Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Do You Think I'm Going to Hell?

Many religions seem to have this concept of hell, a place where "bad people" go after they die where they will spend their afterlife suffering torments for the bad stuff they did in life. Both Christianity and Islam (or versions of them) portray this hell as the eternal destination of the souls of unbelievers, where they will literally burn for all time. And in both of these religions, one of the top qualifiers for going there is rejecting a belief in their god. Even worse is leaving the religion, and worse still is leading (or trying to lead) others to reject it as well.

And here I am: a Christian apostate writing a blog about living without a belief in gods. And I would be lying if I said I don't hope that something I write might help someone else see their way clear of superstitions as well. So for at least those two religions, I am a very bad person.

So... do you think I'm going to hell?

Now, I'll point out a few things to think about while you're coming up with an answer. Firstly, hell is portrayed as eternal, meaning that anyone sent there is going to be there forever. It is torture of infinite duration. I'm going to be alive for, what, seventy-five years? Maybe a hundred if I'm lucky? Or maybe I die on the drive home from work tomorrow. 

Do you suppose that anything I might do in such a tiny span of time could possibly warrant infinite torture?

I mean, I know I'm not perfect. Not even close. I'm more than a little lazy. I'm fairly selfish and irresponsible. I fall well short of my own expectations on many occasions, to say nothing of the much stricter (I would not classify them as higher) expectations put forth in many a holy book. I do behave in ways, at times, for which I rightly ought to be sanctioned.

But infinite torture? Really? Do you think that's just?

But that's just me. I'm fairly ordinary. Who's the worst person you can think of? Joseph Stalin? Adolph Hitler? Saddam Hussein? Jeffrey Dahmer? Think of every person whose name is synonymous with evil in your mind. As awful as they may have been, every one of them was finite in the harm they did.

Infinite torture? Really?

Or let's make this more personal. After all, some of you may not know me personally. Or Stalin or Hitler or whoever. Out fate's may seem impersonal and abstract, so maybe you can write off our eternal torment without connecting to it. So think of the people you love most in the world. Maybe your children, if you have any. Your spouse... Your parents... Your siblings. Think about them burning. Forever. Screaming in infinite agony for all eternity.

Can you imagine that there's anything, anything at all, that they could possibly do that would convince you that they deserve that?

Heaven, by contrast, is supposed to be a place of infinite happiness. But suppose you were in heaven and your children (or your parents, or spouse) in hell. Could you imagine feeling infinitely happy while your children burn? Could you feel like that? What would it take for that to happen? Would you have to be deceived about your loved ones' fate in order to feel infinite joy while they suffered infinite pain? Or do you suppose the joy you'd feel would drown out those screams of agony to the point where they just don't seem important anymore? Do you want that?

And while you're thinking about it, consider this: there's no real purpose to it. Most of the time, we at least like to pretend that the purpose of punishment is to correct a harmful behavior. But the nature of hell is such that this purpose cannot ever be achieved. You don't learn to choose the good over the bad because all opportunity to do so is gone; you're simply imprisoned and suffering. You can't even serve as an example to deter the living from making the same mistakes, because nobody living ever actually witnesses the punishments of hell. An eternal hell would be, and by its very nature can only ever be, a tool of pure sadistic cruelty.

Atheists frequently (and, I think, rightly) make an issue of the atrocities of the Old Testament, and are almost as often countered by the argument that the New Testament is goodness and love and justice. But here's the thing: the concept of hell is a New Testament idea. And as bad as the genocides, slavery, misogyny, and arbitrary cruelty if the Old Testament may be, they pale next to the idea of infinite punishment for finite crimes. It is, bar none, the most unjust concept in the Bible.

Or the Koran, for that matter.

Now, obviously, I don't believe any of this is going to happen. But it's a pretty frequent scare tactic that gets thrown at us atheists. "You better believe, or you're going to burn!" It's not very scary, as it should be perfectly obvious that if we don't believe the punisher exists we aren't going to be afraid of his punishment.

But it tells us a lot about the person saying it. It tells us that they believe we deserve infinite torture. After all, they worship the being they believe decreed it, and willingly use the threat of it as a club to try and batter us into belief. Some versions of the religions espousing this belief teach that everyone, even the believers, deserve infinite torture simply by virtue of being human (it's just that the adherents are spared).

Of course, many variants of these religions don't place a lot of emphasis on the hell thing. It's kind of there in the background, but the focus of devotion seems to be more on the loving aspects of those religions. I suspect the members of those denominations just don't give the nature of hell a lot of thought, and of course many of them are either uncomfortable with the idea or espouse a belief in a final destination for nonbelievers that is somewhat less harsh than the one I've described here. Those people, however, seem to be much less likely to try and use it as an argument to sway those of us who don't believe. If you're one of those, the criticisms of this article are not really aimed at you. I hope you don't take them personally.

But if you're ever tempted to try and use "You'd better believe or you're going to hell," as an argument to convince an atheist, I just want you to understand the message you're sending us. You may think you're telling us "Here's a reason you should believe," but what we're hearing is "I'm cruel and/or broken, and to join me you would have to become equally cruel and/or broken." It's not effective, it doesn't come off as the least bit loving, and you really shouldn't ever say it.

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