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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Hell, an Overview

A Bulgarian depiction of Hell.


I found last week's Economist article Hell: Into everlasting fire an interesting multicultural and historical overview of the quintessential place that you do not want to be (5AM at the local Walmart on Black Friday is, of course, is a close second). The Economist has a particular style to its articles. A vast majority of them adhere to the Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears speech made by Marc Antony in Julius Caesar. Mr Antony starts on on how he has come to bury Caesar, not praise him. Of course, that is what he ends up doing. The Economist article starts along a similar line of reasoning stating that Hell is to many an antiquated relic -- The devils and pitchforks, the brimstone clouds and wailing souls, have been cleared away, rather as a mad aunt might be shut up in the attic.


In the next paragraph the other shoe drops.
“Hell is Real,” declare the billboards across the American South: as real as the next town. To make it an abstraction is comforting and tidy, but doesn’t work. Religion thrives on fear, as well as hope: without fear, bad behaviour has no sanction and clerical authority wins scant respect.
I suggest that religion without fear gradually evolves into either: A) Universal Unitarianism (UU) where every empty headed and vacuous  opinion about about God (or gods) is accepted as long as it doesn't offend any other empty headed and vacuous opinion about God (or Gods); B) Secular Humanism -- atheism. Although this is only anecdotal, I have seen many atheists who had given up their Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, etc, faith and give the UU a try before hitting their personal limit of inanity and finally realizing that they are atheists (and unable to be complicit in the aforementioned UU wackiness).

The article continues with an interesting historical tidbit from a popular anti-gay group with a penchant for bells.
“[People] must have hell-fire flashed before their faces,” wrote General Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, “or they will not move.” 
See? Faith-based terrorism is for your own good.

While Christianity's God of love keeps people in the fiery abode for eternity, other religions have a bit more merciful(?) view of damnation.
At the end of a stay of aeons of time in Yama Pura, the Hindu Hell—the oldest known, with its subdivisions of heated kettles, iron spikes and “dreadful shrieking”—or at the end of the Buddhist Hell, with its particular torments of scraping the heart and stuffing the skull with hedgehogs, the purged soul returns to Earth as an insect or a reptile, entering the cycle again. From both the Muslim and the Zoroastrian Sell, souls eventually return to Earth: the Zoroastrians on an annual basis, on the last five days of every year.
How did Christianity's Hell become such a bad place (comparatively speaking)? The author proposes that the Greek gods needed a place to torture the Titans (the god's predecessors) as well as those mortals who offended the divinities. Also, certain strains of Judaism pushed for a tougher stance on the treatment of evil doers in the afterlife.
Hell’s democratisation seems to have begun in Judaism, with both Isaiah and Ezekiel arguing that it did not seem right that good and bad alike should go to Sheol. The wicked, surely, should have deeper and sharper punishment. God should deal with them as they deserved—especially since, in life, they had usually prospered from their wickedness, whereas the virtuous, like Job, had been struck with disasters and covered with sore boils.
The rest of the article (and I suggest reading the whole thing)  gives a nuanced version of Hell through the ages. Yes, the Jewish Gehenna (supposedly talked about by Jesus) was ancient Jerusalem's version of the Springfield tire fire (hat tip to the Simpsons) where the corpses of criminals were tossed into. (Robert Price had an in depth discussion on Hell in one of his The Human Bible podcasts and chatted about the trash heap.) It was not a place of eternal torture.

At the end of the piece the question is Why did the eternal damnation version of Hell win out in the West? The author places the blame on Church leaders.
In Hell’s case, it 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.”


And while The Economist doesn't take the logical step for advocating atheism, it does state that Hell, which is absurd and barbaric, plays a necessary role in faith.
Without Hell you can’t have Heaven.
Indeed. Toss out both ideas.

Ironically...

this is Purgatory.
 

 

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