Heaven, Hell, and the Religions

We’ve looked at universalism in the Abrahamic and Dharmic religions, and in a summary way in the other major (and minor) religions of the world.  In this post I’d like to see what, if any, broad patterns we can find, and what their relevance is in general and in particular, specifically in regard to universalism as a concept.

In the case of traditional and folk religions, the very concept of an afterlife often seems murky–the dead inhabit a shady, insubstantial realm such as the Greek Hades or the Hebrew She’ol.  Alternately, they may inhabit the realm of the deified or semi-deified ancestors.  These two possibilities are not exclusive, it should be noted.  Some such religions, such as that of the ancient Celts and some strands of the ancient Greek religion, had some sort of belief in reincarnation (or “metempsychosis”, as the Greeks referred to it).  By and large, there is no consistent idea of reward and punishment–Heaven and Hell–in most of these faiths.  To the extent that there is, it is either ambiguous or applicable only to a few (such as the Greek Elysian Fields and Tartarus) or it seems to have been imported from other religions (any notions of heavens and hells in Chinese and Japanese religion, for example, come from Buddhism).

In general, I think it fair to say that there is no clear evidence for reward and punishment in the afterlife in any of the religions that precede the Axial Age, with the probable exception of the religion of Ancient Egypt and the possible exception of Zoroastrianism (so many Zoroastrian writings have been lost and there are so many issues with dating the ones we have, that there is some ambiguity as to how old certain doctrines actually are).  I think it is also safe to say that there is also no clear evidence of reward and punishment in the afterlife in the traditional and folk religions that have survived to modern times, except insofar as they’ve been influenced by so-called great or world religions.

The religions that do have clear beliefs in heaven and hell realms do not exhibit those beliefs until relatively late, or they inherit them from older faiths.  Old Testament Judaism, with the exception of some very vague verses in the prophetic books (see here for details), doesn’t have a clear concept of an afterlife at all, beyond the vague notion of the shadowy She’ol as the destination of all the dead, good and bad.  A belief in a resurrection of the dead with appropriate rewards or punishment doesn’t clearly turn up in Judaism until some time during the Intertestamental Period, from about the 5th Century BC to the 1st Century AD.  Christianity, and later, Islam, inherited their ideas of heaven and hell from Second Temple Judaism, with modifications and refinements.

Likewise, the earliest stratum of Hinduism, the Vedic Religion (about 1500-600 BC), like many of the traditional religions we’ve looked at, is concerned mainly with rituals for propitiating the gods for this-worldly goals, maintaining ritual purity, and maintaining social cohesion, with relatively little thought to an afterlife.  It is not until the time of the Upanishads (very roughly from the 7th to 1st Centuries BC) that such characteristic Hindu notions as reincarnation, samsara, karma, maya, and moksha come into clear focus.  The later religions of Jainism and Buddhism (5th Century BC) and Sikhism (16th Century AD) all take these basic concepts over, each in its own way.  Along with the concepts of reincarnation and samsara came the idea of heaven and hell realms as possible states of rebirth.

Similarly, the Greco-Roman versions of Heaven and Hell–Elysium and Tartarus, respectively–are later innovations.  There are vague mentions of Elysium and Tartarus in early Greek literature, but they don’t function as heaven and hell as in later Greek thought.  Compare the journey of Odysseus to Hades in Book XI of the Odyssey (8th Century BC), in which all the dead, including the hero Achilles and Odysseus’s own mother, are shades in Hades, with the journey of Aeneas to the underworld in Book VI of the Aeneid, in which Aeneas sees both Tartarus and Elysium, and encounters his deceased father in the latter.

As mentioned above, the development of doctrines of reward and punishment in Zoroastrianism is unclear.  The origins of the faith are usually thought to be in the 14th-12th Centuries BC, with the core of Zoroastrian scriptures, the Gathas, dating to that period; but some put Zoroaster as late as the 7th Century BC.  In either case, the other parts of Zoroastrian scripture were composed later, and the oldest existing manuscript dates from the 14th Century AD.  Most writings about Zoroastrianism that can be dated with reasonable confidence come from Greeks writing about the religion, often with little understanding of it.  It is therefore impossible to determine at what point in antiquity the beliefs about the afterlife came into focus in Zoroastrianism.  Therefore, I won’t take it into consideration here.  The Ancient Egyptian religion, however, does seem to have had a fairly explicit concept of judgement in the afterlife at least by the New Kingdom (16th to 11th Centuries BC).  The Ancient Egyptian faith, therefore, seems to have the oldest concept of judgement and the equivalent of  heaven and hell that can be reasonably reliably datable.

Thus we see the gradual development of belief in an afterlife from vague and unclear notions of shades and ancestors, to a fairly systematic view of a sorting of the dead into the righteous and unrighteous, all of whom will be judged.  The righteous will go to a paradisaical state of eternal happiness and the wicked to destruction or eternal suffering.  Why this development, and what is its significance?  I do not think it is a coincidence that in all these cases there is a correlation to greater urbanization in the societies in question.

Anthropological research has shown that the human brain is structured in such a way that the optimal size of a human social group is about one hundred fifty people.  That is, it takes a certain amount of processing power (to use a computer metaphor) to keep track of names and faces, temperaments and personalities, individual relationships, and so on.  The larger the band, the larger the brain needs to be to keep all the social relationships straight.  Brain size has been found to correlate quite well to group size in primates, and as noted, the human brain is optimized for groups of about one hundred fifty.  In small groups of this size–hunter-gatherer bands, small agrarian villages, or in modern times church communities or social clubs–it is relatively easy for an individual to keep track of all the necessary social norms with no formality needed.  Such a small group does not require laws, commandments, or police–everything is done informally.  This is what sociologists sometimes call Gemeinschaft (community) form of organization.  While no formal systems of control are needed, control is nevertheless quite effective.  As anyone who’s ever lived in a small town or been part of a small community knows, in such cases, like with Cheers, “everyone knows your name”.  The corollary is, of course, that everyone knows your business, too, and will readily interfere in it as needed.  A small tribe doesn’t need laws–everyone knows not to graze the cattle in the commons at such-and-such a time; or that you  never touch the taboo Sacred Rock; or that you share the spoils of the hunt; or that you don’t marry within your own clan; and so on.  You never lack a support network; but you never lack a control network, either.  The means of control are informal, but they can be as sure and draconian as any implemented by a police state.  Correction, ridicule, violence, or worst of all, total shunning, are all used to bring the recalcitrant into line.  By and large, such means are quite effective.

However, when technology and agriculture advance to the point that large groups of people can live together in single locations–cities–everything changes.  Now instead of one hundred fifty you might have thousands or tens of thousands in a single city.  Somewhere in the 1st Millennium AD, Rome is believed to have become the first city in human history to have a population of a million.  In such a society, the informal means of social interaction that work for small bands and tribe are no longer effective.  If you’re in a small tribe and try to cheat someone or not pull your own weight, you’ll be found out and called on it immediately.  In a city of thousands, you might easily get away with being a cheater or a freeloader.  Thus, complex urban societies require formal law codes (such as the Code of Hammurabi of Babylon or the Laws of the Seven Tables of Rome), magistrates, police, and so forth.  This more formalized, impersonal, and legalistic system is called Gesellschaft (“society” or “corporation”).

One aspect of these formalized systems of control is the rise of organized religion.  I’ve discussed that matter a bit here.  Even in a police state, the cops or centurions can’t be everywhere, the state can’t monitor everybody, and the laws can’t cover all possible cases.  Religion, however, is a powerful motivating force in human behavior.  If humans can be persuaded to believe that the well-being of the city or state depends on the favor of the gods–and their viceroys on Earth, the divine or semi-divine kings–then they will tend to keep in line even without the need of law enforcement.  By and large, this was pretty effective.  It was not without reason that Socrates was put to death for teaching “new gods” to the youth–incurring the disfavor of the gods would be disastrous to Athens, so it was necessary to put down anyone who might incur such disfavor.  Similarly, the Romans persecuted the Druids for holding beliefs held to be subversive of Roman society, and Christians for refusing to burn incense to the genius (guardian spirit) of the Emperor.  The integrity of the state religion had to be maintained at all costs as a way of maintaining order.  When the Roman Empire was Christianized, the formerly persecuted Christians merrily proceeded to follow suit by persecuting their former persecutors, the pagans; and after that, each other, as various groups began to accuse each other of heresy.  Such controversies are echoed in the present day in controversies over the national anthem, a part of our secular religion.  Thus it ever is with humans, it seems.

In any case, an important component of religious control, quite likely, was the development of doctrines of reward and punishment in the afterlife.  You might be willing to swindle someone in the city, because in the big city you don’t have the close-knit small-group network that can take you to task.  If you are told that the gods demand honesty, else they will punish the city, you might hesitate.  Then again, you might make sure you appropriately sacrifice to all the city gods, and that, thus satisfied, they will turn a blind eye to your business practices.  As I’ve discussed elsewhere, morality and the proper worship of the Divine were considered separate issues in antiquity.  However, if you believed that the gods would punish you–perhaps forever–in the afterlife, then you might have stronger motivation not to swindle.  Thus, the notions of reward and punishment afterlife,  Heaven and Hell, seem to be part of the functioning of organized religion as a means of social control in more complex and urbanized societies.

Now, some caveats.  There is debate about the effectiveness of belief in Hell (which always seems to be more of a motivator than belief in Heaven–the stick is mightier than the carrot, apparently).  There are arguments that such belief makes people behave better; and on the other hand, arguments that it is either ineffective or that it has costs that may outweigh the benefits.  Further, there are various arguments about the psychological effects of belief in Heaven and Hell on individuals.  Second, even if beliefs in reward in punishment in the afterlife are indeed socially effective, this does not ipso facto make them actually true.  No believer believes–or should believe, anyway–a religion merely because it’s useful to do so, after all.  The third point is the opposite of the second point.  Just because religious beliefs might be socially useful doesn’t make them true.  However, the social utility and sociological motivations for religious beliefs don’t automatically make such beliefs false, either.  A typical atheist criticism of religion is that it exists merely to control people and make them behave.  Even if a given religion and its beliefs do indeed function that way, that doesn’t mean they’re false, though.  A loose analogy:  Before the invention of lenses, no one could see the moons of Jupiter or the rings of Saturn.  Galileo was able to make those discoveries only because he lived in a society with sufficient technology to make a telescope.  However, just because the discoveries he made were bound to the social context doesn’t make them untrue.  The moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn really are there.  Likewise, it may be useful to society f I believe in Hell, or in the Weighing of the Hearts, or the Happy Hunting Ground.  That there is a valid sociological reason does not invalidate the religious doctrine.  Perhaps there is a Hell; or maybe my  heart will be weighed against the Feather of Truth; or conceivably I will potentially go to the Happy Hunting Ground (though as a non-hunter and non-outdoorsy type, I’d find that more like Hell than  Heaven!).

My point is that it’s not either-or.  It’s not a matter of taking a purely functionalist, sociological view of religion while jettisoning the spiritual and metaphysical teachings, as skeptics would like to do; nor is it a matter of buying into the teachings with no regard for how they actually function in the real world, as many of the faithful would prefer.  Just as we are a mixture of the spiritual and the material, souls incarnate in bodies (or at least many of us, myself included, so believe it to be), so also religions are in a sense incarnate in the world–spiritual experiences, doctrines, and dogmas instantiated in institutions, rituals, and customs.  Thus, to accept a given faith’s teaching is not to turn a blind eye to its institution’s sometimes negative effects on the world; and to recognize the all-too-human aspects of the institution is not necessarily to reject the faith it represents.  To put it simply, I’m no more anti-organized religion as such than I’m anti-body.  I am convinced that there is more to me than my mere physical body; but in this world, the only way my spirit functions or can function is through my body.  So far from denigrating my body, it’s all the more reason to keep it healthy.  Likewise, the institutions and organizations of organized religion are as necessary, as vessels of the teaching, as a body is to the soul.  It is unhealthy institutions that are the problem.  This, by the way, is why the characteristically American concept of separation of church and state is a good thing.  If a given religion is the exclusive faith and is intertwined with the state apparatus so as to be a totalizing, hegemonic system, it is no longer possible to correct the inevitable faults that will creep into the best and holiest of religious institutions.  It is sometime claimed that such secularism is not truly “neutral”, and arguably that’s true; but the costs of a religion that as the One True Faith has a stranglehold on all of society are much more than the benefits; and the benefits of religious pluralism and a secular state very much outweigh the real costs.  Thus, while I defend organized religion, I also defend the secular system that helps keep its nastier aspects in check.

So how does universalism–which is, after all, the topic here–play into this?  Certainly, the concept seems to go against the notion of afterlife-as-control-system.  Even for religions that believe in reward and punishment in the afterlife, though, there are some universalistic trends.  As I’ve pointed out before, the Dharmic religions have strong universalist tendencies, with the various hells being seen more as purgatories–temporary way-stations for the purification of souls than permanent destinations.  Universalism has been less prominent in the Abrahamic religions, however, as we’ve seen.  In Christianity, though–at least in its Western manifestations–there does seem to be a different trend.  There seems to be a definite development towards a more universalistic outlook in various branches of Christianity, ever more noticeably since the 18th Century, and continuing into the present.  Hell may have begun–sociologically speaking–as a means of control; but what is becoming of it now?  We’ll examine that in the next post.

Part of the series “Universalism (What the Hell?!)

Posted on 06/02/2018, in Buddhism, Christianity, Gnosticism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, paganism, religion, religions, Taoism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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