist with crazy religious family members, without every conversation dissolving into threats of hell, then it might be a possible approach.

    • Carissa Ciciarelli

      What we use is, “faith is a gift we’ve yet to receive”. Works every time. Special thanks to my fiance, John. I like that though, in general using it against them since logic doesn’t work against magic..

      • That’s a good one! And if anybody tries to get in your face, you can just suggest that instead they go pray to their god that he will grant you faith. At least it gives them something to do instead of preaching at you.

  • Monica Lynn Kennedy

    I always tell people I’m covered either way. As long as I continue through life doing the best I can by living ethically and honestly, I should still get into heaven if there is one because everything I’ve read about the Christian god is that he/she/it is forgiving. If it turns out I’m right and there is no god, I’ve not wasted hours of my precious life worrying about it or sitting in a church.

    • Alierias

      I love this quote, although I actually believe it was Epicurious…

  • Mickey W

    In my experience with fundamental Christian theology how moral and exemplary life you live has nothing to do with going to heaven or hell. You must be born again and accept Jesus as your savior. How moral you are might then have some influence on the direction you go, but without it you’re on your way to hell. Since there is no way to prove that all of the good people Ms. Reisman-Brill mentions are, in fact, in heaven (or hell) that form of argument is generally not going to alleviate the concern for the fate of someone’s soul. About all one say is that I’m doing good things and you know that and think I’m a good person which is important to me. I understand your concern, but until Jesus comes to me I am what I am and we need to move on a quit worrying about the future.

    • 12banjo

      Curious–your characterization of what is “good” or “moral” must come from somewhere, else we would all be anarchists.

  • Kathy Riley Kakacek

    I spent the first forty years of my life as a fundamentalist Christian and I’m reasonably familiar with the Bible, but I don’t recall the scripture where Peter (or even the thief on the cross) accepted Jesus into his heart. . .

  • SecularHumanist199

    I would just tell them to get over it. Whatever their beliefs are will not impact my actions.
    On the other hand, coming from a Jewish family this has NEVER been an issue. Jews believe that it is up to god to decide what happens when we die and living a good, caring, helpful life is the best we can do. Jewish beliefs are that what you believe has NOTHING to do with what happens when you die. All that matters are actions. Even though I don’t believe any of the god nonsense, that seems like a much more rational perspective on it to me.

  • referencegirl

    I am not sure this response ever makes anyone feel better but it sets a precedent that ends any more discussion and/or manipulative remarks… “I believe that what I do is more important the what I believe. Hopefully, your God will judge me on how I have lived my life rather then what I chose to believe. I am sorry you are afraid for me. I hope you can accept that I have made my decisions and chosen my beliefs just as I accept that you have made different decisions and chosen different beliefs from my own.”

  • worrierking

    I just say that if they die first, save me a seat by the fire.

  • Rhea Locci

    My mother said this to me and my reply was in this vein… What’s lucky about your faith, mom, is that your god has promised you, -PROMISED- that there will be no suffering in Heaven. So you can be assured that if I go to hell and suffer the torment of fires for eternity, _you_won’t_care_. God promised. It will either be as if I never existed and you will forget all about me OR perhaps you will find pleasure in my rightful torture. You can rest easy – it won’t bother you a bit once you’re in heaven. Says so right there in the book. So. Back to earth. How about that concert the kids sang in? Beautiful, wasn’t it?

    • Luminya

      Omg this is brilliant, better than the article itself

    • ENorth

      This.

  • Paul

    I watched the dramatization about the woman at the pearly gates. Now I am wondering why we pussyfoot around and do not call them out. Enough of polite, say what you believe. Hell is a joke not an option.

    • Luminya

      I have never seen the dramatization of the woman at the pearly gates. Can you tell me the title so I can look it up please?

      • JonnieBean

        The link to the dramatization is in the article above that you are commenting on.

        • Luminya

          Major derp, thank you so much 🙂

  • ML Kyte

    Just tell them God is imaginary.

  • AJxxx

    Hmm, interesting. The article is unhelpful but the comments are much more telling. Personally, I don’t care if others think I’m going to hell. That’s none of their business.

  • jksteiner1974

    The reality is your ‘family’ believes that you are deserving of the most terrible punishment imaginable, and that really sucks. Time to find a new family that actually loves you. Forget all that ‘blood is thicker than water’ bs, find some people who actually appreciate who you are.

  • Larry Liebman

    The writer indicates that her family members are “fundamentalists” which I take to mean fundamentalist Christians. Therefore, arguing with them is useless because their beliefs are ingrained from childhood. Accordingly, when they bring the issue up either 1) ignore the question (or steer the conversation away from that topic); 2) disassociate yourself from them; 3) tell them to mind their own f*ing business.

  • Violet Walker

    I have young children worried about hell and what worked best for them was learning that there is zero scientific proof of hell. No one has been there, no one has touched it, no one has taken a picture of it. It remains fiction without evidence. There is just as much proof that our dreams take place in an alternet universe or that dragons breathe fire and steal princesses. 🙂

  • Mark Brown

    I just thank them for the concern, remind them that I don’t believe in Hell, and move on to the next topic. Unfortinately, I do have some narrow-minded and hate-filled relatives that wanted to be pushy. I simply stopped associating with them. Life is too short to waste time on toxic people.

  • MonaLisa1998

    Honestly I don’t bother with it. If they want to think such things, it is their choice. I am sad for their distress, but they have other choices, and they choose to believe something that distresses them.

    • 12banjo

      That is the most rational response that I have read here today.

  • Brianna LaPoint

    Tell them that Hitler and Jeff Dahmer were devout christians and according to some in heaven. There isnt much you can do but stand your ground if your parents try to push you back in the sheep pen.

  • Joshua Petersen

    Another option… tell them that after reviewing the different afterlives that the different religions have to offer, Heaven was kind of lackluster and lousy being forced to sing all the time. You didn’t want the hassle that comes with having a harem of virgins in Islam, and you kind of like existing so the “return to nothing” of buddhism was right out. Although being reincarnated as a cow sounded kind of amusing at first, you didn’t like the idea of seeing your friends slaughtered for meat, so you’ll skip out on Hinduism. Really, getting down to it, the only one that makes sense is the Viking one, where you get fight and drink as much as you want every day and just respawn the next day with no side effects, making it effectively one big videogame where you have a chance to improve yourself. And even better, it doesn’t even require you believe in it, just die in battle. So you’ll be taking the more dangerous routes home, just in case there is something to the whole religion thing.

  • Kyle McHattie

    Tell them it’s not under their control whether you go to heaven or hell. That is up to god alone. Worrying about it is just second guessing him and that you’re pretty sure the bible is against that…

  • Eric Scott

    I’ve had that discussion with my mother. I asked her how she would feel when in heaven looking down at me and Dad burning forever in hell. She said “God will remove all my pain.” I then asked “So you’re basically saying you’re okay with this. Right? That as long as you don’t feel pain for us burning for all eternity you’re cool with worshiping the god who put us there?”

    She sat silent and started tearing up and I added “Mom. If that’s how you feel then you don’t love me any more than your god does and that’s just sad.”

    She then broke into tears and left. We haven’t talked about it since — she basically is doing the ostritch thing on the subject.

    • Julianna

      Eric what your mother ment by that is when she is in Heaven she will eecieve a new body that is perfect. For those who do not believe in Hod will be cast down to Hell and God will say “I never knew you” for you have not accpeted Him as your Savior. Your mother is not okay with you going to hell. No one wants to see their love one go to Hell. She loves you and so does God. For those people who are in Heaven will no longer focus on what is going outside of Heaven for we will be in the presence of God. That’s what your mother ment by her comment of “God will remove my pain”

      I’m not looking for a fight I just want to talk to people and explain misunderstandings.

      • TLG

        That explanation is still messed up :/

  • Mark Berninghausen

    Wouldn’t a simple, “I’m sorry you believe that, I don’t” , be all that’s necessary?

  • theprinterlady

    Having a fundamentalist background, I can assure you that mentioning “good” people is unlikely to change their mind, since the judgement of “who” will go to heaven or hell is not based (in their minds) on actions, but on beliefs. If they didn’t “believe” in Jesus as G-d and his dying on the cross to “pay for” their sins, then it is immaterial how “good” they were since being “good” is a “work” and thus worthless. Not every person who believes in heaven/hell believes that “belief” is the standard, but in fundamentalist Christianity in the USA, that’s a pretty common belief. The ASSUMPTION (and accusation) is that anyone who tries to be “good” without “belief” in the aforementioned doctrines is trying to “work their way to heaven”, “earn grace”, “earn forgiveness” etc. It does not occur to them that there may be other value systems out there that do not put a premium on belief, but on action (not trying to “earn” anything, but doing what is right merely because it is right). The belief that humanity is intrisically evil and thus incapable of being “good” also plays into this. Arguing with it in any fashion is unlikely to get you anywhere…because, to many of them, to disbelieve in that version of “who goes to heaven/hell” would put them straight in the category of “who’s going to hell”.

    How do I know? I was there for many, many years. And I still have fundamentalist friends/family for whom the above is their belief system.

    The only thing you can do is for yourself – become educated into where those beliefs come from, be secure in what you hold as true, and become immune to fear tactics. I emphasize… “Become immune to fear tactics”. Once you do, many things in this life will become a whole lot less scary.

  • Kristyn Vander Zouwen

    I just remind my family that they’re Calvinists, and that they believe in the concept of once-saved-always-saved, and at one point in my life I was a believer so I’m apparently in the clear, even though I don’t believe now. That seems to shut them up.

  • Deprogramming them is a good start. Everyone says “No no no”, but just tell them they believe something really silly and are being paranoid and delusional, and if they don’t stop then you will have to get them therapy.

    If they start parroting Pascal’s wager just use the standard Platonic table turning argument with statistics, logic, and Ockham’s razor added (if it isn’t true they are really missing out and wasting their time and causing problems for nothing, and their possibility involves adding a lot of weird stuff to the ontology that is empirically unlikely – and internally contradictory – as well as against the principle of parsimony). Then tell them that according to modal realism there exists a world where the statement “no gods exist anywhere in any world” is true. They’ll say that’s crazy, so then remind them that there is more evidence for that than there is for there being a big supernatural oven you have to cook in if you don’t believe bizarre, homophobic, mysoginistic nonsense from the dark ages.

    Frankly – “Look – you’re being a goose” is in fact the most sensitive, helpful, and calming response you can offer. It just won’t seem like that immediately. In other words. Don’t take the concept remotely seriously and demonstrate you have good reasons for that. Intelligent ridicule does work. It does.

    Why does it work? Remember that the real root of their problem is their own fear and insecurity. Lay your axe at the root of that tree at a funny angle. What they need deep down is a more powerful reassurance than they have. You laughing your ass off will do that. If they respect and love you already.

  • Kaylee Slickis

    You could try saying “I’ll see you there” then listing their sins and the scripture passages that makes it clear god hates them for those sins and will punish them eternally just like you. Might not help anything, but itll put them on the defensive instead of you.

  • linda

    This happened to me when I worked with adolescents who were part of the child welfare system. There really is NO good answer when someone who cares about you is suffering for you. But the upshot was that she understood that I was a good person even though I did not believe in god, and she had to reconcile that with what her faith taught. And because she couldn’t, she modified her views. I have always told her, and she is grown up now and my good friend, that if she wants to, she can pray for me. Certainly, it can’t hurt.