Heaven and Hell

English: Punishment Monument An historic colle...
English: Punishment Monument An historic collection of punishment equipment. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As children we learn that there are consequences to everything. If we misbehave, we are punished in some ways. In earlier days we may have been smacked, but, thank goodness, those days are past. While corporal punishment has done little harm to most people who have suffered it as children, it is very very rarely justified and other options are available.

A child learns quickly that misbehaving leads to withdrawal of treats and privileges, which serves them well when they become adults and the punishments become imprisonment, restriction (like the loss of a drivers license) or the financial punishment of a fine.

English: The Prison
English: The Prison (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The other side of the coin is rewards. For children the rewards for being good are treats and privileges. For adults the rewards of a virtuous life are esteem and again privilege. A virtuous life might also bring financial rewards – you are more likely to go back to a good lawyer, or a good mechanic if he or she does a good job and you may be prepared to spend a little more to do so.

When humans first contemplated death, the obvious question is what happened to the person, his self, his personality, after death. The answer that he just stopped is disagreeable and possibly upsetting. So it was natural to conjecture a non-physical something, a “soul” which encapsulated the persons personality which in some sense continued after the person died.

English: Depiction of a soul being carried to ...
English: Depiction of a soul being carried to heaven by two angels. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some individuals claim to have had contact with souls after death, and claim to pass messages on to the living. Such “mediums” often get money or gifts in thanks or as a reward from the living relatives of the deceased person. Many so-called mediums have been discredited and proved to be merely charlatans, to the extent that to call someone a medium is tantamount to insinuating that they are a fraud.

It’s debatable whether a self-professed medium is a con artist or whether such a person is deluding themselves, but the concept of a soul is to my mind merely wishful thinking, or another name for the personality of the person, which is embedded in and part of a person’s mind. Since the mind is probably an emergent property of the brain I can’t see the soul or personality surviving the death of the brain.

English: Main regions of the vertebrate brain,...
English: Main regions of the vertebrate brain, shown for a shark and a human brain (the human brain is sliced along the midline). The two brains are not on the same scale. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nevertheless, if you allow the concept of a soul, which inhabits a body during life, what does happen to it during and after death? Does it “softly and suddenly vanish away” like a sailor who has met a Boojum? Or does it continue, either in this world or some other? There are those who have claimed to have encountered incorporeal beings or ghosts, but like the stories of mediums, these claims are dubious.

The most common claim is that souls have passed on to other worlds, to some other realm, and this is where heaven and hell come into the picture. If a person has been a good person, then his soul goes to a better place, and if he has not, then his soul goes to a place of endless punishment of a mental and physical type.

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Many people over the year have been vouchsafed visions of both heaven and hell. Such visions are often weird and look to me more like the utterances of someone who is not completely sane, but the thing that strikes me is that they are all intensely physical – the sinner is thrown into a fiery pit for all time, and good person gets to consort with heavenly virgins or to worship the deity while being in his presence and partaking in his glory.

We know the physical because we live in it. We are it, in some senses. It seems to me that those with visions, even those whose visions are a result of their inner mental issues, can only talk of heaven and hell is physical terms. It is impossible for us to consider a world that is not physical. The very concepts of heaven and hell are concepts of places and places are physical.

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If, for the sake of discussion, we assume the visions are of something real, then if these visions represent something they are interpretations of something so different from out physical being that they must be severely distorted and much will have been lost in the translation. I myself don’t think that they represent anything more than the scrambled thoughts of a probably mentally sick person.

However that hasn’t stopped people building on the earlier visions of others. What happens to someone who dies? In the Christian tradition, if they are good they are allowed entry to heaven, and into the presence of the Deity and to worship Him. There is a certain blandness to this vision, and presumably the presence of the Deity makes up for this.

Pandemonium - One out of a set of mezzotints w...
Pandemonium – One out of a set of mezzotints with the same title (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Those who are sinners (that is, pretty much everyone!) is sent to hell. Eternal fire and so on. Now things get complicated. Pretty much everyone has sinned at some time, so everyone is going to burn in eternal fire. Theologians (alone with their private damning thoughts) came up with a number of issues. What about those innocent who died before having a chance to sin but had not been accepted into the Church? The theologians came up with the concept of Limbo, where these children, mainly those that died in the womb, can reside.

There are other complications, but probably the most famous complex description of hell comes from the Dante’s “Divine Comedy“. The hell contained in the work has nine circles and is a complex system within those. Dante’s Purgatory and Paradise are similarly complicated.

Frontispiece to Purgatory by Dante
Frontispiece to Purgatory by Dante (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All these visions of the afterlife are enthralling and entertaining it is true, but (seeing as no one has verifiably been there and returned), surely there contradictions embedded in the concepts of heaven and hell as found in religious and other literature.

It seems to me that the idea of heaven and hell as places which have a physical nature cannot be true. Dante’s heaven and hell for example, has physical attributes like distance and extent. Things are nearby or over there. Time also passes which allow the narrative development of course.

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However, distance and time are attributes of the physical world, and while scientists have postulated other worlds, the worlds that they postulate are very similar to the world that we experience. Heaven and hell, and any other layers of the afterlife, are conceptually in a different realm, and I can’t see why such a different realm would have anything recognisable as physics.

The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1480-1505) ...
The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1480-1505) by Hieronymus Bosch. Oil on wood triptych, 220 cm x 389 cm, now in the Museo del Prado. High-resolution version from The Prado in Google Earth. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
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