Friday, June 30, 2006

I'm answering, I'm answering!

I hope Hellbound Alleee won't mind me responding here, but I get the impression it's not her original material, either. She posted in her blog this Monday "The Questions Christians Can't, or Won't, Answer". I'm hoping to answer them as best I can. Indeed, I may not be able to.

To the Christian (who, of course, believes in hell, and don't give me that seperation from god stuff--you know that's supposed to be terrible suffering as well, otherwise no one would care that they were seperated from your pansy god):
I think you're misunderstanding the Christian concept of "separated from God". Try this metaphor: Imagine driving in your car through the desert. It's 120 degrees Fahrenheit (around 50 degrees Celsius), and although it's bad, you're in your air-conditioned car. Then your motor hitches up, and you notice: you're out of gas. Now you're "separated" from your car, and from your air conditioning. It doesn't matter whether or not someone would describe your car as a "pansy" car, you're in for an awful afternoon.

The Christian concept of the world is that it's a potentially cruel and terrible place that's being kept at bay to an extent by the grace of God. Take away God, and that's Hell. Yeah, it sucks. Yeah, there's suffering. It's not meanness, it's human choice to reject that grace.
How can you enjoy your afterlife while millions suffer eternal torment in hell? Especially when some of them could be your friends, aquaintances, and family? When so many millions of them are simply regular, "good" people who were in the "wrong religion?" Little children, grandmas, people who have done wonderful things, millions of people who led wonderful lives, suffering in hell because they did not accept Jesus?
Indeed, that is a question most Christians can't answer. How the heck can you be happy when you know people are suffering? Some theologians have suggested that God makes us forget about them, but I don't find that convincing, or even completely reasonable.

A man goes to Hell, and Satan offers him an eternity in one of three rooms. In the first room, people are standing on their heads on hard, rough wood. In the second, people are standing on their heads on a stone floor. In the third, there are people standing on their feet, drinking coffee while knee-deep in shit. The man decides that while they all look bad, the third is far preferable. Satan walks him inside, closes the door and says: okay everyone, coffee break's over; back on your heads!

Did you laugh? Why? It's a story about people suffering. Sure, it's fictional, but then, there are real people suffering in the world right now. Did you know that over 8,000 people die from AIDS every day? How can you laugh while that's happening? Wearing any clothing made in China? It was probably manufactured by the cheap labor of political and religious dissidents. Are you heartless? Sometimes I suspect that, despite the fact I'd like better, Heaven will be much like this life, where we manage to enjoy ourselves despite the fact that elsewhere, suffering is occurring. There is probably more to be said to these questions, but I'm trying to be brief. (By my standards at least.)
Let me clarify: I'm asking about you, and your feelings personally. Will the terrible eternal suffering of others, whether they supposedly "deserve it" or not, whether they were Gandhi or just some 8 year-old child of Buddhists that did nothing in his life but do what 8 year-old kids do, will you be able to sing loud enough to drown out their screams, and pretend everything is perfect the way it is? Is that perfection to you? If you sit outside of a torture chamber while someone's fingernails are being peeled off, will you be perfectly blissful as long as you've got yours? Because, after all, Kiko or Deepa "knew" Jesus and just ignored Him.
Well, I imagine that those who are in Heaven will not be sitting "outside of a torture chamber" like Hell is right in the next room. We'll know it exists, but have no direct knowledge of it. I'm sure people are being tortured as I write this, and will be as the reader reads this, but we have the ability to tune them out because their screams will not be heard, they will only be a thought somewhere in the back of our heads, if at all.

I'm also not convinced by rhetoric that seems to imply that undeserving people will go to Hell. Part of that has to do with a subject I intend to post on sometime soon, but a lot of it has to do with my understanding of the nature of God. It just sounds unfair that God would punish an 8-year-old just for being born into the wrong family. But God IS fair. So I don't believe God will punish that child. Now, is it fair to "punish" anyone at all? That's a bigger question. Maybe I will make a dent in answering it nonetheless as I finish this post.
Why did God/Jesus make the rule? Please justify the morality of eternal suffering for nonbelief. After all, if God made it so, it must be moral, and it must be really easy to figure out why eternal suffering after death is morally justified.
First of all, we're starting with an assumption that I think is not supported. Who said God made the rule? Maybe someone did say it to you, but that's not my point; I ask it in a rhetorical fashion. While some Christians are fond of saying, "God created the universe, so He gets to make the rules," I don't think you'll find such a sentiment in the Bible. Don't get me wrong, God does make many rules, and He does punish people for breaking the rules. I'm simply saying that the reason for God making the rules is not often stated, and we are left to venture guesses. Furthermore, I don't believe that God does make every rule there is, and I suspect this is one that is to some extent beyond Him. (See my post on possible limits to "omnipotence".) Something I have heard said many times that I do think is true is that God does not do actions that are against His basic nature. Whether that is a choice, or something He is bound to by the higher impersonal force of logic, I do not know. But perhaps I will be allowed to slightly rephrase the question and keep the essence of the problem intact.

What is the purpose of the rule? What explains the need for suffering as a result of mere nonbelief? I hope that this is an acceptable rephrasing, although I still have a slight issue with the word "nonbelief" to clear up. I don't think nonbelief is the real issue. I think the real issue is having enough information to understand to some extent the nature of God, and refusing to acknowledge Him as an act of rebellion. Actually, if you look through the Bible, you see a lot of people who believe in God, but get in trouble because they simply don't do what is right. Why was it wrong for Adam and Eve to eat the fruit? They certainly believed in God, since they were on speaking terms with Him. The act of eating the fruit was in essence saying, "God, I know you said not to do this, but I think I know better." That's rejection of God, not mere nonbelief. Hell is not God saying, "I've decided that by this arbitrary rule I'm going to hate you and do mean things to you." Hell is God saying, "If you really are so determined to make your own decisions and live your life without me, then by all means, I don't want to force you."
Now, I say this knowing that nonbelief does not cause suffering in life, because I am an atheist, and I am a very happy person.
Whoever the original author of this piece is (is it Bob Smith? I thought his site was great (but not for the easily offended, I personally loved the very cool dressup games and "sticker attack" video), but can't find the article there and don't have audio right now), I wonder how he can be happy while people are being tortured? That's just me being a smartass...
I also know that belief, in life, does not prevent suffering (or the cause of suffering.)
Right. A very important point. Don't let anyone tell you that the purpose of Christianity is to reduce your suffering in the current life. While I said before--as many others have--that I think part of its purpose is to goad one to reduce the suffering of others, the main purpose of Christianity is not to make yourself feel better.
Therefore, the suffering must come after death (if you can figure that one out).
It's simple. The idea (which is not unique to the Christian world-view by any means) is that death is just a passing from this stage of life into another. The nature of the suffering that may come is, I think, pretty well explained above in my desert metaphor.
So that's why you guys had to create the idea of hell. I mean, come on, many people who do not believe in your fantasy are perfectly happy in their own fantasies, or reality. So you had to create this idea that otherworldly Lord-Of-The-Rings-Style imps to inflict. Ta Da! The non-belief itself didn't make me suffer. God had to make it so beings he created hurt me.
Well, if you're talking about the medieval concept of Hell as this fiery cave deep in the earth where red imps with horns and pitchforks giggle while they rip out your intestines, then I'd have to agree. I think that the Church of those days decided that they needed some stronger incentives to convince the pagan masses that there was a good reason to convert, so they made up these ideas and sold them to the general public. It's unfortunate that we haven't grown out of that concept, because not only does the Bible give virtually no support for that picture of Hell, but as far as I know, the Catholic Church is no longer promoting it either (if indeed they ever were in any official capacity). But that doesn't mean Hell as a more abstract concept does not exist at all.
Now that you think you've justified it, tell me why those who vote for the losing presidential candidate should not be tortured right now.
This cracks me up. I think there are two mistaken concepts at the heart of this. First of all, there is the concept that God is torturing people because He's some sort of "bad winner". Imagine Jesus sitting in a throne up in the sky, thinking, "Oh, ME! I can't believe what I'm seeing! As soon as I finish kicking the butt of Satan at the battle of Armageddon, I'm going to turn right around and kick the butt of everybody who didn't like me best of all; that'll show 'em who's boss!" Once again, God loves people, and only wants to have what's best for them. But He also respects their personal choices, and if they choose being separated from Him, then He allows them to be. If you think that's not a problem at all, then I guess you have no reason to become a Christian, do you?

The second assumption, the one that's a little more subtle, is that the suggestion given is not already a reality on some level. Behold: the tortures of the damned! All around, ever since the disaster that was the 2000 election, I've seen people with bumper stickers and t-shirts claiming "Bush is not my President!" Well, if you're a U.S. citizen, then let me say "Sorry" because he is. I didn't vote for him myself, but I don't understand the apologies, the denials, etc. Apparently, many, many of those who did not vote for Bush feel that they ARE being tortured, and that they are being separated from a government that serves their need. (On the latter part, they may be correct.)
Tell me why you shouldn't beat your wife, burn her with cigarettes, throw her down the stairs and humiliate her.
Because that would be mean, cruel and disrespectful. I'm not sure what this has to do with the issue of Hell, though. I see as more like I find out my wife has been cheating on me, so I divorce her and toss her out of the house with nothing. It probably still would be considered mean, but many would understand what I considered my justification.
Tell me why, if a child talks back to you, that you shouldn't lock him in a closet for days and let him sit in his own filth. And then rape him when he comes out.
Because that's not the way you ought to treat a child. Most likely even most parents who spank wouldn't consider that a spanking offense. Punishment may be merited, but certainly not to that degree.
After all, if God saw fit to make that happen, if Jesus made it so, you should do the same thing. Correct? Justify it.
No. God, in that He is a being far above us moreso than even a parent is over a child, has a different set of standards to live by. There are many aspects of God's character that we are to emulate as Christians, but one thing that Jesus does say is "judge not". God is the judge, we are not. The government has the right to put criminals behind bars, we do not. My neighbor has a right to discipline their child in the way they see fit, I do not (although I do with my own children).
I'll be waiting.
Your questions are answered. You may not like my answers, but they are answered. Thank you for the mental stimulation; whether anyone likes my answers or not, I think I learned a few things about my own beliefs in writing them.


Brucker said...

Discussion with "Hellbound Alleee" continues in comments there.

Brucker said...

[Reposting my own comment:]

So, Brucker, hell is being in a 50 degree desert without gas? But forever.


Sounds terrible. Again, why do I deserve that?

Well, no metaphor is perfect. In the terms of the metaphor, what really is happening is that an atheist decided that they don't need a car to cross the desert. I tend to always flirt with pushing my metaphors too far, though. The point is, Hell is, for some reason, just where we are all headed, and Jesus offers a solution which we are free to accept or reject. It's not about deserving it or not.

Brucker, are you implying that hell was not created by God, and that somehow he doesn't have any power over whether dead people "go" there? What a pansy god.

Neither. Somebdoy else suggested that Hell was created for rebellious angels, and that may be correct. In any case God does have power over who goes there, and His criteria is that He sends people (and aforementioned angels) there if they would prefer not to go to Heaven.

You have given me an answer that is completely morally relative. You have shown me a God that does not have control over a "realm" that he clearly created in the bible.

I don't know that I said anything about control, but that would be interesting as an academic issue: If Hell is a place where God's presence is not felt at all, it seems it implies that God does not have influence over Hell. Influence over who goes there, yes, but once they're there? I suspect not.

Bob asked "how can you enjoy heaven." I ask why. No one has answered my question. Not you.

As I admitted, I think this is the hardest question in the bunch, and I don't expect that I would have an answer that would be sufficient for you. I don't really have one that is sufficient for me! Many of my fellow Christians wrestle with this issue quite a bit.

You haven't even admitted if it is justice or not. If it is unjust, that I should suffer forever, then why should God be hogtied on this?

I thought I had answered the question, sorry. I think it would be unfair for God to make people go to Heaven if they didn't want to go. God isn't "hogtied", He simply chooses to respect the wishes of his creations.

I admire your sophisticated cherry-picking of the bible, and your ability to disagree with Jesus on hell.

Where did I "disagree with Jesus"?

But it's not that I don't "like" your answer. You still didn't tell me why. And if you don't like why, tell me how, then.

I don't follow you. I feel that I answered. If you don't then you must not like what I said, not in the sense that you necessarily find it distasteful, but you don't find it an acceptable response.

How is it that I die and then come back to life and suffer forever? Then, why would a God, who clearly doesn't want anything to do with suffering on earth (pshaw, why shoudl he care about suffering on earth when everyone is already worshipping him? Too much trouble), want to go to the trouble of assuring they continue to suffer forever with his pit?

For whatever reason, there is an essence of who we are--I suppose we call it the "soul"--that survives death. Our choices in life have some effect on what happens to that essence. In what way, I don't think we can understand in its entirety, but in part, we know that we get to choose whether it will reside with God or without God.

Brucker said...

[Reposting my own comment:]

Brucker, what reason to you have for believing that there is an essence of who we are?

I think Descartes' "Cogito ergo sum" is rather convincing. I don't know that the sorts of conclusions Descartes inferred from this position follow so logically as he might hope, but the central concept is there.

I feel that I can know that I exist, despite the fact that I can perform no experiment to tell me if my true essence is the sum parts of my body, just the brain, a disembodied spirit, or the hallucination of Hindu's Brahman. From a radically skeptical perspective I can doubt just about anything other than the basic fact that I exist as a conscious entity.

How about this: we have a body that perceives, metabolizes, feels emotion, and has a memory?

Who is this "we" that owns this body? Do you "have" a body, or are you a body? Choose your words carefully when talking about consciousness and self-identity.

There is no reason to believe in an "essence," a "soul," a "spook," a "homunculous," or a "self." If there is a reason, you should be able to point to something other than a body.

Is there reason to believe in your blog? I read some words on my computer screen, but is your blog on my computer? If so, does it cease to exist when I turn my computer off? Perhaps it's on a web server somewhere? If you took me to this server, would see your blog, or would I just see some boxes sitting in a room humming softly to themselves as electrical impulses passed through them?

The world has room enough for things that are not located spatially such that one can "point" to them, without having to even consider the spiritual realm. Indeed, where is the Internet? If you can't point to it, does that mean it doesn't exist?

There isn't a little man inside feeling and seeing. We already have everything we need in our bodies to do those things.

I agree. I would in no way advocate the concept that the soul is some sort of smaller self contained within the larger self. The soul is frankly something that I cannot define, but suspect resides in the physical body in much the way software resides on one's computer.

There is no evidence, therefore no reason to believe or suggest that there is life when there is no life.

I think you mean there is no evidence that you find acceptable. That's a fine thing to say; I have a friend who used to always talk about how his house was haunted by the spirit of his grandmother. I didn't buy it, but he didn't believe without evidence, just without evidence that suited my own tastes.

You disagree with Jesus because Jesus is extremely clear about what hell is. Every legitimate theologian I have ever read agrees that Jesus preached a physical, real hell realm with fire and parasites.

I never said that Hell was not physical place. I believe that, too. I just don't believe it resembles the clichéd picture that I described in my original response. There may be fire, there may be parasites, there may even be tormenting demons, I'm not sure. All I am saying is that Hell is like the world, but without God.

Besides, I think that all this talk about "legitimate theologians" is presenting the would-be responder to Bob's questions with a moving target. While I happen to agree with most theologians on this point, the issue was whether a Christian would answer the question, not whether they would answer it the way you want them to. If you already know how theologians would answer, and won't accept answers that differ, then why ask the questions in the first place?

Too bad he has no idea what heaven is. As far as scripture goes, heaven is nothing but something much worse than hell was ever described.

I don't follow you here?

If you are happy with a metaphorical realm, it stands to reason that heaven, souls, Jesus, and God are metaphorical as well. Taken that way, I see no good moral lessons coming from any of it. What possible good can come from the denial of real, meaningful things in favour of post-death realities? After all, metaphor is pretty useless once you're dead.

You're right, metaphor is useless once your dead, but we're not dead. If I had the ability to simply take you physically to Hell and Heaven for a tour and let you see it for yourself, I'm sure that would be far preferable to putting forth allegories to explain things. I don't have that ability, though.