Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Trouble with Hell

Yglesias on the problems with believing in just a heaven and hell and that’s it:
Folk hell has two relevant features. One is that it’s really awful. The other is that being sent there is the act of a just and moral God not an arbitrary and capricious one.
One important consequence of this that I think has tended to carry over into secular ethical thought via Immanuel Kant … is that the rules of morality ought to be realistic and achievable. It can’t be that a just and moral God is sending 99.9 percent of the population to a fate of endless suffering in Hell. God is good, so he wants to punish the wicked. But by the same token, God is good so his definition of “wicked” must be something that most of us are able to steer clear of. If we recognize that some people appear to go “above and beyond the call of (ethical) duty” we can recognize their supererogatory goodness by deeming them “saints.” But your average, everyday non-saint has to be a realistic candidate for avoiding the fiery pits of hell.
This tends to rule out the kind of ethical principles that say really middle class Americans ought to be giving 65 percent of their incomes over to charity. After all, nobody does that, it goes against human nature to do that, so it can’t be that we’re all sentenced to hell for being bad people. And I think that a lot of secular people who’ve dropped the entire God/Hell scheme from their worldview still hold on to a ghost version of that line of thinking. But without hell there’s no reason to think of good and bad, right and wrong as a question of getting over some hurdle of minimum standard of conduct.
This idea of a minimum standard of conduct is, as Kant put it, really necessary if you’re going to limit God to sending people to one of two places. The problem with it is what it implies about heaven and the sort of milquetoast, “haven’t killed anyone today” lifestyle most people act as if they believed will get them there. If the unrepentant but not vile can go to heaven, it must be a place of what the Book of Mormon calls “uncleanness” or “filthiness.” The Book of Revelation talks about God “spewing” the uncommitted away.
One of the things I appreciate in the LDS notion of multiple “kingdoms of glory” is that God can be a merciful God and a just God as well. People receive all the happiness they are willing to take on the basis of the laws they are willing to follow. Exceptionally few people endure everlasting burning and torture, and only when they specifically choose it; yet we can do so without making God’s home a place of filth and spew.
Our understanding of the purpose of life shifts from meeting a minimum standard and being “good enough” to really choosing those things that make us happiest. Repentance and the power of the Savior’s Atonement to change people from bad to good and from good to holy take center stage, rather than if our works muster a C grade. God has promised that the greatest happiness is for those people who learn to enjoy living as His Son, and striving to become one with God and like His Son is the heart of Christianity. We use the term latter-day “saint” not to signify that we think we’re better than everyone, but that “the saints are the sinners who keep on trying.”

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