:The chief reason why I haven’t tried Christianity is hell—the idea that otherwise innocent people go to eternal torment just for holding the wrong belief. You may argue I have a Protestant strawman in mind, but that’s the only version I know well.:
Well, I would argue that what you’re describing doesn’t fit any classic, traditional form of Christianity. Some evangelicals/fundamentalists come close, at least in the way they often put it (“it doesn’t matter how good you are, if you don’t accept Jesus you will burn for ever”). But in fact even hardline Christianity (Catholic or Protestant) doesn’t really fit your description, because traditional Christians don’t believe that anyone (at least no adult) is innocent. Rather, Christians believe that everyone is a sinner–that we have a kind of moral and spiritual disease that causes us to hate and manipulate and lie and destroy, even if we do it in very respectable ways. The only cure for this disease, Christians would say, is Jesus Christ and the union with God’s life that Jesus offers. Without Christ, everyone will ultimately become a thoroughly self-centered, hate-filled person.
But here’s the catch. We all agree that many Christians–that is to say, people who profess faith in Christ, go to church, etc.–are selfish, hate-filled, deceitful people. So clearly it’s possible to have an intellectual belief in Christianity without knowing the life of Christ in your soul. The question is: is the reverse also true? Is it possible for someone not to believe in Christianity intellectually but to know God anyway? Traditionally, Christians would have said that this might be possible, but would be very rare and difficult. Fundamentalists, of course, would say it’s impossible. But many Christians, including me (and this is also the teaching of the Catholic Church), would say that it is quite possible, and we can never judge someone’s spiritual condition from what religion they belong to. We still believe that all knowledge of God comes through Jesus. But it might not come through intellectual belief in Jesus.
In short–no Christian thinks that right belief is the same thing as saving faith in Christ. Hardline Christians think that you have to have right belief (with perhaps a few exceptions) in order to have saving faith. More moderate Christians, such as myself, think that just as you can have right belief without true faith, so you can have true faith without believing all the right things, although of course right belief is very helpful. (And yes, there are many liberal Christians who would say that Jesus is not the only way to God and it doesn’t matter what you believe. I’ve left them out because as I see it they have compromised Christian tradition way too far–but of course fundamentalists and other hyper-conservative Christians would say the same about me.)