Tuesday, October 08, 2019

101 Things #10 - Hell, Is It Me You're Looking For?

My ongoing antidote to bucket lists, 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die is not just a set of activities and pursuits that I disdain to attempt; it embraces patterns of thought as well. Given that religious ideas continue to be extremely important in human culture, it seems appropriate to take a stand on one of the most popular ideas and explain why, no matter how persuasive and sincere a smartly dressed man on the doorstep may be, I am not going to

Believe in Hell

First let me apologise for the silly title of this piece. It was the Editor's idea, damn him. Ah, you see what I did there? Damnation implies somewhere to go where you are damned, i.e. Hell. Yes, it's so easy to tell people to go to hell, to ponder on which particular circle of the damned they will remain for eternity, to take delight if you are
    a) particularly nasty; and
    b) a fundamentalist,
in the idea that you will spend the afterlife looking down from the comforts of Paradise onto the torments of anyone you didn't much like whilst you were both on earth. When a serious politician like Donald Tusk opines that there
is a special place in Hell for Brexiteers without a plan
then we do need to consider the meaning of this concept.

I have two fundamental objections to Hell, one based on physics and the other on religion.

The Physics problem

Hell is depicted in mainstream religion as lasting for eternity. Although created by God at some point in time, it was made to house the souls of unworthy humans and therefore had no function until the creation of humankind. Once the first souls began arriving they are seen as stuck there for good (apart from the odd intervention such as Christianity imagines for Jesus bringing up a few notables).

The trouble with this viewpoint is that eternity is not simply a very long expanse of time. It is not an infinite amount of time that starts from now on. It is not really a concept that we can understand at all. Any calculation with eternity in it becomes an infinite number and maths and physics can do nothing with such an outcome. Eternity means an infinite amount of time and in an infinite time then everything that can happen will happen (because there is enough time for everything to happen no matter how improbable) an infinite number of times. That's the trouble with infinity - it contains within it an infinite number of sets of infinite things and you can go on adding infinite amounts of sets of infinite things for all eternity and you would still end up with infinity (although the concept of end is no help here either).

Consequently if we assume that a Deity creates us to live and be judged then this process recurs an infinite number of times with an infinite number of outcomes.  I must confess that I have no idea what this really means, other than to make the point that the Deity must surely have envisaged a less demanding job before creating the infinite Universe.

Of course we can argue that Hell is not for eternity but then we are invoking it as a place within time so that simply throws up even harder conundrums about what happens afterwards and whether the Deity is also of finite life. It doesn't assist in grappling with the concept.

The Religion problem

To early man it was obvious. We are on earth, the dead go into the ground, God must be up there and the purpose of life is to spend a bit of time here then a bit more time up there or maybe down there. Modern religions with their more sophisticated concept of one infinite God made matters a lot harder to understand because the idea of a loving Creator making us (not to mention trillions of galaxies with trillions of stars and trillions and trillions of inhabitable planets, as we now know to exist) in order to torment the souls that fail the divine morality test for ever after doesn't work.

Either God loves us or God does not. If you want to posit a rather unpleasant and sadistic Deity then Hell makes more sense but only superficially. It doesn't really make any sense to posit a Deity that transcends time and space doing anything creative within time and space at all. Surely the first thing such a Deity would do is create few more Deities so as to have someone else to chat to (and I mean that seriously, despite the flippant tone). Only from the unbelievable limited perspective of mortal humans thinking "There must be more to life than this" does it make any sense to invoke one Creator. There is, to put it even more flippantly, nothing in it for God - the Deity is defined in all mainstream religions entirely from a human viewpoint.

The human-centric position can be summarised as: - 'There's only God who made all and he made us so aren't we wonderful really, despite being sinners.' In short, it is all about us and says nothing helpful at all about God.

So no Hell. It won't do. If one still wants to believe in an all-powerful loving Creator who nonetheless has a penchant for making us and then (despite omniscience) judging us, it might just work if you believe not in Hell but in a limited form of Purgatory. However that is a discussion for another time.

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