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Paul Obrien Gentle Atheism9

As I proceed to bury myself further into controversial theological issues, the issue of hell is something to be considered as well. Heaven provides some assurance that there will be life after death, and it also assures us that a heavenly life will be a fantastic one. But what about hell? I was concerned about the entrance into heaven just now– but how does one warrant entrance into hell? This is also ambiguous. If you don’t make it into heaven, are you automatically going to hell? Or is there a plane in between? Is Gandhi going to hell because he wasn’t a Christian despite the fact that he lived what most of us consider a just and moral life?

Some theists don’t even believe in a hell; so what happens if you do not earn entrance into heaven? Do you simply die and cease to exist? (And is that possibility such a bad thing after all, considering how bad hell is said to be)? Is ceasing to exist a kind of hell or not? Is there a limbo where you wait? Though it’s ridiculous to just keep listing questions as I have been doing, the reason why I’m doing this is just to address some of the ambiguities that exist about hell. These difficulties would carry no pragmatic problem if they were merely social disagreements, that is, if I simply disagreed with someone else. But what results from this ambiguity is an ambiguity within oneself, not just with other people. Maybe the belief is contradictory, even in one’s own opinion, not merely between two or more people.

I will put these problems aside, and offer another problem I find with the conception of hell. One of the advantages I have noted about theism is the hope that it provides about an afterlife. What does an afterlife provide? The answer seems to quite clearly be that an afterlife provides one with an assurance that when they die, their sentient mind and personality (their identity? soul?) will survive. Many forms of theism include a belief in this kind of afterlife in their religion; God created the world and God created an afterlife too. Why would someone want this insurance against the death of the identity? The obvious answer seems to be because we as humans fear it. Humans want to live, so heaven provides us the ultimate insurance coverage of the continuation of our existence. In case of death of the human body, one’s identity or soul will indeed survive.

Nonexistence is considered bad by many people’s standards. Existing is better than not existing, living is better than being dead (if dead means your soul ceases to exist). I want to then ask these same people a question, not because I’m trying to trip them up but because I want an honest human answer: Are there cases where life is so painful and tortuous that ceasing to exist would be more enviable and desirable than living? Many people seem to believe so. This is why some people seem to commit suicide, because dying has become a more attractive alternative than the painful life they are leading. Even if we don’t agree with suicide, we can understand the sentiment behind it. Most people who commit suicide clearly don’t do it simply in an attempt to move on to the afterlife; many do it believing that they will soulfully cease to exist, or even that such an act under their belief system may earn them a ticket to hell.

Euthanasia is an even better example of this sentiment. An elderly person sometimes becomes incurably bed-ridden with no realistic hope for any medical aid. At best, doctors can keep the person alive for a little while, but in the meantime, the medical bills are piling up and life is painful and tortuous. Some elderly ask to be taken off life support, because in that situation, death is preferable to life.

In many people’s opinion, there are indeed cases when ceasing to exist can be enviable to existing in pain. With that conclusion, I want to bring hell back into the picture. Hell is typically perceived of as being the opposite of heaven; while heaven is eternally blissful and joyous, hell is eternally painful and sorrowful. Would you say that someone would be better off not existing at all than having to endure the very epitome of a painful existence? It seems pretty clear that not existing would be better than a life in hell.

So what? This is what I’m getting at: for many theists, the notion of heaven accompanies the notion of hell. Heaven is an excellent ideological assurance that there is a peaceful and worthwhile afterlife, but there are an incredible number of ambiguities about how to get into heaven. Hell is usually the only other afterlife alternative, and many people believe that if you do not go to heaven, you will go to hell. It is hard to fully understand how to get into heaven, and yet if you don’t get in, you may be going to hell because of it. Hell may be the most frightening and most undesirable ideological place or state of life there is. Almost all of us do not want to go to a place like hell.

Yet with this depiction of the afterlife as I have just outlined, hell must loom ominously over a believer. In fact, hell has indeed loomed incredibly over people in the past and has inspired great fear. This is a hell in which a non-existing form of death, the very thing we were so afraid of in the first place, might actually be more enviable than an eternal life in hell. That is a large problem I find about many people’s conceptions about heaven. It is supposed to provide them with some assurance and ease of mind, but I do not see much ease of mind if hell is sitting right next to it as its alternative. Heaven pragmatically provides so much for one’s hope, but then hell potentially takes it all away.

Why would hell even be believed in at all? First of all, people who say hell must exist because the Bible or their spiritual leader tells them so are paying a heavy price for their faith. Metaphysics and all available evidence is really silent on the fact, and accepting hell just because you were taught to would seem to me a strong motive for starting to question one’s teachings. Hell is not easy to believe in, and it certainly does not seem to provide much practical benefits at all ideologically.

Maybe it connects with my first complaint about theism, the promotion of fear. I can think of nothing more terrifying than the idea of hell being my eternal destiny the moment my body dies. Sociologists and even the common man might say that hell keeps believers in line and on track; the threat of this terrible punishment keeps people more moral than they would be with the mere offer of the reward of heaven. Again, this is a sour pragmatic pill to swallow– and still that’s not all that’s wrong with heaven.


So far I’ve been dealing with the formulation of the concept of heaven. I’ve tried to show some of the cloudy areas and some of the detractions heaven may have, but they have all been conceptual. To some extent, they hinged on heaven being a certain way or afterlife having a certain characteristic.

Permit me to take another step back and express to you another problem I have with heaven. Heaven seems designed to create a moral order in our lives. Heaven is God’s assurance that the just will be rewarded, and the unjust will not. If we see someone living a mean and selfish lifestyle, yet making lots of money and seeming to enjoy themselves very much, it can be frustrating. In a sense, heaven settles the score by giving the good people a good life and the bad people a bad one (but I won’t bring up hell again). That is fine and good, but there is something to heaven that strikes me as strange in the sense of its believers’ motives. Let’s follow a line of questioning to bring my point to the surface:


Why should you not steal?

-Because stealing is unjust and unfair.

By what criteria is stealing unjust and unfair?

-By the authority of the Ten Commandments.

And the authority of the Ten Commandments comes from where?

-The authority of the Holy Bible.

And the authority of the Holy Bible comes from…..?

-It being the word of God. There is no greater authority than God, and God wills us not to steal.

Why would we want to do what God wills us to do?

-Because we owe it to Him. He created us and loves us, and doing what He tells us enriches our lives accordingly.

What would happen if I disobeyed God’s will?

-On purpose?

Yes, deliberately disobeying God’s will….what would happen?

-You would be sinning.

And what is the implication of sinning?

-Being in disfavor with God.

And what is the implication of being in disfavor with God?

-Living an unholy life and staying in a state of sin.

And the implication of that is….?

-Not being allowed to enter heaven when you die.

Where will I go?

-To hell. (or optionally) It is not known, but it won’t be heaven.

So is this the only reason you have for not wanting to steal?

-No; if I choose not to steal, I will be staying in God’s favor.

Why would you want to be in God’s favor?


I want to stop right there. "Why would you want to be in God’s favor?" is the catch question I want to address here. I’ve fleshed out a very simplistic line of questioning, hopefully with no badgering in the questions and with no answers that are so faulty that they detract from my main point. The reason I’m showing this is to directly illustrate how one answer to one question ends up leading to just another question.

I am seeking as final an answer as possible. At one point in the questioning, the commandment "Thou shall not steal" leads to the Ten Commandments, which lead to the Holy Bible, but the answers eventually stopped along the line at God. The answerer noted this fact too, and that is an example within the illustration of the kind of answer I am looking for, some place where you can’t go any farther, some answer that is as ultimate an answer as possible.

The questions then changed from the authority of that moral to basically, "What happens if you don’t abide by that moral?" The reasoning leads to sin, then to disfavor with God, then to some sort of hell perhaps? Maybe a punishment? At least some sort of lack of reward, a theist might concede. But again, let’s put that aside. Let’s suppose that hell is not the result of this act, but the act simply disqualifies one from entrance into heaven.

Questions then turned to the nature of, "Why would you do what God’s wants you to?" I want you to imagine that the motive of fear of God’s punishment or something negative like that is entirely put aside. Again, "Why do what God wants you to do?" Another line of answers that can be reached might be better evoked by asking, "What happens if you avoid sin?" The answer seems to be that you stay in good favor with God, which then leads to what? You go to heaven. Your actions are basically rewarded; a positive motive for not stealing is also because such an act helps one earn entrance into heaven. I am trying to avoid talk about the fear of hell, because I have already addressed that to some extent. I want to dwell on reward, not punishment.

The questioning has not yet hit its limit yet. I still want to ask, "why do you want to go to heaven?" Does the answer seem too obvious? Heaven is eternal happiness, bliss, pleasure, and everything good. Who doesn’t want that? I have no problem so far with the congruity of this notion and this kind of thinking. I do however see a problem with this sort of system of reward. The motive that many theists seem to have for obeying God’s will is to earn a life in heaven when they die. This I know from experience and conversation, not merely the sort of speculation I just indulged in. But the motive seems at least slightly selfish, doesn’t it? People are behaving justly and trying to avoid sin (including sins that stem from selfishness, ironically) so that they can get something out of it. It is almost machiavellian the way some people act; the ends of heaven are so great and coveted that they are willing to deny their true worldly desires to get at it.

What would happen if there was not a heaven? Would all motivation cease for these people, I wonder? It’s impossible to tell. There might be a alternative motive behind doing honorable and just things, and I think some people agree with me on what it is. Doing some honorable act as an ends in and of itself is nobler it would seem by common sense than doing something honorable for some reward. Imagine that you just lost your wallet. Mr. Means finds your wallet and returns it to you, taking no money and leaving everything intact. Why did he do such an honorable thing? He is hoping you will give him a reward for his deed, and that is understandable.

You just lost your wallet again. Mr. Ends finds your wallet and returns it to you, again, with everything intact and untouched. Why did he do this honorable thing? Mr. Ends doesn’t want a reward. In fact, he might not even accept one if you tried to give it to him. He has given you back your wallet because to do this honorable thing was simply the right thing to do. It had nothing to do with that directly selfish monetary reward or reciprocity. Mr. Ends believes in some other moral reasoning that is not based on the same sort of reward that a monetary reward is.

I hope that this general point is being made; that the motives behind doing just things just for heaven’s sake, and not for the sake of their own good, is slightly questionable. An optional thought: maybe God would not condone this motivation either.


Let’s regroup and take a deep breath. My criticisms of heaven are meant to make us think and reconsider just how much assurance it really offers us. I haven’t disproven that heaven exists, and I have not, even in my own opinion, made heaven a completely unattractive pragmatic option. I just want to make very sure that people are aware of some of the fine print that this belief often entails, and I want to at least hint at the fact that heaven may not be quite as ideal as it originally seemed.

There are many simple ways to respond to all of my criticisms of heaven. You can perhaps have a very clear notion of how to get into heaven, but then still retain a very tolerant attitude toward disbelievers. In fact, if you are going to believe in heaven, I appeal to you to have this tolerance; it will make your efforts more respected, and it will certainly decrease any animosity people might have toward you. One can also phase out the conception of hell altogether if they choose to. Many people and sects have done just that, and I consider that a good step. I believe that more and more people are seeing that hell has got some strange, negative implications to it, and that you can believe in the positive heaven without the negative hell. There will still need to be some answers to questions for congruity’s sake, but that practical disadvantage of hell can be mostly avoided.

As for the motives of going to heaven, it’s a philosophical problem. Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro is an excellent introduction and illustration of this dilemma in which Socrates asks something to the effect of whether something is good because the gods decree it so, or if the gods decree it so because it is good. That’s a good question that bears light on our consideration, and there is certainly much talk and literature on this topic within the field of philosophy. One may argue that this selfish motive cannot be debased because it is human nature. Maybe I am glorifying too idealistic a goal, one that none of us can possibly uphold. Maybe doing something for its own sake is just as honorable or selfish as doing it for heaven’s sake.

I have shown some possible ambiguities and raised some questions, but I am not even coming close to disproving or discouraging heaven. I will argue that there is perhaps another viable alternative to heaven, but that will come later. My hope is that my assessments, though critical, are not taken as malicious attempts to "debunk" Christianity. They are not. I must reiterate at every opportunity that I want a peace and respect between atheists and theists, and the best way I can promote that is by trying to raise atheism’s status in the eyes of the public. What am I doing now is putting theism under normal, rational scrutiny. I feel that this will help bring theism down to earth for people who are not accustomed to questioning it, and this will level the playing field for atheism so that it has a fairer chance.

Pascal’s Wager

Before we can entirely leave the pragmatics of theism behind, let’s take a look at a peculiar method of justifying the belief in God. It is known as Pascal’s Wager, formulated by the 17th century mathematician Blaise Pascal, and in many ways it closely resembles James’ pragmatic method and conclusion.

Pascal conceived of a sort of formula for assessing whether any belief or risk is worth accepting or not. He basically formulated the following: Measure the benefits of a risk and consider the chances of that benefit coming to pass; then measure the cost of the risk, and consider the chance of it coming to pass. If the potential benefit outweighs the cost, the risk is worth taking. I am presenting Pascal’s Wager as something which cursorily resembles the law of expected value, and it is a mathematical way of assessing risks and bets (Vegas gamblers would surely benefit from it). Among many various forms, this presentation of Pascal’s Wager is one of the most straight-forward (and I credit Lance Schaina for introducing this formulation of the Wager to me).

But Pascal applied expected value to a peculiar application, namely, philosophy. He put God into this formula, and this is what he arrived at: The reward for the belief in God is infinite, he said. Heaven is eternally wonderful, so the reward column in our equation is infinity. The chance that God does in fact exist may be extremely small, but that doesn’t matter much; infinity multiplied by any small number, even an infinitely small one, is still extremely high (in fact, it’s infinity!). The cost of the belief in God, Pascal said, is absolutely nothing, so put a 0 in the cost column of the equation. The chances of God not existing may be extremely high, but again, it doesn’t really matter; zero multiplied by any number is still zero. Pascal then concludes that the belief in God is clearly a wise risk worth taking.

Unfortunately, what we have here, however interesting and innovative, is pragmatics gone astray. Let me elaborate more specifically on just two mistakes it makes, among many. First of all, to say that the belief in God does not have a cost is wrong. Time, money, and energy usually flow from the belief in God, and that is something to be noted. But secondly and more importantly, putting a philosophical concept as deep and undefined as God into such a basic formula is oversimplifying it. One is hard-pressed to make God such a easy and clear matter as Pascal has made it out to be. The reward is ambiguous, the cost is variable, and most of all, the chances of being right or wrong are completely unknown. You simply cannot quantify the belief in God this way. This formula serves well for bets and risks in the physical world, such as for craps or Blackjack, but it simply misrepresents philosophy.

Most people do not wield such a formula, but its general sentiment applies to too many. I have encountered an unfortunate version of a theist who wields something like this Pascalian Wager, whether they realize it or not. This person says that they believe in God because doing so "covers their bases," so to speak. If God does exist, their activities will be appropriate to win God’s acceptance. If God does not exist, they have lost very little.

The unfortunate aspect of this tactic is that it entirely misses the point of believing in God. God is not a game or a bet. It is a possibility, to be sure, but one cannot simply follow through with the motions of being a theist in order to prepare oneself for its mere possibility. Most serious theists would agree with me that this activity is superficial and does not reflect any true belief in God. This probably doesn’t win God’s favor as well, as I have been told by many theists. So what it seems we have here is someone who is investing some of their time and energy in God, but does not hold the belief strongly enough to enjoy its rewards even if it were true.

And what does this person do in the face of all the other myriad of religions and superstitions in the world? To be safe, should they try to engage in every ritual and activity that various religions subscribe to or require, just in order to preserve their chances in case that religion happens to be right? This seems absurd because it is. Believing is a risk, let there be no doubt of that, so one should simply be inclined to admit their mistake if their belief or idea is shown to be wrong. Even if their belief is not proven to be faulty, they should still maintain a respectful humility about their beliefs.

Religion in this light is a fear of results, a strange ideological game of sorts that resembles a gamble. That’s not really what religion is about for most people. For most of us, religion serves to aid our decision-making, guide our lives, and offer us a world-view within which we are satisfied. This "Godly Gambler," I will call them, must be careful about the role religion plays in their and perhaps attempt to reflect upon it a bit more. Still, if that is the only role religion plays in their life and if they are perfectly happy with it, I wish them well.

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