When it comes to discussions about heaven and hell, I prefer Mark Twain’s quip: “Go to heaven for the climate, hell for the company.” Since OnFaith has published a few pieces lately from evangelicals on their theologies of hell (see here and here), I figured I’d throw my 10 cents into the ring and ask: What the hell is going on?
There are probably as many ways to think about hell as there are believers in hell. And as an atheist, I think the right way to think about hell is also the right way to think about heaven — both are nonexistent.
All this afterlife theology raises a lot of questions. Here are just 10 of them I’ve wondered about:
1. Why is faith not only important, but perhaps the deciding factor about who winds up in heaven or hell?
Whenever I’m asked what I’d do if I meet Jesus when I die, I say I would then have enough evidence to become a believer. Apparently, though, that would be too late. If a creator god exists, why would she create so many evidence-based humans if she wants us to make faith-based decisions?
2. Why do the last 30 seconds of life matter so much?
If an Adolph Hitler repented on his deathbed for his role in the Holocaust and accepted Jesus, some say he would go to heaven. I think it would be more reasonable (though what’s reason got to do with it?) for a person to be judged on his or her lifetime actions rather than on an end-of-life belief.
3. If we have free will on earth, will we have free will in heaven?
If so, might we sin and go from heaven to hell? If not, will we be heavenly robots? If God can make us sinless in heaven, why didn’t he create us sinless on earth? So many ifs, so few answers.
4. What moral purpose does eternal torture serve?
We want to rehabilitate evildoers with the hope that they will learn from past mistakes. Even in capital punishment cases we try to execute as painlessly as possible. Why would a purportedly all good and compassionate God burn people for eternity?
5. What happens to people who died before Jesus was born — or didn’t hear of Jesus?
If they can still go to heaven, how does Jesus matter? If they are all condemned to hell, how is God merciful?
6. If we want people to go to heaven, shouldn’t we be committing infanticide?
Wouldn’t it be a blessing to baptize newborn babies and then kill them? Or perhaps encourage abortions, since presumably all fetuses go to heaven?
7. How much more deserving is the worst person in heaven than the best person in hell?
Our earthly binary divisions are usually quite arbitrary. People may vote when they are 18 and buy alcohol when they are 21, but they are not permitted to do so the day before. We recognize such rules for what they are — distinctions without a real difference. Not so when it comes to the cutoff between an eternity of bliss and an eternity of torture.
8. How could heaven be a happy place?
Can you be blissfully happy in heaven knowing that some of your loved ones are being tortured in hell? And what do you do for an eternity in heaven without getting bored?
9. Why did God torture his son?
Couldn’t He come up with a less bloodthirsty way to allow us into heaven than by torturing and killing his innocent son to make up for an alleged Original Sin of an alleged first couple? We praise God for an action that we would incarcerate any human for perpetrating. God seems inhumane, but I suppose that’s because God isn’t human.
10. Wouldn’t a loving God who wants us all to go to heaven make it unambiguously clear how to get there?
Christians, let alone those of other faiths and none, disagree about what to believe or do. Faith? Good works? Some believe we were predestined for heaven or hell before birth, and there’s absolutely nothing we can do to change it. Others say we are all given the gift of faith to accept Jesus as savior and thus go to heaven, but that some people refuse the gift. I didn’t refuse a gift I was never given. A gift is different from a belief in a gift.
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I think these questions can best be answered by applying Occam’s Razor: in trying to understand something or search for truth, it’s best to get unnecessary information out of the way.
This is why I don’t believe the wishful thinking about eternal life found in ancient holy books. My wish is for believers and nonbelievers to focus on helping their fellow human beings and treating them with respect and compassion.
I believe that my afterlife will consist of the repercussions of any good works I have done that survive after my death. I expect my body parts will go neither to heaven nor hell, but to medical school. I will then feel much like I did before I was born, which was not the least unpleasant.
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