03 Dec 2017

Heaven vs. Hell

Religious 26 Comments

I think I’ve touched on this before, but perhaps it’s worth revisiting…

An understandable stumbling block for people who encounter the Christian worldview is the notion that some external being is threatening to burn you for eternity if you don’t live up to his rules, even though you never agreed to them. What the hell?!

If we frame the situation like that, then yes it sounds grossly unfair, and God seems like a tyrant. I can understand why people write books like this (in the same way that I can “understand” why people rob banks and commit murder).

But even though (as we’ll see) I think these standard descriptions are perfectly accurate, I think there is a much more defensible explanation of the situation humans face. Here goes:

  1. Imagine for the sake of argument that there really is an afterlife.
  2. When you die, you encounter God. That is, there really is a Being who is the Author of everything.
  3. When you “meet God” for the first time, you suddenly see the entire history of humanity. You get it. You have the superhuman ability to understand how every event interlocks. You see the awesomely complex chain of events, starting in the beginning, and ceasing at the end of the world.
  4. Now, at this moment of infinite comprehension, you freely choose to react in one of two ways:

Choice A: You can be in absolute awe at the beauty of God’s construction. You see how He designed the very structure of reality to turn everything into the fulfillment of His loving plan for creation. (Fans of Adam Smith already have an inkling of how this works, with the “Invisible Hand” that turns our greed into service. But it’s more general than that, where “things just work out” in the long run, so that good triumphs.) You suddenly understand why the Holocaust happened, and why God allows infants to die of leukemia. In the presence of a Being who could invent a story so intricate and lovely, your only sensible response is to sing praises to Him with all your might, glorifying His accomplishment.

Choice B: You can be in absolute horror at the misery of your own actions on Earth. You had no idea what a horrible person you were, but with 20/20 hindsight and foresight, you can see the ripple of destruction you unleashed, going down through the generations, long after you died. Note, this isn’t God judging you, it’s you judging yourself. You feel shame, guilt, confusion, terror, and also FURY because IT’S NOT FAIR that you were plopped into this world with no say in the matter. You are OUTRAGED. How DARE God trick you into doing all of these horrible things, when if He’d just EXPLAINED IT BETTER. If you had realized how everything fit together, you would’ve preferred to NEVER HAVE BEEN BORN but this tyrant created you anyway AGAINST YOUR WILL. How DARE HE?!!?

Now, since the passage of time is something that happens in the material universe in order to make it comprehensible to our finite minds, note that your choice above is final. You choose how you want to react to the instant and infinite comprehension, and then you are effectively in that condition for eternity.

In case it hasn’t hit you over the head: We can summarize Choice A as “heaven” and Choice B as “hell.”

Finally, note that there are things you can do while you’re still alive to condition yourself to make one choice versus the other. If you consciously tell yourself that you deserve hell and that all things good flow from God, and that only through a loving and merciful God do we have any shot at salvation, then you aren’t going to be shocked when you see just how awful your life was. It will just be filling in the specifics; you already vaguely knew that you deserved hell and were no better than Charles Manson when compared to God’s righteousness. If you spend hours per week singing praises to God and reading about His power and mercy, then you are preparing yourself to pick Choice A. Yes, you will be dismayed to see just how bad your actions were, but you’ll know “it’s not about you” and you will forget about yourself when you finally experience the full majesty of the LORD as you’ve been pining for since you were a little kid.

On the other hand, if you don’t think you need a personal Savior, if you think you are leading a pretty decent life and that you’re basically a good person, and/or you’re not even sure if there’s a “higher power” out there…then you are going to react in the second way when you confront the truth in your shell of confident narcissism.

26 Responses to “Heaven vs. Hell”

  1. Dan says:

    My stumbling block is that I believe it is possible that Christianity is the truth, but I’m far from certain and I don’t know what will change that barring an event like you’ve described happened to you. When people talk about having faith it has no impact on me, because based on everything I currently know I don’t have it. Granted, something might happen down the line or tomorrow that pushes me over the edge and I’m so confident that Christianity is right that any lingering doubt is overwhelmed by faith, but it’s not like I can just fake it until I have it with this.

    It is also hard for me to come to terms with why God would even allow people I deeply care about to choose to suffer for eternity if they happen to choose choice B. Sure, if I have complete understanding I can see where there could be a good reason, but in the current state I exist in it is a difficult pill to swallow. I’m not even concerned about myself for the most part. But based on how I see the world with the limited info I have it seems clear to me that I’d rather see God blink someone I care about from existence than allow them to choose suffering for eternity. That is another thing I don’t know if I can just have faith in. I need to understand why it would be necessary and I currently don’t.

    Plus, it could be that in order to be willing to choose A you absolutely need to accept Jesus in this life. In which case, I don’t understand why, even if I accept that that could be necessary preparation, and without it you aren’t capable of choosing A. Still, with the current knowledge I have it seems like I would certainly choose A. I’m fully willing to accept that I’m not a good person and that my actions, fully realized, created much misery even if it isn’t apparent to me now. It seems inconceivable that I would choose B based on what I know of myself. I could also see people I know and who I care about that would willingly choose B out of spite, but I don’t see that in myself.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Hi Dan,

      I appreciate your remarks. Since you know my history, you also probably believe me when I tell you that I totally understand where you’re coming from.

      I think you’ve already removed the biggest obstacle, namely, you are saying, “Yes I can see this is possible but I am being honest, it hasn’t clicked with me yet, and that surely isn’t good enough to count.” That means you are at least open-minded about it, as opposed to someone who can demonstrate in 3 simple steps that Christians believe the equivalent of a Flying Spaghetti Monster.

      Ultimately there’s nothing I can say that is going to prove it to you. The best I can recommend is that you occasionally read the gospel accounts of Jesus, and see if–as you get older and wiser–His teachings and actions don’t look cooler and cooler as you mature. I’m not saying you have to even think Jesus is a historical person at this point; just ask yourself if this “character” (perhaps based on true events) ends up being the most amazing role model in your mind, 5 years from now.

      You might also read Surprised By Joy, in which C.S. Lewis explains how he became an atheist and then came back to the faith.

      • Bob Murphy says:

        Oh just to make it easy: You can go to a website like this and try going through the Book of John, even if it’s just one chapter at a sitting. You can use the pull-down menu to pick which translation. If you want something that sounds majestic but is still comprehensible, the New King James is good. If you want something more straightforward, the English Standard Version is good.

        • Dan says:

          I read through it years and years ago, but I’ll go through it again now that I’m not hostile towards religion and see if I have a different perspective.

          • Mark says:

            Bob gave you some excellent advice, Dan.

            “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” Romans 10:17

            “Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.” Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” John 20:29-31

      • Dan says:

        I don’t need to wait 5 years for that. Even when I was younger and hostile towards religion, I used to tell my friends that one of the things that trips me up is that Jesus is so good that it’s hard to wrap your head around it. Meaning that if I was to write an ultimate good character I couldn’t have possibly come up with someone as good as him. Sure, I could just copy him having the example already, but to create a character from scratch without having the knowledge of Jesus to use as a template I’d have never came close to matching his goodness.

        I’m at the point where I believe in God, or at the very least a creator, I believe Jesus is goodness personified, and I can wrap my head around how Christianity could be the truth. My whole issue is that I have enough doubts that having faith is problematic for me. Like it makes sense to me that you’d be totally bought in based on your experiences, but other people I know base their beliefs almost totally on faith and that makes no sense to me. I don’t know what it would take for me to take a leap like that short of speaking directly with God. I mean, if I asked God if it was all true and I heard a voice in my head or otherwise telling me “Yes, it’s true.” I’d believe it. Outside something along those lines I see myself being completely open to the idea, but always having enough doubts to hold me back from being a Christian. It may take my death and standing before Him to see the errors of my way. Hopefully, if that’s the case the Christians who believe that will be too late are wrong.

        • Bob Murphy says:

          Hey Dan,

          Thanks again for the sincere remarks. I would encourage you to try re-reading at least one of the gospel accounts, because I’m guessing you will notice things you didn’t see before. Jesus kept getting more impressive, the older I got. In particular, He’s not Ned Flanders.

        • Keshav Srinivasan says:

          Dan, what do you think about this quote by Robert Ingersoll?

          “Why should we place Christ at the top and summit of the human race? Was he kinder, more forgiving, more self-sacrificing than Buddha? Was he wiser, did he meet death with more perfect calmness, than Socrates? Was he more patient, more charitable, than Epictetus? Was he a greater philosopher, a deeper thinker, than Epicurus? In what respect was he the superior of Zoroaster? Was he gentler than Lao-tsze, more universal than Confucius? Were his ideas of human rights and duties superior to those of Zeno? Did he express grander truths than Cicero? Was his mind subtler than Spinoza’s? Was his brain equal to Kepler’s or Newton’s? Was he grander in death – a sublimer martyr than Bruno? Was he in intelligence, in the force and beauty of expression, in breadth and scope of thought, in wealth of illustration, in aptness of comparison, in knowledge of the human brain and heart, of all passions, hopes and fears, the equal of Shakespeare, the greatest of the human race?”

          • Dan says:

            Not much. The fact that he had to combine the traits of about 15 different men to say that Jesus isn’t the best of us kinda seems a silly way to make that point.

          • Dan says:

            To clarify my point, if I was going to argue Jordan is not the GOAT I wouldn’t expect people to find my argument convincing if I were to say, “Could he shoot the three like Curry, muscle people around like Shaq, dribble like Kylie Irving, etc.”

            • Bob Murphy says:

              Heh I saw this comment Dan and I thought you were talking about Jordan Peterson (since the comments are arranged in chronological order the way I view them). Took me a minute to figure out what was going on.

              • Dan says:

                Is there any other Jordan?

            • Bob Murphy says:

              FWIW Dan I just checked YouTube and I think yes, Jordan could dribble like Kylie Irving–plus he got the shot off before taking 3 steps every time.

              • Dan says:

                I’m a diehard Bulls fan and grew up idolizing Jordan, so I’m a bit biased, but even still it’s hard to argue he had the straight dribbling skills as Kyrie. Then again, it’d have been nearly impossible to dance around with the ball like that in the 80’s and 90’s. That said, Kyrie isn’t even on the same planet as MJ as an overall player.

              • Bob Murphy says:

                If Jordan knew traveling was an option, he may have been more impressive.

                (I am mostly being “funny” but for real, the clips I saw all had Kyrie clearly taking 3 steps before jumping.)

              • Dan says:

                For sure. They rarely call 3 steps traveling anymore. But he’s still got some ridiculous handles even when he’s not traveling. His crossovers, behind the back, between the legs, spin moves, etc. are pretty impressive. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PfNwncxJzGE

                And that’s not to say Jordan didn’t have great handles. He made guys look silly. His highlights are filled with him breaking ankles with his crossover. He’s just slightly less flashy overall at it than Irving, IMO.

              • Dan says:

                Jordan didn’t need to dance around to blow past people. He was so quick that a little shoulder shake would be enough to get someone on their heels and then he’d be gone. It’s amazing how many times someone would fade him to the baseline looking for help, and MJ would give a little shoulder shake to the middle and then end up going baseline and scoring well before the help could get there. They’d want him to go baseline and he would and they still couldn’t stop him. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oG4gU_RiJ2c

    • Stephen Dedalus says:

      “It is also hard for me to come to terms with why God would even allow people I deeply care about to choose to suffer for eternity if they happen to choose choice B.”

      It is a necessary condition for us being free beings that we:
      a) get to make choices; and
      b) face the consequences of those choices.

      • Dan says:

        OK, but why couldn’t we choose to have God make us no longer exist? I get the free will component of this, but I don’t get why the consequence is eternal torment. Now it could be the case that the understanding that death brings means we will all willingly choose A or B, whereas an option to not exist would never be willingly chosen even if offered. But with the knowledge I currently possess it seems like a no-brainer that I’d rather not exist at all than exist in permanent torment.

  2. Harold says:

    I am not quite buying this. What if you were an utter unbelieving cad in life, but still glory in God’s creation? Seeing how it all fits, you inevitably understand not just why the Holocaust happened, but why you were such a bastard.

    Believing Christ died for your sins seems like a pretty uncertain method for ensuring choice A when it seems inevitable anyway.

    There is also a tricky aspect of free will hidden there in a Calvinistic sort of way.

  3. Major-Freedom says:

    “but with 20/20 hindsight and foresight, you can see the ripple of destruction you unleashed, going down through the generations, long after you died.”

    But I can’t see anything NOW that you say requires superhuman intelligence to see. There is only the now me to understand anything. It reads as “what I am talking about requires superhuman intelligence to understand, you will understand what I understand once you die, trust me, I have that ability, because I just believe it to be true and that is all that ultimately matters (faith)”

    See the problem?

    Faith does not grant anyone superhuman powers. They are by definition beyond human ability. If you’re human, you’re not superhuman.

    “then you are going to react in the second way when you confront the truth in your shell of confident narcissism.”

    What if I told you that Christianity encourages and even requires a confident narcissism? So confident that there is a God, so confident that the true God is Yahweh, not Odin, so confident that the bible was not just stories made up by man, but divinely inspired men, so confident to know the true aims of God (e.g. All of human history occurred to satisfy God’s monumental and insatiable ego), so confident to know the true afterlife events, and everyone else who requires more to accept a claim, are wrong and destined to suffer for eternity.

    That sounds like narcissism to me, and a very dangerous kind.

    Jesus may have preached humility, but he did so the way SJWs today do it. Humility for thee, but not for me. You all must refrain from casting stones at people, but me? I’m a superhuman apocalypse that will destroy everything in a cataclysmic Armageddon.

    I’ve read the bible and I haven’t read any passage from Jesus that suggests humility, healthy skepticism in himself, all of the attributes that he demanded from his followers. And why not? He is god become man, humility for thee, not for me.

    If you asked me, I think the thought of God is a way for people to act out their own egoistic thoughts and impulses by pretending those thoughts are coming from without, instead of from within. If it was accepted they came from within, that often leads to intolerable guilt. Not sure why, since they are just thoughts that derive from the logical structure of our brains. Logically we can think of becoming more intelligent, more powerful, God is just the infinitely distant asymptote of that graph. It cannot be fully grasped as a finite concept, the way apples and pears and trees are, because it is beyond finite concepts by definition.

    What is the love and cherishing of the thought of absolute Ego? People just call it God. God is the standard for the Ego. All inward focused. The entire universe is here only to satisfy that Ego, that is how big it is!

    • Stephen Dedalus says:

      “See the problem?”

      Certainly: Bob has an uncharitable, rather dim-witted reader.

    • Mark says:

      “I’ve read the bible and I haven’t read any passage from Jesus that suggests humility”

      You didn’t read it too well, did you?

      “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS.” Matthew 11:29

      He is god become man, humility for thee, not for me.

      Do you realize how ironic that is? God become man. You can’t have anything more humiliating than that. The infinite loving Creator God lowered Himself becoming one of us and dying in our place. The one that needs humility is you.

      “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Philippians 2:5-8

      • Mark says:

        Sorry, missed the quotes around your statement,

        “He is god become man, humility for thee, not for me.”

  4. RPLong says:


    It’s been years since I’ve been familiar with their practices, so they might have changed things since I was involved (they often change things), but the mormons used to teach that this very scenario took place for all dead souls who were never exposed to mormon teachings. They die and go to “spirit prison,” where the angels reveal the gospel to them, and then they get to choose whether to accept it and go to heaven or reject it and go to hell. When mormons perform “baptisms for the dead,” they believe they are performing proxy baptisms for these dead souls who have recently been taught by the angels.

    I’m not sure what your reaction to that might be. When I first heard about it, I was stunned and actually thought it was a joke. But I was surprised by your hypothetical because it so closely follows a standard mormon idea.

    Regarding what you’ve written, I believe there are all sorts of reactions a person might have to that scenario. A and B are certainly possible, but so are a myriad other things. Individuals are bound to react to such a situation very differently and feel a wide variety of things. What do we make of a person who experiences some blend of A and B?

    I also think your last paragraph is extremely unfair. Hindus, for example, don’t think they need a personal savior, but it would be hard to say that a devout Hindu who has surrendered completely to God is “living in a shell of confident narcissism.” Nor is it any guarantee that this Hindu would react to your hypothetical by choosing B.

  5. Mark says:

    Mormonism isn’t Christian. They are very deceptive and use Christian terminology, but none of it means the same thing as Christians do. And they get all butt hurt when someone exposes their doctrine and accuse you of attacking them, but they attacked Christianity first.

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