MANY PEOPLE WOULD RATHER DIE THAN THINK; IN FACT, MOST DO. — BERTRAND RUSSELL

Apologetics VIII: heaven, hell, free will

I’ve decided to let this be the final edition on this series since it seems that any other arguments I meet in the remaining chapters, “Salvation,” “Christianity & Other Religions,” “Objective Truth” and “The Bottom Line,” merely rehash the same fallacies and question begging, or beginning with that which is trying to be proven, that I’ve already spent much of real estate addressing. This post covers heaven and hell, free will, and that which must have occurred in the mind of God prior to everything.

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Having thus done away with nearly every argument the authors of Handbook of Christian Apologetics have presented for the after life, it’s almost logically absurd to then attempt to examine their (and religion’s) claims on heaven and hell, but since these notions are so entrenched in doctrine, and at least with the latter “place,” and sometimes even with the former, creates in so many young people an abiding and impenetrable fear of death, they must be addressed. I, myself, remember living for quite some time in unheralded fear, ever looking to the skies for the second coming, quite liking my current life, and frankly, not looking forward to the end of it all.

Religion, however, can’t wait for it, for it is then, that every eye will dry, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess the true lord. And then, with winnowing fork in hand, the great Judge will separate the wheat from the chaff, the saved from the damned, in the cosmic and spiritual end game of all time.

The authors, after some unnecessary remarks about reincarnation, begin with another maddening self-created list of objections, this time 29, to which they claim to answer in turn. I cannot go through every single one but will highlight some keys points.

Their first answered objection is this: “The idea of heaven is a prescientific superstition,” and their first answer is that, “That objection is unscientific. The scientific way to refute an idea is by evidence, not name-calling.” But the authors are working from a backward premise here. Fantastical claims, like the existence of some place, in this dimension of another, require fantastic evidence, for even if our telescopes and modern means of observation can’t yet reach these realms, the question of whether places like heaven or hell exist would emphatically be a scientific question. For, a world in which heaven or hell or God exists would be a very different world from that which these elements do not exist. To claim that these are spiritual worlds, and thus, outside of the scope of science is to provide a cop out answer and to provide license to claim anything about anything. I could claim the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a real presence in my life. For instance, and I can claim that he is totally spiritual but has a real presence in my heart. And most everyone would call me crazy or deluded.

The authors’ next point on this objection is that, “Plenty of ‘prescientific’ ideas are valid, true and important, not superstitious — for example, birth, death, life, good, evil, beauty, ugliness, pleasure, pain, earth, air, fire, water, love, hate, happiness.” First, life, birth, death, earth, air, fire and water are not ideas, neither are beauty, ugliness, love and happiness. The former are realities of physical life, the latter are emotions and adjectives. I suppose we can say “heaven” is an idea, but we can’t say any of the elements in this list are ideas, in the same way that libertarianism or Unitarianism are ideas. The notion that an unproven spiritual place is somehow equated to any of these observable or noticeable components of human existence is a stretch.

In the second objection of heaven, the authors attempt to answer this, “There is no scientific evidence for heaven.” True enough, but then they skip the tracks a bit when they say, “Nor are many ideas that everyone admits are valid, even the scientist. When the scientist closes his laboratory and goes home and kisses his wife, he does not believe there is nothing there but hormones and neurons and molecules.”

Actually, love, again, is not an idea but a human emotion, and yes, the scientist knows full well that his feelings of love for another are firmly based in science (and here) and have nothing to do with any spiritual realm, for non-believing scientists can feel love as powerfully as believers. Does anyone really think that somehow the phenomenon of love somehow slipped past scientific investigation, that the brightest minds in the world missed some mystical or otherworldly component we call love? That love has the scientific world stumped and at a logical impasse? Love is as firmly based in science as any other feeling.

I skip some objections and land at #9, which says, “Heaven is too dogmatic. How can we know anything about heaven, anyway? If ‘no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived,’ then it has not entered into our hearts yet. It can only be faith and speculation, not knowledge.” Their Reply B is the only one worth mentioning: “‘Only faith or speculation’? But faith is not fantasy; faith is knowledge. Faith is accepting divinely revealed data.'” These statements are false based on scripture. Hebrews 11:1 has this to say: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The “conviction of things not seen” is about as far from “knowledge” as one can imagine, and while the believer may hope for whatever they have faith in to be true, that hope doesn’t make it so. Faith is not knowledge; otherwise, it ceases to be faith, and divinely obtained knowledge is only faith that the information came from a deity. I hope for a world in which people live and die by grace, without ever being subjected to persecution, racism, rape or murder, but I’m under no delusions that this type of world can be achieved any time soon. It’s the unfortunate belief of apologists that this sort of world will never and can never come to fruition under the cloak of original sin, and it’s my belief, in turn, that such a world can never come to be while religion continues to denigrate human life and human solidarity in longing for an after life that’s about as certain as the Flying Spaghetti Monster or Russell’s Teapot.

Most of the rest of the objections deal with questions about whether we will be bored in heaven, will we miss our loved one once we get there, will we mourn those who might have gone to hell and how are notions like resurrected bodies and new earths possible. The answers provided (except for the point about being bored) amount to this: we don’t know but God does, and we’re sure he’s sorted through those issues. On the point about boredom, the authors have this to say: “Heaven will not be boring because it will not be merely the satisfaction and the lulling of desire. It will not be merely contentment, which gets boring, but joy, which does not. Joy is as passionate and dynamic and stimulating as desire itself.” This is all complete speculation, of course. The authors have no idea what heaven will be like no more than any pastor or biblical scholar. Pulling some quotes from C.S. Lewis and Revelation are far from adequate to accurately a) describe a place such as heaven and b) to prove its existence in the first place, for if the gospel of Mark is markedly unreliable in many cases, how much more so are any of the other gospels, and especially the wildly symbolic Revelation.

Included in the next chapter is a list of 14 things about hell, #9 of which raises one of the more interesting (but I would add, revolting) and shocking points in the entire book, and here it is:

“Many have believed, and some still believe, that since there is a hell, God must be a God of wrath and vengeance and hate (We can add, by God’s own admission, “jealous”). It may be that the very love of God for the sinner constitutes the sinner’s torture in hell. That love would threaten and torture the egotism that the damned sinners insist on and cling to. A small child in a fit of rage, sulking and hating his parents, may feel their hugs and kisses at that moment as torture. … So the fires of hell may be made of the very love of God, or rather by the damned’s hatred of that love.”

While the authors seem to make non-believers (They ratchet up the language and call them “sinners”) out to be seething God haters and active revolters against heaven, this, in almost all cases, is not true at all and absurd. For, to actively hate God’s love would be to assume that he exists in the first place, so it would be logically impossible to suggest non-believers hate God’s love. Nor is it a matter of ego. To actively reject a god, while still believing he is there, could be egotistical depending on the person (“I want to go at it alone”), but non-believers, can claim no such egotism because, again, that would be absurd.

The next point is fascinating as well: “Some (Whoever that might be) have taught or implied that hell is forced on the damned, that they are thrown into hell against their will. This would go contrary to the fundamental reason for hell’s existence: our free choice and God respecting it.” Yes … free will. Repent, accept this free gift (which was neither asked for nor desired) or burn. That’s not free will.

I was once asked by a believing friend of mine that if I was standing before God, what would be my one question. I thought about it for a minute, knowing both Bertrand Russell’s own answer (“Oh God, you didn’t give us enough evidence.”) and Christopher Hitchens’ (“Imponderable Sir, I presume from some if not all of your many reputations that you might prefer honest and convinced unbelief to the hypocritical and self-interested affectation of faith or the smoking tributes of bloody altars.”), I gave this one: “Why did you bother in the first place?”

For, in that time before time that the Bible calls “chaos,” God knew the whole game before he set it in motion. He knew, first, that he would get around to, as some point, creating humans. He knew he would endow us with free will. He knew he would plant the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden. For what purpose? To tempt man with a carrot on a stick, as if to say to a 6-year-old, “Don’t you eat any candy this afternoon. Oh, by the way, here’s a cookie jar. We’ll sit that right in front of TV. Look but don’t touch.” He knew, prior to making us, that we would fall. He knew that Satan would enter into the garden, and he knew that he would not stop him. He watched it all happen, there in the chaos in his omniscience.

He knew of the thousands and thousands of years humankind would suffer through all kinds of natural disasters, disease, famine and wars. He knew about the years and years of disputes that would take place between Israel and himself. He knew of the plagues that he would send. He knew they would wander in the desert for years, ever wavering between belief and disbelief. He knew that he would, after years of squabbling with the Israelites, send a son, the human embodiment of himself, to at last, atone for the original sin that took place thousands of years prior and for all present and future sins of man. And all of this, in the mind of God in that early chaos. One might wonder why God waited until about 4 A.D. to send Christ. Why not immediately after the fall? Why not save his loved creation thousands of years of suffering, famine and wandering in the desert? Why not, indeed.

Likewise, Christopher Hitchens has summarized the ultimate problem as well as anyone:

… the idea of a vicarious atonement, of the sort that so much troubled even C. S. Lewis, is a further refinement of the ancient superstition. Once again we have a father demonstrating love by subjecting a son to death by torture, but this time the father is not trying to impress god. He is god, and he is trying to impress humans. Ask yourself the question: how moral is the following? I am told of a human sacrifice that took place two thousand years ago, without my wishing it and in circumstances so ghastly that, had I been present and in possession of any influence, I would have been duty-bound to try and stop it. In consequence of this murder, my own manifold sins are forgiven me, and I may hope to enjoy everlasting life.

Let us just for now overlook all the contradictions between the tellers of the original story and assume that it is basically true. What are the further implications ? They are not as reassuring as they look at first sight. For a start, and in order to gain the benefit of this wondrous offer, I have to accept that I am responsible for the flogging and mocking and crucifixion, in which I had no say and no part, and agree that every time I decline this responsibility, or that I sin in word or deed, I am intensifying the agony of it. Furthermore, I am required to believe that the agony was necessary in order to compensate for an earlier crime in which I also had no part, the sin of Adam. It is useless to object that Adam seems to have been created with insatiable discontent and curiosity and then forbidden to slake it: all this was settled long before even Jesus himself was born. Thus my own guilt in the matter is deemed “original” and inescapable. However, I am still granted free will with which to reject the offer of vicarious redemption. Should I exercise this choice, however, I face an eternity of torture much more awful than anything endured at Calvary, or anything threatened to those who first heard the Ten Commandments.

In the final portion of this needlessly long chapter on hell, the authors answer some objects, and I will only take the first three, which say that the concept of hell goes against God’s supposed love, justice and power. In the latter section about God’s power and his seeming ability to squash hell, Satan and his minions in an instant, the authors say that we must understand God’s nature of omnipotence. “… God’s power does not extend to contradicting his own essential nature. God is consistent. The logical laws of consistency … are reflection of the very nature of God. God cannot do meaningless and self-contradictory things. … One such intrinsically impossible, self-contradictory and meaningless thing would be to have a world with free creatures and no possibility of hell. … To destroy hell means to destroy free choice by destroying one of its options. If there is no hell, no separation from God, then all must choose God, and this is not free choice.”

I would have thought a couple college professors could do better than this. First, if God can’t contradict his own nature and if he is locked in to being consistent, then he’s not omnipotent. If he were omnipotent, he could, if he chose, do “meaningless and self-contradictory things” or anything else that he liked. Thus, the authors aren’t making a great case at all for God’s all-powerfulness.

Second, you mean to tell me that it is out of God’s purview to come up with some way that his creation would not have to face eternal punishment in case they decided to use their reasoning faculties, which he presumably provided, and could not in good conscience, believe based on the evidence? Why only the two-fold option? God is either not all-powerful or omniscient or he isn’t very creative. How about this: He could have rewarded those who chose to believe with eternal life and paradise, and he could have merely left everyone else who did not believe alone and simply allowed them to choose to live finite, non-eternal lives like dogs and cats. Why this brutal and arcane insistence on eternal punishment for folks who tend to think for themselves? This insistence doesn’t even make the case that God is nice, much less benevolent, for a nice God would conclude something like, “Well, people after Adam really had nothing to do with that first human’s decision to disobey me, so I’ll give them a pass.” But no, we have a brutal, unalterable and unreasoned decree onto future generations who were in no way responsible for Adam’s decision. For this follows: just because a member of the human species may be found guilty of rape or murder, the entire race is not guilty, and it would be unjust to pass along that judgment to everyone else.

For some folks, the thought of living this life to the fullest without resting any hope on another life is, to some, a comforting, liberating notion because it makes this life very important indeed, while theories of eternal life and souls make this life almost beside the point. Again, setting up a spiritual game of “Let’s Make a Deal,” in which we had better choose the right door, is not free will because of the existence of only two doors. Where are the third, fourth and fifth options?

One more point: The authors here say that, “The objection claims that a world with no hell is possible and asks why God did not create it. He did! God did not create separation from himself. God did not create hell. We did. God created a perfect world, but in creating humans (and angels) with free will, he left it up to us whether this actual world — the one without hell — would continue to be, or whether another possible world – one with hell – would begin to be.”

But yet, he planted the tree of knowledge in the garden like a carrot on a stick (If he didn’t, who?). Yet, he allowed Satan to enter the garden. Yet, he gave Adam no firm answers (only vague ones) on the critical and eternal consequences of eating the fruit? Yet, God can’t figure out a better way for most of his creation not to suffer eternal hellfire, and he can’t come up with not even one more option? Yet, he foreknew the entire tragic story of human history before he, himself, set the ugly business in motion. Unfathomable.

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About the Author

Jeremy Styron
Jeremy Styron
I am a newspaper editor, op-ed columnist and reporter working in the greater Knoxville area. This is a personal blog. Views expressed here are mine and mine alone.

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