Why should I believe in, and so fear, anyone’s conception of an unpleasant hereafter?
Why fear hell?
Whether it involves nothing ‘worse’ than eternal separation from the Infinite, or nastier, forever burning in a river or lake of fire, or being eternally flayed alive by zombies, being repeatedly and horribly stuffed into the cheek-pouches of Xuleus the rabbit god, or being stuck in an infinite loop of birth and rebirth on a Karmic wheel, there appears little good reason to believe that anybody’s version of hell, whatever its name or description, exists.
Afterlife? Probably not.
I’m not a believer in an afterlife of any sort, good or bad, as there seems to be no strong evidence showing any such thing, alleged near-death and out of body experiences aside. To date, no human being has ever verifiably, truly died and returned to tell of it. Cardiac arrest and medical resuscitation don’t count. So called near-death experiences are called that for a reason: NEAR death experiences, not TRUE death experiences. So far, the syllogistic statement “All men are mortal” has consistently held true throughout credible human history.
So, what I have no reason to believe is real, I don’t fear. If I didn’t believe because I feared, by that logic I should be terrified of elves, boojums, jabberwocks, and the boogieman, because I don’t believe those exist either. Sadly, this is not the case. It depends on evidence, not the scare tactics and empty syllogistic abstractions of apologetics.
To date, no one has gone to hell and brought back a demon’s pitchfork made of unambiguously otherworldly metal. No one has ever returned from that same hell with a piece of brimstone from a pit with an isotopic sulfur content unlike any found on Earth. The idea that this unpleasant afterlife exists, or any afterlife, no matter how it’s imagined or believed, is dubious at best.
But let’s for once set that aside and consider the implications of a benevolent god, or gods, and the torture chambers of eternity some are said to have created for the “wicked,” or “infidels” and why yours truly has no concern for the safety of his alleged soul. Let’s examine some of the reasons that the concept of hell is inconsistent with the notion of a truly merciful, just, and morally superior Embodiment of the Infinite.
So many gods, which to choose?
There have been countless gods worshiped for as long as we have been human, all of them believed absolutely real in their own times and by their own followers. The fact that a religion is hundreds or even thousands of years old is no indication that it is the One True faith, even if it is still practiced today. The Babylonian religion and that of Sumer were the mainstream religions of their day, but both faded into relative obscurity over time, and are now practiced by, at most, perhaps, small groups of modern neo-pagans if by anyone at all.
The classical Greek and Roman religions were similar in their status during their own age, and now claim only a handful of followers, again, mostly modern neo-pagans. Christianity is older than Islam, and Judaism older still, but the current-day extent and age of these so-called Abrahamic religions is no guarantee that any of them is metaphysically more True than the others or to other major religions.
If the history of religions past is any indication, all will fade into obscurity, and none will show itself to have greater truth than any other of its time, or thereafter. Hinduism and Buddhism are older than any of the three Abrahamic faiths, yet none of these has held sway over even most of the world’s population either. This tells me that antiquity and current popularity are no real measure of truth. We need better criteria for this. If we cannot correctly, objectively, show which religion is true, and they can’t all be true, for their tenets contradict each other, how can we know whose god or gods are real?
And if we can’t determine that, how can we know whose hell to rightly fear, and so take steps to avoid?
Religions many and multifarious!
With countless religions known and unknown, in the entire history of our species, it’s clearly futile to try them all on for size and pick the right one. One would spend forever, doing nothing else, not even sleeping, just trying to select the ‘correct’ religion, much less following them all. Clearly an impossible task. We could just settle with the religion our parents brought us up in, but that has problems too; what if we were raised in the ‘wrong’ religion and it’s those other people with strange practices, across the water from us, who have the right idea?
Should I worry about having my soul devoured in the Outer Void by Azathoth because I was not fortunate enough to be raised a devout worshiper of Yog-Sothoth? Should I fret about going to the Catholic hell for being brought up a pious Hindu? Or for that matter, should I concern myself about going to the Seventh-Day Adventist hell for being raised a devoted Catholic? These and similar questions present themselves. With no objective way to know which is the ‘right’ religion, how is it possible to choose and avoid damnation? It’s telling that only those who already believe in a religion consider it the True one.
Pascal’s wager? Not so much.
This is why I don’t take Pascal’s wager seriously. Even if we grant the argument, with a possibly infinite number of gods and afterlives to choose from, some yet to be imagined, it has no unbiased criteria with which to choose, and tells us nothing of what god and eternity we should bet on. Never mind the complex issues that incorporating infinities into decision-theory problems causes!
A truly just god (and almost invariably, many though not all worshipers consider their gods not just just, but often supremely just, and therefore the Ultimate Moral Authority of the Universe™) would not intentionally create a place or condition of suffering that lasts for all eternity, just for not being up to snuff, or be so thin-skinned as to torture people forever for finite and petty crimes committed in a life on Earth that doesn’t matter anyway as it’s just a prep for something better or worse. Or worshiping the wrong gods by accident of being born into the wrong culture. Or questioning the faith. A morally superior being would not torment anyone forever for minor violations of code, or accidents of birth, or, if that being granted us the gift of Reason, (without error, and a perfect being by definition never errs) using it to exercise a supposed libertarian concept of free will.
Punishment to fit the crime?
Such everlasting punishment would rightly be considered unjust by mere mortal standards alone, and to everyone I’ve asked, it is: one would expect a god to be more just than we, not less. Such everlasting punishment with no parole or appeal would likely only be dealt out by at the very least an uncaring deity, certainly not the way many people view their religion’s divinity as an ultimate power for Justice.
Clearly, it is logically inconsistent to claim that a god, or anyone, is unconditionally loving, more moral, more forgiving, in short far better than we are across the board, and yet claim that this same Power would create a torture chamber to punish those who didn’t measure up to His (or Hers, or Its, or Their,) standards of conduct, accidents of birth into the wrong family, using our alleged free will in ways not commanded by said deity, or using our allegedly god-granted gifts of Reason, forever. It makes no sense to me, and it’s a cop-out to say that this being “works in mysterious ways,” or that I do not understand a “subtle doctrine of free will,” because those arguments are nothing but special pleading and indefensible. It’s also completely absurd to match the crime to the magnitude of the offended. Finite crimes should be less heinous, not more to a greater being. It’s an inverse relationship, not a proportionate one.
Even if there is a hell, so what?
Even if hell does exist, what if it’s not like how it’s described? What if all the apologists and prophecies are wrong, and hell is a great place? What if hell, and not heaven, is were you really want to go? What if hell is were all the fun, interesting people go when they pass on, not the boring, stuffy, hypocritical tight-ass people? What if hell totally rocks? What if it’s an endless party, not endless torture? There is just as much evidence in favor of these (zero, to be exact) as any other concept of hell, or heaven, so why not?
But what may happen anyway?
Well, I imagine perhaps one of three things will happen to me upon my death: I might enter something like a timeless, dreamless sleep, experiencing not even my own nonexistence; I could wind up in somebody’s version of an afterlife, good or bad (or maybe good and bad, if ours is the best of all possible worlds, and so logically none can possibly be better); or, I could be reincarnated as something better or worse off than I am now. I just don’t know, and neither does anyone else.
The only way to know for certain is to find out on that day I embark on a journey to the ultimate mystery and see for myself. But if human history is a reliable guide, that will be a trip with no return ticket. But that’s okay. We shall see, we shall see.
Tf. Tk. Tts.