I am staying with the theme of purgatory (and by extension, hell) for a moment because there are a few more thoughts I want to get out. The first of these thoughts is that I do believe there is a very human wish for some kind of eternal justice, much like the wish for some kind of afterlife. We know that life is not fair and that it seems sometimes that terrible people often do not get their just desserts here on earth. Hitler gets to quietly slip off into oblivion after causing millions of deaths? Yes, it doesn’t seem fair and yes, in considering this, I wish there was a hell.
Even considering the recent Charlie Hebdo incident things don’t seem fair. Those at the magazine who were killed had their lives taken in an unplanned and totally involuntary way. While yes (we hope) the killers were also killed, they were prepared for death and maybe even welcomed it. Any operation such as theirs entails a risk of death and they undertook that risk (presumably) willingly. So, even though on the surface, it is an “eye for eye,” it really isn’t. So, eternal justice would necessitate that the gunman suffer in the afterlife.
Unfortunately even as we think this, we run into the reality of the gods that are presented to us in the holy books. If the shooters were right in their view of Allah, then they are in paradise, and the Charlie people are in hell. If God (the Christian one) is in charge, frankly we have no idea. Shooters in hell for murder, perhaps. But also perhaps Charlie staff in hell as well, for blasphemy. Or maybe they are in purgatory to sweat out their imperfections, hard to tell. As for Jehovah of the old testament, it would seem like he is just glad they are all dead. So, I don’t see any clear divine justice there.
As much as we might like some kind of eternal justice to balance the scales in a way that does not often seem to happen on Earth, it really does simply raise more questions than it answers.
The case for hell seems pretty clear cut when you are talking about Hitler, Stalin and other moral monsters on a grand scale. But to hear most religionists tell it, the cutoff for hell is much lower than that. Here’s what Jesus has to say on the subject:
The Final Judgment
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers,[f] you did it to me.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matthew 25, 31-46 ((NRSV)
That’s right, if you are stingy and not generous, it is hell for you. And maybe I missed something, but it seems to me that an awful lot of “sins” are left out of that little speech. No mention of masturbation or adultery. Nothing about abortion or homosexuality. Not even about killing or blasphemy. But still, people are going to eternal punishment because they didn’t visit strangers in jail? Seems kind of harsh. How is that eternal justice? If we have eternal punishment hanging over our heads, then at least we should have the complete rulebook. Everything thing we can do that would send us to hell should be listed — and everything that if we DON’T do (as this list implies) we are off to hell. But there is no such list.
And trying to figure out purgatory just gives me a huge headache.
One theory (which I have heard other places) is that pretty much everyone has to spend time in purgatory because we are not perfect enough to be in the perfect presence of god. Ugh. What happened to being created in his image? Even he doesn’t understand the difference between deity and humanity? That has nothing to with justice and everything to do with a warped theology that sees people as useless, worthless sinners, and for the life of me I don’t understand why anyone would want to worship such a god.
A good friend, who was raised Catholic and is now a None, raised even more questions. Such as, what about, say, someone with Down’s syndrome. Even if they did something “sinful” how could they be culpable for that? Do they have to go to purgatory? Even if they receive all the sacraments?
Sometimes when I debate with apologists I ask the very simple question, “Did Jesus die for all of our sins.” Usually they spin some epicycles around the idea that he did, but you have to believe that he did. “So he didn’t die for my unbelief?”
I think that, logically, if he didn’t die for my unbelief, then we don’t really know what sins he did or did not die for. Which means nobody knows where they are going. Except Catholics, where pretty much every body is going to purgatory to suffer. And atheists who believe that everyone is justing going into the ground.
Only one Christian group that I know of, the Universalists, truly believe that Jesus died for all of our sins. But they quickly found out that making a church out of that isn’t very easy. If hell is closed and you can do whatever you want and you’re going to heaven, yes you say, “Thank you Jesus” a few times, but then you go off and do your own thing. As Jules Ffeiffer once said, “If Jesus died for our sins, who am I to deny his sacrifice by not committing them?”
Personally, I find Christianity misses the mark by deeming all people “sinful” and in need of “saving.” I won’t deny there is evil in the world, and that some people are better than others, but overall most people are pretty decent. They want to provide for their kids, do a good job, help out when they can and once in a while have a little fun. And yes, people lie, masturbate, drink too much, and lots other things in their moments of weakness, but really could any of this hurt an omnipotent god who created the entire universe in a way that he needs to extract “justice” from us?
We are not sinful worms. We are a mixture of good and bad impulses many of which seem built into to our species. And yes, we should try and make amends when we slip or fall. But to suffer eternal punishment? That does not sound like justice to me.