A Moment in Hell

Question from Mirek:
There seems to be many hellish NDEs with the same imagery:

A person sees absolute darkness, hears people suffering, feels sadness, coldness, emptiness, then calls out to God or Jesus, and a white light, or God’s hand appears and takes them out.

Here is an example from George Foreman:

http://www.near-death.com/experiences/rich-and-famous.html#a23

Another example is a pastor who was electrocuted when he was an atheist, and saw the same thing, called out to God, was pulled out.

Do these similarities give hell more credence?

Answer by SmartLX:
Not really. The main reason is that multiple genuine NDEs aren’t the only explanation for the similarity regarded by many as plausible. There are two other major factors likely to contribute.

One, the standard NDE story is by now traditional and very well-known. If someone who’s at least familiar with it has an ordinary dream or hallucination during a life-threatening situation, it is likely to follow the same pattern as it’s what the victim expects on some level. If there is no memory or a fragmented memory of the period, the existence of this very specific expectation for the experience can shape a memory over time until it fits very well. And if someone just makes up an NDE story, they will deliberately follow the pattern to match the expectation of their audience.

Two, people going through the physical and mental states associated with near or temporary “death” are likely to have similar physiological reasons to experience certain things, even if they’re not fully understood. The white light in the distance, for instance, is consistent with temporary tunnel vision caused by lack of blood or oxygen to the eyes, growing brighter when the supply returns. Scientific American went into this six years ago.

I can take another approach to your question. Supposed visits to Hell, or samples of what you feel in Hell (coldness, emptiness, etc.) are potent emotional appeals but they don’t make much sense in most Christian theologies. God isn’t supposed to literally pull souls out of Hell, and certainly not after only a few moments. Your judgement happens, then either you stay in Hell forever or you never even see it. If on the other hand God is only showing you a vision of Hell instead of actually dangling you in there, He could supposedly do that at any time, not just when you’re at death’s door.

Seeking the Source of Hell

Question from Jakob:
Hello, I am back again. So my fear of hell has came back a little, just a little. So anyway do you know of any good books on the origin of hell and similar Christian mythology?

Answer by SmartLX:
Hell’s a little bit specific for a whole book. There is The History of Hell by Alice K. Turner, which is mostly focused on changing visual depictions of it. All I could immediately find besides that were essays by the devout like this one, podcasts like this one, and of course the mostly neutral fact dump on Wikipedia. If anyone has a good read to share, feel free to comment. (Yes, thank you, we know about the Bible.)

Books on Christian mythology are plentiful, but mostly focused on the Christ story and its parallels in earlier pagan mythology.

I think it might be just as useful for you to read about all the different concepts of the afterlife throughout history to see how plain it is that no living person knows what happens, good or bad. That means no one has the authority to threaten you with, or warn you about, any kind of hell – unless you hear it directly from the other side somehow. Listen out if you like, but don’t get your hopes up.

A Relatively Simple Afterlife Question

Question from Jason:
Besides our energy living on for all eternity (watch 10 Myths About Death at 1:50) is any other afterlife possible? Is any, all (especially regarding Hell) of http://www.evangelicaloutreach.org/ telling the truth? I am Fira777 on YouTube.

Answer by SmartLX:
I’ve written a great deal on the afterlife, because of course many are curious about (or troubled by, or desperate to salvage) the idea. The simple answer to your question is that anything is possible (science does not support an afterlife in any meaningful sense, but the mechanism of the supposed soul may be beyond science if real) but if the Evangelical Outreach page is correct about any of this stuff, it is not because they know for sure. They are relaying their interpretation of the scriptures they accept as the word of God, and they are right or wrong if the text is. “Telling the truth” is subjective based on what one believes; one can be honest and still wrong.

What Nightmares May Come

Question from Chelsea:
Besides disrespect for the planet and a willingness (or even eagerness) to die for a religious cause, what are other negative consequences of maintaining belief in an afterlife?

Answer by SmartLX:
Well, don’t belittle those two points for a start, because they can cause a whole lot of damage all by themselves. But we’ll cover a few more things.

Most people don’t go as far as being eager or even willing to die, but the idea that there’s another life can make people more accepting of death – usually not very much their own, but the deaths of others. When we hear of tragedies and atrocities, the religious may comfort themselves with the idea that the victims are now in heaven, and in some cases that can sabotage the public will to prevent these events from recurring. Famine in Africa is a good example; some may think all those poor kids are better off dead, which isn’t conducive to donations. 9/11 was a bad example, as the mad rush to fight the perceived Islamist threat sprang from the American people’s fear that they were now personally at risk.

If you think someone you love is just the other side of the proverbial veil, you may start thinking you can reach them somehow. Self-proclaimed mediums all over the world can make a good living by exploiting people desperate for one more chance to hear from their late parents, or their late children. Some people have seriously hurt themselves financially by essentially becoming addicted to the faint hope of restoring a lost connection or mending a broken heart, when in fact this pursuit can poison and prolong the grieving process.

The most commonly and directly harmful aspect of belief in an afterlife, though, is the fear that it may not be a good one. Children are evidently and routinely traumatised by direct and indirect threats of hellfire and God’s permanent disapproval, in some cases to an extent comparable with sexual abuse. Several people have written to ATA about the fear they continue to feel for months or years after they stop believing in God, so deep has it burrowed into their psyche. (I call this “faithdrawal”, and it fades but very slowly.) Anytime I can spare a child from this potentially lifelong ordeal, I will regard as among my best deeds in life.

Left Christianity, but Hell followed you out?

Question from Chris:
I was raised Christian until I found a Jewish website that explained how the New Testament contradicts the Old. I now describe myself as agnostic, but I’m still afraid that there may be a hell. This is stopping me from living my life and while I doubt that I’ll become a Christian again, I sometimes wonder if there’s any chance the Jewish faith was right.

Is there any way that I might be able to let go of this fear? Maybe some way to make a firm decision on whether or not I should be religious? People have advised me to learn more about religion and the world in general; maybe there’s something specific I should look at?

Answer by SmartLX:
Welcome to faithdrawal, which is my word for the lingering emotional aftereffects of strong religious belief, chief among them fear and guilt. That fear might stick around for a while even if you stop believing entirely. The more often you can register that your level of fear is unjustified, the quicker it will fade, but probably only by small degrees.

If you think the Jewish version of Hell is the most likely to be real, it certainly doesn’t warrant the same kind of fear as the Christian Hell because it is NOT a place of eternal torment. Read this Jewish article on the subject: their name for it is Gehinnom, and it’s light-heartedly described as a “spiritual washing machine” that prepares your soul for Heaven. It’s closer to the Christian concept of purgatory; while it’s not something to look forward to, there’s a purpose to the suffering and most importantly there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

So that’s what to keep in mind when you’ve got your figurative yarmulke on, but the rest of the time it’s good to read up on conflicting reports of Hell from different religions, and even different denominations of the same one. It’s the strongest sign we have that no one really knows anything about it, or has any authority to tell you what to fear. Not only that, but the reasons a soul is sent to Hell are mutually exclusive between different religions and denominations. Beyond the obvious fact that you can only proclaim one kind of faith which denies all the others, the rules for living are different all round. That means it’s futile to try to behave any particular way in order to avoid Hell because you’re almost certainly doing something wrong. That sounds pessimistic but it can at least free you from micro-managing everything you do, and give you a sense of community as you’re in the same unreliable boat as everyone else.

You can make a decision about how devoutly to keep to the tenets of whatever religion you choose to adhere to, but how religious you are is not really your decision to make. Your level of belief is influenced by what you see, read and hear. You could immerse yourself in religious media and after long enough you might no longer doubt it, or avoid it altogether and slowly forget, but this is artificially reinforcing a bias and does not reflect reality. Regardless, I can tell you that being more religious is very unlikely to make you less afraid of Hell. If you accept its existence and its specific nature as dictated by your religion, your work is cut out for you as you are acutely aware of what you must do, and not do. You’re also surrounded by people who don’t share your faith, aren’t living right and are therefore bound for Hell, emphasising how easy it is to fall short and pay the price.

Better to get on with life, I say. Just be a person in the world, do what you can to be a good one, improve life for others, have your fun when it’s not hurting anyone. Thoughts of the afterlife tend to take a backseat when you live in the now.

Heaven’s Cold Comfort

Question from Tsahpina:
If the religious really believe there is an afterlife and/or paradise, for those who believe in such, why do they cry when someone dear to them dies and why are they afraid of their own death?
I do not mean this as rhetorical question, but since Ivery much doubt any religious person is capable to answer this sincerely, then let it be, for such religious people, rhetorical only. but i would like a real reason, if there might be one, like, they are leaving their dear ones or a dear one is leaving them, but then, they are going to their loved ones who had already died and the ones that remain here will sooner or later join them. so, why not rejoice for the going to paradise, big deal, i mean.

Answer by SmartLX:
The short answer is that an afterlife doesn’t make everything about death okay even if it’s real.

We’ll leave aside the idea that some believers don’t really believe we go to Heaven or nurse serious doubts. if you don’t really accept the doctrine then of course it won’t help you when you’re faced with death, so that’s that. We’ll consider the case for people who really do believe instead.

No matter what happens after death, the person is gone from this life and this world. In an undeniable sense the person is separated from us and lost to us. If you love the person, this is a great loss which you will mourn no matter where you think the person is going, because you’ll never see or talk to them again for the rest of your life. If you knew someone you loved was going to live quite comfortably but not contact you in any way for several decades, would it make it perfectly all right that you’d see them again afterwards? Of course not, while it might provide some consolation it would still be a huge wrench in the here and now. Likewise, if you’re the one going away, you wouldn’t see anyone you knew potentially for years.

The Christian afterlife, similarly to many others, is a double-edged sword. You find out right at the beginning whether you will spend eternity in Heaven or Hell, and there is no assurance to be had before that point. You just have to follow the rules as laid out by your particular denomination, and hope you got them right AND they’re the right rules. Sins are remembered even if you’ve forgotten them, so you doubt your own mind. All men and women are sinners by nature and tainted with Original Sin, so you keep your fingers crossed that you’ve cleaned it all off with your piety and prostration and didn’t miss a spot. It’s truly nerve-wracking, even if you think you’ll be okay in the end. And if someone else is dying, you have no way of knowing whether they’ve confessed every sin, performed every rite, crossed every T and dotted every i.

So if someone is fearful and sorrowful of death I don’t doubt the steadfastness of their beliefs. I feel great pity that their beliefs aren’t helping as much as they were probably led to believe they would.

Ghosts On TV

Question from Chris:
What would you say about ghosts and paranormal activity?
It is hard to deny the existence of ghosts or haunted places. There are many videos like this –
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LyrZh-SZRc8
– that show ghosts on tape and such.
How can you as an atheist explain this?
There are many documented cases of ghosts. Assuming that there is no God then how are there ghosts and spirits?

Answer by SmartLX:
There are many documented claims of ghosts, but not one confirmed actual ghost. Shows like Ghost Adventures in the video above do everything they can to convince viewers that that supernatural experiences occur, but with all the “evidence” they supposedly accumulate after multiple seasons they never bother to take their case to mainstream scientists for analysis. You eventually have to wonder whether the hosts and producers are at all sincere. (To their credit, the Ghost Adventures guys essentially filmed a retraction after their night vision camera caught a guest very obviously faking a poltergeist event. Whether or not they’re honest ghost hunters, that had to be embarrassing or at least annoying.)

There are indeed many videos purporting to capture ghosts or ghost activity, but they fall into two categories: those which have not been proven to be genuine, and those which have been proven not to be genuine. There are so many of them because not only are there many ways to fake such a video, there are many reasons to fake such a video. Many of these reasons, though not all, have to do with money. I’ll let you work out what they are. In the end there is just no available, substantive evidence for ghosts, so there’s no more reason to believe in ghosts than in gods. If you know of a particular video or story which you think does constitute substantive evidence, link to it in a comment and we’ll discuss it.

We actually have had a few people write in who claim to be atheists and yet believe in ghosts. Most of the time it’s because they’ve had an unexplained personal experience which convinced them, which is no good for then convincing anyone else but is very effective for creating belief in one person. The resulting rationales tend to posit that souls and an afterlife do exist but they’re not created or controlled by anything resembling a god, instead relying on supernatural energies and other non-divine phenomena. These atheist spiritualists therefore have a very decentralised concept of the afterlife, and of whatever non-ex-human spirits may exist in addition to ghosts. I say the same thing to them as I say to believers in gods: produce your evidence.

Answer Me These Questions Three

Question from Stephen:
Dear who ever is reading this,

I am a Christian, now before you get all mad and make judgements please hear me out I just want to ask you a few questions so I get what you believe. Okay so…
1. If you don’t believe in “God” do you believe in a “higher power?” And if you do who is that “higher power?” Would you consider yourself to be “God” over your own life?
2. If you don’t believe in heaven then where do you go when you die?
3. How do you believe the world came to be? Though the Big Bang theory? Or did the earth always exist?

Please respond back with your answers I just want to know more about atheists.

Answer by SmartLX:
No problem Stephen. If I got mad when someone simply identified as Christian, I wouldn’t be able to think straight when answering their questions. I’ve numbered your questions for easy reference.

1. Plenty of entities are more powerful than me. The sun makes me look completely insignificant, when considered in all its enormity. The nation of the Commonwealth of Australia has power over me, since I’m a small part of it. Gravity, while not necessarily an entity, has achieved more than I ever will. The thing is that none of these entities are concerned with the intimate details of how I live my life, so they’re not the kind of “higher power” I can appeal to for practical help in all things. (My country does concern itself with some broad aspects of my life, of course, but fortunately not all.)

Therefore I don’t think there is the kind of “higher power” you’re thinking of. In the absence of this, I certainly don’t feel like the God of my own life because I don’t have anything like that kind of absolute control over it. I do have some control, obviously, but that just makes me a functioning person with my own will, not a god. It suffices.

2. I described my position on death in an earlier piece. Read it here, and comment (here or there) if you have any questions.

3. All the evidence points to a Big Bang, or a similar expansion of all existing matter and energy from a single point in space about 15 billion years ago. The Earth formed about 10 billion years later, coming together from materials orbiting the Sun (which had formed a few hundred million years earlier). You don’t have to be an atheist to think this, and in fact many Christians believe that God caused exactly this to happen. Where atheists differ is that they don’t believe a god was required for it to happen.

Death And What Probably Doesn’t Come Next

Question from Sarah:
We all have to go somewhere or will happen to us when we die. If you do not think or believe in God or heaven where do you think you will go or what will happen to you when you die?

Question from Jessie:
What are you living for if nothing happens after you die?

Question from Rachel:
I know you don’t acknowledge a God, but do you believe that we have a soul or that there is some sort of afterlife?

Question from Emily:
What do you believe will happen to your soul after you die? Christians believe that we have a purpose beyond death and that our souls will be in heaven. If you’re not going anywhere but the ground what comfort can you or your family find in death?

Question from Elizabeth:
Where do you think that you’ll go after you die?

Question from Brooke:
What makes you think that God doesn`t exist, and if he doesn`t what comes next? What is there to live for?

Question from Heather:
I know you do not believe in heaven or hell, but where do you believe your soul goes after you die?

Answer by SmartLX:
Looking again at this sudden deluge of questions, I notice they all arrived within ten minutes of each other, so I reckon the questioners are in a group somewhere. Welcome to you all, and I’ll get to everyone before too long.

I’ve answered the main thrust of the above questions once before in Death: Just Curious, but as I’ve said I’m happy to retread old ground for newcomers. (Brooke, for the first part of your question, see the post immediately before this one.)

An afterlife would require something of a person’s identity, mind, memory and so forth to persist after death. All evidence indicates that these things operate entirely within the physical brain, which is completely irreparable mere minutes after it loses its supply of oxygen from the bloodstream. Even while people live, physical damage to the brain can rob them of their memories, drastically change their personalities or turn them into complete “vegetables”. A “person” does not appear to be a separate entity from the tissue and bio-electrical activity in his or her head, as suggested by the concept of a soul, so there’s no good reason to believe in souls.

That said, I have heard from a few atheists who believe in an afterlife and even in ghosts (as you can see here, on the old archive). This is not a contradiction as their explanations do not require the existence of gods; they tend to focus more around energy. I say to them just what I say to others: present the evidence.

I’ve just said that there’s no good reason to believe in souls. A not-terribly-good reason to believe in them would be that if they don’t exist, there is no comfort to take from death or nothing to live for. Even if both were true (and I’ll get to them presently), you would be reasoning that souls are real because it would be better if they were real. This is wishful thinking, and it has no power to determine what really is or isn’t. Formally, it’s known as an appeal to consequences and is recognised as a logical fallacy. More simply put, it just doesn’t follow. Fortunately, things aren’t quite so bleak.

Death is always a loss to the living. There can however be different sources of comfort in death, even tragic death, for those left behind. For those who willingly sacrificed themselves for noble causes, such as the lives of others, we can celebrate their bravery and selflessness even as we mourn. For those who led full lives, we can reflect on their legacies. For those who died with important work unfinished, we can take up a cause in their names. Most obviously, the deceased will no longer suffer whatever pain and anguish led up to their deaths, so at the very least there’s that. If horrible people die, people we wish had been punished more for their misdeeds, at least they can’t hurt anyone anymore.

As for why we would want to live if there’s no life after this, why wouldn’t we want to make the most of the one life we know we have? I’m sure you value this life too; Heaven is meant to be all that and a bag of chips, but are you all constantly wishing and hoping that any moment a car would kill you instantly and send you straight there (indicating that God’s plan had finished with you)? I doubt it. We all have things we want to do before we die – romance, kids, careers, travel, charity, art – and the possible existence of a subsequent (but likely very different) life doesn’t change that. Even the religious are in the dark about their gods’ supposed plans, so apart from doing their bit to propagate their religions, they choose their own purposes in life as well. Atheists just leave out the religious bits.

No Afterlife, No Purpose?

Question from Josh:
Do you have a purpose in your life without there being a possible god? If so what is it and what good is it without an afterlife?

Answer by SmartLX:
Andrea wrote about purpose in a previous answer, but I don’t think I’ve had my chance yet.

First, I’ve never said there can’t possibly be a god. There might be one, there’s just been no substantive evidence for one so far so if anything it’s too early to believe it.

Anyway, there’s an underlying assumption in your question that the only purpose in life for anyone who does believe in a god and an afterlife is to please the god and achieve the best available afterlife. I doubt this very much, because there have got to be non-atheists out there who do great works out of genuine altruism and not just to win points with the big boss. One’s desire to help one’s friends or family could actually trump one’s own hopes of heaven; if a friend was determined to commit suicide, as a last resort one might murder him first, endangering one’s own soul to save that of one’s friend. For another example, a good man might steal to feed his family, and not be at all sorry that he has done so despite having sinned, because his children can eat.

I’m trying to demonstrate that even for believers, their purpose in life is a personal choice. It’s the same for non-believers but, since they don’t think they have an afterlife to prepare for, it doesn’t factor into their options.

Believers often take for granted the idea that they will be able to savour their rewards forever, and are horrified by the idea that they might not. Well, if that’s the way things are, then tough. Whatever we achieve in life, we may have a few good years to enjoy it, and we can be content in the thought that it will persist after we’ve died, but then that’ll be it for us.

It’s in this spirit that many non-believers take up the popular pursuits of happiness, helping others and making the world a better place. Since we only accept the existence of one finite life and one world to live in, our priorities tend towards that life and that world. Those who are more self-centred will concentrate on their own lives, while those with more empathy are more likely to go out into the world and work to improve others’ lives. My own purpose, like most, is a mixture of the two.