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Friday, September 02, 2016

Hell and Damnation

We should interpret religious concepts as hard-earned wisdom about what civilizations need to survive.

O kay, enough gloom. Enough about Hillary and Donald. Let's talk about something cheery for a minute, like death, hell, and eternal damnation.

Religious fundamentalists (warning: may hang your browser) say that hell is an actual, real place and our souls will go there after death if we don't believe.

This is what we were all taught in Sunday school, but theologists have trouble with this idea. Many of them now follow St. Irenaeus, who considered hell to be ‘separation from God’ instead of fire and brimstone: a place more like Mars or perhaps Neptune instead of sulfury hot Venus.

But this also poses a problem for theologians: if God is omnipresent, how can there be any place where he doesn't exist? And why would believing, or pretending to believe, that some particular deity exists make any difference? The modern mind needs a plausible explanation about how all that works.

Autographed picture of Satan
Autographed picture of Satan. Don't ask me how I got it.

The alternative, annihilationism – the doctrine that unbelievers will simply cease to exist – is also problematic. How, theologians ask, can it be reconciled with the doctrine of an immortal soul? A soul is either immortal or it's not. If it is, then God is killing immortal beings.

Atheists get a lot of mileage from these questions. They argue that hell is a transparent attempt to maintain social control by threatening a form of punishment that occurs automatically. A scary story that can't be disproved, they say, is a sophisticated form of crying wolf. Sooner or later, sinners will figure out they're being tricked.

If Christianity is true, atheists argue, why must we be threatened into believing it? Is that even possible? Even theologians like Paul Tillich are uncomfortable with this idea: he called the literal understanding of hell and heaven an ‘absurdity.’ He considered them to be metaphors for states of blessedness or despair.

But what if the ancients actually meant ‘you’ in the plural sense, as in: if your society commits this or that act, adultery, murder, or whatever, your society will no longer have eternal life, meaning your civilization will eventually die out?

It seems to me that this interpretation not only is plausible, it is a quite sensible opinion, even for atheists, to hold.* The truth of it has been borne out numerous times throughout Western history.

In this interpretation, if we substitute the word ‘fate,’ the whole God thing makes a lot more sense. Take the Biblical story about Uzza, the guy who was transporting the Ark of the Covenant. He notices it falling off the cart, reaches around instinctively to catch it, and God kills him dead. Or take the story about Abraham's sons getting too carried away with celebration. They get too close to a sacred bonfire, so God reaches out and incinerates them. This makes no sense for a personalized deity. Any conscious being would have to take into consideration the person's intent. But it makes perfect sense for a natural force.

Maybe if Christianity reinterpreted its teachings in this light, it would make their ideas more palatable to the modern mind. Instead of dictates from a supernatural authority, we would be learning the hard-earned wisdom of the ancients. It would give the religion room to grow and evolve. Such wisdom is needed now more than ever.

Ironically, that might also be just what Christianity needs for it to obtain eternal life. For atheists, that would indeed be a living hell. But that might just be a cross worth bearing.

* It's not clear who originated this idea. I first heard it in a book by David P. Goldman, though I suspect it may be a traditional Jewish belief.

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