Readers of Changing Paths may wonder why I chose not to address theological questions like the existence of God, what happens in the afterlife, and related questions.
The first part of the book is aimed at people seeking to leave a variety of high-control traditions, which could be anything including fundamentalist Christianity, fundamentalist Islam, high-control new religions such as Scientology, and even high-control versions of Paganism.
For each of these traditions, the theological arguments are different, so rather than devote a large amount of space to them in the book, or write yet another book about why a supreme creator deity does not exist, I wanted to write about extricating yourself psychologically from harmful religious traditions.
The other reason for not discussing this topic in the book is that I generally try to avoid using arguments from within the Christian paradigm to argue against bad Christian theology.
Searching on the web for resources to address questions about whether a supreme creator God exists will bring up many excellent resources, often put together by atheists. Even sophisticated theological concepts like the Ground of All Being, whilst poetically satisfying, don’t wash with atheists, because they are not testable (they cannot be proven true or false).
There are excellent arguments to suggest that Jesus never existed (or if he did, that his biography was conflated with stories of other demigods and heroes, rather like what happened with the stories of King Arthur and Robin Hood).
One of the books in the bibliography for Changing Paths, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Goldstein, goes through 35 of the classic arguments for God’s existence and refutes them one-by-one. The 36th argument is Spinoza’s version of God – God as Nature – which refutes all the other arguments all by itself.
My favourite argument for why there is no supreme creator God is the one known as Epicurus’ trilemma or the Epicurean paradox:
If God is unable to prevent evil, then he is not all-powerful.
If God is not willing to prevent evil, then he is not all-good.
If God is both willing and able to prevent evil, then why does evil exist?
Another great argument is Hitchens’ Razor: “what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”
A pernicious doctrine
However, it is much harder to find resources demonstrating that the pernicious doctrine of hellfire is wrong: it is morally bankrupt, incorrect, and harmful. I guess this is because atheists think that once they have demonstrated the non-existence of God, the non-existence of hell automatically follows from that. But what about people who continue to believe in some form of divinity, but want to free themselves of the fear of hellfire dinned into them by fundamentalism?
This article is for those people. The arguments that I am familiar with are mostly the ones against the Christian doctrine of hellfire, but may also be applicable to other monotheisms’ views of it.
Many other religions
There are millions of people in the world who are devoted to God via other religions, why on earth would he send them to hell? The millions of Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, and Jews who are devoted to God are all going to hell according to evangelical Christianity (and some other monotheisms). That is a vile, pernicious, hateful, racist, and immoral doctrine. The “need” for missionary efforts to “save” unbelievers has also been used to justify colonialism and genocide.
C S Lewis had an interesting way of getting around this problem, offered in The Last Battle, the final book of the Chronicles of Narnia, where the faithful Calormene Emeth gets into the heavenly Narnia because he sincerely believed in Tash and always did good deeds.
The scandal of particularity
If God had intended Christianity to be the only authorized means of communicating with him, he would have revealed himself via it to all parts of the world at the same time and made it more obvious to people of other religions. Instead, Christianity was revealed to a small group of people in the Middle East between 0 CE and 33 CE, and then spread from there. According to evangelical Christians, that means that anyone who does not accept the message of the gospel is damned. That is absurd.
The idea expressed in John 14:6, that there is no way to God the Father except through Jesus, is offensive to other religions. However, I believe that what Jesus was actually saying was “The [inner] self is the way, the truth, and the life; there is no way to the source of all existence except through the [inner] self.” I can’t prove that because I am not an Aramaic scholar; but Aramaic seems to be quite a subtle language, and such an utterance could easily have been misquoted and/or mistranslated.
The un-contacted Amazon tribe
There is a get-out clause in the legalistic doctrine of salvation, however, which is that people who never heard the gospel will get into heaven on a technicality. If that is the case, why bother to send out missionaries? If a missionary tells the message of the gospels to an un-contacted Amazon tribe (all of whom would have got into heaven prior to being contacted), but only 50% of them accept the message of the gospels, then that missionary has condemned the unbelieving 50% to hell for all eternity, according to evangelical Christians.
If we, mere humans, can see that sending people to hell for eternity would be wrong, then God should be able to see that as well. If we are “created in the image of God” then we must share God’s mindset to a certain extent, and therefore our compassion for those people condemned must be shared by God, which implies that he would not condemn them forever.
Why would a loving God create a life in order to damn it?
Some fundamentalists believe that gay people are automatically damned if they enter into sexual relationships with someone of the same sex. If they were born gay – if God made them gay – why would he create something in order to damn it? (as a wonderful Orthodox Christian nun said to me)
If God is love, why would he condemn people to an eternity of torment, and why would he sacrifice his own son to be tormented instead of people? It does not make sense.
Sadly some Christians have been given a picture of God as a stern and implacable judge. But these are also the people who tend to believe the Bible is inerrant, and it clearly states that God is love.
The “New Testament” is a deeply flawed document that cannot be relied upon. Not only does it contain internal contradictions, but also many mistranslations from the original Greek, and obscure passages whose meaning is widely disputed.
One of the concepts that is frequently mistranslated, misinterpreted, and misunderstood, is that of hellfire. Apparently the New Testament Greek does not say that people will be condemned to hell “for eternity” but for ages of ages (a very long time, but not eternity).
The Orthodox Christian version
Some Orthodox Christians believe the following: everyone goes to the presence of God when they die, but those who have been turned towards the Divine in life experience God’s presence as a joyful light, and others experience it as fire and darkness, because of their own impurity. The people who experience it as fire and darkness will eventually be purged of their sinful nature, and experience the divine presence as light (this is the origin of the doctrine of purgatory). Because of the belief that the dead can change, this is why Orthodox Christians pray for the dead. This view is sometimes called apocatastasis.
This view is also illustrated by C S Lewis in The Last Battle, when the treacherous dwarves arrive in the heavenly Narnia, but believe that they are still in a dark and dirty stable. Aslan creates a feast for them, but they believe that they are eating animal fodder (hay and straw and turnips).
Universal salvation or universal reconciliation is “the doctrine that all sinful and alienated human souls—because of divine love and mercy—will ultimately be reconciled to God”. This is a much more humane approach to the ultimate fate of the human soul than the idea that some people will be permanently rejected by God. Universalism was very popular in the 19th century and was promulgated by both Unitarians and Trinitarians, including John Murray (1741–1815), James Relly (1721-1788), and Hosea Ballou (1771–1852).
Interestingly, Helen Burns, one of the characters in the novel Jane Eyre (chapter 9) expresses a universalist view on her deathbed: “My Maker and yours, who will never destroy what He created. I rely implicitly on His power, and confide wholly in His goodness: I count the hours till that eventful one arrives which shall restore me to Him, reveal Him to me.”
This has been a short overview of the arguments against eternal damnation. If you need to explore further, here are some more resources. The bibliographies of these articles contain references to books on the subject.
- Christian Universalism (Wikipedia)
- History of Christian Universalism (Wikipedia)
- Unitarian Universalism (UUA)
- Apocatastasis (Wikipedia)
- Hell (Wikipedia)
- Problem of Hell (Wikipedia)
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