I spoke earlier this week about the religious preoccupation with the just world fallacy – the unwarranted assumption that there is a force for justice that exists to balance the world. It is described in great detail in a variety of ways – reincarnation, paradise vs. torment, divine providence, supernatural battles between good and evil – all with the underlying assumption that there is a just and ‘reasonable’ explanation for the disparities we see all around us. The version that has been adopted by Christianity (I say ‘adopted’ because the concept of Satan as we understand it today was borrowed from the Zoroastrians) is particularly vivid.
And now someone done gone and messed with it:
Evangelical megachurch pastor Rob Bell told a Nashville audience he did not anticipate the firestorm he would stir with his book that questions the traditional Christian belief that a select number of believers will spend eternity in heaven while everyone else is tormented in hell. Bell said that he not only didn’t set out to be controversial, he had no idea his bestseller, Love Wins, would bring condemnation from people like Southern Baptist Seminary President Albert Mohler, who claims Bell is leading people astray.
While it might seem ridiculous, this is no trifling matter to many believers. Removing the idea of hell spits in the face of the myth of ultimate justice. If good people are not rewarded in excess of the evil people, what sort of justice is that? If faith and adherence to the bizarre moral strictures of the religious tradition are not rewarded, at least there should be some punishment for those that stray from the flock. If this doesn’t happen, then what sort of justice is at work here?
But of course there is no ultimate justice, either in heaven or in hell. They are both a bunch of cobbled-together images borrowing from Zoroastrian, Jewish, Greek and Islamic folklore. As such, it makes little difference (in a realistic sense) whether you teach that YahwAlladdha is all-encompassing love, a jealous and vengeful dick, or a fluffy bunny that craps rainbows. They’re all equally inaccurate descriptions of a non-existent entity. From a theological sense, however, it makes worlds of difference. If people don’t walk around fearing ‘infinite punishment for a finite crime’ as Christopher Hitchens would say, then what possible motivation could you possibly have to avoid sin?
This is, of course, a problem that seems to uniquely plague the religious. I would like to think and believe that religious people, by and large, don’t go around intending to commit atrocities but stay their hand only because of belief in a punishment meted out later after they die. The very idea flies in the face of my experience of every religious person I’ve ever met (in person at least). Hell seems to be one of those things that is useful for scaring children, like the Boogie Man or monsters under the bed, but can be discarded once one reaches the age of reason. Most serious theologians don’t even believe that there is a literal hell, at least when you manage to pin down exactly what they do believe – theologians are a slippery bunch.
So if fear of hell doesn’t carry any moral force with it, what is the harm in writing a book that says essentially what most of ostensible Christians already believe anyway? Why is it such a heresy to decry the idea that unbaptized babies, anyone who has ever thought about having something her neighbour owns, and the billions of people who have lived and died brought up in other faiths, that all of these people deserve an everlasting horrific punishment? Are Christians really that vindictive?
My suspicion is that, like most absurdities that accompany religious fervor (the religion of peace responsible for ongoing mass civilian deaths, for example), Christians just haven’t thought that hard about it. Either that, or they can only follow the path of rational thought so far before they reach the precipice of faith and have to make a decision about whether or not to follow the version of faith they’ve been taught. It takes a great deal of courage to challenge your entire world view, and most people aren’t that brave. I honestly do believe that even the most fervent, tongues-speaking, Isaiah-quoting, dyed-in-the-wool evangelicals are, at their core, decent and moral people who have just got some crazy ideas about fairness and justice.
But when someone begins to knock down the edifice of your closely-held beliefs, or worse, when someone convinces your children to think differently from you, and you’ve been told that even the slightest deviation from the prescribed path means unspeakable horror for all eternity, you’ve raised the stakes far beyond reasonable disagreement. It then becomes a clear threat not only to your beliefs, but to your soul as well. It is at that point that people stop reasoning and let the feelings take the wheel, which is never good for the side that isn’t willing to kill for what they believe in.
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What about religions that have no concept of hell? They seem to have functioned perfectly ‘fine’ in its absence.
Let me answer this question by repeating the word ‘Jesus’ until you’re hypnotized 😛
You’ve made a great point, and it touches on the very core of this post’s topic – the concept of hell is completely superfluous to the religious experience. I can only speculate as to why people would be upset that someone says it’s not there.
Thanks for your comment!
I think there may be an interesting sort of trade-off in using hell in religious dogma.
I came from a fire and brimstone kind of evangelical church. I think that the idea of hell kept me entrenched in Christianity for perhaps a longer time because I was afraid to go too far in questioning the religion. Example – what if in the process of questioning I commit the “unforgivable sin” and then I decide that this whole thing is true…then I’m going to go to hell! I had to take the act of stripping away faith very very slowly.
However, because I came from a church that had a super mean god who would send people to hell (and hated women), I may have been more likely to question his existence.
Also I will say that even though I identify myself as an atheist, every now and then I still think about hell and get scared. I have to try to tell myself that it’s just all nonsense and there is nothing to worry about – like people do with any silly thing they get scared off.
So I think some people would get upset about taking away hell because it takes away some of the power that the church has over people’s actions. Also, I do think people want some justification for living under terrible oppressive religious rules that they perform and others don’t.
Paisley, that is an excellent point. There is perhaps a sort of Catch-22 about a loving/hateful god: people are more likely to believe if their God is flowers and sunshine, but that simultaneously takes away the fear that incentivizes piety and adherence.
I have smart readers 🙂
I too occasionally find myself asking “what if it’s true” questions, but those moments are becoming less frequent.