I sometimes think I’m too cynical. Then I remind myself that the majority of Americans claim to believe in an exquisitely well-concealed chamber of horrors where dead folks are tortured literally forever for thought crimes (such as believing in the “wrong” god) or actions that aren’t morally wrong at all. Virtually nothing could be more cynical than this.
The disturbing thing about the crazier strains of Christianity is that its adherents don’t merely think Hell is an actual place, one ecclesiastical consideration among many; they emphasize its inevitably cruel promises above all else. It seems that condemning others to Hell is a far more important consideration than striving to get into Heaven. Despite all the cool and useful things one might extract from holy books, a sizable fraction of the American religious population does little besides howl and complain about sinners and sin (and, in many cases, beg for money in the process).
I realize there is some selection bias afoot here, since idiots assembling in public to blare about the evils of gay marriage and non-Christian religions wind up with a disproportionate share of media coverage, because we’re all direct descendants of literal knuckle-draggers and we love to gawp at the stupid things our fellow apes get up to.
But the idea that people desperately need to think other people are Hell-bound is clearly pervasive. In the video this story links to, a pastor, in the course of a 70-minute delivery, asserts that Heaven and Hell are not real. He also offers what appears to be a moving eulogy, although I watched only a small portion of it. But Christian News seized on the part about Hell being imaginary, and as the story has been disseminated through online ignorance networks, this focus has intensified and the associated outrage has multiplied.
Again, Evangelicals don’t merely embrace the idea of Hell; it is in fact their main platform. Bigot-Christians and unhappy, mentally deficient Bible-boppers like Steve McConkey are almost — or perhaps not “almost” — sexually fixated on Satan and Hell. They are like people who call themselves sports fans but pay attention only to stories about doping, point-shaving and NCAA recruiting scandals.
Back to cynicism now. 58% of Americans say they believe in a literal Hell (and 72% believe in a literal Heaven). Why in the world must so many of us embrace the idea that when people are dead, they’re going to get a whole new bonus round of absolute misery? If there were good reasons not rooted in sheer emotion to believe in Hell, then sure, you could confidently say that someone like Donald Trump will once have his own eyesore of a skyscraper there, and either gloat or cluck worriedly about this. Sadly, though, Trump and his associates will do nothing more than become stinking piles of rotting meat, and that will have be good enough for his countless haters.
Here’s what seems as obvious as obvious gets: Hell and heaven are metaphors, nothing more. Humans invented these “places” once our minds became sufficiently sophisticated to appreciate the concept of our own mortality. People didn’t want to accept that they would one day cease to exist, so they invented a scheme that pretends to delay death indefinitely. And people can’t typically punish those who are more powerful than themselves here on Earth, so they pretend that those people will suffer eternally in some imaginary torture chamber instead. This scheme is handed down from parents to children and persists despite no evidence for it at all (and no idea of what that evidence could even resemble).
People can tell me that I’m wrong about this all day if they want to, but at a minimum, no one can offer anything in its place that isn’t a flagrant example of wish-making. I’m not even saying the wish is a bad one; if I could believe in Heaven myself, maybe I’d be happier in the face of certain situations myself.
Perhaps the pastor shouldn’t have brought this up at a funeral, and maybe he shouldn’t be a pastor at all if he doesn’t embrace the necessary mythology about the afterlife. But he’s absolutely right, and anyone who labels him a false teacher or blurts out “He’ll find out the hard way!” is just making ignorant, childish noises. People who believe in imaginary places are the ones operating from emotion and lack of evidence, not this pastor. There is no reason at all to believe heaven and hell are real, and frankly, given that Christians sin just as enthusiastically as other people do, it’s clear that either these Christians themselves don’t really believe in Hell or think they’ll be able to absolve themselves of their own sins before it’s too late.
Anyway, the fact that I think that this life represents my only chance to see harm inflicted on my adversaries, yet don’t feel any need to move this beyond justifiable terrestrial hectoring, means that I’m a far cry from being as hateful as I could be. That’s hardly a ringing character endorsement, but it should be reassuring to people who think that someone wasting a lot of words on their dimbulb selves implies a psychological need to really see them really suffer.