Religion in its widest sense  


According to the experts on the Radio 4 programme 'In our Time' the other day, hell received little emphasis in the Christian faith before the 4th century. Until then, the emphasis had been on salvation as a result of God's love. From then onwards, however, the use of Hell as a marketing tool gained ground in the Western church, although not in its what is now its Eastern Orthodox branch.

Indeed, most of the major religions then started promoting the idea of a hell and vying with each other for the most awful descriptions of the tortures to be inflicted.  The Christian missionaries to 'barbarian' countries needed something with more muscle to impress their 'savage' leaders and so persuade them to accept the one true God. Love was not enough. This emphasis on Hell led, in turn, to the many depictions in art and literature of the tortures of the damned, such as, much later, Dante's circles of Hell in "La Divina Commedia".

But it seems to me that Hell has achieved prominence in Christianity despite the obvious difficulty for Christians of reconciling a God of love with a God of vengeance - because the Christian Hell never gives up its victims. They continue to be tortured for the whole of eternity.  No matter that they might see the light shortly after arriving there, as did the rich Dives (in the parable of Dives and Lazarus), who asked Abraham to send word to his relatives of his state so that they might avoid it.  No matter that Christ, when asked how many times one should forgive a person - "Seven times?" - said in reply "No, seventy times seven", meaning, of course, that forgiveness should always be given.

But this was all ignored and, instead, blinkered, inexorable logic lead to the dreadful consequences which arose from the 'Holy' Inquisition.  To save a man's soul from eternal torture, there was a duty to torture him so that he might change his mind while it was still of use to him.  It was proper to extirpate from communities people who might lead others astray.  Burning them at the stake persuaded others to change their evil ways and so be saved from eternal damnation.  It was a duty to convert, by force of arms if necessary, entire groups of people in South America and Africa who were regarded as idolaters and therefore otherwise damned.

So it was that justifying the means by the end became generally accepted in the Christian faith. That such a perverse and self-contradictory set of ideas should hold sway transnationally for well in excess of a millennium now seems incredible.  But are we now more enlightened?  The religious, even of civilised countries, will still turn to lawlessness - e.g. the threats to the lives of those involved in abortion clinics in the USA - because they consider that the end justifies the means: the saving of what they consider to be fully human lives. This, even though the embryo has, at best, the potential for independent life and no sense of self.  But, it seems, it has a 'soul' and so is the moral equivalent of an adult.

But this also applies to those who, whilst perhaps not believing in an all-powerful God, are similarly motivated by absolutist views.

The animal rights people talk of 'genocide' inflicted on animals to justify the death or injury of a few humans in combating it.  In this case, their very absence of belief in a soul or that souls are confined to humans, means to them that there is no difference between us and the other animals so that all of the rights we claim must logically extend to all the other species.

Militant environmentalists use apocalyptic visions to convert us to their cause, even where the science is speculative and their remedies of unproven value. Their appeals to the local public in respect of, e.g new roads, are often put on NIMBY grounds, but their belief seems actually to be that equal weight should be placed on the survival of the ecosystems around us as on the well-being of the human race of which they are a part. This, if correct, would mean that we ought still to be a group of a relatively few hunter-gatherers at most, rather than being a dominant species.  That competition between species has for hundreds of millions of years led to vast numbers of them being wiped out is ignored.  In effect, for these environmentalists, the earth has become Gaia again, the earth Goddess who, if not nurtured, will reject us as a species and ensure that we are wiped out in order to save other, more deserving, species.  To which they say "Amen".

The circles of Hell in Dante's poem descend in order of awfulness to level 9 where Judas Iscariot is being continuously eaten by Satan himself.  One level up from the bottom of the pit, is level 8.  It is here that the false prophets go.  Maybe we could use this as a cautionary tale for the religious, of whatever type, to be more careful about what they say and so where they may end up.

Just wishful thinking.


With acknowledgements for the information contained in the first paragraph to the 'In Our Time' programme on BBC Radio 4 on 21st December 2006


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