An Unnecessary Hell

The Economist has a very worthwhile exploration of the enduring concept of Hell, but concludes in such a way as to baffle me.

[Hell] should have been sunk long ago by the weight of its contradictions. But the key to its survival lies in the writings of St Augustine, who, of all people, ought to have been tolerant of sinners: to paraphrase, “Knowledge of the torments of the damned is part of heavenly bliss.” St Bernardino of Siena took it even further: there could be no perfect sweetness of song in Heaven, he wrote, “if there were no infernal descant from God’s justice.” Just as there can be no light without dark, and no sound without silence, so everlasting celestial joys depend on a contrast of everlasting horror. Without Hell, you can’t have Heaven.

What nonsense. What this line of thinking (not necessarily this writer's) says is that, in effect, in order to fully appreciate or enjoy something, one must be threatened with (not actually experience, but be threatened with) its most excruciating and horrifying opposite. One can't be fulfilled and inspired by great music unless one is taunted with the possibility of having to experience sonic garbage. I can't really know a deep and true love for my children unless I have the possibility of their deaths dangled in front of me day after day.

Why must it be so? It takes religion to think this way. I prefer a little Shakespeare to temper this notion:

If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wish'd for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.

We are reminded of the wonderful, the beautiful, and the numinous by their scarcity, though that is not their prime requisite. Beautiful music is considered so in part because it is so rare that it is produced. My children are utterly precious to me in part because they are literally precious, they are uniquely, exclusively mine and my wife's.

Maybe Christianity falls apart without the ever-present threat of eternal torture. But Hell's non-existence has nothing to do one way or the other as to the presence of “God's justice,” or God itself.

Side note, also to be filed under “It takes religion to think this way”:

Sinhalese Buddhism has 136 and Burmese Buddhism 40,040, one for each particular sin—including nosiness, chicken-selling and eating sweets with rice.

I'm guilty of at least two of those.

7 thoughts on “An Unnecessary Hell”

  1. The wish for “hell” upon others is more often a sign of sociopathy in the wisher than the accused. Normal people are willing to forgive most actions eventually, given enough time and if the transgressor stops (and can stop) doing wrong.
    Prisons are (supposedly) for rehabilitation and making people fit to live again in society. How unsurprising that there’s a strong correlation among those who wish “hell” on others and those who want people executed, not just have them locked up for life (“Send them there NOW!” is their attitude).


  2. “Sinhalese Buddhism has 136 and Burmese Buddhism 40,040, one for each particular sin—including nosiness, chicken-selling and eating sweets with rice.”
    Damned Almond Joys and Mounds!


  3. I almost agree with with sending people to hell for eating sweets with rice. Reminds me of my grandfather from Missouri and my grandmother from Texas. My grandmother served lots of rice, but was appalled by the idea of rice pudding. No way, rice should be a little undercooked and then bathed in glutamate-rich gravy, or heavily spiced and mixed with hot peppers and pink peas or butter beans. It’s the Gulf Coast way. It’s the gift of the Cajuns , the way of life from Matagorda Bay to Tampa Bay.
    But seriously, Hell is fucked up. Torture forever? That’s just wrong. My grandmother mentioned above became a Jehova’s Witness after my grandfather died. I think part of the appeal was that the JW’s believe that Hell is a metaphor for the annihilation of self at death with no possibility of resurrection into the paradise of the New Earth or ascension into Heaven.
    In fact, many Witnesses do not believe we have an immortal soul. We are fully mortal as animals are. God has a special relationship with humans and will thus choose to resurrect certain humans to two different kinds of afterlife, but the natural order things is that death is final. It’s almost like God is a high tech alien who will re-create us from a few terabytes of data he scanned based on how well he likes us. No evidence for this, but much more sophisticated that most Christian denominations.
    But in spite of this more sophisticated approach, I understand the JW’s still believe in demonic influences and other silliness. They also have a fairly rate of sexual abuse in their ranks, as they do not believe in settling issues according to secular law.


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