There’s no “hell” in the Bible!

Michael Burch, a poet, creator of The HyperTexts and reformed fundamentalist Christian, has written the most detailed exposition I have ever seen on the issue of whether “hell” is a concept that should be accepted by Christians. The exposition has a mercifully short and clear introductory section that covers the key points – and then, for those who want to consider every possible aspect, continues at length.

Hell fantasy

Hell, as imagined by Hieronymus Bosch

Personally, as a skeptic, I find the idea of hell simply ludicrous. As Omar Khayyam says scornfully to God (in FitzGerald’s translation):

Oh Thou, who didst with pitfall and with gin
Beset the Road I was to wander in,
Thou will not with Predestin’d Evil round
Enmesh me, and impute my Fall to Sin?

(“Gin” meaning “noose of hair or wire for snaring wild birds alive”… which might be the origin of the drink’s name, I suppose.)

Hell is hardly a logical product of an all-powerful Creator, unless that Creator is by nature a sadist. Rather the word that has been so often translated as “hell” is “sheol”, meaning “a grave” or “the place where all dead people go”… which is why, in Psalm 139:8, King David could say that if he made his bed in Sheol, God would be there with him.

Forget hell. It’s a stupid idea.

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Atheist or agnostic?

Am I an atheist, or not? It depends on the definition of “atheist”, and on the mindset of the person asking. In Europe I label myself agnostic, because I have no understanding of why there is a Universe. But in the United States it’s easiest to say I’m an atheist, because anything short of that implies support for the idea of a personal God.

God watching TV

I find offensive the idea of a personal God who, swayed by the emotional appeal of prayers from the devout, favors one person over another. I don’t care whether they’re praying about healing an illness, or winning a ballgame, or picking the right lottery ticket – what morality is there in an omnipotent deity who would intervene in that, and not intervene in the most extreme situations of human suffering?

I find illogical the idea of a God who creates individuals and then punishes them for acting according to the nature they were given.

I find simplistic the idea that God’s Universe is focused on Earth (let alone on one particular tribe, or sect, or individual), when the Earth is only a small planet of a small star, and there could be more stars in the Universe than there are grains of sand on all the beaches of the whole world.

So I’m certain that the personal God of the average American believer doesn’t exist, and couldn’t possibly exist.

But as for exactly what force is the wellspring of the Universe, and what qualities it has, that’s where I’m a militant agnostic:

“I don’t know, and you don’t know either.”

Rome, Israel, and the Christian compromise

Rome and Israel were in constant conflict for the first 200 years of Rome’s occupation of Palestine. Jesus, as a highly religious Jew, was part of that conflict and was executed for it. Jerusalem was besieged and the Temple destroyed in 70. After the umpteenth uprising, the Romans finally kicked the Jews out of Palestine in 135.

Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem, 70 AD, by David Roberts

When Paul came along, he had the bizarre idea that he could meld his Jewishness and his Roman citizenship, and create a universally applicable religion. It was all done by blending and compromising, and it proved to be very successful. Here are some examples:

Israel: only one God, and no prayers or worship of anyone or anything else. Rome: thousands of gods, worship your own and those of other religions. Christian compromise: only one God… except He has three “persons”, one of which is Jesus… so it’s OK to pray to any of them… also to Jesus’ mother… well, and to any other of God’s angels, saints, etc… but it still counts as only one God.

Israel: God only cares about Israel, God’s Chosen People – ignore everyone else. Rome: local gods care about local people, so the bigger the Empire gets, the more gods care for it. Christian compromise: God cares for everyone who believes in Him, so keep making His empire bigger.

Israel: love Jerusalem, hate Rome. Rome: destroy Jerusalem, Rome is the center of power. Christian compromise: make Rome the center of the Jerusalem-focused religion.

Israel: 7-day week. Rome: 8-day week called “nine days” (inclusive reckoning). Christian compromise: 7-day week called “eight days” or “Octave” (inclusive reckoning).

Israel: Passover. Rome: Saturnalia. Christian compromise: Saturnalia traditions at Saturnalia to celebrate Jesus’ birth, Passover-type traditions at Passover to celebrate Jesus’ death.

Israel: circumcision of males mandatory. Rome: are you crazy? Christian compromise: circumcision of males voluntary.

Israel: detailed dietary and food preparation laws. Rome: eat anything. Christian compromise: no prohibitions most of the time, except Fridays and Lent.

And so on. It’s fascinating. And for a long time, it worked.

Hitler, Joshua, Genocide and God

Nobody (almost nobody) likes Adolf Hitler. Christians say he was an atheist, atheists say he was a Christian, Jews say he was a mass murderer. But we can get at his beliefs in two ways: through his actions, and through his words.

First, he was a human. As a species humans are territorial and resource-possessive. We’ve been walking out of Africa in waves for the past 100,000 years, staking a claim to the empty places we like, pushing out the inhabitants of a previous wave, defending our turf against the next wave. We use our gods as moral justification for murder, and we glorify our massacres as historic victories.

Genocidal massacres involve killing men, women and children

The Jews took over the Promised Land of Canaan in this way, with Moses telling them that God said to kill every man, woman, child, animal and tree in the targeted cities in order “that they not pollute you with their evil ways” (Deuteronomy 20: 16-18). With these cities the soldiers weren’t even allowed to abduct the virgins, they had to kill everything.

God intervened to help Moses’ successor Joshua in the conquest, sending hailstones to kill half the enemy one time, and another time stopping the sun in the sky so Joshua could finish off the enemy before dark. (It’s surprisingly hard to find corroborating evidence from other cultures, of the spinning Earth suddenly stopping, and the oceans slopping all over the land as a result, and so on.)

And so the Jews wiped out the people there and took Palestine for themselves.

Christians, Jews and atheists… who claims that this was good?

Hitler’s actions were no worse than Moses’ or Joshua’s, and for the same reason. Genocide for the sake of ethnically uncontested control of territory and resources, and for racial purity.

Christians, Jews and atheists… who claims that this was good?

“But wait,” a Christian may say, “that was acceptable in the time before Christ, but it changed with the dispensation of the New Testament. It isn’t acceptable today.”

No way, Christian! Jesus didn’t intend any changes to the Mosaic Law: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” (Matthew 5: 17-18) Any subsequent changes are the work of Paul, not Jesus.

“No, no, wait, wait,” says the religious person. “Moses and Joshua were following the mysterious commands of God for some greater hidden purpose, which Hitler wasn’t.”

You can follow a more detailed discussion of that in a different blog here, and it brings us to the second way of looking at Hitler’s beliefs: his words. Here are 19 Christian quotations from Mein Kampf, from his speeches, and even this one:

“The Catholic Church should not deceive herself: if National Socialism does not succeed in defeating Bolshevism, then Church and Christianity in Europe too are finished. Bolshevism is the mortal enemy of the Church as much as of Fascism. …Man cannot exist without belief in God. The soldier who for three and four days lies under intense bombardment needs a religious prop.”  – Adolf Hitler in conversation with Roman Catholic Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber of Bavaria, November 4, 1936

In sum, Hitler was one of those Christians who wants his Christianity free of Jews. And if his actions were evil, so too were those of Moses, Joshua and God.

So don’t blame atheism for Hitler and the Holocaust. Blame Moses and God… or blame the species we call “humanity”.

Witchcraft and Magical Thinking

What is religious ritual except witchcraft? You are performing rites with no practical purpose, in an attempt to influence the future outcome of earthly events by either begging from a god (or angel, or demon, or saint, etc) – or else by symbolically replicating the outcome you want by dropping blood where you want rain or dressing up as the animal you want to kill – or else by sacrificing (“making sacred”, i.e. killing or destroying) an animal, child, or other valuable object.

Not all circumcisions are successful

So Abraham hears voices in his head. God tells him to sacrifice his son. He’s ready to do it, when he sees a ram caught in a bush, and the voices tell him to kill that instead. Lucky for the boy. Then God says he’ll make a deal with Abraham: worship Him only, and He’ll favor Abraham’s descendants as the Chosen People. (Seems like a good deal. It’s not being offered to anyone else. Except somehow every people on earth seems to think it’s more special than the others.)

And to prove they’re still committed to the deal, all Abraham’s descendants – forever – have to have their foreskins cut off. Which is a better blood-offering than actually killing yourself or one of your family. But this God is definitely one of the gods that likes to see a bit of blood.

And Abraham, being the first, circumcised himself. Nowadays we would just assume he was insane.

And then there are people like this man in British Columbia who figured things weren’t going right with the family because he hadn’t had his son circumcised. The doctors wouldn’t do it now that the boy was four. The man botched it. The son was hospitalized and is damaged for life. The father was convicted and jailed, and it was noted by the court that he had tried to circumcise himself a couple of years earlier.

So he’s just a lunatic, you say. (But not that different from Abraham.) You can’t apply that criticism to trained religious practitioners, you say.

Strictly speaking, the father is meant to do the circumcision if he’s able, but there’s always someone willing to be paid to do it for you. So there’s the Jewish practitioner, the mohel. Orthodox Judaism prescribes circumcision as a religious ritual, to be performed according to strict Talmudic laws. According to those laws, the mohel must suck the infant’s bleeding penis with his mouth. (How Abraham achieved this isn’t explained.) So when a mohel has a sexually transmitted disease like herpes, might there be a risk? Here’s a report of a two-week-old boy who died in New York, thanks to his mohel.

It’s not just uneducated people whose magical thinking leads to witchcraft and deaths. A religious education can be just as dangerous.

Yahweh: demanding and insane

What can a God possibly want? It appears the Yahweh of the Old Testament wants to have people worship Him. Obey Him. Sacrifice things to Him. In order to achieve this, He created a Covenant with Abraham that He would favor Abraham’s descendants, so long as they did everything He demanded. He had apparently already created a system that guaranteed eternal punishment for those who failed to follow Him, as incentive for obeying Him. And He created a system that, by the time of the New Testament, allows for a total of 144,000 people to go to Heaven, and the other 100 billion or whatever to go to Hell for eternity.

Almost everyone would go to Hell, because they would be born in a state of “sin” – they would be born already out of favor with God. How can He set people up to fail, and then send billions of them to hell for eternity for failing to meet His requirements? Edward FitzGerald, in his version of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, asks

O Thou, who didst with pitfall and with gin                      (“gin” means “trap”)
Beset the road I was to wander in,
Thou wilt not with Predestination round
Enmesh me, and impute my Fall to sin?

Yahweh is a God of Terror and Chaos

Followers of this God say it has nothing to do with Predestination. He gives everyone freedom of choice, to follow Him or not. The only problem is, He created the whole system that in His omnipotence He could have made any way He wanted, and in His omniscience He knew damn well that tens of billions would go to Hell for eternity.

Not only that, He triggered it by setting a trap for Adam and Eve, and then punishing all their descendants forever for falling into the trap.

Is this loving? No. Is it even rational? No. It is beyond cruel, it is insane.

If there is a God of the Old Testament, He is merely a manifestation of the Chaos of the Universe, and is without direction or morality.

As for believers in the God, are they rational? How can they call this God by such names as “the beneficent”, “the all-loving”, “the merciful”? How can they love Him? How can they respect Him as a God who looks after and cares for all His creatures, when thousands of children die every day from starvation and preventable diseases?

Grow up, believers! Outgrow your prayers and worship of the irrational Old Gods of Chaos, and turn to the joyful task of discovering the Universe and improving human existence.