So, now that I’ve tackled the “positive” afterlife myths, it’s time to take a look at the fire and brimstone side of religion.
First, reflections on using these myths to understand a culture.
A hell-style myth is very common, although it seems to have greater variation. There’s Hell itself, with its eternal fire, brimstone, torture, and so on. There’s Egyptian mythology, in which your soul is devoured. There’s Norse mythology, with the cold, barren wasteland. Reincarnation is the most mild, with simple demotion.
I think that the variety of negative afterlife myths actually makes them more interesting. Heaven style myths tell us something about human psychology, but little else. Hell style myths speak volumes about the culture that produced them. What do they fear most? What do they think of justice? How moderate is their religion? How authoritarian are they? All of these can be answered, at least partly, by the culture’s hell myth.
Christianity and European culture is the easiest for me to examine because I know the most about them, so I’ll use those to make my point.
Firstly, it shows us that the culture that has shaped the religion believes very strongly in just punishment. Hell is, after all, eternal punishment for crimes (what you think of whether they are really crimes is irrelevant here, what matters is the scale). Sinners are punished horribly.
Second, it shows us that the religion was shaped from something very fanatical. Moderation does not produce eternal and horrendous torture, because moderation is, well, moderate. It’s level headed and fairly balanced, while fanaticism is fiery, passionate, and angry.
Thirdly, it shows that the religion is coming from a very authoritarian view of the world. God is ruling the universe with an iron first, and all who break His laws are condemned to eternal torture and damnation. An authoritarian punishes harshly and ruthlessly. In general, a non-authoritarian does not.
Finally, it shows that the culture was not a forgiving one. There is no chance in hell (da dum tsch) for redemption. Those who have sinned are damned whatever they should do after they die. A more forgiving culture gives opportunities for redemption, with nothing permanent and immutable.
Now, on to making fun of these myths. Again, I’ll be sort of centered on Christianity because I don’t know as much about other religions, but I think the same argument tends to apply in more or less the same form to the other myths as well.
The Hell myth is covered in human fingerprints. The idea of supernatural justice is both human and downright silly.
What sort of God have we created who is so petty as to send you to be tortured for eternity for failing to believe in him? This God is supposed to be omnipotent and omniscient, and also benevolent. Well, does this fit? If he is omnipotent and omniscient, surely he is above such things? And if he is not, he is certainly not benevolent, so I have to ask why he is worthy of worship.
What sort of God is going to send anyone to be tortured for eternity? That’s the human thirst for vengence and punishment speaking. It’s not reasonable or rational. Again, this is a God who is supposed to see things on a timescale that dwarfs the age of the universe. And we think he’ll punish us for sleeping with the wrong person? Come on. That’s not a god, that’s an interfering, entirely ordinary, human parent.
We have in many ways made God in our own image, but in no way more so than in our idea of Hell. We ascribe to God the pettiness and self righteousness that we all feel, and we create a fantasy in which these are acted upon. We reassure ourselves that those who we hold in hatred or contempt will be punished by God even if we can’t do it. When you look at it clear of cultural conditioning, it really is silly. I mean really, picture a being vastly greater than the entire universe, capable of creating universes with the snap of his fingers, and he cares if you sleep with the wrong sort of person, or eat shellfish or something? Yeah, right.