Monday, December 26, 2011

My Issues with Eternal Hell

I have a beef with the concept of eternal Hell.

I don't even mean the Dante's Inferno type of Hell. After all, there is very, very little evidence that Hell is going to be full of fire and brimstone; the "lake of fire" is seen as being a place for the devil and demons, not for ill-fated souls, and it might just be metaphorical for something else. But even if it does exist, odds are the humans won't end up there.

My issue is really with the permanence of Hell. I don't even mind the idea of it existing. Now, there are plenty of people who will bring up a lot of scriptures regarding Hell and its existence, but I want to point out a few Biblical passages also. I'm going to paraphrase here; I will likely return and put in chapter and verse numbers later.

"How many times must I forgive my brother? Is seven times enough?" That was one of the apostles, asking Jesus. Jesus replied, "Not just seven, but seventy times seven." As in, we should forgive people and endless number of times, and not hold their crimes against them. This isn't the same as letting them endanger others, but we have mercy upon them and grant them pardon.

"Forgive your enemies; bless those who curse you; do good to those who spitefully use you." That's Jesus again.

Four men lower a paralyzed man down into a house where Jesus is teaching. "Your sins are forgiven," he says to the man, then tells him to stand up and walk. The man does.

Jesus is hanging on the cross, after suffering horrible torture and finally nailed to a couple of wooden planks to die. It's a most undignified death, saved for thieves and traitors and other kinds of scum, and surely the meaning isn't lost on him. He looks down and says, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

Notice how, in none of these examples, does Jesus ever put any significance whatsoever on the perpetrators asking for forgiveness.

Forgive your brother, whether or not he asks for it. Forgive your enemies, and they certainly aren't asking. The paralyzed man was probably just confused; we have no record of him saying anything, though his friends had faith -- but we don't know at all if he did. As for the Romans, they didn't care jack squat for this random Jew who the others had decided was clearly terrible enough for the death penalty.

Jesus forgives them. So what's the huge leap between that and forgiving the other poor stubborn people on Earth who just haven't made it to the point of faith yet? If Jesus forgave the Romans, who clearly didn't care what religion He was pushing, what about the people who were raised atheist and simply saw no particular proof to believe otherwise? Jesus was running around throwing miracles like they were candy, and still people didn't believe -- how is modern day life giving anyone a fair shot?

If God tells us to do something, I expect He will do the same thing, only more so. (Worshiping Him notwithstanding, let's all be sane here, I expect God doesn't worship Himself.) If He asks us to forgive someone, I expect He's going to do it all the more. Which basically means...well, everyone. He also tells us to be fair, and just, and He'll do that also. But in the end, whenever that means, whether it's on Earth or in the afterlife, He will forgive all those people He told us to forgive. Because He's God, and He's not a hypocrite.

It seems to be that by the definition of hypocrisy -- of which Jesus accused a huge number of religious officials, so He clearly subscribes to the definition -- God constrains Himself every time He makes a rule for us. He can't violate rules that He set in place, because that would make Him untrustworthy and hypocritical. (A comment on "Thou shalt not kill" -- God is clearly referring to innocents, or people who have not already qualified for the death penalty, because God definitely allows humans to levy the death penalty at least in the Old Testament. We can argue all day about Canaanites and whatnot, but this isn't the point.)

Scripture also says that God chastises those he loves, and he punishes people that he cares for, presumably to let them know the consequences of their actions and correct them. That's what chastising is for -- it's a reprimand, and instruction to do right. Chastising is completely useless if it never ends, because it crosses the line between punishment and cruel vengeance. It's torture for torture's sake; it's straight-up sadistic. It's passive-aggressive ("look what you did, and what you could have done, now sit and wallow in despair forever because you were bad, because you deserve it") and senseless, because once the person has seen the error of their ways, what reason is there for not letting them leave?

In this case, let's think about Hell as a separation from God. No more, no less. It's a calm limbo, where no one is tortured, but where people feel the crucial void between themselves and their creator. They are aware every moment of their "lives" there, that they have fallen short and that they are missing something

You know, this seems a lot like Earth.

Doesn't it seem that way to you? That's what people are trying to make others feel here. However, we have a lot of Earthly pleasures to get in our way, and lots of other people to convince us not to believe, and so on.  By this image, Hell is mostly more of our lives here, only with a focus on the depressing parts, the parts where we feel spiritually unfulfilled and empty. That does suck quite a lot, but in the end, surely someone in Hell is going to figure out that they don't have to do this anymore.

At that point, continuing to rub their nose in their proverbial pee stain is just being mean. If they understand, if the punishment has achieved its purpose of teaching them what they did wrong, if they now decide they want to fix their life...well, why not let them? Jesus never turned anyone away. What's up with this arbitrary deadline of 75-ish years, compared to eternity? At that point, it just seems like God would be saying, "Ha ha, you didn't make it in time, now go shove off." God doesn't do that. He's all-loving and all-merciful, but it seems like people forget the all part of that. It's not "all Christians," it's just all. Everyone. Everything. Every man, beast, plant, stone -- He shaped everything, and God doesn't make junk, and He doesn't throw things away.

A lot of people will start screaming about how human morality sucks, here. Maybe it does, for people who aren't Christian -- maybe at that point, whether the person's morality is right, is a hit or miss kind of question. There are certainly some human impulses that are less than admirable. But in the end, I like to think God gives His followers a sense of right and wrong, and if something is utterly repulsive to us, maybe we should give it a second look and see if we've read it right, or if we're interpreting it right, or what have you.

One of my acquaintances once said that Christianity is scary and depressing, and that it's supposed to be, because we were called to make huge sacrifices and be hurt and tormented for God's sake.

Sacrifice happens. Pain happens. But Christianity is supposed to be the good news, the news that someone has already come by to atone for all our crimes, full stop. That whosoever believes in Him will not perish but will have everlasting life, full stop. Not if they do it in a certain way, with certain ritual. Not if they are perfect.

Not even if they only do it before they die.

For God so loved the world, that He sent His only Son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish, but will have everlasting life.

If Christianity is scary and depressing, we're clearly reading this verse horribly wrong.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Prodigal Son

The story of the Prodigal Son is given as an example of great forgiveness and mercy. For those of you unfamiliar with it, it goes like this.

A man had two sons that worked the land with him. One day, the younger son came to him and asked for his share of the inheritance early, and his father handed it over. At that point, he hoofs it out of town and heads off to the Wild Blue Yonder to live the good life with the money and resources he has. His older brother stays behind to keep working for their father, not wanting his inheritance early.

The younger man spends all his money on food and prostitutes. His life goes off like a bottle rocket, fast and dangerous, and he burns himself out in a matter of a few years. At that point, he is reduced to sleeping in pigpens, eating scraps given to the pigs and living in the streets. A while later, he realizes that he can't live in the sty forever, and he goes home in shame to his father to tell him what has become of himself and his inheritance.

When he arrives, he begs that his father would let him sleep in the stable and work as a slave, because he expects no more. His father has a different agenda, calling in all the farmhands and his older son and throwing a grand celebration for the younger man. He brings out a big fat calf and kills it for a feast, then puts a ring on the man's finger and nice sandals on his feet, and he rejoices that his son has returned.

Normally, the moral of the story is that the prodigal son was lost and now is found; he went off to live the "good life" and figured out that it's not so good after all, then decided to come home, where he is always welcome. His father is all-forgiving and has no lingering grudge over the man's bad decisions.

This is a charming story, but I wonder from time to time -- did the prodigal son have the right idea? Was it necessary for him to go off, spend all his money, understand what the world has to offer, and then reject it? I'll say, yes. Hear me out for a moment.

Every so often, families spawn children who are just not satisfied with a cloistered life. They want to know what's out there in the Wild Blue Yonder, and they're tired of being held back from doing what they want. Now, for most people, what they want is far more wholesome than wild spending and whores, but the point still stands. Let's look at the two brothers for a moment.

The first son in the story, the older one, is happy where he is. He goes about his everyday life without regret, working the land, reaping crops, slaughtering animals, selling food, so on. His life is relatively uneventful and secure. He likes it that way, and he's not oppressed into it, because his father is a kindhearted person. He's probably very stable and not very adventurous.

The second son clearly isn't pleased with his life. He's a "go big or go home" type. He wants to have wealth, luxury, and satisfaction. Instead of getting married young, as was the custom, he's going to go off and live a commitment-free life, where he doesn't work and doesn't have to support his partners. He is dissatisfied with constancy and security. He's probably a risk-taker.

Fundamentally, both of these are reasonable ways to live. They're the difference between the quiet, hard-working student and the one who parties at the frats all weekend and does just enough to get by. You can get by doing both; I'm not even going to bother on the point of which one is better. Unless you get alcohol poisoning and die, both of these will sustain you at the bare minimum, at least.

But in the end, as it often is with bottle-rocket types, the Prodigal Son realizes that he has screwed it up big time. He has no money and no food. He's reduced to living with pigs, which in Jewish culture are unclean animals. He eats what he can steal from them, and he lives in the dirt all day. His life is nowhere near the lap of luxury that he had imagined. So after a while, he heads home to try to clean things up. I expect that afterward, he doesn't bother trying to live the fast and dangerous life again.

What if he hadn't left? Probably he would have been grumpy and unhappy until the end of his days. Some people just have to know what they're missing, to see that they're not really missing anything at all. Curiosity, and sometimes envy, are powerful forces. He saw the men throwing cash around, buying rich foods, and spending the night with all the whores they wanted, and he wanted that life, too. Had he not tried it, he'd probably have idolized it for the rest of his life, sat around being angry that his father and brother were keeping him chained down, generally folding in on himself and being bitter about his inability to go do what he wants.

Did you ever do something utterly stupid as a kid, but realize that you learned a good lesson from it? Maybe you ate three bags of candy, felt horribly sick and threw up, then realized that this was perhaps a terrible plan and you're never doing it again? Or maybe you pulled your cat's tail, got bitten, and saw that you know, maybe it wasn't worth it to see the cat get all riled up? Yeah. I did that stuff. But you know, I'd have been angry at myself for not doing it, had I not done it. There are things in life you have to experience, just so you can see if they're as good as you think they are. You have to take the risk. You have to see what you're missing. And then, in the end, maybe you weren't missing much. Getting drunk and barfing really isn't very interesting, despite what the frat boys want you to think. I suspect that getting high also isn't, although I haven't tried. Lots of things aren't. But hey, try anything once. After all, I did once dare a friend to eat a betta fish, in exchange for me doing the same afterward. A live one. It was an experience. I don't feel the need to do it again, but hey, it was nifty.

Was the Prodigal Son's decision a good one? Not in the least. Did he learn from it? Yes. Was it probably necessary to his eventual happiness and satisfaction? Most likely. Was he a better man for having gone through something dumb and coming back home to fix it? Absolutely.

In short, I don't think it's the end of the world to be the Prodigal Son once in a while. Just learn from your dumbassery.