Mar 1, 2023
“Nobody believes in Hell anymore…and that’s a good thing.”
Nothing makes our post-Enlightenment hair bristle more than talk of Hell. Like a tween being threatened with corporal punishment, we cry out, “We’re too old for that!” And too wise and too sophisticated and too…
Nobody believes in Hell anymore…and that’s a good thing. According to Sister Mary Therese (fourth grade), to be in Hell is to burn forever in unquenchable fire. Dante’s Inferno is a honeymoon destination compared to Sister’s version of the underworld.
Today, people who believe in God frequently don’t believe in Hell precisely because they cannot imagine a merciful, loving God subjecting anyone, not even Adolf Hitler, to such a Draconian punishment. Color me in this group…at least on my best days.
I’ve often wondered what happened to my fourth grade classmates. Did we split into two camps? On one side, those who retained a belief in God, but not in Hell, and on the other, those who retained a belief in Hell, but not in God, at least not in the compassionate, merciful Judeo-Christian God.
Turns out, Sister Mary Therese was her own worst enemy. She taught an all too tangible Hell in hopes of reinforcing faith in a maddeningly intangible God. The strategy backfired, of course, big time! Either because we believe in God we can’t believe in Sister’s version of Hell, or because we believe in Hell, we can’t believe in a kind and just God.
Imagine a ‘Pascal Matrix’ with four quadrants, i.e., four possible ‘solutions’: God/Hell, ~God/~Hell, ~God/Hell, God/~Hell. As with Pascal’s famous wager, the only solution that is a win for us is the fourth one (i.e., there is a compassionate, merciful God and therefore there is no fourth grade version of Hell). So we have only a one-in-four chance of ‘winning’, but fortunately for us, the payout is huge!
Do the math: (.25 * 0) + (.25 * 0) + (.25 * 0) + (.25 * ∞) = ∞. I’ll play in that casino any day.
Religious Ed for us (1955) was like watching a horror movie is for you. It scares you out of your wits but when it’s over you make yourself a snack and go to bed. The terror, though palpable, is too terrible to be real. We can’t accept that we live in a universe like that…and if it turns out that we do, then there’s nothing we can do about it and nothing that we do makes any difference or has any meaning anyway.
The nightly news should keep you up, not ‘Chuckie’!
Those of us who grew up in the ‘50s grew up in a forest of dos and don'ts. Water this tree…or else; don’t touch that tree…or else. Our forest was the Garden of Eden on steroids. No wonder we all related so easily to the story of Adam and Eve. We were living it.
‘Or else’ is the key. Everything came with an ‘or else’ attached. Kind of like a Canadian ‘eh’. Even if unspoken, ‘or else’ was presumed to complete every sentence…at least every sentence uttered in the Imperative Mood.
Survival hinged on the ability to deconstruct the vague and all-inclusive ‘or else’. This was our introduction to inverse functions…at age five. The more Draconian the ‘or else’, the less we had to worry about it.
“I’ll murder you, I’ll tar and feather you, I’ll boil you in oil, I’ll skin you alive” meant “pay some attention but don’t get carried away." On the other hand, when the ‘or else’ was some specific, finite, all too imaginable consequence, that was the time to be afraid, very afraid.
Infinite consequences with infinitesimal probabilities do not motivate (or inhibit) behavior. Finite consequences with high probabilities do. Sister Mary Therese swung for the fences…and missed.
How about people who don’t believe in God, or who ‘don’t know’, or who don’t care, or who don’t let ‘horror movies’ (aka religion) spill over into their real lives? Of course, they don’t believe in Hell; why would they?
Or…why wouldn’t they? The 20th century has given us many contemporary, secular versions of Hell. For Sartre and Beckett, Hell is people; for Ionesco and Camus, it’s absurdity; for Ibsen and O’Neill, it’s illusion;; for James Joyce, it’s history; for victims of the Holocaust, it’s the concentration camp.
Another mainstay of Sister Mary Therese’s theology was her belief that the fate of one’s eternal soul was dependent on the ‘spiritual condition’ of the person at the moment of death: “Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”
Since all of us ‘live in time’ and since we know that none of us will ever actually experience death (or know what it’s like to be dead), it requires no great leap to imagine that the content of our consciousness at the moment the external world pronounces us ‘dead’ is the version of who we are that will enter us into ‘eternity’.
Sidebar: While it ‘requires no great leap’, it is not obvious either. By definition, ‘the hour of our death’ is a function of time; eternity, obviously, is not. Why should anything that happens in time carry over, intact, to eternity? Apples & oranges!
In parochial school, we were taught to ‘pray for a happy death’; well and good. But that is not always something we can control. It is hard to imagine that a child immolated in a burning building, or a mother crushed to death under the rubble of an earthquake, had happy deaths. Are we prepared to consider that their agony at that moment might be who they are in eternity?
Eternity is not infinite time (immortality), nor is it Σ T (the sum of all time); it is the utter absence of time! Therefore, it would not be a respecter of any temporal order. There is no reason why any single moment in a person’s life should be more ‘eternal’ than any other moment. To think otherwise is to succumb to the ‘tyranny of seriality’.
Alternatively, perhaps only our ‘best moment’ is eternal; or perhaps every moment is eternal. Is eternity the foundation of time? Or is time the foundation of eternity? Is eternity time, evaporated? Or is time eternity, precipitated? Or all of the above?
In my experience, people who have successfully kept the ‘God Concept’ out of their day-to-day lives, believe things like, “When it’s over, it’s over!” How ‘Yogi Berra’ of them! But like many of Yogi’s malapropisms, this may sound deep, but upon analysis, it doesn’t make sense.
Applied to something like a baseball game, it’s perfectly OK to say, “It’s over.” And “When it’s over, it’s over,” is not wrong…just redundant. We can say it because we are outside it. We speak either as a fan or as a player in the locker room after the game.
But life is not like a baseball game. It’s not a spectator sport. We are never outside our own life. We’re in it and, as Bill Clinton said, we’re in it ‘til the last dog dies. Absent of some mystical experience, we can’t stand outside it, and so we can’t ever meaningfully say, ‘It’s over’.
No one can say, “It’s over,” unless they do so from a vantage point outside of what is ‘over’. Applied to life, if you’re able to say, “It’s over,” then it can’t be over, can it? The act of saying ‘it’s over’ testifies to the fact that it’s not over, constitutes that fact that it’s not over, and ensures that it’s not over.
Of course, I can say that another person’s life is ‘over’ provided I’m willing to reduce that life to the ontological status of a baseball game.
Camus famously said that the only real philosophical question is the question of suicide. He sure knew his Hamlet…or did he? Even the Prince of Denmark realized that suicide was no solution. Suicide eliminates the future…but not the past that led up to it.
Suicide vitiates the possibility, however remote, of a ‘happy death’. At the same time, it enshrines the circumstances that led to the suicide, and worse, it ensures that those circumstances can never be altered or transcended.
To choose suicide is to embrace inanimate determinism; it is to make a fetish of the past: now the future is the past and the past is the future. We have exchanged the insecurity of the ever-widening gyre for the horrific impotence of a House of Mirrors.
No wonder, then, that some Christians used to consider suicide to be an unforgivable sin; it is indeed a sin against the Holy Spirit, “the Lord, the Giver of Life” (Nicaean Creed). To paraphrase Dante, it is to ‘abandon all hope’.
In the Church’s first millennium, various anti-Christian sects sought to eradicate this ‘novel heresy’ by demolishing its holy sites and building pagan temples over them to make sure that later generations of Christians would not be able to rebuild.
Thank you! History owes a debt of gratitude to these iconoclasts. Their X marked the spot of those early Christian sites, thereby preserving them for millennia to come.
In my experience, folks who profess Yogi’s Creed generally don’t accept the dire implications of their faith. Without resorting to ‘the God Hypothesis’, they nonetheless find ways not to accept the notion that Universe itself could be mercilessly cruel. Often, they will add some sort of qualifying proposition. Do any of these sound familiar?
“I had a good life and nobody can take that away from me.”
“I’m leaving the world a better place than I found it.”
“I’ve helped other people live richer, happier lives.”
Where’s Waldo? Can you locate the incipient eschatology in each of these statements? There is an implicit assumption that what I have done, or just experienced, endures in some way ‘beyond the hour of my death’. The impact I have had on the world and on other people’s lives is somehow meaningful and enduring.
Of course, the Standard Model of Cosmology and the Second Law of Thermodynamics say otherwise! If Universe is a solo act and if, as we now believe, it comes from nothing and returns to nothing, and if there is nothing beside or beyond it, then none of these modifiers makes sense.
We are uncomfortable in our skins. We desperately want to believe that Universe is what it is, that what you see is what you get, period. But we also want to believe that our lives are real, that they matter, and that they don’t cease to matter at the moment of death.
Well and good, but we can’t have it both ways. Nietzsche boiled it down to what amounts to a simple syllogism:
Meaning only happens when a signifier transcends that which it signifies (that’s what we mean by meaning).
But nothing transcends the world as we know it.
Therefore, nothing has meaning.
Nietzsche certainly had the courage of his convictions! I greatly admire his thinking, but I am not willing to sign on to his ‘Manifesto of Nihilism’, are you? Oddly, nihilism does permit the existence of Hell, though it needs to be defined as ‘Hell on earth’.
Non-theism, including atheism, is not necessarily nihilistic. Far from it! Most non-theists seek to preserve meaning, i.e., transcendence, without the assumption of a transcendent being (aka God).
Theism, almost by definition, assumes that there is more to the world than its appearances, that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies. Theists go even further; they assert that there is an actual being (i.e., God) that transcends the world as we know it. Assuming this being to be benevolent, and world-relevant, the Hell Hypothesis is ruled out.
Here, many non-theists (provided they are not strict nihilists), converge in their thinking with most theists. Regardless of mechanism, Hell, the infinitely horrible, is precluded by any universe, theistic or otherwise, that contains even the slightest tilt toward the Good.
Image: The Map of Hell painting by Botticelli is one of the extant ninety-two drawings that were originally included in the illustrated manuscript of Dante's Divine Comedy. Sandro Botticelli. Mid-1480s-mid-1490s
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.