Chapter 13: Eternal Reward and Punishment
Heaven and Hell
Obviously, the concepts of heaven and eternal damnation are not new or exclusive to Christian fundamentalism, but fundamentalists have views that give these concepts a unique perspective. There are a lot of conflicting beliefs on the afterlife and death shared between fundamentalists with most not quite sure what they believe or believing two opposite positions at the same time.
They all agree that there will be a bodily resurrection upon Jesus’ physical return to Earth and a judgment afterward, with only two outcomes possible, either the human soul goes to eternal damnation in hell or it goes to be with Jesus where it experiences eternal bliss. They would deny existence of any temporary or intermediate place of punishment such as Purgatory, or the ability of the living to affect the fate of the dead in any way. These were ideas that were rejected by their Puritan ancestors and they still object to them strongly today.
The confusion on this doctrine is worst among fundamentalists dealing with what happens to the soul before this bodily resurrection. Consider the following verses:
From these two verses one would certainly think that there is no an after-life, certainly not one that is aware of what is happening to those who are still alive. Now look at these two examples:
These two passages seem to be saying the opposite, that the dead are very aware of their existance and what is going on around them. So we can see why there would be a lot of confusion for anyone who believes in a literal interpretation of scripture. You or I may look at these verses and figure that they are just figurative language told to enhance a story, but the fundamentalist believes that every word is the literal truth, so presents a real problem.
Another area of confusion is in the popular myth that the dead become angels. Most ministers will be quick to point out that angels are separate creations and not related to humans in any way; however, the fundamentalist layman would probably be much less likely to make such a distinction.
You may not see the contradiction or hear them claim it until you go to a fundamentalist funeral. Even though you hear the ministers say that grandma may be sleeping or “gone on to be with the Lord.” Or he may preach a stirring sermon about the day of resurrection when we all will meet again. Yet you will also hear family members say that they feel her presence, or that she is looking down upon all of them and smiling. They actually do believe both opposite views at the same time!
A Heavenly Reward
(Revelation 21:1 4)
And describing the same city,
The scriptures quoted above are usually taken to be literal descriptions of heaven that they will obtain in the afterlife in the city of eternal bliss. It is there that they believe they will spend eternity shouting in triumph up and down the streets of gold. I remember a guy in church who used to get so excited by this, that he would literally be bouncing all around, going on and on about his mansion with its diamond doorknob and walking on the streets of purest gold.
I must admit that even when I called myself a Christian, I never understood why that was so exciting to him. Gold might make an expensive street, but I cannot imagine that I would perceive it as a superior surface to walk on. And I couldn’t see the use for these riches once you’re dead, you don’t need to eat, sleep, or need protection from the weather, and so what’s all the fuss about?
I don’t think he knew what he needed all those riches for either, but he sure did get all teary eyed talking about it.
Now that I mention it, just what would they be doing for all eternity? Anything I can imagine would get awfully boring after a few million years. It would seem kind of stupid to me to spend eons just sitting around plunking on a harp. Many people think they will be singing songs telling God how great he is forever. Would this be because God is so vain he needs to hear how great he is all the time? Or is it because he lacks self-confidence and needs us to help him through his identity crisis? I doubt either is the case.
Compared to other Christians, fundamentalists tend to be much more restrictive on their view of who is going to make it to their heaven. Usually it is only fundamentalist Christians who agree with their views and historical Bible figures that will make it there, so heaven doesn’t need to be any bigger than the 1500 square mile description given in the book of Revelation.
Related to this tenant is another concept of fundamentalism that I consider detrimental to believers. They make it so hard to get into heaven that it’s close to impossible. They moan and groan about making it only by the skin of their teeth and warn you to beware or you will be misled without even being aware of it. How do they know they haven’t already been misled? It’s as though they are in a contest with God, who is trying to trick them into eternally damning their souls, while they are trying to sneak past him through the pearly gates.
Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:
(Matthew 25:33, 34, 41)
Now we see the reverse side of the coin. The fundamentalist not only believes that he (or she) will be eternally rewarded, but that anyone who doesn’t share the same level of conviction (or for some the same convictions) that they will spend the rest of eternity in unspeakable agony burning forever in a supernatural lake of fire.
Actually there isn’t much unique about the fundamentalist view of hell beyond the fact that they generally think a lot higher percentage of humanity will go there.
To me the most frightening thing about the fundamentalist view of eternity is the key factor in their mind that puts someone there. To the fundamentalist is it not whether you are a good or bad person that determines where you go, it’s whether or not you’ve accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior, and then followed all their rules to the letter.
So if you were a loving, kind and caring person who never harmed anyone, it is irrelevant, you will burn for all eternity in absolute agony because you did not accept Jesus as your savior. For some it doesn’t even matter if you died too young to know who Jesus was, or lived your entire life in a jungle that never heard of the Bible. This is why they put so much effort into missionary work; every heathen who dies without hearing of Jesus is an eternally damned soul that will be punished forever.
I actually sat in a church service where the pastor pointed at an infant in his mothers arms and said,
“See that baby; it already has enough sin in it to kill it, because it was born with original sin. We can only pray that it makes it to be old enough to understand the message of God’s love.”
I think any reasonable person can see that love like that is love we can all live without!
Like many before me, I always had a lot of trouble with the idea that the Christian God supossedly the embodiment of love would punish any one with eternal agony and torment. It is philosophically hard to swallow.
But it would seem to me that the God of the fundamentalist would be much worse. Ho would be an obscene sadist, taking pleasure in watching people walk on slippery slopes, one mistake and there’s hell to pay. And what makes it even worse, in their eyes we don’t even know we have fallen until it’s too late. You could live your entire life trying to do your best and still be decieved not knowing any better until they wake up one day in the burning flames.
This makes the Christian life so filled with anxiety that it’s not worth the effort. It also gives you a feeling of utter hopelessness, knowing that your best is never good enough.
This had a lot to do with me giving up Christianity, plain and simple frustration. I knew that I was putting everything I had into my religion, and if that didn’t measure up then it was a waste of time to try. Why even make the effort to reach for an unobtainable prize? At least now I know where I stand, and I don’t have to worry that everything will be jerked out from under me, like some fiendish magician’s illusion.
To me, it makes more sense to think of death as the end of our existence. We no longer exist after we die, the same way we didn’t exist before we were born. The only difference is, we can’t look at being born with the same dread and dismay with which we approach death. This may not be beautiful, but no law says that truth has to be beautiful; if anything truth is often uncomfortable and usually ugly.
Not having an afterlife also means that we only get one chance to get things right, so we better make this one chance at life count. It makes us value every minute we have and makes us want to live a more responsible life because we may not be able to make things right in the short time we have left. I do not want to engage in risky behavior that might shorten what little time I have.
People do not understand why I am not more frightened of death, since no part of me will survive it. In truth it is frightening, but you must understand that I was never able to get much comfort from Christianity either. The fundamentalist is conditioned to never be secure or take their “saved” status for grated, so he or she does not have the same level or consolation that some Christians have.
As a Christian fundamentalist I was living in fear, always scared that I might be deceived and not know it. I lived in fear of eternal damnation even as I claimed to be saved from my sin.
I have found a much greater peace in atheism compared to Christian fundamentalism. No longer having the threat of eternal punishment hanging over my head has been liberating, allowing me to be free to determine my own fate. No, knowing that someday I will just blink out of existence to never know anything again is not comforting, but it beats the crap out of living in fear you may burn in hell forever!
Many people fear that removing the threat of God’s punishment from a person removes all restraint and allow them to run wild with no moral judgment. This is an immature attitude. As a child we all behave correctly because we fear our parents’ punishment, but as adults we should be choosing our actions by judging their value alone, not out of rear of some punishment. You should be restrained from shooting someone you hate because murder is wrong and you know it, not because the police might catch you.
How do I know that morality based on fear of punishment cannot work? Because the United States is filling jails faster than they can build them, yet tougher law enforcement is not cutting down crime. In fact the problem is getting worse.
The real solution is for society to quit wasting time teaching morality based on punishment and religion, “Don’t do it or you will be punished!” And instead instill inside citizens a real moral sense to do what is right for their own dignity and self-respect. For a more realistic and practical alternative to religion that teaches high moral values see my article on Secular Humanistic Rationalism
I have the satisfaction of knowing that I am a good and moral person because it’s the right thing to do, not out of fear of eternal damnation or lust for some heavenly treasure. There are no ulterior motives for my actions; I act only on my ethics and morals.
Because of this view of morality, I think that freedom from religion makes a person nobler and releases them from superstitious biases. It is my hope that all humanity will outgrow the need for a religious pacifier and face the real world.