One dusty, hot day, I stood on the steps of the Temple of Athena, my eyes and mind wandering through the tourist chatter, laughing children, crying babies, clattering, snorting donkeys. I felt thousands of years slip by, and saw countless generations of people climb the steps I was standing on. I saw worshippers in Ancient Greece, living their whole birth-to-death existence within the meaning system that now was mere ancient ruins (and a Percy Jackson fandom). And I saw today’s churches and mosques and synagogues and temples and everything else….and I felt like I understood all of….This….a little more deeply than I had before.
Back to my conversation with the teenager contemplating Hell:
We talked about Pascal’s wager — and how it helps you see that the whole Hell-thing is just plain unfair. Hell is like a logic trap, constructed so you only have one answer, one solution. As soon as you throw Infinity into an equation, it trumps everything else. Pascal knew this; this is what his wager was all about — that faith is not based on reason. But anyway, back to Hell as an unfair logic trap:
Hell = You Have To Give Your Life To God Or You Are An Idiot.
It’s the best sales-pitch ever. Buy my product, or Burn In Hell For All Eternity.
I call bullshit. Simple as that.
“But wait!”, the hell-preacher says, “What if I’m right?” Do you really want to risk that? Is it worth being a Buddhist, or Hindu, or — *gasp*, an atheist, if there is even a TINY CHANCE that I am right and you are wrong? Because, Hell is really, really bad. Times Infinity. Go Pascal, go.
This conversation led to what I think is The Answer.
Which is, to question. To look at this from more than one perspective. How many perspectives? All of them! Let’s look at God from the perspective of every human, in all times, at all places. Let’s look at all the cultures, and all their gods and goddesses and non-gods and emptinesses and multi-limbed snake-dudes and hundreds of deities and spirits and fairies of every field and corner and raindrop. Let’s look at the saints, and also the Buddhists, the Stoics and the theologians, the profound understandings achieved by those who dedicate decades and decades of their lives to intensely studying, and meditating and refining their consciousness. What do they say? How does it fit with the Jesus&Hell story? And what about the mystics? Shamans? Gurus? Wiccans? Do the philosophers and poets get any say here too?
We talked about the differences in interpretation between religions and within religions. A quick overview of Hinduism, a few of the biggest strands of Buddhism, Taoism, indigenous beliefs. Then we went back to Christianity, now in the context of being one strand of the Abrahamic faiths that trace back to a particular convergence of circumstances in human history. Some of the differences between Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Then, some differences between Catholics and Protestants. Then, some of the differences between different Protestant churches.
It becomes clear, pretty fast, that whatever particular belief you encounter in the world, is probably not The Truth. Cuz, you know, the VAST MAJORITY of humanity has thought something different. Even the vast majority of the smartest, most earnest, most studious, most existentially ardent chunk of humanity who have struggled mightily with these questions, has thought something different. It seems absurd, for example, that one of your colleague’s or classmate’s particular interpretations of how to be “saved”, is The Answer, and all of the millions and millions of people who have deeply studied and practiced these other faiths, all these other cultures, all these other wisdom traditions — yeah, they’re just “crazy”. (Oh and by the way, all those people are going to Burn In Hell For All Eternity….)
We talked about the Perennial Philosophy. About the differences between spirituality and religion. About the difference between religion being “true” versus being a guidebook to wisdom, a system of practice designed to help people improve themselves, and more collectively, to help society function. About the difference between the parts of religion that were rooted in deep, experiential practice, versus the parts of religions that were institutionally created to control people and maintain certain systems of power. And about how you can’t always know which is which or separate these different functions.
We talked about a specific religion evolves over time, so that what you, in your lifetime, see as “the religion” is not a fixed thing that never changes and thus somehow represents “the truth”, but is a human creation, one that reflects the historical circumstances of its time, and one that changes as those circumstances change. (E.g., Christianity now, Christianity in the 1950s, Christianity in the 1700s, Christianity in the 500s — are quite different from each other….)
This is a long conversation to have. It’s a long journey to take.
Does this help with the fear of Hell?
Yes, it does. It helps immensely.
When I was a child, and ran into this fear, the answers I were given were to seek security by placing my trust (Faith) in someone, something else. …”For whosoever believeth in [Him] should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
And now, when I have the opportunity to talk to someone running into this fear, I don’t give them answers, but try to help refine and contextualize and deepen and expand their questions. I guess what I give them is more questions.
But, if I’m asked, “Do you still fear Hell?”, I can say no. With complete sincerity. I am not afraid of that story. To find your way back out of it, pay sincere attention to all the other stories that you have access to. Realize that the people who believed in those stories, believed in them just as fervently, were just as certain, and found them just as meaningful. When you do this enough, then no, Hell is not scary anymore. Not at all.
And Pascal’s wager? Well, zero times infinity, is zero.