Mark Rants & Raves

Digressions into a variety of topics about the world.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The purpose of "hell"

We all have our own belief systems. That's fine. I'm not trying to change yours, rather to examine why a concept such as "hell" exists.

Some history

So where did a concept of "hell" come from? The English came up with the word "hell":
Hell comes to us directly from Old English hel. Because the Roman Church prevailed in England from an early date, the Roman—that is, Mediterranean—belief that hell was hot prevailed there too; in Old English hel is a black and fiery place of eternal torment for the damned.
The Greco-Romans called hell hades:
The god Hades... received the underworld for his realm... The realm he rules over is also called Hades. Hades is the enemy of all life, gods, and men.
The Hebrews called hell sheol:

The word Hell, in the Old Testament, is always a translation of the Hebrew word Sheol...By examination of the Hebrew Scriptures it will be found that its radical or primary meaning is, The place or state of the dead.

Muslims refer to hell as Jahannam:
Islamic eschatology is concerned with the Qiyamah (end of the world) and the final judgement of humanity. Like Christianity and some sects of modern Judaism, Islam teaches the bodily resurrection of the dead, the fulfillment of a divine plan for creation, and the immortality of the human soul; the righteous are rewarded with the pleasures of Jannah (Paradise), while the unrighteous are punished in Jahannam (a fiery Hell, from the Hebrew ge-hinnom or "valley of Hinnom"; usually rendered in English as Gehenna).
You can read more here.


So, why do some (actually most) religions believe in hell? Lets try to enumerate some possibilities:
  • Guilt
It's easier to keep kids in line, people coming to church, revenue streaming in, ... if you have a hammer to hold over people's heads. Somehow though, all the televangelists and other "preachers" do what they want and then claim that God will forgive them when they're caught. But you better not do as they do!
  • Revenue
Yes, churches/synogogues/temples are businesses that must have income to survive and grow...not to mention the power that goes along with riches. And the cleric/pastor/priest is paid by the congregation - are you really going to tell me they want to live frugally as Christ/Mohammed/... did?

What if people aren't paying enough attention? Get the big "hell" stick out to whip them into shape. It is so seriously deranged ... I've actually seen people fighting over very expensive spending decisions (read power) in a church while these same people don't care that the church is homogenous race-wise, won't lift a finger to help others, and fight against letting homeless families use the church as shelter until they can get back on their feet (what if they steal something?! Oh my!).
  • Writings
The Bible, Quran, Talmud, and other religious publications certainly mention hell is some form or another (hell, hades, gehenna, ...). OK, hell is mentioned in religious publications -- who do you think writes these? Human beings! They're people, just like you and I, with all the weaknesses and failings. And I know, before you flame me, that some believe that this was spoken from God and written directly down. If that's true from 1, 2, ... centuries ago, why can't it be true today?! Why do believers so vehemently attack books such as Conversations with God? Can't God talk to someone today, just like (s)he did centuries ago?

If we just look at the Bible for a minute, the numbers of mentions of the three different words for "hell" has changed over time . And these were actual places, like where they literally dumped Jerusalem's garbage.
Lets be honest. Isn't it just possible that the concept of hell is used for well-meaning reasons and doesn't really exist? What should we think of a God that would want us to suffer for all eternity?! I don't know about you, but my God isn't like that! WWJD (WWMD, ...)? He wouldn't allow this for his children IMO.

There are groups that do not believe in hell. E.g., Buddhism views life as a struggle to "do better" - to overcome our shortcomings and aspire to be better people; there is no hell in Buddhism, which is one of the reasons that I associate most closely with Buddhist thinking (and this from someone whose father was Catholic and mother was Baptist and who has been to Methodist and other "organized" religions over the years). For a Buddhist, "hell" is basically torturing yourself by the results of your bad acts; happiness is increased by doing loving, welcoming, positive acts.
I hesitate to call Buddhism a religion since most Buddhists don't consider themselves a religion, but rather a way of fact, Buddhist temples are frequented by people that claim they are Catholics, Protestants, agnostics, Jews, Muslims, ...
If you still believe in hell, what is your answer for someone who hasn't met your criteria through no fault of their own? E.g., if you think you have to accept Christ as your savior, what about primitive tribes in Africa that have never heard of the Bible or Christ? You would honestly sit there in your pompous righteousness and judge that these people would burn in your "hell"?! Unbelievable.

I do understand that without moral constraints, chaos would ensue. Some have postulated that this is a fact and is a contributing factor in the downward spiral of civilization. I just prefer to take the positive motivation of Buddhism over the negative threats of most other belief systems. On a regular basis over the centuries, including the crusades and the recent "cartoon" riots, religion has been involved in many, many horrific events. How ironic.

As I said when I started, if you believe in hell, that's your business. I do not choose to accept that concept for myself. Reasonable, logical debates to the contrary are welcome along with justification.

Labels: , , , , ,