Sunday, January 13, 2013

Who Goes to Heaven and Hell?

There are serious intellectual problems with the ideas of heaven and hell, e.g. who goes where. Some religious worldviews have a more difficult with time it than others, and for sake of specificity, I’ll pick on Christianity (and certain flavors thereof), since that’s a familiar religion and a politically correct target as of late. In the Christian faith, Jesus died for humanity’s sins such that anyone who believed in Jesus and accepted his sacrifice would have eternal life in heaven (though there might be additional criteria depending on the flavor of Christianity).

Theories and Problems

Theory: Only those who believe in Jesus and accept him into their heart (whatever that means) go to heaven; the rest rot in hell.

Problem: When pressed, I think you’ll find that most Christians don’t really believe this even if they say they do. Just ask them the following questions. What about a few years before Jesus was born? If you say that some other set of criteria held pre-Jesus, why wouldn’t the same criteria apply post-Jesus to those who have never heard of him? Such questions are so devastating that I think even most Christians will acknowledge this refutes that theory.

Theory: God providentially ordered the world so that anybody who would have responded positively to Jesus got to hear the message of Jesus. Thus all those who don’t hear the message of Jesus rot in hell because they would have rejected Jesus anyway.

Problem: Once again, there’s a refutation so devastating it will convince even Christians. Just ask these people who claim to adhere to this theory the following questions. What about miscarriages and babies who die in infancy? Are you willing to tell the mothers of these children that these children are going to hell, since God has providentially ordered the world so that anyone who didn’t hear the message of Jesus would spend eternity in hell? Even most Christians will realize that a perfectly good God doing that is highly implausible.

Theory: God providentially ordered the world so that anybody who would have responded positively to Jesus got to hear the message of Jesus, except for children who all got to heaven. Thus all those who don’t hear the message of Jesus rot in hell because they would have rejected Jesus anyway, except for children.

Problem: This sounds like a tactic based more on emotion (who wants to say to mothers that their baby who died is going to hell?) than one based on reason. If God is so merciful to children, why doesn’t he show the same mercy when they grow to be adults? Do these people somehow lose their worth to be saved? Moreover, hearing the message of Jesus isn’t enough; some people when they hear it just don’t believe. As an analogy, suppose you are cancer victim, and I offer a cure for cancer but you mistakenly believe the alleged cure is harmful and I deliberately withhold enormous quantities of evidence that the cure is harmless and real. If you were to die of cancer, could I really be held blameless by saying, “Well, I told that person I had the cure” when I deliberately withheld evidence? Similarly, most people don’t become Christians almost certainly would become Christians if they knew Christianity was true. So it’s not enough just to respond positively to the message of Jesus; these people also need to be the sort who would believe it.

Theory: God providentially ordered the world so that anybody who doesn’t become a Christian would not have become a Christian no matter how much evidence they received, except for children. Thus, all non-Christians still rot in hell, except for Christians.

Problem: There’s still the question of why God doesn’t show the same mercy to adults as well as children regarding those who have never heard of Jesus, but let’s ignore that. The fact remains that the majority of humans throughout history, even in the post-Jesus world, do not become Christians. Are we really to believe that most people would reject God’s gift of eternal life to him once they were aware of this offer? Granted, there might be extreme cases where some people might do this, e.g. a hardened serial killer who hates God and refuses to be in heaven with him, but would most people do this? The situation gets worse upon the view that God is the locus of moral value (as Christian apologist William Lane Craig believes), the source of moral goodness itself to which humans can find fulfillment in. Isn’t it highly implausible that the majority of the human race would reject this once they knew that God was like this? On top of that, there’s the question of why God doesn’t make this knowledge of himself obvious to everyone (perhaps by inundating people with an overwhelming feeling of his presence), and we get an argument from hiddenness (why does God hide himself?), though such an argument is somewhat beyond the scope of this article.

Theory: Everyone goes to heaven.

Problem: The idea that everyone ultimately goes to heaven is called universalism. There are different flavors of universalism, one being that some people do go to hell, but only for a finite period of time, kind of like prison. Another variety is that everyone goes to heaven as soon as they die, with no period of hell in between. One problem with universalism is akin to the argument from hiddenness: why didn’t God tell us everyone would (eventually) make it into heaven, instead of having people agonize about spending eternity in hell? While there are some Christians, such as Keith DeRose, who argue the Bible teaches universalism, even if such Christians are correct surely the Bible could have taught it more clearly, as evidenced by an extremely large proportion (and I suspect the majority) of Biblically knowledgeable Christians who reject universalism and argue that the Bible teaches against it.

General Problems

One other point about universalism: C.S. Lewis makes an excellent (and somewhat famous) point in chapter 8 of The Problem of Pain where he says, “I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully ‘All will be saved.’ But my reason retorts ‘Without their will, or with it?’” It seems highly likely that some people (albeit perhaps not very many) would not want to be saved, in which case universalism is false, but then why did God create those souls to begin with? Why, if he knew a soul was going to be damned before he placed it into the body (of an infant or conceptus) create a different soul instead? This of course is general problem of for all doctrines who suppose that some people go to hell.

And if God were capable of creating only those souls who would choose to accept him, why not do this early on? Why not create a heaven for all in the first place? Wouldn’t a perfectly good God do that?

One generic point that applies to universalism and all other doctrines of hell is this: why didn’t God make the criteria for going to heaven and hell clearer? Such a matter has huge importance to our existence, and given the high cost of eternal torment, wouldn’t a perfectly good God tell us what the reality of the situation is here?

Conclusion

Numerous points have been made in this article about the problem of who goes to hell and who goes to heaven, but I can summarize:

  1. On the view that children automatically go to heaven if they die (which sounds suspiciously emotionally based—who wants to say to mothers that their dead baby went to hell?), why doesn’t God show the same mercy to adults?
  2. On the view that only Christians go to heaven and that God providentially ordered the world so that any who don’t become Christians would not have become ones no matter what the evidence (with an exception for children perhaps), isn’t it implausible that most people, if they knew that Christianity was true, would reject God’s gift of eternal life to them?
  3. Why should there be hell in the first place? Why, if God knew a soul was going to be damned before he placed it into the body (of an infant or conceptus) create a different soul instead, one that he knew would go to heaven if he were to create it? What’s the point of creating a soul if God knows that the soul would be damned no matter what evidence he or she would face?
  4. Going off of part 4, given that this is within the ability of an omnipotent and omniscient God, why didn’t he create only those souls who would freely accept him and create a heaven for everyone in the first place? Wouldn’t a perfectly good God do this instead of creating the doomed-to-damnation souls for no other apparent ultimate end then to have somebody suffer in an eternal torture chamber?

Thus, there appear to be serious intellectual problems with the ideas of heaven and hell.