Like many constantly changing religious doctrines, the concepts of Heaven and Hell arrived fairly late on the spiritual time scale. In many ancient cultures the poor and impoverished — by far the vast majority — were regarded as too unworthy to even consider the bizarre idea of immortality. Greeks feared the “Beyond” as an underworld, and the Israelites believed in a place called Sheol, deep underground, shared equally be rich and poor.
Then, around the 2nd and 3rd centuries BCE (before the common era), Jewish law moved to embrace new concepts of Heaven — at seven or ten different “levels” — but reserved strictly for the righteous. Those that failed to graduate to the top level would suffer eternal torture and damnation.
Early cultures couldn’t grasp the idea of an afterlife, in purely spirit form. How would the “departed” eat and drink, they asked. But the New Testament changed everything when it was said that Jesus “rose bodily from the dead and rose into Heaven.” This was a new twist, as the “resurrection” was now considered to be in both “body and spirit”. What a marketing coup this turned out to be for Christianity — immortality for all. Well, at least for those who accepted Jesus. It was still going to be misery and torment in Hell for all those who didn’t buy into the Jesus thing . . .!
But there was a snag. Early Christians believed that the ‘rapture’ would come shortly after the execution of Jesus. “What are we going to do with these souls who have already departed?”, they said. Here was another masterstroke for Christianity — they devised “God’s Transit Lounge”. Purgatory. Unfortunately, those who were wealthy didn’t like the idea of a long wait in Purgatory so a new doctrine was needed. Behold — the supreme Jackpot — the purchasing of “Indulgences”, for those sufficiently cashed up to buy their way out before death. As an early form of capitalism it was making the Church very rich.
Not surprisingly, this astronomical level of greed got out of control and a period of “Reformation” ensued — led largely by Martin Luther. However, after all the turmoil, the one thing that remained solid and unchangeable was Hell. Eternal torture and damnation for those unwilling to devote to Church dogma.
Hell remains the “big stick” for religion today; still driving fear and guilt into countless millions who continue to live in trepidation — the panic of failing to live up to the tenets of a faith that has been drilled into them since childhood.
Balanced against the pleasures of Heaven (for the “worthy”) is this medieval threat of Hell. The horror of an afterlife with fire and torment — to be branded with torture irons of the Inquisition — has terrorised the minds of children from an early age. The psychological damage has been indescribable. And for all the freethinkers and heretics who rejected Church dogma, over centuries, their fate was cruel, sadistic and horrible. Religion has brutalised and murdered countless millions who refused to kneel at the alter of Church hierarchies.
Many Christian denominations and sects today — in this 21st century — continue to espouse these same threats. Promising Heaven and salvation to those who cooperate, and trying vainly to demonise those who don’t. Humanists, freethinkers, agnostics and atheists — and the millions who simply don’t care a damn for religion — are, for the first time in history — numerically superior in number to the devout.
The ultimate question of “immortality” — the Iron Age superstition of Heaven and Hell — continues only to be of concern to the dwindling congregations of church goers. Those good and well-meaning people seem trapped — like rabbits in the headlights — in a religious mindset they inherited from their parents. The most tragic aspect is — in this age of enlightenment — that Christian parents continue to pass on these same ancient myths to their children, which amounts to nothing more than a cruel hoax.
Atheism SA Inc. active atheist assoc., Adelaide South Australia, for atheists, agnostics and non-believers