Sunday, August 16, 2009

Curly Questions 2: Hell and Morality


It's not just a word that some guy scrawled in chalk on Sydney landmarks. It's a word that, in fact, defies human logic altogether. Trying to think about the longest amount of time possible still doesn't approach it. Billions of years, aeons, space-time - they all dwindle away to nothingness against the concept of eternity.

So now let's consider another concept: An eternity of torture. It's impossible to imagine, but this is exactly what a number of major religions specify as the punishment for earthly transgressions. An. Eternity. Of. Torture.

This concept was thrown into sharp relief for me recently, upon watching Sam Raimi's latest offering, Drag Me To Hell (superb - go see it!). The plot goes something like this: Christine Brown, an essentially nice young woman, covets a promotion at the bank she works at, but is told that she may miss out due to her inability to make "tough decisions". A old, sick, Gypsy woman, Mrs Ganush, shows up the same day and begs for an extension on her mortgage repayments. Christine could help her, but instead chooses to do the wrong thing, foreclosing on the mortgage to prove she can make a tough decision. Mrs Ganush begs, but Christine shames her, so Mrs Ganush places a Gypsy curse on Christine in which she will be tormented for a mere three days by a goat-legged demon before being dragged to Hell for an eternity of suffering. It's a rollicking good story with not a bad twist at the end, but left me feeling overwhelmingly depressed - not to mention confused about the interesting convolutions of moral reasoning that a belief in Hell requires.

Firstly, I find it impossible to accept that any crime, no matter how awful, could merit an eternity of torture. Even the most incredibly enormous crime is finite, and therefore the punishment should also be finite, whether or not it was to involve elements of extreme cruelty or torture, as would exist in Hell.

However, this is by no means the biggest problem. Even if were to accept that particular crimes were so severe as to warrant an eternity of torture, we're left with the issue of what this says about God. (I'm working under the premise that, if Hell existed, then so would Heaven and/or a God). In the context of Drag Me To Hell, we are left with the disturbing consideration that Christine's (admittedly dreadful) act of foreclosing on Mrs Ganush's mortgage warrants an eternity of torture, but somehow Mrs Ganush's ultimate act of bloody vengeance (sending Christine to Hell for eternity) does not attract the same penalty - it is implied that Mrs Ganush's soul is free and clear, so to speak. So, those who sin in a finite way, on Earth, may face horrible torture for eternity, but those who condemn others to such torture are let off scot-free. God doesn't intervene to save Christine, or apparently to punish Mrs Ganush, which leaves us with the most disturbing of possibilities.

1 - That God isn't capable of intervention: i.e. a soul in Hell (or about to be dragged there) is "out of His hands" - meaning that he is not in fact omnipotent.

2- (and more probable, considering the tone of the Old Testament) That God is the biggest bastard of them all, the cruellest tyrant, the most bloodthirsty and retributive of dictators. Except, instead of condemning His enemies to death against the wall, He condemns them to torture, without reprieve or hope of reprieve, for all of eternity.

Surely, God's moral compass would have to be a bit out of whack to allow this state of affairs. The only remaining possibility is that He would have to condemn Himself to Hell, in retribution for all the suffering He caused by sending people to Hell in the first place.

Your thoughts? Do any actions merit Hell?

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