Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The ultimate futility of hell and vengeance

With Jerry Falwell dead, there are people speculating about whether he was right about heaven and hell and, if so, whether he's passed muster, or not.

I think it's silly to speculate. You see, there's two possibilities: hell is punishment, or hell is a state of separation that causes suffering (at least of the form "why didn't I make better choices in life?")

Well the idea that vengeance is useful is an idea based on human limitations. If someone has hurt us, vengeance doesn't repair that harm. It might make that person less willing to cause harm to us or another in the future ("I don't want that to happen again!") or make others less willing to do the same thing ("Look what happened to that other person! I'm not risking that!"), but both of those possibilities vanish in the face of God... at least, God as he is defined by the vast majority of Christians.

In the afterlife, God is supreme. There is no need to make anyone afraid of doing something wrong. That we can even speculate that God can imprison people anywhere (including hell) for all eternity suggests that vengeance would be pointless. More importantly, God is said to be good, but if that means "able to watch as someone is tortured for all eternity, when that torture yields no benefit", we've lost any sensible meaning of the word "good".

If there is a hell, it can't be God pointlessly punishing people for all eternity, unless we redefine God to be a really nasty piece of work. And it's pretty stupid to think that such a nasty piece of work is going to be mollified if you say that you accept the sacrifice of his son as payment for your sins.

So that leaves us with the possibility of a self-inflicted hell... if people have rejected God, when they die, they are unable to find heaven because they've already rejected it. C.S. Lewis considered this the only reasonable explanation for hell (or so I guess from having read much of his work), and even speculated about the possibility of people learning better in the afterlife, and learning to accept the good, and entering heaven.

It's very close to a heresy, known as the Universalist[1] heresy... eventually, all people will be saved (because if there's any chance to be saved, sooner or later, during the course of eternity, that chance will occur).

This kind of vision, with hell being a temporary (though perhaps extremely long lasting) situation that people inflict upon themselves, is one that fits with God as he is described. But that is, again, a heresy. The vast majority of Christians believe that hell is eternal, and salvation after death is impossible.

What kind of a loving being would set up a situation like that, where someone could suffer for all eternity? Even if it was their own fault, love means loving the person as they are and wanting them to grow and learn. Why would God make it impossible for them to grow after death, and stay stagnant for an eternity?

It simply doesn't make sense.

I know, there's someone out there about to say it's a mystery, that it's beyond human understanding, but I call bullshit.

It's clear, from human understanding, that vengeance is limited, and only potentially useful because of human limitations; it's usefulness vanishes when looking at a situation in which God has ultimate power. And no loving human could stand by while another one suffers for all eternity, so it's impossible to believe that God, who is supposed to be more loving than we are, could do the same thing, and could have created us with this as a possibility.

Jerry Falwell isn't burning in hell, not the hell he described. I do believe that he's suffered from some nasty surprises when he saw that the glory and love of God was far, far beyond his limited and hate-filled imagination.

[1] At least, this is what a Unitarian-Universalist website claimed... the other half of the name came from the Unitarian heresy, where people believed that Jesus was not God because there's only one (unit-) God. Of course, these days the Unitarians aren't necessarily followers of any of the Abrahamic traditions.)

While I respect the people who taught me the orthodox view of Christianity. Some were truly good people that had a huge affect on my life for the good. I have thought for years that they were hugely anthropomorphizing God. For an entity that created the universe(s) describing him/her/it with human characteristics seems a huge stretch, something that seems more akin to the ancient Greek gods from the classical period or other ancient vengeful minded religions. As far as hell being a separation from God I first heard something to that affect from a old time preacher in my teenage years at a Nazarene church revival my grandparents attended. He speculated that the fire and brimstone hell would be small potatoes to being completely separated from "Light of God" in the afterlife. I never did hear him say if he believed another chance would be possible for those stuck in limbo.
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