Where do atheists and non-believers go?
That's a question that seems to be universally answered in all religions. The answer? You probably know it. Those who do not believe, no matter how good they are, go to hell, where they suffer for eternity for their idiotic and selfish choices while on earth. Pretty much every non-liberal Christian theologian, such as Billy Graham and Greg Laurie, says that those who don't believe in Jesus are in for an eternity of suffering.
However, when you point out how unjust and cruel such a fate that is, you'll get one of the now-standard fundamentalist stock answers, such as: "God is perfect and just", "God cannot stand sin" "God cannot behold evil" "God doesn't send you to hell, you send yourself there", "It's your choice to go to hell", "Our sinful natures mean that we cannot enter heaven", etc. You've probably heard all the excuses trying to explain the justice in sending people to hell for all eternity with no hope of justice or release.
The first answer, "God is perfect and just" is a curious one. The typical descriptions of God in the Christian tradition is that God is perfect, omnipresent, benevolent and just. Such a being, according to logic, would be better then his (or her) creations. This God would be more loving then we are, more caring then we are, and more just then we are. This God would be everything good. But could such a God embody our worst traits as well? Could a perfect, benevolent, just God embody rage that is worse then ours, get more angry then we possibly can, and be more cruel then we can?
If God does (I should say now that I do believe in God, even though I am an ex-Christian) have both those features, embodying our best and worst traits to a degree that we can't even imagine, then God seems more like a giant human then a benevolent being, a giant human who's temper tantrums can and (if you believe the bible) have wiped out millions of people (who are this being's pride and joy) in gruesome and terrible ways.
God is described as being Just. That is, God is fair, balanced and better at giving justice then we can be. If God is benevolent as is is often claimed to be, then God's justice would ultimately be restorative. It would heal and undo all the hurts. Our justice system does not work that way. It's focused on punishment, rather then healing and rehabilitation. God is sometimes described as being a judge.
The problem here however, is that God's justice, as described by fundamentalists, is, for the lack of a better word, stupid. We are sometimes told that God cannot stand the presence of sin or evil (which begs the question of why a benevolent, all-loving God apparently throws a temper tantrum or scowls in disgust at the sight of human mistakes, AKA sin), that no sin and no imperfections are allowed in heaven, which is perfect. Thus, according to one argument put up by Christian fundamentalists, even one sin is an irreparable stain that cannot be allowed into heaven. Furthermore, it is an offense to God, and because God is perfect and holy, even that one little imperfection is worthy of being punished endlessly, over and over and over again.
Our justice system is not perfect. But even we, as humans, know that punishing someone again and again and again and again for the same mistake is not just. Only sadists enjoy giving pain. Normal, sensible people can see that it's not right to to punish someone for longer then need be. A murderer may be deserving of punishment, yes, but is it right to continuously punish him with pain over and over again, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty five days a year for year after year after year after year? Or, is it right to punish him with solitary confinement twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty five days a year for year after year after year after year? In the beginning, perhaps it would make sense, when the memory of his act of brutally murdering someone would be fresh, and the anger for retribution would be great. But after a time, people would start to realize how cruel it would be to keep going in that manner. Could you imagine watching someone, no matter how evil, being tortured non-stop every day for years? Watching him or her scream in pain for years... doesn't that seem like a horrible thing to watch?
The problem with God giving an eternity of hell due to one little mistake can be compared to our justice system giving everyone the same sentence, no matter what they've done.
"Your honor, this man has murdered a family, raping the wife in the process and bashing the skulls of the children in with a mallet."
"Life in prison with no parole! Next case."
"Your honor, this woman killed her boyfriend by dropping a bowling ball on his head."
"Life in prison with no parole! Next case."
"Your honor, this young man painted some graffiti inside his school's bathroom."
"Life in prison with no parole! Next case!"
"Your honor, this woman shoplifted some bananas from a grocery store."
"Life in prison with no parole! Next case!"
"Your honor, this man went ten miles over the speed limit in a city street."
"Life in prison with no parole! Next case!"
Sounds crazy, no? Yet this is essentially the case of fundamentalist god's justice. Eternity in hell with no parole, no matter what you've done. Your only crime in life could be stealing a pack of cards from a store, and you'd be sent to hell for all eternity (while flawed and mistake-filled people who believe in Jesus get to go to God's perfect heaven, despite the fact that they are chock full of sin and far from perfect).
Doesn't that sound unnecessarily cruel? Even our system, flawed as it is, establishes guidelines and rules for how long a person should be punished. If you shoplift for example, your time of punishment will be far less then that of, say, Hitler. If you're good and work at making up for what you've done, then you can get out of prison early. Yet a perfect god lumps all crimes together and punishes then endlessly without even bothering to try and correct. One would think that a benevolent and perfect God, who's more just then we are, would have a system that ultimately heals and corrects, rather then punishes endlessly for no reason.
Therefore, we essentially come to the big question: Was Jesus wrong?
Jesus talks about hell more then heaven in the Christian bible. In the four gospel accounts you can find him talking about how people will be punished for eternity, how the wheat will be separated from the chaff, etc. Jesus, it seemed, believed in punishment after death. If we take the gospel accounts as is, Jesus believed in eternal punishment for those who did not believe. Perhaps his most famous saying in regards to this comes from his description of the day of judgment. You've no doubt heard about it, when he will gather those and say "Welcome, for I was hungry and you fed me, etc" and then he will gather everyone else and say "Depart from me because I was hungry and you did not feed me, etc."
However, have you ever noticed that this famous scene seems to value works and deeds over beliefs? Even those who believed in Jesus, yet didn't feed, clothe, and help those in need were sent to everlasting punishment. Jesus, it appears, believed more in doing good works in this account. Many theologians now believe that getting to heaven is a matter of balancing belief in Jesus and doing good works, but is it possible... just possibly... that the belief in who goes to heaven is really wrong?
Now we come to our big moment: Examining the justice of a perfect God.
For this purpose, we will assume that God is benevolent, above human frailties, that God is just and that God is better then us. These are some of the traits that are agreed upon by most religions that believe in God, and they will serve our purpose for this article.
The question of who is going to heaven and who is going to hell is one that has caused untold amounts of dread and despair over the centuries. Traditionally, you have to be a member of the right faith, do the right things, and believe in God. But let's try taking a look at it from God's point of view.
God is in heaven and wants everyone to come home. God however, will not force people to come to heaven because God will not violate man's free will. Therefore, God faces the following situation: God has to create a system that is just and fair in regards to who goes where after they die. This system has to apply to ALL the people who will ever live. It has to be a system that is above religions and above religious belief. It has to apply to the first caveman to the modern day businessman. What kind of system must God create?
Fundamentalist Christians would say that Jesus, and his sacrifice for our sins, is the answer. However, this is not correct. All those who lived before Jesus died in sin, and thus, because they cannot be forgiven (because for some strange reason, the Christian god's mercies end at death. Aren't they supposed to be everlasting?), they are doomed to hell. Some theologians believe that they will be judged according to how they lived, and how well they embodied Jesus' teachings without knowing them, but this brings up an odd paradox. It is better to live a good life without knowing of Jesus' teachings and thus get to heaven on the merit of a technicality, then to know about Jesus and risk going to hell. And even then, this system is still not perfect because belief in Jesus is mandatory in getting to heaven. Thus, if we follow this system, the overwhelming majority of all the people who have ever lived will go to hell and be with Satan forever. In this model, God gets a minuscule amount of souls to himself while Satan gets at least 90 times as many as God does. Thus, God is the loser in this competition. He looses more souls then he gets. His system of justice, through Jesus, is a complete failure in getting people to come to heaven because the overwhelming majority go to hell simply because they do not believe in Jesus. Personal merit and character are not taken into consideration.
However, there is a better method that is perfectly just in deciding who goes where, regardless of personal beliefs. What is that method? Cause and effect. For every action, there is a reaction.
Let's imagine for a moment that the spiritual world, assuming it exists, exists in layers, similar to pancakes piled up on top of each other. Each layer corresponds to the type of people in it. The very lowest layer would be people who are hateful, cruel, sadistic and mean, people who have no goodness in them. The middle layer would have people who are neither evil nor perfect. Between the middle layer and the top, we have people who are good, kind, generous and all-around nice people. At the top would be those who are overwhelmingly good, as well as God.
The way this system would work is that upon death, an individual goes to where they fit in. They would go to where they fit in with others who are exactly like them. Birds of a feather, flock together, so to speak. If you are a good, kind, and nice person, then you would have nothing to fear upon death. Even if you are an atheist, you would go to be among others who are like you in disposition and character. With this system set in place, it is perfectly just because everyone gets exactly what they have earned in regards to character and how well you have lived your life. This system ensures that everyone, no matter what time they have lived, no matter what religion they follow (if they follow one at all), has an equal chance of getting to heaven. Thus, all the good people of the world would go to a happy place, while all the mean and nasty people would go to a bad place.
Near death experiences, if you believe that they are glimpses of the spiritual world, do seem to point in this direction.
Everything in God's Super Universe is regulated by vibration, electrical current and frequency ... the higher our Soul's level of vibration and frequency, the higher and further we are able travel throughout the Divine Realms and God's Super Universe. What is interesting about the Realm is that our energy automatically brings us right to the place that either most interests us or resembles our own energy. Source
When we manifest unconditional love, our soul vibration are so high that the only place we can fit into is heaven. People don't go to heaven because of their good deeds, but because their soul vibration of spiritual love fits in and belongs there. After death, people gravitate into groups according to the rate of their soul's vibration. Birds of a feather flock together. This connection between the level of soul vibration we have in determining the level of heavenly vibration we realize after death is the same principle as putting a coin into the slot of a coin counter. The coin just naturally fits to its proper location. So it is with the soul. After death, our soul naturally fits in the level of heaven we have developed within us. In fact, while we live on earth our soul actually dwells, not only within us, but also in the spiritual realm we will find ourselves in after death. Source
If God wants to get the most number of people to heaven, God would have to create a system that applies to everyone, regardless of personal belief. A system that allows you to go where you fit in is not only more fair and just then the fundamentalist Christian idea of simply believing in Jesus, but it makes more sense. With this system of justice in place, both the Christian, the Buddhist, the atheist and the agnostic all have an equal chance of getting to heaven. It all depends on the personal character, on what's inside. With the fundamentalist mindset, only the Christian has a chance of getting to heaven. It all depends on what you believe, not personal character.
One system, Jesus, has God losing the vast majority of souls to Satan. The other system ensures that everyone has an equal chance of going to God, no matter what they believe. If God wants to be fair and just, then the system that ensures fairness and equality is the better choice.
If God is just, and if God is genuinely good, then that means that any justice God would give would eventually be healing and restorative. Thus, the individual who is in hell, according to the fundamentalist, has no hope whatsoever. But could it not be possible that God, if God is better then us and our justice, would allow individuals the chance to get out of hell (the lower levels) when they decide to make up for what they've done? God, I think, would be overjoyed when a spirit decides to take responsibility for their actions and make up for them. Therein lies the beauty of the system of cause and effect. If you decide to make up for whatever crime you have done, you will be allowed to do so. It will not be a pretty or easy process, but you would eventually succeed at making up for what you have done. That means that Hitler, even though it would probably take countless centuries, would eventually make up for what he did in life. Inevitably, he would make it to heaven when the justice is complete, and when all the hurts have been healed. Would that not be the sign of a great God, a God who can heal and bring Hitler back from hell? Such a God would be more worthy of worship then a god who simply ignores those who are suffering in hell.
Though we cannot know for certain what happens after death, we can theorize about what comes. To some, it will be endless, dreamless sleep. To others, it will simply be a continuation of life in another form. If this life in a different form does exist, then it would make sense that a perfect, benevolent, and loving God would be just, in that every person would receive what they have earned, regardless of what they believe religion wise. Such a perfect God, not needing worship, would be more interested in our character rather then our religious beliefs, in how we treat others.
The word "eternity" in the New Testament has been questioned recently, as to if it refers to, literally, eternity, or that which pertains to an age (therefore meaning that those who will be punished for eternity will really only be punished for an age). Perhaps the word "eternity" has indeed been mistranslated, and we have all had to deal with the consequences of an image of a cruel and mean God who, while perfectly loving, will throw all non-Christians into hell (or his son, who is just as mean in that regard). Perhaps Jesus did believe in punishment after death (after all, being with murders and cruel people is not fun at all), but perhaps he believed that this punishment, of being with others who are like you, would eventually come to an end, that all things would be healed, that all the hurts would be repaired for all things, not just good Christians (one can find hints of this in the bible, such as how he came to die for all men, to save all men, etc).
Perhaps Jesus believed that a benevolent and perfect God, being just, would allow everyone to receive what they have earned, and that those who got cruelty, hate, and anger would eventually be healed and brought back to goodness.
Such a God, to me, just makes more sense.