Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Hell vs Altruism

PZ recently linked to a rather disturbing video on display on GodTube. I don't recommend actually watching it (though it is perhaps appropriate for Halloween), so I'll summarize. It's a fictional letter from a guy in hell to his living Christian friend asking why, oh why, wasn't he told about this ...Jesus. It's supposed to be a call to all Christians to start proselytizing to their friends, if they truly care for them.

Obviously, there are a lot of different things I could say about this, but my first thought was that hell isn't completely compatible with any sort of ethics that involves caring for others.

Let me elaborate. Hell (along with Heaven) is a sort of poetic justice, seemingly taken out of fiction and put into real life. Hell is supposed to be a motivator to do good, because your good actions here will be translated to good rewards in the afterlife. Why be altruistic? Because if you care for others in this life, you will get taken care of in the afterlife. In other words, altruism is justified because it translates to selfish goods at the endgame. Heaven and Hell: a possible basis for ethics?

I would argue that under this system, altruism doesn't apply to the afterlife itself. Consider a situation in which you have the opportunity to sacrifice a bit of your own afterlife pie in order to save someone else from hell. For example, maybe you had to fib a bit to get them to come to your church or something. Maybe afterwards, you could confess so that it wouldn't hurt your own eternal fate at all. Is it justified? Would it be justified if you converted people through threats? Through coercion? Through terrorism? Would it be justified to sacrifice your own soul by killing innocent babies before they have a chance to sin? Perhaps you were already convinced you were irrevocably going to hell, so you might as well help as many other people in the process.

I think it should be taken it for granted that none of the above are justified. Also, Hell only really provides motivation for altruism that concerns this life, not the next. Therefore, altruism is only justified and motivated under the heaven/hell system if you care for people's real lives, not their afterlives. It's internally consistent, at least.

But, shoot! It seems that excluding the motivation from heaven/hell, people still feel the need to be altruistic. Who knew? That's why you get people who care about your afterlife, and are willing to sacrifice simple civility to save you.

These people are clearly misled... but at what point did they make a mistake?


Anonymous said...

I have also pondered the paradoxes of heaven and hell. Clearly, heaven is a place to invoke when you wish yourself, your family, and friends the best possible result after death. Hell, in contrast, is a place to invoke when you wish upon your enemies their just retribution after death. Yet, paradoxically, in Christianity we are instructed to do good to them that hate you. So why should any of us wish for another to go to hell? And if we say we don’t want anyone to go to hell, then why does God---who, presumably, is the perfect model for all of us---let anyone go to hell?

What is even more inconsistent is the position that one must believe certain things, and that this belief alone is both necessary and sufficient to have one go to heaven. Look at the teaching of the Bible itself in Matt. 7:9-11. “Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?” Well, if my son had never seen me, and if he doubted that I exist, would I be willing to condemn him to hell for eternity? Of course not, never! So the belief that a just God would send a person to hell for eternity simply because he was a doubter is completely inconsistent with the Bible’s own teachings.

miller said...

The idea of heaven and hell seems to me contrived specifically to give us Pascal's Wager and other variations on that theme. Pascal's Wager is simply full of holes, each of which should roughly correspond to a paradox in the heaven/hell concept.