Wednesday, April 27, 2011

On the Creation of the Hereafter: Heaven and Hell

One who is raised as a child in a strict religious background can never quite leave that training and indoctrination behind. A little study of history will easily teach one that man created his religion to satisfy his own needs, and what is taught has nothing to do with any ethereal happenings. Nevertheless, one does not emerge cleansed of this childhood experience. The now-nonbeliever is left with a residue of emotion that can generate a range of responses from belligerent atheism to nostalgia. We will discuss two books whose author’s attitudes span much of this range. One focuses on the evil of the man-made concept of hell, while the other suggests benefits to society from the man-made concept of heaven.

In the London Review of Books, James Wood provides a review of the book After Lives: A Guide to Heaven, Hell and Purgatory by John Casey. We will receive the more optimistic assessment from Robert Wright in his book The Evolution of God.

Wood lets us know his arguable point of view with this statement:
“No one believes in eternal punishment any more (except for Islamic fundamentalists and those Christian evangelicals who think Christopher Hitchens will go to hell), but the concept of an afterlife is still hard to throw over.”
Wood describes Casey as the product of a strict Catholic upbringing that left him viewing the Church as a source of “cruelties and illogicalities.”
“His introduction reveals his hand, just because it is not a cool academic preface but a passionate intervention against the idea of hell. He notes that the stronger the belief in personal immortality became, the stronger the terror of hell (as in Islam and Christianity), and he recalls Father Arnall’s horrifying sermon in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Father Arnall tells his schoolboy audience how the great numbers of the damned will confine the victims, how the walls of this prison are four thousand miles thick, the stench intolerable, and, most famously, how eternity in hell can be imagined as a mountain of sand a million miles high, from which, every million years, a bird removes a single grain.”
Having encountered this sermon at a fairly young and impressionable age I can only wish that if there was a hell it would be reserved for those who prey on young children with such tales.

The concept of an afterlife was not a strong component of pre-Christian cultures, and Casey views its growth in importance as a social negative.
“Until the late book of Daniel, there is little mention in the Hebrew Bible of the afterlife as anything other than Sheol, a dark, cheerless place under the surface of the world.... It was not until around the time of Christ that the Pharisees (but not the Sadducees) became believers in personal immortality, St Paul being their most famous Christian convert.”

“Casey admires the ‘unflinching realism’ of Sheol, precisely because it is ‘the fate we could least hope for’, and thus places the human emphasis on life in this world. I think that what he likes about Mesopotamian religion, about Judaism, and about Homer’s Greece, is that in all these worldviews he sees life pushing away the afterlife, making it small and unimportant, as good health makes sickness seem unlikely: the afterlife, and the whole apparatus of judgment associated with it, falls away into comparative irrelevance, and the emphasis is on cultivating what we have rather than preparing for what we don’t have – practical ethics rather than spiritual hoarding.”
The development of the Christian views on heaven and hell ultimately emanate from Paul. Both Casey and Wright would agree that it was Paul and Paulism that would define Christianity, not the confused and confusing words that were purported to be those of Jesus.
“Paul’s dark novelty was to argue backwards from the death and resurrection of Jesus: we have been saved from death by Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection; therefore we must all have been cursed to death long before Jesus’ decisive intervention....”

“Paul’s other great contribution, probably responsible for more terror and death than any other doctrinal invention in Christianity, is the teaching that we gain entry to heaven not by our deeds but by faith alone; and that God freely chooses whom to reward.”
Here Paul created the image of all humans as by nature “depraved,” and generated the concept of predestination, which would evolve into a deadly form of Christianity when coupled with the invention of eternal damnation.
“Paul is important in the development of the Christian afterlife because, even though he seems not to have believed in the notion of hell, his harsh emphasis on the saved and the unsaved – on the absoluteness of salvation – effectively created the necessity for hell. Where would all the unsaved go? And if they were condemned by original sin, then surely there should be some appropriately morbid punishment? Sure enough, not long after Paul’s writings, the first detailed depictions of the Christian hell appear. In the Apocalypse of Peter, an apocryphal text from perhaps the early second century, the damned, as in Dante, receive bespoke punishments: blasphemers hang by their tongues, adulterers by their genitals and so on.”
It would take the Protestant Reformation and the twisted psyche of John Calvin to take this view to its inevitable conclusion.
“Calvin, absurdly enough,.... espoused a doctrine of total depravity, and ‘double predestination’: ‘God not only determines some souls, before their creation, to eternal bliss but also consigns others, in the unsearchable counsel of his own will, to everlasting torment’.”
Having arrived at this point, let us consider the ramifications. Unless God has chosen you to be one of the few elect, you are “totally depraved” and consigned to hell and there is nothing you can do about it. I think it is safe to say that no one would accept this belief unless they thought they were one of the elect. Therefore, anyone who does not believe as you is totally depraved and has already been condemned by God. There could not be a surer prescription for murder and mayhem.

Luckily for us, murder and mayhem has subsided—in our time—to mere intolerance and discrimination.

Casey seems to believe that
“....meaningful discourse about the afterlife came to an end when people stopped seriously believing in heaven and hell, in the early 19th century.”
That seems a bit of a stretch.

Robert Wright is interested in interpreting Paul and early Christianity in another context. He will end up viewing the creation of heaven and its rewards as a socially useful step.

Like Casey and Wood, Wright attributes the ultimate course and character of the Christian Church to Paul. He describes Paul as a masterful CEO who organized and encouraged and cajoled the followers into a relatively coherent entity. But what did Paul believe about eternal life?
“Paul’s view of the afterlife is the earliest documented Christian view, and it is notable for two things. First, though Jesus, being the son of God, went to heaven shortly after dying, ordinary Christians don’t follow that path. They have to wait for Jesus to return before things get blissful; ‘the dead in Christ will rise’ only when ‘the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven.’ Second, even then, heaven isn’t where the dead are going; rather, they will live out eternity on earth—the much improved earth of the kingdom of God.”
This view was encouraging to Paul’s followers because they believed, as did Paul, that these events were imminent. But then the years rolled by and Paul died and still nothing happened. These Christians, in order to survive, had to make converts among the gentiles of the Roman Empire. They were placed in the uncomfortable position of having to promise a potential recruit that after he dies his body will go in the ground, but we don’t know what else will happen, and eventually something good will happen, although we don’t know when. A prospective buyer could get a much better offer from other religions.

Christian doctrine had to change in accordance with this new situation. It was necessary to downplay any notion of an eventual earthly kingdom in the distant future and replace it with a concept with instant gratification. The “kingdom of God” would have to be replaced with the current concept of heaven.

Before relegating this change to the annals of chicanery, Wright reminds us of what Paul accomplished as the Christian leader. To him is attributed the moral code that we associate with Christianity today.
“Look at the list of sins he enjoins the Galatians to avoid: ‘Now the works of flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.’ Only two of these—idolatry and sorcery—are about theology. The rest are about workaday social cohesion.”
Antisocial behavior became a sin.
“But if you’re going to start a religion that becomes the most powerful recruiting machine in the history of the world, an appealing message is only half the battle. The message has to not just attract people, but to get them to behave in ways that sustain the religious organization and spread it. For example: it would help if sin is defined so that the avoidance of it sustains the cohesion and growth of the church.”
The crowning step in the development of the Church was to combine Paul’s dictum that those who sinned (according to the Church’s definition) “will not inherit the kingdom of God,” with the interpretation that the last phrase now referred to everlasting life in heaven rather than an earthly empire.
“Christianity would harness this incentive to carry the God of Israel well beyond Israel, into the religious marketplace of the Roman Empire, where he would thrive. The morally contingent afterlife was a major threshold in the history of religion.”
Wright’s contention is that religion was invented by humanity to meet its needs. He sees this response of the early Christians not as a subterfuge but as a necessary modification needed in order to produce a better society—and a better religion. In fact, he believes that the trend of religion, over the long term, is to assist in the formation of ever better versions of society.

I promised some optimism. It would be hard to be more optimistic than Wright.

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