Heaven and Hell: obedience or morality?

The Thinker sits atop the Gates of Hell

I have been thinking about Heaven and Hell. Its essentially a system of punishment and rewards, except that unlike most other systems of punishment and reward, there is no way you can get away with breaking the law. There is no amount of money, no lawyer good enough, no way to ice the eyewitness and no way the policeman wont nab you. Right?

Unfortunately this creates an unusual problem, a morality problem. If you truly believe in Heaven and Hell, can you actually do good? Can you be morally good?

This is actually a problem of free will. Since God is all-powerful and all-knowing, and if you believe in God and God’s law, then you don’t really have a choice, because there is no ambiguity or uncertainty about the consequences of breaking God’s law. Who is going to choose an eternity of unimaginable horror and pain?

Bosch is a Hell genius.

Therefore, fear of punishment and expectation of reward keep the believer within a narrowly defined range of appropriate behavior. While that behavior may appear to be moral from the outside, how is anyone to distinguish whether the believer does this for the sake of doing good or as a reaction to his predicament of constantly being judged by the eye in the sky? There is no way to really know. Heaven and Hell make a believer obedient, not moral.

Think of it like this. Suppose you did everything that your parents told you to do and they told you what to do all the time. And then one day you managed to cure world hunger. Except… did you really do it? or did your parents do it? And if God is telling you how to do good (or else suffer the consequences, for eternity), then are you really doing good?

Philosophically speaking, the only way to commit a truly moral act is when you are doing good AND when you are the author of your own actions. And in the monotheistic system, the only time you can be the author of your own actions is when you are violating God’s law. It’s a paradox, right?

Question to think about. (I promise, I’m leading up to Genesis.) What if we have it all wrong about the Fall? What if this is not original sin, but in fact, original morality? After all why is the tree called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil?

The Origins of Original Sin

Dear Michelangelo, what where those two naughty monkeys up to just before the serpent showed up?

Original Sin is well known concept among western societies. Although some denominations don’t consider it a big baddie, others basically say that humans are utterly depraved beings and are headed straight for hell because of it. In other words, the moment you are conceived, you are guilty. All because of Adam and Eve.

So… where did this truly amazing and momentous idea originate from? You know how it came about, right?

Are you thinking of Genesis, the apple, the snake and the Garden and all that? Well, then you would be wrong. I have just read the Book of Genesis, folks and there is no such thing as Original Sin in those pages, and furthermore, the Book of Genesis is also part of the Jewish faith and they don’t have the concept of Original Sin. Why is that?

So… where did it come from? God? No. Jesus? Nope. Paul?

Yes, Paul. Well, sort of anyway. Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:22, however, it’s not really a full blown idea here. It’s more of a cute saying with poetic symmetry. It didn’t really become a full blown doctrinal idea until St. Augustine and Tertullian and other “church fathers” started building it up. And this occurred when? Several hundred years A.D.? For such an important concept, such a central teaching of the church, you’d think there was a more authoritative source. When you have such a rich body of teachings from the man himself, Jesus Christ, why go and garble it all up with something like this? There is a reason, I’m sure.

I don’t know, I guess I’m more of a Christ purist than the Christian church.

In the coming days I’ll be taking a closer look at the creation story of the Book of Genesis and really getting down to the heart of the matter. Somehow, the Christian religion has got this story all backwards and I’m going to walk you through it so we can set the record straight. Should be a good time.

In the meantime, consider this question: who lied to Adam and Eve? Did the snake lie or did God lie?

Don’t Worry – Luke 12:22-34

The things that you worry and stress about can be quite revealing if you take the time to consider it. Do you worry about your investments? your job? your house? These are trying times. And these do seem like more noble, responsible things to worry about than say your hair, or your child’s fashion. But what is your job, your house to God? What do these things matter to the dead?

I like that quote attributed to Gandhi… “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

That sums it up for me. I would never call myself a Christian, because I do no like the institution it has become. However, I would call myself a Christ-follower.

That said, here’s a great article called “Don’t Worry” that discusses Luke 12:22-34. And this is a timely message for me in particular with all the stress I have in my life right now. It really drives home the point that my heart is not in the right place.

You’re a fraud. I’m a fraud. We’re all frauds.

“Good Old Neon” is the title of an incredible short story by David Foster Wallace. Initially I thought I’d use it because it sounds unique and obscure. But then I thought, hmmm, that’s a bit superficial, so I recently I reread the story and recalled why it impressed me so much.

Since it is not available online and I don’t know many people willing to give DFW a try, I’m going to go ahead and ruin it for you now. How else can I explain myself? How can I explain why I took the title of that story without giving away at least a few juicy details? Please understand that I’m “ruining it” for you because I love it.

“My while life I’ve been a fraud,” is the first line. Isn’t that great? Seriously, you need a gripping first line and I think that works. The story is basically the confessed imaginings of a “David Wallace” regarding the suicide of “Neal” as he looks at Neal’s picture in their high school year book. They were not friends; all we really know is that “David Wallace” thought of Neal as impressive and intimidating. In short, he was better, and yet, years later, in the height of his continued success, he committed suicide.* In the words of Neal (or rather the words of David Wallace pretending he’s Neal), he does the terrible deed because he is, and always has been, a fraud and cannot seem to stop.

What I find really interesting is that we’re all frauds. We’re all social animals who need other people, and we all make that pretentious effort to appeal to others. We dress to be attractive. We sell ourselves at the job interview. We tell certain jokes to our friends that we won’t tell to our parents. We maintain a certain level of decorum in specific venues. I remember in high school, I intentionally attempted to not follow the reigning hegemony, but in hind sight, even that was still a put on. You can’t get around it. You do it, whether you think you do or not. We all do. Is it possible to do otherwise? (Diogenes the Cynic made an honest effort and for that, he is one of my heroes.) Perhaps some people could make the effort, but at what cost? Even if it is desirable, is it possible?

The assumption here is that there is a “true you” that is hidden. And perhaps this is what the story is challenging its readers with. Is there a “true you”? How do you know? Why do you think that? Most people, I think, believe in a soul, in some unchanging (immortal even!) and unique thing that you can call your own. It makes you feel safe, but is it real? You don’t actually have any proof of your soul do you? What if you fool yourself with the belief that you have a soul in order to avoid the terror of the alternative? And why should we feel this terror at all?

I know the answer. At least I think I know, but telling you that would just ruin this moment. We’re all better off suffering a little uncertainty.


*On a related note… in researching this article, I found out that David Foster Wallace recently committed suicide, 9-12-2008, which is not especially surprising, but still very, very sad. I like the picture of him on my book with that large scary-looking dog. He looks like a disgruntled lumberjack. I imagine him reluctantly taking care of a kitten with a broken leg. Except that he’s not really reluctant; he just pretends it’s a huge, off-putting ordeal, and secretly he loves it. RIP.