I guess I’ve been visiting too many churches and reading too many philosophy books to not have these thoughts swirling around in my head. This is my documenting them for the future.
In Which Hell Exists
Let us assume for a moment that Hell exists.
I know that, especially recently, there has been some religious controversy around this notion. Particularly for those who view God as a source of infinite love and forgiveness. These individuals would argue that instead, people would be sent to a place of purgatory. Interestingly, Hindus and Buddhists agree with this: we call that purgatory life, and each time you are not united with God via enlightenment, you are sent back until you reach it. Sure, the Hindu and Judeo-Christian tradition may differ on the mechanism of the exact purgatory, but in both cases, such a mechanism exists.
But that is not what I want us to consider today. Today, for the time being, let us consider a place called Hell exists for those whom God deems unworthy, and most importantly, that it is impossible to ever escape such a place.
Also, for the sake of argument, that it is possible to know God’s standards of judgement. I recognize that, in some cases, this leads counter to the classical Christian notion that only God can judge you - but let’s pretend for now that you, too, can judge you.
2 questions rise immediately for us.
First, imagine if a person commits an evil sin. If this person lives on and, eventually, comes to understand what he/she did as evil, does God forgive and allow entry into heaven?
If it’s the case that God does not, then it seems that a truly perverse set of incentives are being established. Let us say I rape someone, and I know for a fact that because of this, I will go to hell. Nothing I can do about it to change it; God will never forgive me. So what should I do?
Killing myself is useless, as it only speeds up my inevitable but eternal torture. Should I not, then, just continue my raping and pillaging and murdering ways without conscience? I’m going to hell anyways - I may as well enjoy the last few decades of my strange sense of happiness before I face an eternity of pain.
Is that really a system that God would have wanted to set up? I think there are two reasons people do not follow that logic in real life (excepting legal and social ramifications, of course). First, they believe that if they repent and are forgiven, all will be well. We will discuss this later on. And second, they do not know for certainty that they are doomed - so there is a hope that, however badly we have strayed, there is a dim chance that if we rectify our actions, we have not crossed the point of no return.
This seems particularly cruel from God’s point of view and a rather pathetic existence for people who follow this. The only thing keeping one from doing evil is the uncertainty that God has cast regarding one’s karmic standing (and, I suppose, coupled with the promise of a reward in Heaven). And yet, historically, this is how most people in the Western world lived. The entire notion of a “God-fearing” individual is precisely this philosophy - that the only thing keeping people in line for most of history (from a religious standpoint) was the threat of this unending and gruesome Hell combined with the fact that people did not know where they stood with their creator. So one may as well err on the side of caution and “stay good”.
If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward then, brother, that person is a piece of shit. And I’d like to get as many of them out in the open as possible. You gotta get together and tell yourself stories that violate every law of the universe just to get through the goddamn day? What’s that say about your reality?
Rust Cohle, True Detective
I also think that, for many crimes, this is not a particularly effective motivator (especially for crimes of passion where all thought towards consequences is thrown out the window), but that’s a psychology discussion for a separate day and not the philosophical discussion of today.
A third argument could be made that, like in The Divine Comedy, Heaven and Hell actually have a set of levels, with each level of Hell being a progressively worse form of torture. In such a scenario, some individuals may contend, criminals will want to start being good as soon as they can, if only to reduce their eternal torture. A gamification of the afterlife, if you will. “What level of Hell are you on?” “Dude, I’m stuck on 8. Trying to get enough Karma Points to get down to 7.”
I don’t mean to be crude; as innovative as Dante’s ideas were 700 years ago, they are simply cliche in today’s world, and I don’t think there are very many people who genuinely believe this is how the afterlife works. That somehow it could be reduced down to a game - and indeed if it could, then how could any repentance be truly sincere? The primary motivation would not be forgiveness per se, but forgiveness for a more manageable eternal Hell. What a cruel creator we must have indeed to be stuck in such a situation.
The key point here is that, in a situation where both our standing with God is known and one can be doomed to Hell with no hope of forgiveness, sinners are given extremely perverse set of incentives that actually encourage their morally reprehensible behaviors. In the best case, they lose all hope for life (something which is supposed to be sacred in the Judeo Christian tradition, by the way), and in the worst case, they become even worse criminals.
“People incapable of guilt usually do have a good time.”
Rust Cohle, True Detective
This is why, I think, especially in modern times, the Church has begun preaching a kinder incarnation of God than the one shown in the Bibles. The Pope has come out publicly to say that there is no hell, that all religions share the same God, etc.
So what about the second scenario, where Hell exists but that there is always some aspect of forgiveness / repentance that will allow an individual to not be doomed. Here, it becomes interesting to consider the criteria for how and why God chooses to forgive. The most common interpretation is that repentance and understanding are requisites; in other words, one must truly feel ashamed of one’s actions and seek solace for its own sake, and not for any other selfish ends.
A tough challenge indeed if you truly believe you have sinned. God asks you to ignore the fact that you are currently being doomed to a Hell of eternal torture; just forget about that, for the time being, and try and seek forgiveness for its own sake. But let’s leave aside the difficulty of that, for the time being.
Imagine instead that our same rapist/murderer/pillager gets killed by someone else before he gets a chance to repent. And, for the sake of argument, it is guaranteed that, had he lived a natural and full life, he would have indeed repented and been on his way to heaven.
Does God still send him to Hell, simply because he didn’t actually repent? Or, since God is omnipotent, does God evaluate that he would have repented the same as him having actually done so? And more importantly, does the second murderer now face the sin of not only the murder but also of damning a person to an eternity of torture?
Let’s start with the first question. Phrased another way, it simply asks the following: does God only reward actions, or does he reward thoughts and intentions as well? In this case, it is particularly murky because the action in question is repentance - something that is traditionally associated with a purely mental/spiritual activity, and often conflated with thought. So to be clear, let’s say actually repenting is the action that our initial murderer did not get a chance to perform. And that instead, after his murder, he did feel guilt and he intended to repent eventually, where his intentions and guilt are the thought in this instance.
Before we go further, we must also recognize that whatever way we end up answering, it must also make sense in the context of rewards. For if Hell and Heaven are merely two sides of the same coin, then punishments and rewards are as well. So if God can punish bad intentions, he must reward good intentions, and similarly for the case where He does not.
Nearly all religions are in agreement that thoughts matter. Two of the Ten Commandments focus exclusively on thoughts, and not actions. It can be argued, of course, that the reason that they focus on thoughts is because of the fear of to what kinds of actions such malevolent thoughts would lead. But this clearly is not the case for the tenth commandment. There is already a commandment against stealing, and already one against murder. So why add one specifically targeting envy (or covetousness, depending on translation)?
1. You shall have no other gods before Me. 10. You shall not covet.
The Hindu tradition also agrees that thoughts by themselves are important. In the Mahabharata, Gandhari’s anger at losing her eldest son takes physical form and burns Krishna’s feet; she casts a curse on him (a God!) to die 36 years later, and sure enough, Krishna dies without dignity because of a hunter’s arrow to his feet. I don’t think the message could be any clearer: thoughts matter.
So we are held responsible for our thoughts. To those of you who genuinely are curious as to how to control your own thoughts, I would urge you to seek a path of enlightenment, as it is, the most fundamental sense, mastery over yourself.
From a legal point of view, unintentional actions also matter - hence the distinction between manslaughter and murder. In one case, the murder was accidental. The penalty in jurisprudence may not always be as harsh, but there is undoubtedly a penalty. So the question is whether God function in a similar way. Do unintentional actions matter? Those indoctrinated in the Hindu tradition will know that, yes, they do matter.
There was once a poor tribal man who was great devotee of Shiva. One day he went deep into the forest to collect firewood. However he lost his way and could not return home before nightfall. As darkness fell, he heard the growls of wild animals. Terrified, he climbed onto the nearest tree for shelter till day-break. Perched amongst the branches, he was afraid he would doze and fall off the tree. To stay awake, he decided to pluck a leaf at a time from the tree and drop it, while chanting the name of Shiva. At dawn, he realized that he had dropped a thousand leaves onto a Linga to keep himself awake, the tribal plucked one leaf at a time from the tree and dropped it below which he had not seen in the dark. The tree happened to be a wood apple or bel tree. This unwitting all-night worship pleased Shiva, by whose grace the tribal was rewarded with divine bliss.
After all, if you can reward the unintentional consequence of certain prayers, surely you must be willing to punish the bad consequences, too. (One could argue that, since God is all forgiving, he would only do the former and not the latter. Remember that, for now, there is a Hell in which you can burn for all eternity - so I don’t know what “all-forgiving” God about whom we are speaking, at least for now.) What about in the Judeo Christian tradition?
The most common answer I can find is that there are no unintended consequences - God has already shown you the way, and if you pay attention, you can listen to what he says. Thus, you are implicitly of course responsible for everything, including seemingly “unintended” consequences.
Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to the flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life.
In other words, when you choose to kill someone, you choose to take on the risk that you may be damning them to hell, and that’s your chance to take, and you are fully responsible for that decision. Or if you disagree with my interpretation, here is a case where they are more transparent:
The Bible is a book filled with examples of people receiving unintended consequences from their decisions. In fact, the very first man and woman made a decision that led to unintended consequences very different than they imagined when they decided to exercise their power to choose for themselves. While the biblical stories are all unique, there is a common thread running through all of them—God had already shown them what the best choice was, but they insisted on doing it the way that appealed to them.
Source (emphasis added by me)
That’s certainly one valid explanation, though I can find other scenarios in which this explanation falls apart - like your friend comes to eat at your place, and you give him something to which he is allergic and both parties didn’t know, and he ends up dying. Did you kill him? Is it his responsibility to know everything to which he is allergic? Do you still share the blame? I’m not sure. But then again, if God is cruel enough to burn us for all eternity, what’s the problem with holding us responsible for unintended consequences?
To be fair, I think most of us hold ourselves responsible for most unintended consequences in life. If you were texting and driving and accidentally killed someone, you clearly (I think most of us agree) should hold yourself responsible. Put this another way, it becomes an awareness issue. Nowadays, we have extended don’t text and drive campaigns, and if people choose to ignore all this and still do it, we hold them responsible. But we are loathe to hold ourselves responsible in the case of our allergic friend because there was no awareness, so when we fed our friend, we did not assume that risk because we did not know about the possibility of that risk - or more precisely, we had not considered the possibility of that risk.
It’s possible for adults to develop an allergy or intolerance to most substances, so there is always a risk when feeding someone that there is a small risk that they die - heck, even if they just swallow improperly and choke, there is a chance that they die. I think the real truth is that, although we know the risk of it exists, we evaluate it to be so small that we routinely dismiss it. It just happened that, in this hypothetical scenario, that gamble backfires and our friend dies.
Perhaps God would truly give an exception for children and others who either cannot properly reason about such things (adults with stunted mental growth or coma patients, for example) or individuals who truly had no awareness at all. But I think based on the above passages, He would hold most of us responsible even for our unintended consequences.
But even that is unlikely. When Eve is persuaded by the devil to take the fruit from the forbidden tree, she is held responsible! This is startling because, since she has not yet eaten the fruit, she does not know what good and evil are (that is, after all, knowledge that can only be acquired after eating the fruit!) So when she is in a child-like state where she does not even know what is good or bad, and yet God not only holds her responsible for her actions, but punishes her by eternal banishment.
Let’s extrapolate this to the modern day scenario. A child soldier is kidnapped from his family at three years of age, and he’s taught his entire life that he only has one purpose: to kill his fellow man. There are numerous academic articles documenting the mental health consequences of such a life - we have documents where eight year old boys cry due to migraines they get if they don’t kill someone at least once a week. It’s an urge that’s ingrained into them due to a brutal life. And now, we are told from the Bible, that these children should be held responsible for their actions?
The key take away is the following: An individual’s burden is now to repent not only for sins he knowingly committed, but even those actions that could have, unbeknownst to him, resulted in a negative outcome. Indeed, how can one truly repent for something unless he knows for what he is repenting?
This, I suspect, means that there are a great many people who will be doomed to Hell simply for failing to recognize actions that may have possibly resulted in negative outcomes. Notice how once more uncertainty and fear are used to keep individuals coming back to the institutions of God. Are you afraid you could have possibly done something bad and thus been damned to Hell for all eternity? Better come to the priest and make sure (after paying a small fee, of course).
This is perhaps why I find so many Christian practices so unpersuasive. Hinduism is a non-organized religion, and there was never an emphasis on going to priests. Rather, it has always been about personal salvation and finding inner peace. For many Hindus, enlightenment is nothing more than being able to preserve one’s peace and tranquility regardless of external circumstances. For Buddha, it was enough for one to have total master over one’s thoughts and desires - that alone would provide one with salvation. But that is once more an aside.
This set of thoughts is not meant to come to any grand conclusion; merely, it is meant to show how the existence and the mechanics of eternal Hell can complicate decision-making, and in many cases, perhaps even cause poor decision-making.
One last point - I realize that in many of these cases, I am picking out edge cases - things that are extremely rare and might never happen to most people. But when one is offering up a grand theory of existence, like something nearly every religion does, it becomes the his burden of proof to show how everything in this messy, inconvenient life devoid of easy explanations fits within said theory. Otherwise, it simply becomes a theory of some things.
I'm starting to think my script 'The theory of some things' isn't looking ambitious enough now.— chris o'dowd (@BigBoyler) February 23, 2015
In Which Hell Does Not Exist
And man created God, as he often does, and the modern man definitely prefers that Hell not exist. It solves many of our rather nasty questions in the previous section, and the image of God/Yahweh/Allah/Whoever becomes considerably kinder. No more killing first born sons simply because the pharaoh didn’t listen to Him; we prefer to believe instead, now, that the sins of the father should not pass onto the child.
But this opens up further questions as well.
If Hell does not exist, then everyone goes to Heaven. Perhaps some believe that many will first go to Purgatory; but that’s just a small detail in the larger scheme of things. What’s a couple millennia in purgatory when heaven is a guaranteed eventuality? I think many people blindly accept this premise without realizing the full consequences. It is absolutely a more compassionate approach, but compassion is not easy. One must come to terms with the fact that all of history’s greatest despots, too, will be greeting us at the pearly gates. That candidate from the opposite political party is also going to heaven. That one’s own rapist will also go to heaven.
It is not an easy pill to swallow, and the Hindu/Buddhist notion that we are all part of the same life force and that we are all the same is even more difficult. It suggests that, under a different set of circumstances, we may have done the exact same things for which we despise others. Mercy is often the far more difficult route.
The most important question, though, is phrased in a much funnier way than I could ever do so by Carlos Mencia (yes, I know he’s an unethical joke thief, but as far as I can find, this was original to Carlos; besides, his character does not necessarily refute the logic of his statements).
“When Jesus died at my movie theater, everybody started crying… I was like why are you crying? ‘Because Jesus died.’ Yeah but we’re Christians; this is a happy day, not a sad day… Everybody’s crying, and I’m like ‘Hey, he comes back! I swear to God, he comes back! This movie has a happy ending! He dies on Friday pero he comes back on Monday and that’s why we hide the eggs!’”
So in this world where everyone goes to Heaven, what is the purpose of life? And, more importantly, why is death bad? Why is murder mad? This remains the largest unanswered question from the Bible. Why does Jesus’ sacrifice matter when he comes back three days later?
Jesus wasn’t the only one to be crucified, and he certainly didn’t experience the greatest torture of all humans, divine or not. But even if he didn’t come back, the larger questions surrounding death still stand. Indeed, the church’s views on suicide likely fall apart if everyone goes to Heaven.
What exactly makes life sacred in this context?
I’m actually more persuaded by the atheists on life’s sanctity. If there is truly nothing after life, and this is the only chance we have at anything, then life truly becomes precious because there is simply nothing else. But if, after life, we go on to live in heaven forever and ever, then, perhaps life is sacred because it is a pre-requisite for entering heaven, but it in and of itself is not sacred.
I think the real answer is that death is not ‘bad’, and that life is not ‘sacred.’ In truth, violence is senseless; it accomplishes nothing.
If you believe in reincarnation, then either that person was going to come back anyways and by killing them, you have simply sped up that process, or they were going to heaven anyways, and you’ve just let them go there early. If you do not believe in reincarnation, then they are going to heaven regardless, and how could their death be tragic?
I think many theists who do not believe in reincarnation would respond that, like atheists, they, too, believe a soul only gets one chance at living, and thus that life is sacred. Depriving a child of a full life is indeed tragic because, although thankfully the child will go to heaven, it never was able to appreciate the fullness of a good life.
But, presumably, heaven has everything that life has to offer and even more. Otherwise, what kind of flawed paradise would it be? So I’m not sure why whether or not the child experienced the fullness of life matters. I think the second analogy probably sums it up best:
Everyone gets a two course meal. The first course has a finite amount of food, but the second course just magically becomes an infinite source of food. Now you could complain and say - “Hey, the chef just ended my first course early!” And you would be right; that would be unfortunate… if it weren’t for the fact that you were going to get a second course of food that could not end - and one that, more importantly, the chef could not refuse you.
So I’m still left wondering why death is tragic. In the Hindu and Buddhist sense, as stated above, it’s not. It’s senseless and inevitable, but not tragic.
Interestingly, though, in all the histories of mass suicides that I can find, none of their reported motivations are to reach Heaven quicker. So clearly, no one believes this. Perhaps because the Christian notion that suicide equates to the ultimate sin is so deeply ingrained in most people.
This is a strictly Judeo-Christian concept, and I’m not very persuaded.
Someone who cannot commit evil likewise cannot do good because there exists no element of free will. They are like a child or like a dog who comes to the call of its master. If the “original sin” of humanity is that we did not obey God when God simply said “because” like we were four year olds incapable of understanding (hey, maybe we are compared to the infinite wisdom of God), then I don’t think God would punish us forever.
That would be like my father refusing to speak to me because one time, eighteen years ago, I didn’t listen to him. Seems a little silly. If a child does not listen to you, you can out-maneuver (I hope) it to persuade it to act in the proper manner. And if you cannot out-maneuver a child’s intellect, then perhaps ask some friends for help.
Interestingly, it’s the Satanists and Mormons within the Judeo-Christian tradition that I think have this correct. From my experience speaking with both groups, both think it was a good thing that humanity was kicked out of the Garden of Eden. The ability to reason is our primary asset as higher-functioning beings.
The original sin claim implies that we would be better off being sheep, blindly following, than thinking for ourselves. Perhaps it’s my non-Judeo-Christian background, but I personally find that idea repugnant. The Hindu Vedas themselves say the following:
[Q]uestion everything written in them, test it on a sword of logic and reasoning. If you find it wrong then trash it. Otherwise, keep it for yourself and for future generations.
Hindus are actively encouraged to question and test everything they see and test whether Hinduism still fits. It’s literally written into our most sacred texts. And our modern gurus say the same thing. Maybe this is because Hinduism is not quite a religion as much as a way of life. Regardless, from a non-Western perspective, the concept of original sin is quite strange.