Tolerating Hell While in Heaven: 4 Lessons

Tolerating Hell While in Heaven: 4 Lessons February 15, 2021

Let’s distill out four lessons from the last two posts (here), which considered how knowing of hell would burden the souls in heaven.

Those two posts surveyed popular Christian rationalizations about hell, from the first few centuries of the church to the present day. Many concluded that the thought of loved ones in perpetual torment would be impossibly distressing to those in heaven. Therefore, those in heaven must either have their memories erased or be so overawed by heaven that they have no mental bandwidth for compassion. Either way, you must be changed into someone else to endure heaven.

Our first takeaway is a biggie:

Lesson 1: God is immoral, God doesn’t exist, and the Bible is contradictory

Let’s start by agreeing that morality is a good thing. (It may seem odd that we must back up this far, but you’ll soon see that we must in this “up is down and eternal torment is good” environment.) Our best examples within society of honesty, compassion, selflessness, or any other moral trait are examples that are often highlighted for us to emulate. It’s not that we don’t know what is morally good. We do know; our problem is our inability to consistently strive for moral goodness.

While we do our imperfect best to be moral people, Christians tell us that God perfects that. God is morally like us but better; he’s what we strive to be but perfectly so. But the view of heaven we’ve been discussing is not that. God isn’t a vastly better moral being like us. This God doesn’t have more morals but less because God’s view of hell is radically different than ours.

Take a step back to the foundational idea of Christian salvation. Count the ways it offends our moral instincts.

  1. It’s a human sacrifice
  2. needed to satisfy God’s justifiable rage
  3. at humans being imperfectly moral despite the fact that he made them that way
  4. when he could just forgive any sin, like we do (and like he has done himself).

Now add:

  1. hell as eternal torment for our finite crimes.

This justification for hell doesn’t just seem crazy, it is crazy. A savage because-I-said-so god might have worked for an Iron Age tribe, but today the flaws are too glaring. When Christians also insist that their brutal god is love, the delusion breaks. God can’t be both loving and the author of hell; therefore, he doesn’t exist.

(The Christian response will be, “But you haven’t proven that these are incompatible.” That’s true, but the burden of proof is not mine. An open-minded person, like I try to be, can evaluate Christianity’s claims, but when they don’t satisfy the burden of proof, we’re obliged to reject them.)

Salvaging the idea of God?

A popular defense of God’s good name cites Isaiah 55:9, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” If we’re talking about understanding reality, that makes sense. The author of the universe would understand physics, chemistry, and other aspects of nature vastly better than we do. That’s an understandable intellectual gulf.

But the topic is morality. We’re not talking about how God’s love for someone who is homeless, depressed, or lonely is a million times more profound than ours. The issue here is that, when it comes to hell, God’s morality is radically different than ours. It’s contradictory. It’s preposterous. It’s insane. You would think we share a moral awareness with God. Remember who we’re talking about—it’s the “God is love” guy. But as we’ve seen, the response to heaven and hell by Christians themselves show that God’s morality is different, and, since human morality is the standard, God is immoral. (More here.)

When I say that human morality is the standard, that’s simply because “moral” and “immoral” are words with definitions. If God’s actions match up with what passes for human morality, then he’s moral. If instead God’s actions would be called immoral if a human did them, then God is immoral.

Let me give a parting challenge to Christians who refuse this conclusion: tell us what moral rules you think God is bound by. In God’s calculus, it’s okay to drown the world, it’s okay to bring into existence people that his omniscience knows are destined for heaven, and it’s okay to support slavery by making rules for it. He clearly doesn’t follow conventional Western morality. He even breaks most of his own Ten Commandments. Is God’s guiding principle “might makes right”? Is it arbitrary, driven by what annoys him at any moment? Or is there some logic behind it that we can understand?

Lesson 2: You become a grotesque, unrecognizable creature in heaven

I once thought that when one gets to heaven they become acutely compassionate. Silly me! No, Christians themselves tell us that you must be less so. You must be anesthetized or lobotomized by removing any loving memories of friends and family who are in torment in hell. Because given the two important priorities, our comfort in heaven and just punishment in hell, why would God bother fixing hell?

The other bright idea is that somehow those in heaven come to understand that it’s all part of the Plan—and, despite the revulsion that any person with a functioning conscience would feel, that’s a good thing. Who cares what humans’ God-given sense of right and wrong says?

Someone who could look from heaven at their children in agony in hell and not immediately feel overwhelming horror, compassion, and sorrow has become a different person. Only by inverting society’s moral rules can heaven be made tolerable.

Lesson 3: God doesn’t support free will—he suppresses it

This was discussed in the last post.

God is hidden, which is odd because we’re told that he longs for a deep relationship with each of us. Christians rationalize this by saying that God making his existence plain would step on our free will. (No one else’s existence seems to offend our free will, but let’s ignore that.) We must freely give our love to God. But what kind of champion of free will is God if he must override your honest response to hell?

(More on the problem of God’s hiddenness here, here, here, and here.)

Lesson 4: You should reconsider Christianity if it seems like BS

What does it say about Christianity that a fundamental doctrine—God administering justice in the afterlife—falls apart with a little examination? And that the same is true for the Trinity. And the virgin birth prophecy. And lots more foundational claims of Christianity.

Many Christians who hit these speed bumps take no notice. Others notice but don’t want to. And an open-minded few keep track of these rather large problems that don’t make sense—the Bible’s contradictions, prayer that doesn’t work as promised, attributes of God that are beneath a deity, how God is pretty much like every other deity, how this looks like a world with no God, and so on. These thoughtful Christians are the ones that could find a more sensible world outside of Christianity, one held together with more than cognitive dissonance and wishful thinking.

This is what happens when you squeeze a normal, compassionate human brain into a Bible-shaped box. Repeatedly, “But it doesn’t make sense” is pounded down with “God must have his reasons.”

Stumbling over a nonsensical claim can be an opportunity to wake up and reevaluate whether Christianity makes sense or is just another manmade construct.

See also:

[Heaven is like] when you hear
someone talk about Hawaii
like they’ve been there,
but they only read about it in a brochure.
— commenter Kodie

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Image from John Verive (license CC BY-SA 2.0)
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