Sunday, February 19, 2017

God as Judge: Heaven and Hell

The Afterlife, Part II, Heaven and Hell
Do the concepts of Heaven and Hell pass the test of reason and justice?

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today
“Imagine” – John Lennon

Please don’t tell what train I’m on, so they won’t know which way I’ve gone.
                                “Freight Train” – Elizabeth Cotton, modified by various folk singers.

Death is perhaps the most unsettling aspect of our existence as sentient beings.  We exist.  As Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.”  We know our existence had a beginning at conception or at birth, although we do not remember it.  And we know that our existence (as we know it) will cease at death, although it may be impossible to actually contemplate our own non-existence. 

The question of what happens at death has been with us for a long time.  Socrates had something to say about it after receiving his death sentence for impiety and corruption of the youth.  Socrates always had something to say.  That was part of his problem.
“….we shall see that there is great reason to hope that death is good, for one of two things: - either death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness, or, as men say, there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another.”

“if you suppose that there is no consciousness, but a sleep like the sleep of him who is undisturbed even by the sight of dreams, death will be an wondrous gain…for eternity is then only a single night.”

“….if death is the journey to another place, and there, as men say, all the dead are, what good, O my friends and judges, can be greater than this? If indeed when the pilgrim arrives in the world below, and he has escaped from those who call themselves jurymen in this world, and finds the true jurymen who are said to give judgment there, Minos and Rhadamanthus and Aeacus and Triptolemus, and other sons of God who were righteous in their own life, that pilgrimage will be worth making. What would not a man give if he might converse with Orpheus and Musaeus and Hesiod and Homer? Nay, if this be true, let me die again and again.”

                                                                                Socrates, 399 B.C. in Plato’s “Apology”
“Apology” is the account of Socrates self-defense in his trial for impiety and corruption of the young, in which he was sentenced to death.

American Views about the Afterlife
Socrates framed the question of what happens at death as a duality; either nothingness, or judgment in another place.  In Socrates’ view, judgment was not given by God, but by men who had been righteous in life.  The question of punishment for the sins of this life is not considered. 

In the 2417 years since Socrates, we are no closer to a consensus about what happens at death.

A large majority of Americans believe in life after death, though the specifics of their beliefs varies considerably.   Somewhere between about 70% and 90% of Americans believe in some kind of life after death.  Only a small minority of Americans do not believe in an afterlife.  There is wide divergence of belief in the details of life after death, with a number of inconsistencies in the range of beliefs about immortality. 

Most Americans (about 80%) believe in Heaven.   Curiously, according to one survey, a higher percentage believe in Heaven than those who believe in life after death.  A smaller number (about 60%) believe in both Heaven and Hell.  A minority group believes that a person exists after death and lives on in a spiritual form in another dimension, but not heaven or hell.  About 50% of Americans believe in ghosts here on earth.  About 20% believe in reincarnation.  There is considerable overlap among individuals’ various beliefs about the afterlife, whether about heaven, hell, a separate spiritual existence, ghosts, reincarnation, or some combination of these.

Dante: Inferno, Purgatory, and Heaven
The Divine Comedy, an epic poem written by Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321), set much of the popular imagery about heaven and hell.  The poem tells of an allegorical journey through hell, purgatory and heaven, as guided by the Roman poet Virgil, and Dante’s life-love, Beatrice.  Each realm of the afterlife is divided into ten circles, representing gradations of sin, circumstance, and merit.  The construct is an attempt to render the afterlife comprehensible from the standpoint of justice.  The simple duality of damnation and paradise is too stark and simple as judgment for the complexity of human experience.  Thus, the souls of pre-Christian philosophers and babies who died before baptism were sent to limbo, in purgatory, according to tradition. 
Illustration of Hell from the 11th century manuscript Hortus Deliciarum (Garden of Delights).

The Christian View of Heaven and Hell
The remainder of this post will focus on the mainstream American Christian belief in Heaven and Hell as destinations in the afterlife.

Jesus will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead.
                                                                -- Nicene Creed
He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty:
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
                                                                -- Apostles’ Creed

It is interesting to note that in the language of the creeds, judgment does not occur at the moment of death, but happens later, at the second coming of Christ.  This is contrary to a common belief about the immediate disposition of the soul at the time of death. 

The ideas of Heaven and Hell are cornerstones of traditional Christian belief.  These beliefs are directly rooted in the teachings of Christ.   In the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, Jesus says that people who ignore the needs of the poor are cursed, and will be thrown “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”.  Jesus also spoke directly of heaven, saying to one of the thieves crucified with him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise”.

The fundamental question here is whether the concepts of heaven and hell pass the test of reason.  Why do we briefly live on earth, if we are to exist for eternity after we die?   And if existence has such an asymmetrical duration, why did God create the realms of life and death? 

The Heaven of the Old Testament is quite different than the Heaven of the New Testament.  The Old Testament (Genesis, Daniel, Nehemiah, Kings, Ezekiel, Exodus, Psalms) describes Heaven as the skies above, and the place where God and angels dwell.  Except for Elijah, who was specifically chosen to rise to heaven, it is not described as a place where humans go after death. 

Heaven in the New Testament is quite different.  Jesus speaks often of heaven, of God the Father in Heaven, and of the Kingdom of God in Heaven.  Jesus tells his disciples that they can aspire to Heaven, although he cautions that rising to heaven is not easy.  Jesus says that unless his followers are more righteous than the Pharisees and teachers of the law, they will not enter Heaven (Matthew 5:20), and says that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God (Matthew 19:24).   

Gustave Dore, Paradise, 1892

But what is heaven, when we get past the cartoons of popular culture -- the pearly gates of Saint Peter and the white-winged angels standing on puffy clouds and holding harps.  What would eternal life be like?  What would it be like after one hundred years?  After the first million years?   After the first billion years?  After the hundredth billion years?  Would any aspect of the human personality persist over such lengths of time?  What is the meaning of eternal life, as promised by Jesus Christ? 

We’ve previously considered the qualities of the human soul, as expressions of the human self: memory, will, self-awareness, thoughts and emotions.  How could these persist for a billion years?  What would remain after these things fade?  Why did God create the realms of life and death, if life in Heaven resembles life on earth?  What does the survival of the soul mean if life in Heaven is different for eternity?  We might consider that the human soul could transform into something else, into a higher kind of being, but for what purpose?  Certainly, whatever might remain after a billion years would no longer be human.  What would such a being do?  What would it think?  Why would it exist, and why would it have begun its existence as a mortal human life? 

Our idea of Hell as a place of fire and torment is drawn directly from the Bible and the words of Jesus.  It is also clear from the words of Jesus that heaven is reserved for only the exceptional few, the most worthy in the sight of God.   What, then, happens to the rest?  By default, they are consigned to hell, or the middling realm of purgatory, as described by Dante in 1320.

Purgatory, Gustave Dore
Theologians and others have spent considerable mental energy in trying to rationalize the justice implicit in consignment to Hell.  Dante’s Inferno is typical of these rationalizations, where different levels of Hell are allocated according to differing levels of sin.  (I have not read Dante, to my regret.)  For example, pre-Christian philosophers such as Socrates was assigned to the relative comfort of the first circle of Hell, because they lived their lives with honor, virtue and integrity, but were not given the opportunity for baptism or salvation.  Dante’s vision of Hell continues in incremental fashion through moderate levels of torment to the deepest levels, reserved for the greatest sins.   Botticelli’s painting of Hell follows this pattern, with the caverns of hell connected vertically by staircases.  Tormented souls lie prostrate along the halls, and the dungeons become smaller with depth.  [The model implies a skewed statistical distribution of wickedness, with relatively mild sinners greatly outnumbering deeply evil human souls.  The model is intuitively correct.]
The Map of Hell, Botticelli, circa 1480 -1490.

But there is limited fairness in this.  Why did God design a world where honorable men had no opportunity for salvation, simply because Christ arrived too late?  

Calvinists take this idea to a horrifying level based on the presumed omniscience of God.  In the Calvinist view, each soul is predestined at conception for either salvation or damnation.  Indeed, since all is known, each soul is predestined for heaven or hell at the beginning of creation.   What kind of justice is this?   What kind of God would call souls into existence, knowing they are doomed for eternal torment and suffering?  What does this say about free will of humans, individual morality and judgment?  What does this say about the goodness of God?  I am reminded of a scene from Disney’s “Fantasia”, during the piece by Mussorgsky, “Night on Bald Mountain”.  The Ukrainian demon Chernobog (literally “Black God”, representing Satan) conjures a handful of flames into beautiful flaming dancing women.   He then torments them through several transformations, each uglier than the last.  Finally, bored with his game, he crushes them out of existence in his fist.   What is the difference between this and the Calvinist view of God, except that the Chernobog eventually ends the torment of his victims, and the Calvinist God torments his created souls for all of eternity?

What kind of God would construct hell?  Do the ideas of Heaven and Hell pass the tests of reason and justice?

An Eskimo hunter asked the local missionary priest, 'If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?'
'No,' said the priest, 'not if you did not know.'
'Then why,' asked the Eskimo earnestly, 'did you tell me?'

We tend to rationalize our visions of divine judgment by constructing models which meet our standards of reason and justice.  Thus, we have Dante’s concentric circles of Hell, with degrees of punishment aligned to degrees of sin.  We have the vision of Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates, checking his list like a bouncer at an exclusive nightclub.  But what basis do we have for imagining reward or punishment?   We have scripture, scripture contains none of the detail which is needed to answer questions of justice.  Further, Judeo-Christian scripture is only one of 3000 competing visions of what divine justice means.   We also have our human instinct for fairness, which we share with many higher creatures.   But to construct models of judgment which meet our standards of reason and justice, and then justify those models based on our instinct for sense and fairness is circular reasoning. 

The idea of Hell fails the standard of justice, because the punishment of eternal torment is disproportionate to any conceivable sin.  The idea of hell is also incompatible with the idea of a good and loving God.  Christians who embrace the idea of a loving God must logically reject the idea of eternal damnation, torment and suffering.  Eternal torment is an asymmetric and unjustified punishment for any temporal sin.  And yet we have no basis for ameliorating the model, simply to satisfy our desire for fairness.  The idea either meets the standard of justice, or not.  And it doesn’t.  Either God is not a loving God, or there is no hell.
William Blake, The Book of Urizen

The idea of Heaven fails the standard of reason.  The immortal existence of the soul, extending into infinite time as a coda to our brief lives, also has an illogical asymmetry.  Why is life in the material world so brief, if the soul lives in Heaven so long?   I have a lot of things to do.  There are a lot of things I should do, but I lack the lifetimes to do what needs to be done.  And I could pass eternity in Heaven with a harp, but that will not allow me to take care of real problems here on earth.  A loving and omniscient God working with intelligent design would have given me a little more time on earth and a little less time in Heaven.

Judging God, rather than being judged, is a revolutionary idea.  I freely admit I stole the idea from physicist David Deutsch, in the book “The Beginning of Infinity”, which I highly recommend.  As reasoning beings, we are obligated to judge God (and our beliefs) according to the standards of reason, justice and goodness.   Belief in Heaven fails the standard of reason.  Belief in Hell fails the standards of reason, justice, and the goodness of God.  A reasoning person must reject these beliefs. 

Elizabeth Cotton (1893-1987), grandchild of American slaves, was self-taught on guitar and became a recognized folk artist in her 60s.  Cotton composed “Freight Train” at the age of 11, performed it in public for the first time at the age of 67, and won a Grammy award for the song at the age of 93.
Like many folk songs from 1850 - 1900, the song is an allegory of death, represented as a train.  

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