February 01, 2007

What Is The Divine Purpose Of Hell?

I posed this dilemma to a born again Christian one day: Suppose a devout Hindu woman, loving, charitable to others of every race, faith and class, devoted mother and wife is preached to about the Christian gospel one day. She listens politely and although she appreciates shared sentiments about God’s love, it does not convince her to change her religion. She already accepts Hinduism as truth and fact is, she is spiritually fulfilled in her own faith and enjoys a relationship with God. Her religion gives her a feeling of hope, peace and well-being in her Hindu tradition. Unfortunately, one day she is kidnapped, tortured, raped and killed by a man who has done this terrible deed not only to her but many other women as well. According to many Christians, this poor Hindu woman will go to hell. It does not matter that she was a good person, law abiding, loving mother and faithful wife. It does not matter that she was hospitable, charitable and compassionate to those in need. All that matters is that she heard the gospel and did not convert to the Christian faith. So for the rest of eternity, this poor woman will be mercilessly tormented in hell, with no hope of redemption. All her good deeds and compassion are futile and forgotten.

Now imagine the man who has tortured and killed her and many other women gets arrested and is sentenced to death. While waiting to be executed in prison, a Christian preaches the gospel to him, for whatever reason, it moves him to accept Jesus as his savior and the criminal converts to Christianity. When he is executed, he goes to heaven for an eternity of bliss. For all eternity, he is rewarded with Divine happiness. All his cruelty and degradation of women in this lifetime is forgotten.

After setting up this very probable scenario, I asked the born again Christian, ‘Where is the universal Divine justice in this?”

When forced to look at eternal reward and eternal punishment in such a visceral way, most Christians are stumped by the cruelty and injustice of what they hold to be true about the nature of God. Hell is supposed to fulfill every conceivable human nightmare, not even the worst Nazi concentration camp compares to it. Yet God will be sending the vast majority of human creation there. Who would want to worship and praise a God that would allow something like this? When faced with this dilemma, the Christian grasps for some way to get God off the hook. The most recent way of abdicating any responsibility on the part of a just and all-knowing, all-powerful Deity who is supposed to encompass all the higher qualities of universal love allowing such a barbaric place to exist where people are tortured for eternity, is to blame the human.

According to them, God gave us free-will, therefore it is OUR choice and OUR fault if we decide to go to hell and not God’s fault because he gave us a way out by accepting their doctrine and joining their church (Which is what they really mean by “accepting Jesus as your personal saviour) because simply saying you accept Jesus is not enough for most. They are not convinced you accept Jesus unless they see you attend their church, contribute financially to their expansion, live according to their specific biblical interpretation and doctrine and more recently in the US, vote according to their political preferences. Freewill supposedly takes God out of the equation because it’s now all on you! But does it?

Imagine for a second a parent who owns a burning stove. The parent has a three-year old child and yet the parent places a lit stove inside the child’s play pen. The parent tells the child, ‘If you love me, do not touch the stove! If you disobey and touch the stove you will get hurt! If you obey me, you will be free from harm.” Now the parent has all the power in the world to remove the stove. It does not even have to exist nor does it have to be right within the reach of the child. It is not even necessary for to test the child’s love nor the parent’s love of the child. Of course the parent loves the child! Of course the child can learn how to love the parent without having a burning stove in their playpen. The stove serves no purpose whatsoever! In fact, it poses more of a troubling question, ‘What parent would do such a thing?” Especially when you take into account that children are naturally curious and often forget and make mistakes. Worse yet, if the child does touch the stove, the parent will simply say, ‘I told you so. I guess you don’t really love me. Well, there’s nothing I can do now, you have to suffer” and watch the child burn alive, screaming in incomprehensible pain and not lift a single finger to help nor allow a chance of redemption.

Does this image disgust you? Does it traumatise you? Well, this is exactly what some people believe about God. In relation to an all-powerful God we are like the curious, still-learning, fumbling three year olds. If you are a loving parent, even in the midst of the child’s most annoying temper tantrum, you would never do such a thing. You know you are infinitely bigger, stronger, wiser and there are a vast range of other ways to earn the love of your little offspring, especially when you bring the concept of eternity into it. Remember, according to the theology that goes along with hell, this lifetime is not all there is, we have ETERNITY to live. So really even if we live to be 100 years, what is 100 years in face of ETERNITY? It is not even the first millimeter in a marathon race. So we are indeed three year olds. Shouldn’t a loving parent have more patience with our unsure, first steps? Should our eternal fate be decided by what we do in the infancy of our existence, even if we were the most terrible of three-year olds? Look at one of the worst three-year olds ever, Hitler, when we measure the horrific things he masterminded in his lifetime against an ETERNITY of torment, it eventually becomes unjust. Eventually he would have lived out the suffering of all his victims, isn’t that enough? Surely, some form of penitence, resolution and purging of the soul should happen by then. Why is everlasting torment required? What purpose does it serve to restore universal balance?

Still, we have not really explored this, “free-will” and what it entails. In conversations with Christians, they would readily admit after some time, that perhaps hell is unfair, perhaps it is barbaric, perhaps it does seem like overkill and perhaps God does not have to allow such a place to exist, but it is God’s prerogative to allow it and we cannot question God, (I disagree of course. Why else would God create me with a brain and how am I supposed to determine right from wrong if I cannot perceive it using my own faculties? How can I even determine God is God?) but they insist, it is still OUR CHOICE to disobey! It is still OUR CHOICE not to love God and end up there! God is not responsible for our choices! So once again the blame falls on us because we have freewill and Christians define free-will as “choice”. Which is not accurate. Freewill entails much more than choice. The correct definition of “freewill” according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary is freewill [n] the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one’s own discretion or [adj.] voluntary. It is important to grasp the correct understanding of freewill and not the deliberate misuse of the word to suit doctrinal constraints. When we understand freewill in the right vein, somehow, the idea of hell poses further problems.

In order to have freewill, we must be free to choose WITHOUT constraint or necessity. The choice must also be voluntary. There is no freewill when choice is made under threat or is coerced in anyway. To illustrate, let’s go back to the burning stove and the parent. If a parent holds a child’s hand over a burning stove and says, ‘Love and obey me and I will let you enjoy your favourite dessert. If you do not love and obey me I will burn your hand off!” certainly, the child has a choice. The child can choose to love the parent get a reward or choose the opposite and get his hand burnt off. But the REAL question is, did the child have freewill to make that choice? The answer is NO. The choice was made under duress. So too is the choice to join any religious sect (as the outward manifestation of love for God) out of fear of punishment or hope of reward or even a sense of obligation. What does it say about a parent who must resort to such lengths to get a child’s love in the first place? Shouldn’t the child’s love be voluntary? Isn’t that the measure of real love? Wouldn’t the true test of our love for God be if everyone had to undergo the same soul learning process throughout eternity and there was no eternal punishment or reward? Then you would have a clearer indication of who chose to love God because they REALLY want to, for there is freedom of fear of punishment and freedom of expectation of reward. NOW THAT IS TRULY FREEWILL!

Currently, there are talks within certain Christian sects of revising their views about hell, taking a second look at biblical doctrine and seeing the possibility of everyone irregardless of belief or lifestyle reaching salvation, if not now, in the many millennia of the eternity to come. The Vatican has already begun doing so. They want people to join Christianity out of love, not fear. The million-dollar questions of course are, “If everyone had the same fate, would you still love God?” “If there was no eternal reward for the good you do, would you even bother to do good?” and “If you cannot use hell or heaven to motivate people to convert, what can you use?” Many Christian sects are finding that they get better quality converts who have more longevity and maturity in their spirituality and more tolerance and compassion for others when they use God’s acceptance and unconditional love and its effect on their lives right now as the only reasons for faith. Fire and brimstone sermons seem to produce over-zealous converts whose faith fizzles out as soon as financial, family or personal adversity hits them. Their expectation or rather certainty of eternal rewards later creates an egocentric expectation of rewards NOW as well. This causes them to think themselves ‘special’ and ‘superior’ to those “evil non-believers.” This “us vs. them” attitude creates violent friction in our world because the “saved” feel they must impose upon the “unsaved” not just through overbearing proselytising but also in dictating EVERY social policy. When I put forth the possibility to believers of this ilk, that the Hindu woman I mentioned earlier can be sharing heavenly bliss right alongside them, they feel VERY offended, ‘No!” they insist, ‘She MUST go to hell! She did not accept Jesus! (or Mohammed if the person is Muslim)!” I often ask them if they would not simply feel very glad and grateful that God was more accepting than they expected? They don’t. They want to get that last laugh and be able to look down, all superior, upon the poor unfortunate souls and say, ‘I told you so!’ This chance to gloat from up on high is a big part of the appeal of hell for some people, especially if they feel insecure, excluded, unpopular and ignored in this lifetime. They can rest easy their slighted personal ego and soothe their religious pride when someone hurts their feelings with the knowledge that everyone will get their just desserts.

I have always found the hellfire doctrine disturbing. I would be depressed 24/7 if I believed it were true. Perhaps this explains the obsession of some to convert you, after all, if you believed almost everyone in your school or office was going to a place worse than Mount Doom for eternity, wouldn’t you be preoccupied with saving them? The problem is, you cannot force people to believe or convert. Faith is a complex thing and most have to be in a particular emotional state to convert or they must have some void to fill. This is why almost all Christian testimonies begin with, “I was at the end of my rope, everything was going wrong in my life, I wanted to die and then one day a Christian preached to me or I attended a revival service etc……..”. But, if life is going well for you, like our loving Hindu woman, and you are very content in your existing religious or non-religious belief and see benefits in it and feel joy and hope for the future you are NOT going to switch beliefs just like that. If certain fundamentalist Christians or Muslims were honest with themselves and were able to look at things objectively, they too could see that if someone of another faith were to preach to them, they would most likely reject it as well, for many of the same reasons other people reject their faith. Those that do convert do so because they were not content in their former beliefs or have problems they need help with or are looking for something to give their lives meaning. Ironically, just as there are people converting from their former faith to Christianity or Islam, there are people leaving Christianity and Islam for exactly those same reasons. Faith is very subjective and very personal. What works for one person, does not work for another.

So for the poor Christian most of the people he tries to save from this hell he believes in, will not convert and he must also cope with seeing those already in his faith leaving to join the doomed. This includes close friends, relatives and in some cases even husbands, wives and children. I think I would go crazy with grief at the human tragedy of it! I find it spine-chilling that most who believe in hell, do not even bat an eyelash in terror that BILLIONS of good people, not of their religious persuasion including, women, children, heroes of our time, talented souls who made great contributions will be tortured in a place a million times worse than a Nazi concentration camp for all eternity. I think any person with an iota of human compassion would find that idea sickening and feel all the more sad to believe it is truly going to happen. The absence of this human compassion is made possible because the fundamentalist labels the non-convert or unbeliever as “evil” or “infidel” even if they are the most peaceable and compassionate person on earth. In order to cope with the horror of it, they need to dehumanise the non-convert, just like the Germans had to dehumanise the Jews. How else are you going to be comfortable with the idea of Ghandi going to hell? I often ask Christians who believe this, “How can you be clapping and praising while believing such a tragic thing? Even if you are grateful that you are not going to be tortured for an eternity, aren’t you devastated by the belief that billions of others will? How can you be worshiping a sadistic Deity that allows such a thing with a blissful smile on your face?” It's like watching adorable little children shout racist, hateful epitaphs at minorities they do not even know, and cheering at brutal treatment of them. It is just as creepy to hear religious people speak of such a ghastly thing with a contented expression on their face, unless of course they take a secret delight in it. I suspect that some do, judging from the swiftness they judge others and proclaim with heated vindictiveness or smug coolness “You’re going to burn in HELL!!!!”. As they say this, does it not form a picture in their heads of the extent of suffering they are envisioning for that person, suffering more barbaric than 100 serial killers could inflict if given free use of their twisted imagination. And do not forget…. for ALL ETERNITY!!!

It has been observed that relatives of victims of brutal crimes who demand to see the execution of the criminal responsible often find that once their wish is granted, they cannot stand to look at it. They turn away from the sight of the person dying. Some even feel traumatised especially if it was a particularly slow, painful execution. As we progress away from barbarism, more efficient, less messy, humane forms of executions have been invented and some countries have done away with executions altogether. In fact, most victims of crime find that only forgiveness of the criminal allows them to get a true release from their pain and quells their hatred and vengeful feelings. Imagine that? Forgiveness gives us peace of mind and helps us connect with feelings of universal love that transcend even the worst inhumanity. Even the criminal finds resolution when confronted and is told by the victim, “You hurt me, I may not understand why, but I forgive you.” If we assume that God also shares our hateful and vengeful feelings towards others, why wouldn’t forgiveness also work on an even more divine level for a Supreme Being? In fact, who is to say, God who has infinite perspective into the past and future development of our souls, is even pissed off at what makes our blood boil? We like to think that it hurts God’s feelings when people reject our religious beliefs, when in fact it is only our feelings that are hurt. Remember we are the three year olds, and God is the wise, all-knowing parent who is not any more personally hurt than a parent is hurt when their three year old poops their pants by accident. Unless God is mean-spirited and abusive, and if God is (which I seriously doubt), then why worship such a being or expect to learn morality from It, which is the argument of many an atheist.

What is the saying, ‘To err is human. To forgive is Divine.’ If it is divine to forgive, then hell is certainly not divine. The concept of hell could only have come from a primitive human mind. Only we, the petty three year olds and creators of torture devices, world wars, concentration camps and burning women alive could conceive of such a bestial, useless place. You see, the idea of hell satisfies a very immediate, primitive human need for vengeance, especially when life is unfair and we see those who do bad things thriving while those who strive for right suffer. There is something in us that longs to believe that there will be a reckoning of some kind for those who go unpunished in this life and a reward for those who were never materially compensated for the good they do. I believe this is only fair, but the punishment (I prefer to call it “effect”) must be EQUAL to the cause. For if God created nature, then the laws of nature are God’ laws as well, so there must also be universal balance to the process. An eternity of torture for a sixteen-year old gangster is not just any more so than it would be just for a parent to light his three-year old child on fire for disobeying him. In addition, everything that exists in this universe exists for a reason. Everything serves a purpose or function that relates energetically to something else. Why must a soul be kept alive for the sole purpose of eternal suffering and never have the capacity to learn and grow? What does it fuel, accomplish, build etc.? What kind of energy does hell create and for what purpose? Hell just seems like a waste of eternal energy and human potential! Hell just seems so unlike every single fundamental law that governs the universe according to the values of a God of love and compassion that understands the fragile and faulty nature of his little children and has ETERNITY to watch them develop and build a relationship with them.