...in a Handbasket

Over on her blog, WNG has posted a link to a story about a pastor who lost his congregation by preaching that no one goes to hell. Naturally, I leapt to respond - my calling as an internet spiritual leader does have its responsibilities. Unfortunately, my pontificating quickly filled up WNG's comment box (please, no comments about filling WNG's box...) so I decided to turn it into an actual post.

When I was taking religion classes as an undergrad, they encouraged us to adopt a "religious studies persona." An alternate, completely neutral personality, through which we could examine religions other than our own, without the interference of our own beliefs and convictions. As you might guess, this was quite difficult, but with effort I was able to develop some detachment over the course of a few semesters worth of classes. Eventually I was able to read about the tenets and rituals of religions that I found at best, illogical, and at worst, outright harmful to the sanity of the practitioner, with a dispassionate eye. I took in the information and digested it without making value judgments on it, then stored it in neat packets in my head for easy retrieval during testing. Despite this concerted attempt to be neutral and even-handed in my treatment of all religious concepts, I was, and still am, baffled by anyone who believes in the concept of hell in the Christian faiths.

The position of the Abrahamic faiths on the existence of this fiery realm is not unique - many religions share this belief - but their insistence on it being an eternal condition is fairly uncommon. Most religions envision a way out for the transgressor after having served a certain period of time - I call it the "hockey paradigm." In these faiths, this place of punishment serves as a "penalty box" of sorts, giving those who have failed to behave properly in this life a chance to learn from their mistakes.

To the majority of Christians (that is, the primary denominations), however, this life is a one-shot proposition. You have only one lifetime in which to get this right, and failure leads to an eternity of torment. These folks hold to what I like to call the "skydiving" paradigm - "If at first you don't succeed, skydiving is not for you."

Now, consider for a moment the two paradigms. Which is more compassionate, hockey or skydiving? It seems clear to me that hockey is far more gentle than skydiving, as it allows a person to grow from their mistakes. Nevertheless, most Christians not only hold to the skydiving paradigm, but insist that their god is loving, benevolent, and compassionate. Throw in the idea that he is all-knowing as well, and you have a real logical dilemma. Observe:

If god is truly omniscient, then he must know where you will end up after death. He knows the good and bad choices you will make, and how your soul will be weighed when the end has come. In fact, he must know all of this before you are even born, in order for him to be truly omniscient. So, in my case, long before my grandparents were even born, god knew that I would come along and fail to believe. He knew that I would question, and find lacking, the Christian faith, thus ending up in an eternity of torture. w00t for me.

So the question becomes, why did he make me? If he knows that he is creating me just so I can live an all too brief life of confusion and suffering here on earth and then go to the fiery pit for eternity, why would he do that? If he were truly compassionate, why wouldn't he simply NOT create me, or anyone else who would fail to believe?

This is just the tip of the iceberg here, but I'm sure you can see the problem. Belief in an eternal hell leads to some difficult rationalizations about god that most Christians aren't really prepared to make. The pastor referenced above who preached that there is no hell knew this to be true, and it cost him his congregation - and let's not beat around the bush here; what it really cost him was his livelihood. His church was a huge one (6000 members on a Sunday!) and his lifestyle was certainly a fairly plush one because of it. Some fundies might claim that he is being punished by god for heresy, but I think he should be applauded for refusing to kowtow to doctrine which he couldn't reconcile. He may only have a congregation of 300 now, but at least those 300 are hearing a message that has some kind of internal logical consistency.

I sincerely believe that the modern Christian concept of hell has been perpetuated as a means of social control. It is believed to be a deterrent to deviant behavior - but that is another topic, requiring me to remove my papal mitre and put on my, um... sociologist's sombrero. Maybe some other time, if you are interested...


Eoin said...

dude sombreros are fun!

I take the whole "hell is a control tool" one step further. Catholicism is a social control, and pretty much has been for a long time. It only makes sense. Kings and peasants alike had to bow before the vatican to get what they wished, and it worked in a uneducated populace: "Give us tithings or else ye will be excommunicated and will burn in hell!"

Also I put it in WNG's box *nudge**nudge* ;-)

(I don't know WNG, so sorry if that offended more than intended. I did it 'cause Linus said not too :-))

Also we need to do something about that white on black text. I know its awesome 'cause you're the black pope, but trying to read that and anything else at the same time makes my eyes hurt.

Nerdygirl said...

"If he were truly compassionate, why wouldn't he simply NOT create me, or anyone else who would fail to believe?"

[Il]logic like that in the Christian faith always makes me think of God in the Preacher comic by Garth Ennis. Ennis' version of God created angels to adore him, and when that got old gave humans free will to choose to love him and then when that wasn't enough for his ego, created a being equal to him to see if it would love him.

Basically, that God is an insecure twit.

His Sinfulness said...


Marx would be proud of you! He saw religion as a form of social control, used to pacify and quiet the workers, and as you pointed out, even some of the upper class fell for it.

And WNG is cool - everyone wants to put stuff in her box...


I am also reminded of the god in the His Dark Materials trilogy - basically a senile invalid who has lost control completely. Makes more sense than trying to figure out how eternal damnation is loving!

MightyMightyMax said...

Well done. Bravo.

One of my favorite arguments is that god is dead or at least no longer cares about Earth and its inhabitants. If you look at the bible in the old testament, and parts of the new, god is an active participant in the outcomes of people's lives. For the last two thousand years, however, he has been mysteriously MIA, and we poor humans have been left to our own devices - left alone to fuck up everything that was given us. All that remains is the natural laws of logic and reason, not that we've ever been good at following those en masse.

Wow, does that make me sound a little bit deist?

I also enjoy pointing out that really only two things happen in the bible: 1. people drink a lot of wine, 2. a bunch of crazy shit happens. And, generally the wine comes before the crazy shit.


I can dust off my sociologist's sombrero if you haven't received yours yet. I think it's right next to my geographer's g-string ;)

WNG said...

I would just like to mention taht this is the SECOND time I have inspired a post from you, HSBP, and you always take the kernel of my idea places I would only have gotten to if I took the time to sit down and actually think ... which we all know I do not do under any circumstances. Maybe I can be the Black Papal Muse?

And yes,Eoin, I am cool and people do want to put things in my box, but that job has been taken...sorry kids!

Emily said...

high five for this post. i too have always wondered about the eternity of hell when forgiveness and redemption are also supposed to be important aspects of christianity. contradictions are fun!

i'm writing my thesis in the field of "fat studies," and religion contributed a great deal to the way fat has been constructed by societies--particularly western ones. it most definitely is a form of social control.

Modig_Bjorn said...

*grins* It's SO nice to essentially be an agnostic. Sometimes I think about what would have happened if I followed in my father's footsteps and continued the family tradition of being a presbyterian minister. This is quickly followed up by a genuine sense of relief that I didn't go down that road.

princess said...

I think hell on earth is a black vatican site that doesn't work (yet-Flynn). go hockey palyers.

Anonymous said...

I said it once, I'll say it again: your argument only applies to those believers who insist that God is absolutely and universally omniscient, which many of them don't. That is, however, MY carefully constructed neutral persona speaking. My real self is too busy chanting (to the tune of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles song by Vanilla Ice) "GO Preacher, go Preacher GO!"


becca said...

I had to think about this for a while before I commented:

Things that can be good about religion- fellowship, community, sense of peace, felling like we are not alone.

Things that I have a big problem with and probably always will- guilt, fear and eternal damnation. My biggest issue with most modern religions is hypocrisy. I don't feel like I've done very many bad things in my life (really not anything bad enough to send me to hell) but according to Christianity, I will go to hell because I don't BELIEVE. How stupid is that? In other words, if I was a murderer and a rapist, but I accept Jesus into my heart, I can still go to heaven, but if I am a generally good person that thinks there is no god, I'll end up in hell. Silly, don't you think?

Plus, I hate people that are anti-abortion but pro death penalty. That just annoys me.

Bunny said...

This reminds me of so many conversations I've had with Christians. To me, most of Christianity is so full of contradictions I honestly can't wrap my mind around it. Nice to see I'm not the only one who gets confused!

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