WHEN I think about all the trials and troubles I’ve had in my life, then death seems like an end to those troubles, and the idea of the afterlife seems to be one of contentment, happiness, joy, and peace. (Notice that heaven is rarely, if ever, described as “fun,” or “adventurous,” or “exciting,” or “exhilarating.”)
But when I think about all the good, beautiful things in my life, and how alive I had to be to create or acquire those good things (and maintain them), then death seems like an end to those things, and the idea of the afterlife seems to be one of total destruction, frustration, and misery.
These feelings, I think, are where the ideas of heaven and hell come from. But of course, both of these visions can’t be true, so what does that mean? That neither of them are? — oh no, it can’t be that. So it must mean that some people go to heaven and some go to hell. And of course, any sensible creators would make sure that the humans who go to heaven are the ones that deserve to, and the humans who go to hell also are the ones who deserve to.
Of course, any creators who have the power to invent our universe, and us within it, in all probability can decide a bit more than just whether each human goes to hell or heaven. They could also decide whether there are such places as hell and heaven, and therefore whether any humans go to those places. And once you’ve noticed that, then the question of what sensible creators would do gives a very different answer. (For my comments on that subject, see “heaven and hell” in the index of Mechanism.)
But even assuming the creators did, for some mad reason, want invisibly to send destructive humans to infinite tortures, and cooperative humans to infinite bliss, and to provide living humans with a feeble, obfuscated warning, contained in cryptic, rambling scrolls, passed down through the generations by nomadic tribes in one small part of the world — there would still be massive logical problems with the whole concept.
What do I deserve? What does any human “deserve?”
Suppose I’ve just wantonly killed a random stranger, and I think, “Gee, if I’m going to hell anyway for killing this one, why not kill nine more and make it an even ten?”
To which the religious tell us, “Oh, you’ll spend eternity in a much worse part of hell if you kill nine more people. You don’t want to do that!”
But then I ask, “So, if I’m in the single-murder, not-as-bad part of hell, it will be horrible — but will I feel some satisfaction that I didn’t wind up in the ten-murder part of hell? Will I be glad I’m not there?”
“Oh, no — nobody in hell feels gladness or satisfaction of any kind. Nothing but misery and anguish without end!”
Then what difference does it make?
But wait — just because I’ve murdered somebody doesn’t mean I’m going to wind up in any part of hell. I might go to heaven, if I genuinely repent.
But what part of heaven will I go to? The same part as somebody who chose not to murder at all? No, I’ll be in a lesser part of heaven. So, though generally happy to be in heaven at all, will I periodically feel regret that I’m missing out on a better part of heaven?
Oh no — nobody in heaven feels regret, or any other negative feeling. Nothing but joy and contentment.
So again: What difference does it make?
Who Really Goes Where?
This brings up another troubling question. If I can repent at the last minute, and experience pure, unqualified joy in heaven, no matter how much havoc I wreaked during my life in this universe, then where went the idea of people going where they deserved to go? Into the mist, apparently.
And it’s even more confusing than that. The church teaches that “presumption” is a sin. That is, if you believe you are heaven-bound, you’re committing a sin, the sin of presumption, and if you die with that sin unexpunged, you’ll go to hell!
Sounds almost reasonable — until you stop and wonder: What am I supposed to do to get into heaven? Whatever it is, if I do it, and I think it’s getting me to heaven, then I’m going to go to hell for presumption! And if I don’t do those things I’m supposed to to do get into heaven, and believe I’m going to hell as a result, then I will go to hell for the sin of “despair.”
The determiner of whether you go to heaven or hell, it seems, has nothing to do with what you did with your life, but instead is based on some trivial fluctuations in what you were thinking in your final seconds. If you will go to hell for, in the last moments of your life, thinking you are probably going to heaven, or thinking you are probably going to hell, then the only people who even might get into heaven are those who are so confused about the criteria that they have no idea whether they’re going to heaven or not. Then, it’s up to the Christian God to decide which ones of those confused people he wants to send to heaven and which to hell, based on some mysterious criteria that only he understands — because if we could understand it, then we would have a good idea whether we’re going to heaven or hell, and then we would be committing the sin of despair or presumption, and would go to hell either way.
The Real Point
Originally, I suspect, the point of the heaven-hell story was to make society safer by discouraging destructive acts. Then, over time, as the church matured into a full-fledged, self-serving bureaucracy, the point changed to that of encouraging people to join, support, and utterly rely on the church as their only chance of getting into heaven. The presumption paradox serves the purpose of keeping the people endlessly guessing what they’re supposed to do to avoid hell, and clinging to the church since it claims to hold the mysterious, ever-secret answer.