Posts Tagged ‘hell’

(Cross-posted to Tumblr, in response to theunitofcaring.)

I don’t personally experience their level of discomfort around people who believe in the existence of Hell in the same sickening way, but I find this an entirely understandable reaction.

It seems too obvious to even mention, but that’s almost never universal, so it’s worth spelling out: Hell, as generally described or conceived as a place of everlasting suffering, is the most evil idea that is possible to exist.

There are various other interpretations of what Hell is – “an absence of God” or what-have-you – which may or may not be more theologically rigorous than the colloquial usage. But the lasting image in many people’s minds is pretty much congruent with all those Renaissance paintings of lakes of fire filled with sinners. If you go there, you will be tormented without end. And whatever disagreement there is on what it takes to get sent there, this happens to a non-zero number of eternal souls.

Seriously, if you can come up with something even hypothetically more evil than that, leave a comment or something, I’d be fascinated.

So while there’s something horrifying about wishing that somebody would suffer such a fate, there’s an extra layer of grotesquery in accepting that such a self-evidently evil thing could be allowed to exist by a god who claims to love us, and who somehow still deserves our love in return. That it’s a sad necessity, or part of some great divine plan we’re not privy to, and not proof that this god is an abominable tyrant who we must never stop railing against.

All that said… I think the saving grace here is that most people just haven’t thought it through.

I can’t know what’s going on in other people’s brains, but I strongly suspect that many of those who profess a belief in Hell haven’t consciously, deliberately, formed a mental model of all the implications of that belief and truly accepted them. Far more likely that many of them are replacing the question with a different one, and answering that instead.

Rather than “What is an appropriate and reasonable punishment for people who do wrong?” they’re responding to something about how important it is to them to defend the integrity of their tribe, and how strong is the hate they feel toward the out-group. The feeling of enmity toward the other is interpreted as a wish for some non-specific ills to fall on said other, but in practice, they’re probably not imagining anything more appalling or painful happening to them than, say, death. (This is the same misunderstanding of scale as is often seen in the dust-speck issue, where people read “3^^^3” and think “billions, probably”.)

So, yeah. If you believe in Hell, then potentially we could still be friends, although it’s not exactly a great start. If you believe in Hell and we’re already friends, well, just know that I disagree with you on this even more than I disagree with you on politics, and we both know how out-of-sync I am on that front.

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Let’s play God for a moment.

You can take a while to get into character, if you like. Feel free to dress up, put on a fake beard, kill some children with bears, whatever helps.

Okay. So you’re God. You’ve got a brand new universe to play with, fresh out of the box. You’re starting small, but you’ve got big plans. You know everything there is to know and your power is unlimited. It’s good to be you.

You’re going to create some people. Other minds, living beings. Tiny and barely significant compared to you, of course, but valuable in their own way. They’ll all be your children, though in a different way from how these life-forms will rear their own offspring eventually. You love them powerfully. You want them to do well and be happy.

You can pretty much fill in the blanks for yourself from here. Plan your cosmos. Think about how you’d populate the natural and supernatural realms that you’re creating entirely so that these beings can live in them, and love you. Feel free to take inspiration from any real-life examples of a deity creating everything that is, was, and ever will be. If you happen to know of any.

Remember: the people you’re creating are living, conscious beings, with wills of their own, and you love every one of them, and want them to love you. This is important.

I won’t pry into the details of how you’d arrange things. This is mostly just a fun little mental exercise.

…I do have one question though. Just something I can’t help but idly speculate about. If you wouldn’t mind indulging my curiosity.

In this universe – the one you’ve created using your infinite power and infinite knowledge, specifically to express your boundless love for your children with every intention of encouraging them to thrive and love you and revel in your glory – among all the worlds and wonders you’ve created, the sights and sounds and smells you’ve put in place to delight the senses, the atoms and galaxies you’ve finely tuned just so – in all the cosmos and beyond, created by you, a god of infinite love…

…is there a bit somewhere in your creation where millions of your children end up in constant endless pain forever and ever with not a single shred of hope for escape or relief?

I’m not saying there should or there shouldn’t be. Don’t let my questions influence your judgment; it’s your universe, you can do what you like with it. I was just wondering.

It’s just… I mean, forgive me for editorialising, I certainly don’t want to tell you how to do your job, but… if I was all-powerful, and all-loving, and had millions of children bumbling imperfectly around, who I want to love me but who I also care for in their own right, above and beyond my own ego, and who I’m amply capable of looking after as an omnipotent being…

…then I probably wouldn’t make it so that there’s this big fiery pit which they might blindly stumble into and scream in anguish for the rest of eternity and which I could let them out from but I never ever will.

It seems like, with all those resources at my disposal, y’know, the omnipotence and all, I could probably – probably – come up with some better way of arranging things than that. Something that didn’t require a one-shot, irreversible turning point in the existence of all my beloved children – at the point of their death, say, or whatever – where, if they’ve let me down in some way, they get sent away into some kind of hellish… well, Hell, with no reprieve under any circumstances, no matter how much they beg and plead and repent for the next trillion years of suffering.

Seems like I could be less of a dick than that to these beings I apparently love so much.

I don’t want to tell you how to do your job. I’m just saying.

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I’ve said for a long time that Hell – an eternal, infinite punishment meted out by a deity to certain of its subjects after their death – is an idea that most people haven’t really thought through.

(I actually wrote this piece about a week ago – it’s just by chance that it’s turning up right after I posted my latest video where I talk about something similar.)

And I still think it’s clear that a lot of people don’t really understand what Hell means – certainly not most people who believe it exists, and claim that a God who isn’t purely evil would ever allow anyone to end up there.

It’s possible that there’s someone, somewhere in the world, who can genuinely begin to get their head around the unending nightmare of fiery torment that many Christians picture Hell to be, and still gleefully delight in the thought of people they don’t like being sent there to suffer beyond any conceivable proportion.

But I suspect that far more often people are, perhaps wilfully, just not taking on board how sadistic and horrifying an idea it is.

One thing I hadn’t thought about, though, is the fact that many Christians, if their philosophy is taken to its logical conclusion, are seriously risking an eternity of agony for their children, simply by all that begetting that their good book encourages them to get up to.

And I can’t think of any way this can really be reconciled, except by the same kind of denial which prevents them from thinking about eternity to any depth in the first place.

Think about voluntarily giving your offspring non-trivial odds of languishing in the Christian vision of Hell, forever. Then ask yourself: how many times shall I get myself neutered to make sure that can never ever ever happen to my children?

Frankly, your answer shouldn’t even be as low as 1, but if it’s any lower then either you’re a deeply twisted and malevolent creature, or you didn’t understand the question.

Where I differ from Francois, primarily, is in how harshly to judge people because of this reasoning. I don’t think most of them are evil, or imbecilic. Not thinking things through in great detail comes very naturally to our species, and being paralysed with terror over what Hell would actually be like is not conducive to being able to get anything done in life. Essentially blocking it out from all considered thought is a very understandable path to take.

A question more commonly asked of religious folk is why they get sad when loved ones die, if they truly believe them to have “passed on” to a “better place”. The fact that Grampa is going to be blissfully happy forever now, and someday you will be too, is somehow not a source of unbounded joy, but merely of scant comfort in a time of apparent tragedy.

The only example that springs to mind, of people being genuinely ecstatic with expectation for the exciting future awaiting them on the other side, is cult members immediately prior to knocking back the flavoured drink mix. Maybe people not in the grip of some sort of mania don’t think through the implications of the existence of Heaven either.

In any case, it’s not really surprising that things happening in this world are given more weight than whatever might be going on in any kind of afterlife. This world’s actually here. It’s right in front of you. There’s something viscerally real about it. It doesn’t need to be believed in.

It’s probably a mercy that, however much they might downplay its importance, the real world is the one which a lot of religious people act as if they live in.

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New video time!

Eternal punishment remains entirely morally unconscionable, even for undead mass murderers.

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Ricky Gervais lives by the Ten Commandments, and so should you!

Well, sort of. With a slightly generous interpretation of how they should be read, at least. I’d probably lose a point on the one about the Sabbath, and I confess to taking the occasional covet-break now and then. It’s one of my vices. Healthier than cigarettes.

Part of his point is that it’s not only possible for an atheist to live as a good person, but they can often do a better job of living as a good Christian than many Christians. And it’s certainly true that a good swathe of the Christians in the world would prove to be a very poor example of the love and kindness and compassion which are often touted as the fundamentals of their religion.

But it’s not just the people getting Christianity wrong who are making things unpleasant for everyone. There’s some appalling stuff in the Bible in between the nicer suggestions. And it wasn’t just the Old Testament which had all the fire and brimstone, before God went and got religion and sent his son down to peace everyone out. There’s a great quote from Christopher Hitchens (for which I can’t currently find a better source than reddit):

There’s no hell mentioned in the Old Testament. The punishment of the dead is not specified there. It’s only with gentle Jesus, meek and mild, that the idea of eternal torture for minor transgressions is introduced.

Sometimes we should count ourselves lucky that so many Christians are as un-Christ-like as they are.

(h/t The Friendly Atheist)

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Living in fear

Fortunately, Hell isn’t such a bad place.

It’s actually a village in Norway, and although I’ve never been, it certainly doesn’t seem as harsh, torturous, or pyrotechnical as its reputation would suggest.

Of course, I’m talking about a Hell that actually exists.

The fictional kinds never seem like much fun. They’re not all quite as homogeneously horrible as the popular Christian imaginings, but unending torment seems to be a regular feature. Other religions had and have different ideas, and many Christians today reject the standard notion of lakes of fire and pitchfork enemas.

But the sadistic idea of never-ending suffering for people who’ve done wrong in life is still a popular and mainstream one, with a majority of Americans believing in some kind of punishment bad enough to earn the name “Hell”.

I don’t buy it for a second. It’s a primitive attempt to reassure oneself and one’s allies that your own tribe is morally righteous and specially preferred, and that injustices against you by “others” will be corrected in your favour, so long as you hold true to the values you were born into. Only humans could come up with something like this.

But it’s still a really scary idea.

Once in a while, I’ll start to really imagine it. I’ll just drift into that hypothetical worldview, picture myself in some dark pit, surrounded solely by creatures wishing me harm, powerless to escape or even to move, being bodily tortured and suffering immense pain, and knowing that this is truly unending – no lunchbreak, no knocking off at 5 to go home, no weekends, not a single other experience of anything that I’ve ever valued, not a moment’s respite from the pain, not even death and an end to it all, no end to this, ever.

Once in a while, I totally freak myself the fuck out.

Only for a few seconds, of course. I’ll let my head wander to this really sinister place, then just shudder and shake it off, reassured that there’s as close to zero chance of it happening as I could ever hope for of anything.

Sometimes, though, I shudder again a little later, as I think about people who can’t be so reassured.

There are people who really believe this shit. Some just loudly assert how agonising a fate everyone else deserves, because of some serious insecurities and a pathological need to claim some kind of superiority over people who won’t let them get their way, however imaginary that superiority might be.

But then there are those who live in terror of making a wrong step, and being consigned to an eternal fate that can make even a devout atheist’s heart beat a little faster. There are kids and adults who’ve had it driven into them that this unending pain is real, and is what their loving god is going to see to it that they get – because it’s what they deserve – if they do anything wrong, or even think sinful thoughts.

It’s not just a fleeting creepy thought for some people, but a permanent terror.

Richard Dawkins has described some kinds of extremist religious education as constituting a form of child abuse. When kids are being terrorised by fantasies like this, it’s hard to call him wrong.

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Jesus speaking in Matthew 5:22:

But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.

And the big Jay-C again a few chapters later, in Matthew 23:17:

Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold?

Hmm. I suppose it’s sometimes a bit confusing trying to keep up with all the stuff that contradicts the other stuff.

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