Kent Harrop and I both graduated from Cumberland High School Class of 1974. We reconnected at our 40th year reunion and found that we shared something in common, a questioning search for the meaning of life and how we came to be. We had our own blogs about ideas and things we think about.
Kent took a religious track in life. I am an atheist.
We now write this joint blog to share our different approaches to life’s questions.
This week’s topic is our take on whether or not there is a heaven and hell. This is from my perspective. Kent will post separately. We hope you’ll think about the ideas expressed here and share your thoughts with us.
The concept of diametrically opposed destinations after death is a common theme within most religious philosophies. These beliefs are ingrained into followers at an early, and thus most impressionable, age.
I have many memories of priests telling fearful tales of eternal damnation for various and sundry acts.
These acts ranged from emerging awareness of self-gratification, to carnal knowledge, to breaking any and all of the Ten Commandments. I sat in abject fear, knowing it was only a matter of time.
I have learned that one could go to hell for consorting with witches, believing in a helio-centric solar system, or listening to Rock & Roll.
I was doomed. I was already guilty on two counts. I didn’t know any witches but the priests said they were out there. Perhaps I needed to carry a bucket of water just in case.
The images of writhing, screaming bodies engulfed in flames, surrounded by the smells of brimstone and burning flesh, flooded my mind.
Then, I started to think on my own.
I wondered, what kind of a god creates an imperfect being and then punishes the being for their imperfections?
According to most religious texts (they are easy to spot, there is no bibliography or references), certain acts require eternal damnation in hell. At best, you could get a sort of probation in Purgatory, which I now understand does not exist. Must have got that part wrong, the rest still applies.
Christopher Hitchens said, “To terrify children with the image of hell… Is that good for the world?”
What of heaven? Is there a place of reward for a life well-lived? Of course, well-lived meant according to those same religious guidelines. It seemed to me it was a bit out of reach for most humans.
Heaven was more of a bait and switch. Be good all your life and you will get there, maybe.
Been a bad boy? Poof, see ya.
So where is the certain proof of hell or heaven?
There is none.
No one can point to one verifiable piece of evidence or experience that establishes the existence of heaven or hell.
What about NDE, Near Death Experiences? More misunderstanding than message from god.
There is a great deal of scientific research casting doubt on this phenomenon. Here is one such example from the Scientific American. (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-near-death-experience-isnt-proof-heaven/)
Despite this absence of proof, many people still believe in heaven and hell. Some are delusional. Most are sincere, believing in the premise and willing to ignore the lack of proof.
Bertrand Russell said, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”
The only certainty is uncertainty.
Here is another favorite Hitchens quote. “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”
Believers argue there is proof. They point to the many things done in the name of divine inspiration as proof of god and therefore heaven.
Who can listen to Handel’s Messiah or read the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri and not think them divinely inspired?
These offered proofs are examples of our misunderstanding of the complexities of the universe and underappreciation of the power of human creativity.
The genesis of man’s belief in heaven and hell arose from our earliest attempts to understand our world. As we added written language to our knowledge, the first writings became the “holy” texts. (Although the earliest writing of the Sumerians was a recipe for beer.)
There are contradictions within these writings making them suspect at best. The differences between the God of the Old Testament and the kinder, gentler version of God of the New Testament, a sort of God Version 2.0, is just one example.
Even these “inspired” works needed editing. God needed better press coverage.
Attributing divine intervention to the causes of natural phenomena or events in human lives arose in a people lacking a fundamental understanding of such simple things as the passage of the sun through the sky.
To this day, even with the acceptance of the planetary motions around the sun, we call it a sunrise and a sunset. It does neither, although it looks that way. This is a great example of the depth with which the vestiges of these beliefs still affect us. It underscores the danger of appearances of truth.
There may have been a time when we needed to believe in a heaven and hell. Perhaps it served a purpose. It gave hope to what was a bleak existence for most people and was a way to control behavior.
Nevertheless, therein lies a danger.
Those who controlled this ‘truth’ once used it to justify burning heretics at the stake. Condemning them to Hell under the banner of Heaven.
As the bearer of the Heretic portion in the title of this blog, I find this is uncomfortably personal. Even Dante only put heretics in the 6th circle of hell, believing them not so evil as deserving the 9th and lowest circle.
Rational man does not need a threat of eternal damnation to act well.
I point to the same accomplishments of humans throughout history, the many examples of the greatness of which man is capable, as proof of the potential in us. Not proof of heavenly inspiration.
As our acceptance of the commonality of our humanity grows and embracing our place in this vast interconnected universe gains acceptance, we will realize that a heaven and hell is unnecessary. It is an ancient premise no longer serving a valid purpose.
The more we understand of the universe, the more we recognize the potential within the human mind, the better off we will be.
Kent’s original question was, “Is there a Heaven and Hell and is Joe going to a warm place and I don’t mean Aruba?”
I do not believe there is either heaven or hell. Their creation from an all too human motivation taints all of the claims to their actual existence. They arose for a selfish purpose.
I base my belief on the absence of proof. A far sturdier basis then ancient texts.
I do believe in Aruba, I’ve been there.
Yet I know there is no certainty. If there is a hell, I think I would rather laugh with the sinners in good company. Most of my friends will be there. Perhaps Kent would visit us.