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Many of You Are Going to Hell

492px-Fra_Angelico_010Most of you, most likely.  So implies warnings attributed to Christ.  So suggests the beliefs of saints Gregory, Anselm, Augustine, Jerome, and many others.  So implies Patheos writer Fr. Dwight Longenecker, who writes that “it has been the unanimous teaching of the church and the witness of saints and mystics that many are damned and few are saved.”

When juxtaposed with the “hard saying” of Christ and big name teachers in the early church, the hope for universal salvation, characteristic of some modern and contemporary theologians, our more egalitarian sentiments, and me, looks foolish and false.

Fr. Longenecker concludes that there’s little room for speculation where heaven and hell are concerned because Scripture, Tradition, and the saints and the mystics are clear on the matter.  Many are damned and few are saved.  Where the church is ambiguous, there’s plenty of room for faithful speculation; but this space diminishes as clarity increases.  While some particular aspects of hell remain clouded in unknowing, the words “many” and “few” are more than clear to the eyes and ears.

Personally, I find the notion that few are saved and many are damned to be incompatible with the image of a God as love itself. I don’t mean this in some God-is-my-big-teddy-bear kind of way.  If you say, as much of Christianity does, that God created the universe and specifically human beings–creatures made in his image and likeness–for the purpose of participation in the love life that is God, and you also say that most people will refuse this destiny, then logically you’re led to say that, overall, creation won’t achieve its purpose. Overall, it is a failure.  Overall, the purpose for which God created goes unrealized.  Overall, God’s desire and will are not done.  This would seem to make God, as Creator, something of a failure, even if you can, through some dexterous theodicy, get God off the hook for the damning decisions of his hellbound creatures.  The orthodox position on God, coupled with the traditional belief that many are damned, leads to a rather unorthodox conclusion.  Fr. Longnecker appeals to the unanimity and clarity of Scripture and Tradition, but these supports are less than stable.

Clarity of meaning, in itself, is no measure of truth.  Just because we can be clear on the meaning of a biblical passage doesn’t mean that what it expresses is literally true.  Moreover, clarity can arise due to a means of interpretation rather than the meaning of the text.  Taken literally, many passages of Scripture clearly say things that no champion of Christian orthodoxy would today defend.  Depending on how you interpret the bible, God can be a pretty perverse deity, clearly commanding all manner of evils.  Besides, speaking clearly doesn’t seem to have been much on the Almighty’s mind when inspiring the sacred authors.  I mean, really, if clear communication is important to you, then you don’t produce the world of ambiguity that is the bible.

Even if we assume that sacred Scripture reveals to us truth God wanted us to know, we remain limited in our vision and understanding, looking through a glass, darkly, making sense from within a cloud.  We can read the words, but we cannot see the hidden realities to which they supposedly refer.  We can’t see the whole of reality to make complete sense of the whole of Scripture and its parts, and without complete sense of these parts, we’re in the dark about the whole of Scripture.  Truth has classically been defined as a correspondence, but there’s no way to assess the correspondence of the scriptures with the divine reality it reveals to us.  Is God analogous to a father, as Scripture says?  There’s no way to assess this. No way to measure it.  Even God doesn’t get us out of the hermeneutic circle.  Catholics and Protestants can argue about the meaning of what Christ said and did, as recorded in the bible, but neither has any sight of God apart from what human authors and interpreters have spoken.

In support of his belief that few are saved and many are damned, Fr. Longenecker also appeals to the unanimity and constancy of this belief by church authorities, saints, and mystics; but unanimity and constancy are not in themselves indicative of truth.  Falsehoods have had widespread agreement over time, and constancy is relative. After how long does constancy of belief by the faithful indicate its truth? Seven years? Seventy years? Seventy times seven years?  The church has let go of beliefs it held for hundreds of years.  The Catholic Church’s stance on religious freedom is a famous example.  Only lately has the Magisterium emphasized the interpretation that people outside the visible church can be saved.  It used to say that there could be no right to religious freedom because error has no rights.  Pope Eugene IV was as clear as a sunny day: “No one, let his almsgiving be as great as it may, no one, even if he pour out his blood for the Name of Christ, can be saved, unless he remain within the bosom and the unity of the Catholic Church.”  Popes nowadays praise people of other faiths in the practice of their faith and atheists in their pursuit of the good and true.

In the religious circles I frequent, preaching hellfire and damnation is no longer high on the agenda, although any religion that preaches the existence of hell and the possibility that you might go there promotes a message of fear.  And, obviously, the idea that many will be damned still has its vocal defenders who keep to the old ways.  I understand their adherence to tradition.  You start questioning the logic of longstanding doctrines and pretty soon you’re wondering about the whole edifice.  Considering the whole history of my own religious faith, my take on hell is definitely in the minority.  It’s not heretical, officially, but nor is it in keeping with the tradition starting with a literal reading of the words of Christ. From my own place, the doctrine that many are doomed to fire and brimstone and endless replays of One Direction hits just makes no sense.  My own senses lead me to deny the observation of Fr. Longenecker that “every verifiable bit of evidence from history and yesterday’s newspaper reveal the total depravity of many men’s hearts and their spitting hatred of all that is beautiful, good and true.”  I can’t think of one person who, in total depravity and rightness of mind, hates all that is beautiful, good, and true.  Not one.  Even the worst of sinners are motivated by something they value.  That many people’s hearts are totally depraved and hateful of every swell thing just doesn’t correspond to reality.

In conclusion, where the divine author is concerned, there’s always room for speculative discernment, and lots of it, even if we can be relatively sure, by exhausting all interpretive methods and accounting for the specific genres, what the human author meant to convey. In the space before God, there’s more room for speculation that all of humanity could ever use.  We don’t know what we’re talking about when we talk about God or angels or heaven or hell or any other hidden reality.  We try to make sense of them in relation to people we know and places we’ve been and feelings we’ve had.  This sense-making gives us a starting vocabulary and some directions in which to think about these things, but it leaves us without any clear vision of them by which we could judge the truth of our beliefs.

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96 thoughts on “Many of You Are Going to Hell

  1. A purgatorial Hell makes some amount of sense to me.

    CS Lewis has a story in which he discusses Heaven as a banquet and The Lord God motions for us to enter and enjoy and partake. We look and see how everyone else is bathed and dressed in the cleanest white… and we look at ourselves and see that we’re caked with mud and tar and whatelse and smell like a sewer.

    God beckons us but we say, if you don’t mind Sir, I would like to get cleaned up first.
    God says: but it will hurt.
    We reply: Even so Sir.

    Niven and Pournelle’s Inferno and Escape from Hell used a different idea… Purgatory as an asylum for the theologically insane. Hell is the violent wing. It’s possible to leave Hell (and Purgatory) but, first, you have to get better. The point of Hell (and Purgatory) is that it will help you get better.

    When things are painted with those brushes, the idea of Hell is much nicer, perhaps even lovely.

    Of course that’s not the *REAL* story of Hell… but, as retcons go, it’s a very well-written one.

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    • Thanks for mentioning the Niven and Pournelle books. I’ve never heard of them before, but they sound interesting and I just now ordered “Inferno” from the library.

      I don’t remember that exact C. S. Lewis story, but it’s certainly consistent with his outlook. I like his (and it’s probably shared by others) that hell is a positive decision one makes. I mean positive as in “good,” but positive in the sense that one decides more or less wilfully to enter it/live it/be imprisoned by it, and escape is for a long time (maybe even always) within a person’s grasp. At least, that’s the message I get from “The Great Divorce” and much of his other writing.

      Lewis also suggests somewhere (no cite, I forget where exactly) that he doesn’t believe in total depravity because if we were totally depraved, we wouldn’t know it.

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      • Their inferno is quite lovely and a wonderful snapshot of 70’s theology. I enjoyed it immensely.

        But, later on, you will find yourself chewing on various plot points and coming up with a handful of complaints… only some of which will be minor. I don’t know the extent to which these complaints would have made sense in the 70’s but…

        Anyway, Escape from Hell addressed the number one complaint that emerged for me in the days that followed my reading of it and it also tackled little things like terrorism and, perhaps most importantly, what Vatican II has evolved into. It’s not as good… but it does fix the problems that have since emerged from the first.

        (Now, this being Pournelle, you will see some of his personal enemies show up in Hell. Instead of being irritated by this, I try to see it as following a looong tradition.)

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      • Okay, Escape spoilers:

        Rfgnoyvfurq cybg cbvag ol guvf cbvag: gurer ner n ohapu bs Zhunwnqrra ehaavat nebhaq oybjvat gurzfryirf hc. Guvf vf pnhfvat punbf nzbat gur, hagvy abj naljnl, snveyl jryy rfgnoyvfurq ohernhpengvp znpuvangvbaf bs Uryy. Gurfr obzoref ner zrffvat rirelguvat hc.

        Naljnl, ol gur gvzr jr trg onpx gb gur 9gu Pvepyr, jr zrrg hc jvgu Bccraurvzre jub tvirf n fcrrpu rkcynvavat jul ur’f gurer (gung jnf gur pvepyr sbe gubfr jub orgenl gurve orarsnpgbef, erzrzore) naq vg pbzrf bhg gung, lrnu, ur tnir Fgnyva gur obzo. (Bu, jr nyfb fnj Gebgfxl. Ur’f crevbqvpnyyl phg va unys naq gura pnyyrq n “fcyvggre”. V nqzvg gb puhpxyvat.)

        Naljnl, nsgre Bccraurvzre’f fcrrpu rkcynvavat jul ur qvq jung ur qvq, bar bs gurfr obzoref frrf bhe tebhc naq Bccraurvzre frrf uvz naq gurl eha gbjneqf rnpu bgure, nezf bhgfgergpurq, naq jura gurl rzoenpr gurl perngr n ahpyrne rkcybfvba va gur pragre bs Uryy (juvpu unf gur nqqrq orarsvg bs tvivat Fngna Uvzfrys n onq qnl).

        As I said, the book wasn’t as good as Inferno (which is a book that you *SHOULD* go out of your way to read) but what would you expect? It’s always disappointing to go back to Hell.

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      • – you can go here to decode (paste it in and hit cypher):

        http://www.rot13.com/

        I also use a free Firefox add-on called Leet Key that lets you highlight/right-click to decode.

        EDITED TO ADD: Leet Key works the other direction too (and also for other common cyphers besides rot13). So I can write a comment, then highlight/right-click it to encode it with the rot13 cypher. If you are dealing with a lot of rot13 reading/writing it’s worth it, to not constantly have to keep a second window open, and cutting/pasting to/from it all the time for the encoding/decoding.

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    • The Catholic image of purgatory is basically a really good cleaning before one enters heaven. The dirtier you are, the more cleansing you need. Hell is the place for those who would not choose to live in heaven, even knowing full well what that meant.

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      • even knowing full well what that meant.

        Oh, but surely something else must be going on. Pride, perhaps. Wrath. These are perfectly understandable responses to a particularly myopic viewpoint. The main thing that would help with this is *TIME* and *PERSPECTIVE*.

        And there’s just the place that overflows with both…

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      • If I were to offer my own guess, it would be shame.

        I wonder if entry into Heaven requires a certain kind of being seen, of letting God and one’s fellows in Heaven look into your soul and see everything there. I wonder if the process of being cleansed involves holding out everything painful and shameful inside and saying “take them away.”

        I can certainly understand a soul saying “no,” being so ashamed and sorry that they’d rather spend eternity hiding within themself than letting anyone see. But still, God would be at hand the instant they changed their mind.

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      • Assuming we’re all projecting, you are a much nicer person than I am.

        I immediately went to “Oh, *MY* sins are too big for God to forgive. *MY* sins are so much richer and deeper than those of the childlikes God welcomes into heaven with open arms. I’ll just get on this rock right here…”

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  2. In the last couple years before I became an agnostic,* I used to have the double predestinationist’s belief that my belief wasn’t sincere enough, that I was bound for hell even though I could mentally go through the motions and claim to myself that I believed. To an extreme level, it was almost as if I intellectually believed in God, Christ, etc., but at the same time emotionally disbelieved it. That’s not exactly a…..healthful way to live. That’s one reason I became agnostic.

    *I don’t like, and didn’t at the time like, the word “agnostic” because it doesn’t/didn’t really reflect my point of view. It seems/seemed to imply a certain and abiding faith in and acceptance of rationality that I simply don’t have. However, that’s how I conceived of myself at the time. Now I probably prefer “apophatic.” The problem with that word is that I’m not 100% sure I can define it.

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    • I’ve modified some of my beliefs as well on the basis that they were, to my mind, unhealthy. While I don’t disbelieve in hell, exactly, the idea of it doesn’t figure into my moral deliberations. As I say in the Vox Nova post I linked to, I’m troubled only by the hurts I cause this side of eternity, not by the prospect of eternal hellfire. However, as I also say in that post, this isn’t entirely rational of me. If hell may exist and I may go there, then hell is rationally something for me to fear.

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      • I apologize for being somewhat of a C. S. Lewis troll, but I recall something else he wrote (again, no cite, although I insist that it’s probably not apocryphal) on the harms we cause others: whatever you do to someone might help them choose heaven or hell, and it’s best to keep that in mind.

        Somehow, I associate that with the declarations about leading children to sin, or the sins of the fathers being visited on the sons: when we harm others, we make it possible for them to adopt a bitterness that can only be allayed through forgiveness, but that forgiveness is made more difficult by the harm. Therefore, people choose a “hell” in which they are imprisoned by their own bitterness or sense of victimization.

        That’s an inarticulate theory, and there are probably implications here there I’m unprepared to defend. But that’s kind of where I’m headed in the way I think about things.

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  3. I can reconcile myself to some notion of Hell as described in the comments above.

    I reject utterly the idea of a place of eternal torment, where the damned are confined forever. It flies in the face of even the most rudimentary understanding of justice, to say nothing of mercy. A god who would intone “blessed are the merciful” and then consign souls thusly is a hypocrite of the worst kind, and undeserving of veneration. Such a god would never be worthy of our love, only (perhaps) our fear, and would rightly be despised as an omnipotent tyrant.

    If Scripture and Tradition and the scholars and the mystics present God as a loving divinity worthy of our adoration, then their acceptance of Hell as a place of unending material torment renders their thinking an undeniable shambles. To explain away such cruelty, which no doubt they would roundly condemn if perpetrated by any mortal despot, as somehow compatible with a God of love is laughably obvious special pleading.

    Finally, let me ponder what it would be like to be among that blessed number of elect. If there are so very few of us as the spiritual authorities would have us believe, then it stands to reason that a great many people I love here and how would not make the cut. It would be no Heaven for me if my best friend, a self-proclaimed Jewish atheist, were not there to share it with me. I would be riven with grief to consider her thus maltreated, no matter the bliss I enjoyed myself. To enjoy it at all would require a degree of brainwashing that makes me wonder who the “me” in that scenario really would be after all.

    Again, Hell as some kind of proving ground for lost souls, where any may (and hopefully all eventually will) escape I can possibly accept. I recall no mention of a Hell of this kind in Scripture, but perhaps I missed it. But a permanent, inescapable Hell of pain and despair, lasting beyond the most mind-bending concepts of time? No. Any god who would send people there deserves only my contempt.

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    • When I was in 6th grade or so, I interpreted the Revelations statement about 144,000 being saved as meaning that only 144,000 of people from all of history were saved, and I was really anxious about that, hoping my family and loved ones (and I) were all counted in that number.

      I also remember at around that time reading Exodus and being very saddened that so many Egyptians were condemned to die in the Jews’ struggle for freedom. I was so conflicted about the possibility that there might have been good Egyptians among the firstborn who were killed by the angel of death during passover. (I’m still curious to know how present-day elaborations of Judaism interpret those deaths. Are they seen as something regrettable done for a higher good? as something imposed by the evil Egyptians themselves onto their own children? as something else entirely? If anyone here has a reference to something written in the Jewish tradition that discusses this, I’d be much obliged.)

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      • Hell, when I’ve read about the Exodus the part that always whallops me over the head was God hardening Pharo’s heart so he wouldn’t repent and let the Jews go after a certain number of tribulations. I mean what the hell???

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    • And framing the torment of hell as something I choose by rejecting God fully and not wanting to live in heaven still leaves me scratching my head. I can’t imagine any sane person choosing eternal separation from even a shred of anything good, true, or beautiful. People just don’t act that way, even in YouTube comment threads. At my worst, I’m motivated by some sense of pleasure or satisfaction. Even the Joker in The Dark Knight found satisfaction in spreading chaos.

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  4. The Hebrew peope picked up the idea of hell from some neighboring tribe of goat herders. That and the laws of physics makes the idea pretty improbable..

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      • Which might explain hell hounds, guarding the gates, too. Since that’s also, seemingly, where the bond between man and wolf developed, leading to the evolution of man’s best friend.

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    • 1. The Jewish concept of Hell is nothing like the Catholic/Protestant concept of Hell.

      2. Jewish education does not focus on the afterlife at all. It offers very little speculation on the simple logical fact that no one has come back to tell us about the afterlife.

      3. Jewish text on what the afterlife is notoriously hazy. The best concept of Hell is that some believe it means being “away from God.” However, this “away from God” is supposed to be more peaceful than life on earth because life on earth is filled with suffering and pain. The playwright Christopher Durang jokingly called the Jewish afterlife “general anaesthesia”. Others believe that souls go through a spiritual forge for one year and then are sent to heaven. Others believe that every soul simply goes to heaven.

      But there is no place of eternal torture in Judaism!!!

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  5. I don’t believe. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a hell, it’s just that I don’t expect to get there since I don’t “count”. If I do, well, I’ll deal with that when the time comes.

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      • Not really. I attended a lecture about a year ago at the UofA discussing what it was that we are meant to minimise; independent premises? substances? entities? The problem was that even though reducing one tended to accompany a simplification on all those dimensions, they came apart on a number of occasions. Importantly, one of the occasions they came apart on was on the issue of God. There was one sense in which the existence of God was simpler because if you accept the God hypothesis, you reduce the number of independent things that had to come together in order for the universe as we observe it to exist. Of course the God hypothesis complicates things in other senses, but that means that we need to settle antecedently what to believe about which kind of simplicity is the epistemically relevant one.

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      • God, particularly with divine simplicity, is a pretty damn parsimonious explanation. Of course, parsimony is not the only, or even the primary, determiner of the quality of an explanation. It’s more an all things being equal sorta criterion.

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      • I don’t see God as a parsimonious explanation. It requires an explanation of its existence, which cannot be simpler than the explanation for any other thing existing, and on top of that it requires explanation for being supernatural, which no other thing existing requires.

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      • The classic arguments for the existence of God (including their more contemporary versions) are not at all complex, at least not in terms of the number of pieces. They usually just require a few meticulously defined concepts. I can’t imagine that there’s any sophisticated theistic ontology that is more complex than any sophisticated naturalism that isn’t a form of radical reductionism (e.g., materialsm).

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      • The problem is that God has no explanatory power, your ability to predict details about how the universe came into being are not improved by throwing the word God around. And since an omnipotent and omniscient being would need to be able access every part of the universe, the very concept of God comes bundled with a series of connections that defy currently understood physics and, since they would have to connect to everything, would be as complicated as the universe itself.

        And for the record, I am a materialist, so I’m unlikely to find your “sophisticated theistic ontology” particularly persuasive.

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      • James, I’m not a theist. Also, what sort of materialist are you?

        Of course, there are physicalisms and conceptions of God (or necessary, non-contingent beings; we’ll assume causally efficacious ones) that are compatible, but before we get into that, we’d have to know what sort of materialist you are. The way in which you’ve invoked the laws of physics suggests a degree of scientism and positivism, but even those aren’t particularly narrow labels.

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      • I’m an economist not a philosopher, so my lexicon is probably deficient. But describing me as a reductionist seems reasonable, and I ascribe to “scientism” to the extent that means that I feel science has produced the best (and really the only reliable) description of the structure of our universe.

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      • Fair enough, James. It’s unlikely that there is any conception of God that would be causally efficacious in your metaphysics. Whether your metaphysics is more or less complex than others is a much, much longer discussion.

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  6. Luckily, I’m from a religion whose position on the afterlife is that that there is something after death. Thats about it.

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    • That’d be Jewish yes? A friend of mine once summarized Jewish theology on the matter as saying “yeah there’s something after but we have to focus on this world so lets talk about that”.

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      • Lee,
        I had someone bawling her eyes out, because I expressed a sheer indifference to the concept of heaven. “But don’t you want to be with G-d??” was her comment. She was really, really upset by the concept of someone not caring about the afterlife. My position is “figure that out if it comes up.”

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  7. The problem of Hell/Evil has always been a big one for me (even as shallowly agnostic a religious thinker as I am). If there’re two hallways and one leads to an infinity of pure suffering and agony God doesn’t seem to be doing his earnest best to warn us about it if his efforts amount to flicking obscurely worded notes on the subject written in ancient arameic and greek at us when we’re not looking.

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  8. If we’re going to play the game of “many” and “few” and of favourable re interpretation, is there any room for interpreting many in the sense that even 1 person in hell is 1 too many and even everybody less 1 in heaven is 1 too few? i.e. even if many go to hell and few go to heaven the few is numerically greater than the many. because no matter how many go to heaven less than everyone is still too few and no matter how few go to hell even 1 is too many.

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    • Yeah, what kind of person would find heaven heavenly knowing just about everyone they knew and loved was being eternally tormented? Thus heaven becomes hell and everyone is eternally tormented.

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      • ,
        This actually kind of happened at the end of the Mahabaratha. The Pandavas and their wife* Draupadi were trying to climb to heaven via some mountain and one by one they each fell down and died except Yudishtira, the eldest who made it to the top. When Yamaraja took him to heaven, he asked where his brothers and wife were and he was told that they were in hell. So he went to look for them in hell and found them. Then he pretty much said the same thing about being in heaven when his family was suffering would be no heaven for him. So, he said that he would stay in hell. As all these stories go, it was only a test which he passed. So, they all ended up in heaven.

        *Yes, one of the oldest epics in the world had polyandry and they were not bad people for doing it.

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  9. The mere humans who wrote the Bible – the same mere humans who shrugged at slavery, justified tyranny, and said women should be subservient – well, they also had some horrid ideas about the afterlife.

    Does this surprise? Should it?

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    • The Bible actually doesn’t contain much about the afterlife, especially the Jewish part. The Bible also doesn’t justify slavery or tyranny. It actually has many bad things to say about tyranny, note Samuel’s warning on the evils of kings or Nathan’s attack on David for what he did to Uriah simply because he could. It doesn’t shrug at slavery either.

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    • The evolution of Hell is an interesting one (almost as interesting as the evolution of Satan) but when you look at when Hell was really taking off, it was during the time of Roman Persecution.

      Saint Ignatius’s letter where he talked about how he was going to be “ground by the teeth of lions as wheat is ground into flour, in order to become a fine bread for Christ”? That’s something that gets in your head.

      The stories of Christians being martyred in games (I understand that there is pushback to the true extent of the persecution but, seriously, it did happen to some fairly high profile folks) carried with it the idea of Christian brothers and sisters being maimed and tortured and killed to the cheers of the crowd. To applause.

      The thought that the early Christians would gain some comfort from the idea that, in Heaven, some of the entertainments would include the shoe being on the other foot is usually shown as being scandalous (if not hypocritical) when, as you imply, it shouldn’t be surprising at all.

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  10. I like your definition of Heaven and God as love, Kyle.

    I struggle with comprehending why the notion of an afterlife is so important to humans; beyond the obvious fear of oblivion. To me, it speaks of the futile hope of reward and comfort in this life so common to the human condition; the inability to find enough justice for many of the horrors humans commit.

    I believe what we have is here, now. And I cannot help but wonder if putting off appreciating here and now contributes to lives less the fully lived; a search for clarity in what we might imagine after instead of clearly seeing the days we have.

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    • I’ve seen a focus on the hereafter come at the expense of what’s in front of people’s noses. I know of a guy who would tell people who worked for charities that they should refuse to help unmarried couples find shelter because they would be encouraging these needy people in their sin. You have to stand up for Truth, see, even if that means people have to suffer because of your righteous stand. You have to care for their souls more than for their bodies.

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    • Of course this is precisely what Karl Marx meant about the opiate of the people. Preach pie in the sky by and by to get good behavior now and be content with your lot in life.

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      • I actually thought Marx meant something a little different, but related. The opiate was just a source of comfort to people exploited in this dark capitalist world. (At least that’s what I’ve been told. I’ve never read Marx, just as I’ve never read the entire Bible.)

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      • This oft- ( and usually inappropriately) quoted phrase is from Critique of Hegel.

        The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

        Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

        The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

        Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself. .

        Despite the hilarious castratto bleating of various and sundry around here, the concept of Hell appears in every religion and even Buddhism. Life is replete with injustice and not all crimes are punished. Nor are the good rewarded for their deeds in this life. Quite the opposite is true, the wicked flourish. The Psalms are full of such complaints. Hell and Heaven represent the hope of justice, a vexing enough topic in this life. Don’t you worry yourselves about what Religious People believe about Heaven and Hell. Hell is other people, said Sartre.

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    • Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.

      Surely there are a spectrum of alternatives here? I very much appreciate that heaven and hell serve as ways of holding on to goodness, happiness, and justice in a world where they seem out of reach. But it is that effort of envisioning, not so much the procedure or method that must matter, no? And any such procedure would likely be subject to perversion?

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      • Human society has attempted to enforce standards of justice — such standards and such enforcement define society. All the early societies were propped up by religious authorities — often the kings were the ultimate religious authorities or the locus of such authority. The Queen of England remains one such authority. The Emperor of Japan is another. In many Islamic countries, conversion away from Islam is punishable by death.

        Insofar as every society has its own axioms, those differing axioms define the spectrum. Every society has prisons and every religion has a hell, or at least posits some consequences for unpunished naughtiness in this life. Same-same. As below, so above. Religion is the flower which grows on the plant of Society. That’s why there are so many of ’em.

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  11. As LeeEsq explained above, I come from a religion whose concept of the afterlife is that “it exists” but we don’t know what it is. As I explained to James, the Jewish concept of hell is more like away from God and it is still supposed to be more peaceful than life on Earth because life on earth is filled with pain and suffering and tragedy. The Jewish purgatory (if one exists) is supposed to last for a year more. Keep in mind that Original Sin is also a concept that is absent in Judaism.

    Honestly, the stress and belief in Hell is always what struck me as a weakness in Christianity especially in Evangelical/Calvinist Christianity. Jesus is supposed to be the Son of God. He is supposed to be all loving and all compassionate. Yet people would be sent to a life of eternal torture for not simply not believing he was the Messiah. That does not sound very all loving and all compassionate to me.

    I don’t know whether God exists or not but I know this much.

    1. There are hundreds of religions in the world and many of these are older than Christianity. There are now defunct religions that existed before Christianity as well.

    2. The majority of people in these religions are neither purely good or purely bad. They are a wonderful mix of contradictions in thought and action because all humans are a wonderful mix of contradiction and inconsistency in thought and action.

    3. Why do multiple religions exist? Why would an all powerful God create these religions and then make people suffer? It makes no logical sense and all Christian attempts to explain this and apologize for the belief in the supremacy of Jesus are lacking.

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    • Honestly, the stress and belief in Hell is always what struck me as a weakness in Christianity especially in Evangelical/Calvinist Christianity. Jesus is supposed to be the Son of God. He is supposed to be all loving and all compassionate. Yet people would be sent to a life of eternal torture for not simply not believing he was the Messiah. That does not sound very all loving and all compassionate to me.

      In the context of the early church, I think it makes sense. If you take the account of Acts as more or less historical, there were many who persecuted the church. Families were divided. Some faced punishment by the authorities at the time. The Pharisees and Sadducees of the day seemed to view them as heretics, and the close association that they shared with Judaism, being seen as a sect by some Romans, probably didn’t help them much after rebellion and the fall of Jerusalem.

      There’s a lot of discussion in the New Testament about holding fast to the faith, not turning back, enduring, overcoming adversity, so the idea of Jesus returning and vindicating their faith before their adversaries probably appealed to them, as did the concept of those who mocked or fought them being cast out of God’s graces for all time while they enjoyed heaven.

      It’s a human response, and they may be right, but I don’t think so.

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    • NewDealer,

      Why do multiple religions exist? Why would an all powerful God create these religions and then make people suffer? It makes no logical sense and all Christian attempts to explain this and apologize for the belief in the supremacy of Jesus are lacking.

      I agree with your last sentence here, except I’d add that not all Christians necessarily do that. (Most Christians probably do, but I’d suggest that not all do.) C. S. Lewis (yeah, him again) speculated (in Mere Christianity, I believe) that just because Jesus is “the way” (so he believes), it doesn’t mean that everyone who is saved through him knows him as Jesus.

      That idea still smacks of the supremacy of Jesus. Other religions are okay, as long as they approximate Christianity. In other places, in fact, he claims that other religions, as they evolve, tend to approximate Christianity in form. So for him, all other traditions are imperfect Christianities.

      I don’t believe that (and I’m not sure I can call myself a Christian, at any rate). I am, however, amenable to the idea that perhaps there is one way to “salvation”–which might mean happiness/contentment on earth or happiness in the afterlife, if the latter exists–and that most belief systems (including atheisms) are manifestations of that way, some perhaps more effectively than others. I see this all less as salvation/damnation, and more as “cure to suffering,” or a formula to cope with, and maybe even flourish, in life, with respect and love for others and for oneself.

      That’s all a nice theory, and I think it is welcoming to most perspectives, save both the extremely absolutist ones (like that of the particular Christians you refer to) and the extremely relativistic ones who (not without reason) are skeptical of the idea of a one true way and see (again, not without reason) dangers in idea in the oppressions and chauvinisms it can lead to. But although I am “amenable” to the idea, I’m not completely sold on it. I have theories of what the attributes of that one way might be (which would include a focus on humility), but it would be hard for me to prove that 1) that way is the right one and 2) all/most belief traditions approximate it (one can always take a text and read what one wants into it).

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  12. There were two reasons that caused me to reject the hell as eternal medieval torture room.

    The first is that torture for all eternity without a moment of respite, mercy, hope of pardon or release seemed inconsistent with the nature of perfect justice. Some Christians are often fond of saying that if you lived a life in accordance with the commandments of God, but failed in one point, say telling your significant other that they don’t look fat in that dress when they do, you would be tortured for eternity. It seemed rather inconsistent with the idea of justice.

    The second, as mentioned by another poster, is that heaven is a place without tears, yet I could not abide in joy while a loved one suffered such anguish without hope. So either heaven would be filled with the cries of the saints begging mercy for their loved ones from their Father, or God would somehow fundamentally alter us so that we were incapable of empathy and compassion, which would seem such a violation of our core essence that God would be a monster for doing so.

    I now see hell as more of a self imposed exile. The fires speak of the presence of God, who is elsewhere described as a consuming fire. Christians are said to pass through the fires leaving behind all of the worthless things and deeds they accumulated and emerging purified. While the fire is purifying, it is also painful to those who have spent their lives focusing on temporal things and themselves, so that they would be destitute if they passed through the fire. So they try to flee, but cannot. The presence of God continues to prick and torment their soul because they know they need to let go and face it but are not ready yet. But I think, in the end, that love will win out.

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  13. My understanding of hell is this: as a Christian, I have to meet a high standard of behaviour because of the things I know. I don’t know if others have to meet that standard. I know that there is nothing clearly spelled out about what non-believers have to do to attain heaven. The analogy I use as an East Coaster is I-95 and Route 1. They both travel the same direction. If you take I-95 you’ll definitely get where you’re headed. If you take Route 1, there are traffic lights and bypasses and sometimes the road changes names. You might get where you’re headed, you might not. I don’t know. You ask me how to get there, I’ll tell you to take the interstate.

    My hunch is that you’re rated on the degree to which you embrace the truth you know about. And that truth is love, so we’re not talking about an intellectual test.
    A Muslim who doesn’t know anything about Christianity but opens his heart to worship as he understands it is acting in better faith than I am a lot of the time. Objectively, he’s going to make a lot of mistakes, because he conceives of a God who is strength to be submitted to, rather than a God who is love to be loved in return. But the subjective counts too.

    Eh. Take the interstate. It’s got giant signs.

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  14. My father used to toy with the few door-to-door religious evangelists who’d come by the house (Seventh Day Adventists, etc). It would generally go something like this:

    “So who all is going to heaven?”

    “Why we are! We know the path.”

    “So who else? What about the Catholics? What about the Jews?”

    “Nope. They have to be born again.”

    “Well what about the Episcopalians and Methodists?”

    “Nope. They don’t properly interpret the scriptures.”

    “Well, to me that says there’s a lot more people going to Hell than going to Heaven.”

    “Well, that’s certainly true!”

    “So to me, that says that Satan must have more power than God, because he’s gettin’ more souls, and I’m going with the one with the power!”

    At that point they’d usually blanch and flee.

    Sometimes he’d tell them that he’d made a deal with the devil in which he wouldn’t go to church on Sunday if Satan wouldn’t let it rain on his golf game, and he’d finish with “and I get to play golf most every Sunday.”

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  15. Can I take the claim “There is a God and he loves us,” or some such claim, and say that it is “not literally true” too?

    Watered down religion is better than in literalism and Biblical Innerancy (only) because the latter is stupid and really pernicious.

    Isn’t there a lot of non-literal truth in Islam and Buddhism too? So aren’t you also as much a Buddhist and a Muslim (and everything else, including Scientologist) for the exact same reasons that you are a Christian?

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  16. I’ve always viewed Christ’s language in terms of an enlightenment trajectory. The kingdom of heaven is the state of being peacefully present. Sin is anything that removes you from the perfect peace only attainable by being perfectly present. Hell is a state of radical departure from the peaceful present: fear, anger, lust, worry, etc. Most of us are damned. Only a few are chosen.

    Well, “chosen” is the wrong word. Only a few attain the kingdom of heaven, but being chosen has nothing to do with the description of things.

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    • Actually, thinking about what I wrote, I realize that of course I haven’t always viewed New Testament language that way. It’s something I’ve come to, but can’t remember when. It just seems like forever.

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  17. Well let’s see… obviously non-believers are damned, simply because they have rejected The Word of God. That said, you’re okay if you haven’t heard The Word. Then we have the Buddhists, and any animists who are still around, and all those who have adopted “non-Judaeo-Christian” beliefs. The Jews, clearly, have rejected Jesus and so will burn in hell. The Muslim must also burn, as he does not accept Jesus as God. The Mormon? Burning – he believes all sorts of heresy.

    After those groups and similar, we start getting complicated. Roman Catholics? Oh boy, they will burn for sure – they worship icons and pray to “saints”. Eastern Orthodox likewise won’t make the cut (splitters). Copts? Feeling the heat. Anglican? Well – maybe some of the low Anglicans will scrape through, but those high Anglicans are in Big Trouble! Pentecostals will surely have some difficulties.

    In fact, after all this weeding out it’s going to be just the Baptists who scrape over the line, and that excludes the Southern Baptists.

    Oh, and there is absolutely no biblical basis for a purgatory.

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  18. Even coming from the Catholic tradition, I have always been a little put off by the insistence and attention paid to the idea of God as the Punisher-in-Chief. It strikes me as more in line with human desire to mold Him in our image, than anything else.

    Having said that, the idea of universal salvation also strikes me as vacuous. We know that good exists- we have all been witnesses to to it. And we also know that evil exists- we have all witnessed and experienced it firsthand.

    The idea that someone could knowingly reject eternal communion with the ultimate good, and prefer eternal communion with ultimate evil strikes me as perfectly reasonable. We see people make this sort of choice all the time, choices that seem bizarre and self-destructive, yet do make sense to the ones involved. I think trying to paint it as mental illness is hand waving, a way to try and discount that there is a rational element to evil.

    How many would make such a choice? I couldn’t begin to guess. I think there is a certain immodesty to assuming the answer is ours to know.

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    • I have always been a little put off by the insistence and attention paid to the idea of God as the Punisher-in-Chief.

      If you say so. I think the last time I heard a sermon which mentioned one of the four last things was in 2004 or thereabouts. The last time I heard one that mentioned all four was in 2001.

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