Would you be surprised to learn that great multitudes of people still talk seriously about an afterlife of heaven or hell--even after science has demonstrated that the ancient worldviews are replete with superstitions; after humans have been physically up to the heavens and on the moon and haven’t found any gods (or even any super-intelligent aliens); after we’ve come to understand the geological function of volcanoes; and have social scientific knowledge of religions, according to which, for example, the religious metaphor of the divine Judge derives from psychedelic experience and was exploited in the ancient world and in the current Muslim one to justify earthly dominance hierarchies, by implicitly deifying human monarchs?
You shouldn’t be so surprised, for the reason given by Richard Dawkins: preposterous religious memes persist because they’re taught to children who will, for obvious evolutionary reasons, accept and repeat absolutely anything you tell them and then grow up and have to assimilate that early input with what they later more responsibly come to learn about the world, as adults. People who are “born again,” who convert to a religion after a traumatic experience aren’t exceptions to this rule, since the trauma reduces them to childlike, passive receivers of information, which is why even an adult can join the most ludicrous cult. And as I hypothesize elsewhere, the memes originate from the hallucinations reported by those with altered states of consciousness; the vision of hell, in particular, would derive from nightmares.
Given this dynamic, there are two sorts of theists who believe there’s an eternal hell awaiting many of us in the afterlife. First, there’s the unapologetic fire-and-brimstone preacher who sides with the most primitive, literalistic theology, backlashing against modern naturalism. This is the sort of person who stands on a big city street corner and tries to scare modern, educated people with an image of God as a sadistic torturer. In short, this is a child in an adult’s body. Her fiery sermons are literally echoes of the tales implanted in her when she was either too young to know any better or too vulnerable to ask questions. When dodging the saliva emitted by the fundamentalist’s exoteric declarations about the afterlife, you might consider bringing along a pacifier and offering it to that babe in the woods who’s throwing a tantrum.
Then there’s the theist who’s forced as an adult to reconsider her religious lessons because of the perceived force of the chief alternative, science-centered worldview. This sort of theist is embarrassed by the blatant foolishness of espousing ancient ignorance in the midst of so much scientific knowledge and technological power. At the very least, if you’re going to hold on to theism even in the 21st century, you’ve got to be humble about it; moreover, you’ve got to be clever and subtle, slipping the gist of the ancient worldview past savvy modernists, hiding the core absurdities in Trojan Horses rather than shouting unmodified forms of them from the rooftops.
A Moderate Defense of Hell
C. S. Lewis was a paradigmatic example of the latter sort of theist, since he taught at Oxford and Cambridge, which are places filled with very smart people. Lewis was brought up in a Christian family, and he rebelled as a teenager by turning to atheism and then re-embraced Christianity as an adult. He popularized the Christian creed by taking the ancient edge off of it, modernizing it so that Christians wouldn’t have to feel ashamed of repeating their memes. The author of the Thinking Christian blog, Tom Gilson, is in Lewis’s camp and summarizes Lewis’s formulation of the doctrine of hell:
“For centuries Christian imagery of hell was dominated by the fire metaphor. In the 20th century, C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce led many of us to see it instead as a place where people continue their life’s trajectory into eternity….
“Both groups [those who obey God and those whom God obeys] continue to live the lives they created for themselves. The one who seeks God on earth will find him in eternity. The one who rejects God on earth will live in eternity without God, just as he or she has chosen on earth….“So as each person carries his or her personality into eternity, what’s different about heaven or hell? Simply this: the presence or absence of God and all of his goodness. Here on earth, God is active even among those who deny him. Where there is love on earth it is an expression of God’s reality and his action. Where there is goodness here it is his goodness being manifested.
“In heaven that goodness will be multiplied infinitely. In hell it will be gone.”
So instead of picturing God as a zealous defender of his moral principles, eagerly torturing sinners for daring to defy him or for pretending that he doesn’t even exist and that Jesus wasn’t a superhuman action hero, the moderate Christian thinks of God as only an accidental, indirect torturer. For this Christian, it’s axiomatic that God is the source of all good things while humans and demons are the sources of all bad things. Thus, heaven is caused directly by God, since heaven is being in God’s presence, while hell is caused directly by sinners. Hell is God’s withdrawing from the scene in obedience to those who don’t want him around. In this way God, who is perfectly moral and loving, would still do no harm despite the eternal suffering of billions of sentient beings whom God created, since God would merely respect their free choice to reject his offer of salvation. God rushed out a flawed species when he created Humanity 1.0, but the patch for our software is freely available if only we’re willing to accept that we require Jesus’ sacrificial punishment for our sins, in which case we become Humanity 2.0, fit for eternal life with God. If instead you value your ego and your independence, God will let you reap what you sow, and only later when it’s too late will you rue the error of your ways, and weep and gnash your teeth in frustration that what you wanted all along, a life apart from God, isn’t worth what you thought. You vainly figure you know best in rejecting theism and Christianity in particular, but it turns out your God-given intellect is flawed and you’ll ironically create only hell for yourself, a hell that’s the destiny of modern secular civilization.
The Arbitrariness of Theistic Metaphors
Thus runs this pitch for Christian respectability despite the baggage of the ancient hell doctrine. What annoys me most about this explanation of hell is the Orwellian doublespeak in which it’s couched. You know those stereotypical defense attorneys who are charged with defending a rapist and who brazenly continue the rapist’s attack in the courtroom by blaming the victim, dragging her name through the mud, accusing her of seducing the rapist, of wearing sexy clothes, of being a liar and a whore, and all while praising the rapist’s character? The moderate Christian who apologizes for the Christian notion of hell in C. S. Lewis’s way is rather like one of those lawyers. Granted, there are many people who do escape earthly life without receiving just punishment for their misdeeds, but there are also many non-Christians whose crucial misdeeds would be merely that they don’t measure up to God’s irrelevant, superhuman standards and that they reject Christianity. In other words, there are plenty of non-Christians who lead decent lives--flawed, to be sure, but on the whole much closer to Good than to Evil. And yet even the moderate Christian, who doesn’t spit while screeching mantras about hell and Jezus, maintains that those decent folks will be punished forever when they physically die. But the kicker is that this Christian blames those decent people for their eternal suffering, since God’s hands are tied; indeed, the unsaved sinners merely punish themselves, by ironically getting exactly what they wanted all along because they didn’t know any better. For this Christian, God is a rewarder and not a punisher, since he can’t get his hands dirty, being the almighty transcendent entity that occupies a higher plane. God must delegate the job of torturing sinners to demons or to the sinners themselves; God can’t personally thrust the pitchfork, because then he wouldn’t be a dignified father figure worthy of worship.
Of course this is nonsense on the face of it. God supposedly incarnated himself as a lowly Jew in Roman-occupied Judea in the first century CE. You can’t get any lower than that, and indeed Christians worship God precisely because they believe he lowered himself to our level. Why shouldn’t God then lower himself to the level of a fallen angel to ensure that sinners receive their just punishment, by personally torturing them? At least, God should be metaphysically capable of doing so and this shouldn’t tarnish God’s reputation for being--at heart, as it were--a transcendent entity, since the Christian already praises God for debasing himself.
No, the moderate Christian says God is blameless for hell, because this Christian is forced to select which parts of the Bible to count as literal and her interpretation of scripture is guided by the social aim of having her religion conform to modern expectations. Thus, Gilson speaks of the lake of fire and of the weeping and gnashing of teeth in outer darkness as metaphors, but insists that God is literally good. Heaven is where earthly goodness is infinitely multiplied, he says; indeed, all earthly goodness is only a manifestation of God’s goodness. Again, God is responsible for everything that’s right while humans and our demonic allies are to blame for everything that’s wrong. But again, one problem with this is that, from an esoteric, mystical viewpoint, the Christian’s choice of which parts of the Bible to treat as metaphorical is arbitrary. If as Gilson says, “There is definitely a hell” but “No one on earth knows exactly what it will be like,” how do we know that God is good? Leaving aside the atrocious Old Testament descriptions of God’s character, why aren’t the Bible’s comforting descriptions of God just as metaphorical as its terrifying descriptions of hell? Clearly, if God is an infinite, transcendent, supernatural cause of everything in the universe, and isn’t identical with anything he created, God can’t literally be good or fatherly since those are understood to be natural properties.
The Christian has two responses to this point. First, she can maintain, on the contrary, that goodness is supernatural and miraculous and that therefore a transcendent being can literally be good. There are at least two problems with this response. First, there are naturalistic explanations of morality which the Christian must then entirely reject. Second and more important, if goodness is supernatural, transcendent, and miraculous, so that God can be said to literally have that quality, we lose our reason for thinking that God should be good, because we lose our understanding of what goodness is in the first place. All we understand of goodness is the limited kind of virtue and altruism we’re familiar with in social species such as ours. If goodness is really something supernatural, our notion of goodness must be just as metaphorical as our notion of hell, in which case the cost of saying that God is literally good is that this statement loses its meaning.
The second response is that we know God is good, because we know God through Jesus, and Jesus was good in a way that we can understand. Unfortunately, this response rests likewise on verbal sleight of hand. Given that the metaphorical nature of a description of transcendent reality can mislead and confuse us, a physical model of that reality should be just as flawed and thus idolatrous. This is why Jews and Muslims forbid all representations of God. The Christian comes along and says that Jesus represents God, because Jesus was miraculously connected to the deity, allowing God’s transcendent reality to flow into his natural body. Jesus had a miraculous birth and thus he’s an exceptional image of divine reality, not a misleading idol but a reflection of God’s character. Jesus alone was “begotten,” not “made.”
Alas, this response merely substitutes the emptiness of “Jesus’s miraculous birth” for that of “transcendent goodness.” Just as no one would have any idea what God’s literal goodness would be like, assuming goodness is really supernatural and thus naturally inconceivable, no one would know what the connection between God and Jesus amounts to were this connection one of a miraculous birth. Thus, we couldn’t understand how a mammal could embody an infinite creator of the universe, let alone confirm the embodiment. So on the contrary, we wouldn’t know God through Jesus; sure, you could mouth the words, but you wouldn’t know what you’re talking about. The verbal trick, you see, is to rely on the now-archaic meaning of “beget,” which is of course a word for the very natural process of procreation. The distinction, then, between making and begetting is just that between designing and building something, on the one hand, and sexually reproducing, causing DNA and proteins to design and build the thing, on the other. Both are natural processes to the extent that they’re understood, and so even if Jesus was begotten rather than made by God, this wouldn’t make for any supernatural bridge between the two.
The upshot is that the exoteric preference for any description of transcendent reality is arbitrary. For the theist, everything in nature is indirectly touched by God, including every word of so-called divinely inspired scripture and even each piece of feces left behind by everything that walks, crawls, flies, or swims. Thus, goodness and Jesus both lose their special connection to God. If God is literally good, he might as well also literally be feces. This is because the distinction between the supernatural and the natural is lost in theism: if everything is an effect of God, everything indicates some aspect of its divine source, and so everything in the universe represents God to some extent. Jesus would be nothing special and you might as well worship feces for representing God’s potentials for brownness and funky odours. The problem is that if everything represents God to some extent, we still know nothing about the divine being, because nature offers no univocal, coherent picture of its source. For example, there’s both good and evil in nature, so we’d need some conception that combines those opposites, to coherently picture the all-encompassing, transcendent seed. You would truly need a grand theory of everything which reconciles all natural opposites, to learn about God by learning about the results of his work. Short of that theory, fragmentary knowledge of nature is useless for theistic purposes, and so all metaphorical descriptions of God are misleading and arbitrary due to their incompleteness.
Besides the social reason for saying that God is good rather than also evil, there’s an existential reason for doing so. The moderate Christian wants a comforting myth to escape her obligation to face up to her alienation. As I argue elsewhere, when you follow the logic of the root monotheistic metaphor, which compares the transcendent cause of nature to a person, you end up with Mainlander’s conjecture that even a good deity would become corrupt and insane because of his omnipotence and isolation (see here and here). Thus, far from being merely good, according to the moderate Christian’s politically correct, G-rated theism for domesticated pantywaists, God would indeed be a tyrant who, we can only hope, would have killed himself in the process of creating the undead cosmos we inhabit. The notion that God’s character would be defined by goodness is just part of an adorable scheme for some mammals to feel at home in ultimate reality, whereas the existential task for grownups is to reconcile ourselves to our metaphysical homelessness. If God is good, or as Muslims say, great, hell might as well be a lake of fire. If anything, taking the anthropomorphic notion of transcendent reality seriously, God would be a monster beyond our wildest nightmares and that monster would be our landlord for all time. That’s authentic monotheism, and this is why polytheists like the ancient Romans were appalled by Judaism. Theism for extroverts pictures a society of gods rather than just a solitary and thus alienated deity who would be horrified to look in a mirror.
So, then, God would be neither good nor bad, but would have to be both, which is just to say that God’s character would transcend our understanding. The moderate Christian’s explanation of hell just arbitrarily replaces one dubious theistic metaphor with another. The preferred metaphor is in fact an idol, whether it’s the image of God as benevolence (rather than also as evil) or as Jesus (rather than also as feces). And so when the theist says that God benevolently gives us unrepentant sinners what we want, by leaving us alone for eternity, which just so happens to bring these sinners unremitting misery, you can take comfort in knowing that this metaphor of God’s pure goodness is no more credible than the ancient Aztec’s more manly and aggressive metaphor of God as a bloodthirsty tyrant.
The Implausibility of Theistic Metaphors
That’s just the underlying problem with the C. S. Lewis-style defense of hell. There are many more specific problems with it. For starters, can we say that God merely leaves bad people to their devices, that they are solely responsible for their eternal suffering, since God merely respects their free choice even though God knows the dire consequence of that choice? This is analogous to the parent who allows her daughter to walk across a highway blindfolded, knowing that she’ll be run over and have to spend the rest of her life suffering in a wheelchair. Would that child be solely to blame for her recklessness? Well, were the child old enough to know better, she’d at least be partly to blame, but since she’d also be immature compared to her parent, the parent would share some of the responsibility for the consequent suffering. Now, the Christian can pretend that the evidence of what will happen if we die without accepting Jesus as our saviour is as clear as that of what will happen if you walk down a highway blindfolded, but this would be an empty bluff. Christian beliefs are mostly irrational. In any case, God would be more responsible for hell than would that human parent for her daughter’s poor decision, since God would sustain hell by keeping the souls of the non-Christian sinners alive, whereas the human parent wouldn’t be free to end her child’s suffering by killing her. Even were hell only in the minds of sinners, God could end hell by annihilating the sinners. God isn’t bound by social laws that protect people’s right to life, and he should be able to break what he’s made, such as a human soul.
Moreover, to say that God keeps those sinners alive forever even though he knows that their afterlife will be nothing but suffering, out of “respect” for their freedom or “love” of their individuality is just to engage in the callous defense lawyer’s sort of doubletalk. Suppose a person offers her pet dog a choice between drinking poison or water, the dog drinks the poison, and is forced to live thereafter in agony because the dog owner refuses to have the dog humanely killed to end its suffering. Would we praise the character of this dog owner? No, instead we’d suspect that she sadistically derives some satisfaction from witnessing the natural result of the dog’s poor choice of food. Likewise, however many signs God might deploy to point us in the right direction while we’re in our mortal bodies, God would still have much superior knowledge of the consequences of our actions as well as the power to spare us the pain we might earn for ourselves, by putting us down in a humane fashion. If instead God allows hell to continue forever, we might just as well call God sadistic than respectful or loving towards everyone. In fact, calling this sort of God simply “good” would be as grotesque as calling a cult leader good for allowing his minions to torture themselves when he could put an end to the charade by coming clean on his lies of omission.
It goes without saying, though, that the foregoing defense of the myth of hell is a nonstarter, because the notion of freedom here is a pernicious oversimplification. There’s a fallacy in assuming that because a person chooses his personality while alive on Earth, therefore she chooses it for eternity. On the contrary, a person may make life-altering choices on the explicit assumption that they’re suitable only under the natural circumstances she finds herself in here and now. For example, someone born in a Brazilian slum may choose to become a criminal, but this choice is context-dependent. Our knowledge of our natural circumstances would be far different from that of our supernatural ones: for example, an atheist justifies her life decisions according to her knowledge of where she stands merely in the natural world, because she thinks her knowledge of that world is far more certain than any speculation about what will happen to her when she dies. The theist knows no better but just frivolously gambles on a fantasy. And anyway, most so-called theists reason in the atheistic (rational, protoscientific) manner, ignoring their religion when real-world consequences are at stake. So the theist demonstrates her effrontery when she blames the suffering in hell entirely on the sufferers, because they supposedly choose that fate and God only lets that choice unfold. There’s no such choice, so there’s nothing here for God to honour. There’s no choice to reject the overwhelming evidence for theism, since there’s no longer any such evidence (after globalization’s culture clashes, Enlightenment philosophy, and the Scientific Revolution), and there’s no choice of how we want to live for eternity, since almost no one lives as if she really think she’ll live that long.
(The moderate theist should look into the philosophical distinction between a symbol’s intension and its extension. Our knowledge extends to the intensional meaning of our thoughts, to how we conceive of things, not necessarily to the facts that may underlie those meanings. For example, you may admire Mark Twain but not Samuel Clemens, not realizing that the two people are identical. Likewise, you might approve of your criminality as a way of dealing with your current situation, not appreciating the supernatural consequences of that decision.)
The Legends of Heaven and Hell
In so far as hell is worth speaking of at all today, we should think of the idea of hell as a legend deriving from the psychedelic nature of ancient near-death experiences. What seems to happen when you die is that your brain loses sensory input and manufactures a dream world to keep your mind occupied as your body tries futilely to repair itself. Before brain death, different parts of your brain are enlisted in this final project, one of which is your conscience. In the back of your mind, you must know or fear that you’re dying and so you philosophically survey the events of your life and ask yourself how you think you fared. Your life “flashes before your lives” and you judge yourself. Just as time can feel sped up or slowed down in an altered state of consciousness, brought on by an entheogen, for example, so too time might seem to stop altogether when you’re in your last dream state, as something like DMT floods your consciousness with bizarre imagery. If you approve of your life and you generally think well of yourself, or at least if you think you did the best you could while alive, you’ll forgive your faults and bless yourself with a pleasant final dream that seems to last forever (until your brain expires and your dream ends). If instead you feel generally ashamed of what you did with your life, you’ll curse yourself with a lasting experience of hell. Evidently, people have had some such experience and have then sometimes recuperated, living to interpret it in the naïve, theistic fashion. They then ranted and raved about the spirit world and started a cult which evolved into or contributed to a religion. Moreover, we all have lesser, preparatory versions of these experiences in our nightly dreams and while we lie in bed, dwelling on the day’s events and visualizing what we want to do tomorrow.
So the God who allegedly judges us is really just a deeper part of our mind, the part that’s left when our egoistic illusions are stripped away, when we lose the incentive to play our social games, and we’re entirely on our own to think about ourselves, to play the introvert’s favourite game. Then we render our honest, final judgment and use the same neural machinery that conjures both our sleeping and our waking dreams, to bring that judgment to life in a subjectively everlasting experience of bliss or pain. Of course, if you happen to die by having your brain somehow instantly destroyed, you’ll pass over this experience of the “afterlife,” thus slipping through the cracks of God’s hands.