I make no bones about the fact that I'm an atheist. It was not always so. I was raised in a devout Roman Catholic home. But my thoughts about Hell probably made me take my first step towards atheism.
When I was 11 years old, I spent a good part of every Sunday morning and Wednesday afternoon studying the Baltimore Catechism for my upcoming Confirmation. For those unfamiliar with Confirmation, it is one of Catholicism's seven sacraments, and is analogous to a Jewish bar mitzvah -- it celebrates the coming into adulthood of a young Catholic. At Confirmation you are asked questions from the catechism about the Catholic faith by the bishop or archbishop who presides over the district (called a diocese) in which your church functions. Once confirmed, you have reached the "age of reason" and are now fully responsible for the state of your immortal soul. It also means that you are now capable of committing a Mortal Sin -- the kind of sin which, if left unconfessed and unforgiven, means that you will go to Hell when you die.
So to get through confirmation, I studied and memorized the answers to questions that began as quite simple -- "Who made me? God made me." -- and evolved into more detailed and complex questions and answers. Which you had better know cold when the bishop calls on you to see if you deserve to be confirmed.
I remember having my first misgivings about Hell in that catechism class. I told our instructor, Sister Virginia, that I was having some problems with the whole idea of mortal sin and how committing one would land me in Hell forever. I was quite logical about it all, I think. If God was immortal, and omniscient, and all-powerful, why does he need his own personal torture chamber? Why would I be condemned to such a place forever if I committed such a sin and then died before I could make it to a confessional? Why would a sin committed in the span of less than a blink of an eye to God have to be punished for all eternity??? It made no sense. To a being Who had always been and always would be, our lives must seem terribly fleeting, mere momentary flashes of light in the dark. Why, then, is the disposition of our entire immortal existence -- our souls are supposed to be immortal, after all -- why is that decided by what happens in the blink that is our lives on Earth?
And why can there be no possibility of forgiveness or reprieve once our bodies die? I was already having trouble reconciling the angry, jealous God of the Old Testament with the gentler God of the New Testament -- the one I thought of as "Jesus' Dad." Why is the first of the Ten Commandments not something like the Golden Rule, but "I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt have no other gods before me?" Clearly, this is the most important thing of all to God -- He put it first on His list! But it has nothing to do with living a good or an ethical life, it's just an admonition to stay away from any other temple but Yahweh's. Jesus is all, "suffer the little children to come to me," and "my Father's house has many rooms." But God in the Old Testament is turning people into salt for sneaking a peek over their shoulder. And He's ordering the Israelites to go to Midian and kill everybody, including livestock -- except of course for the young, virginal, female children who are to be kept as slaves and given to the Israelite men. And He's telling Moses that no, he can't come into the Promised Land after all because he banged twice on a rock for water instead of once.
I mean, really -- what is wrong with Him?
In time-honored Catholic tradition, Sister Virginia's response to my questions was to whack me across the knuckles with a ruler. I am not making this up.
So I guess it makes sense that Someone with that big of a personality disorder would build a place like Hell, a place which exists for no other reason except to torment and torture those who did not obey the rules and accept Jesus as the Messiah.
Frankly, I can't believe that we are even having this sort of discussion in the 21st Century. Why are we arguing over whether or not Hell is a "real place" when what we should be doing is ensuring that all people live together in peace and respect for one another, living according to the universally accepted tenet of "Do nothing to another that you would not have done to you."
Really, if everybody just applied that simple philosophy to their lives, we could have, you should pardon the expression, Heaven right here on Earth.
So to clarify -- I don't believe in Hell as a real and actual place. I don't believe in any god, much less one whose religion teaches that we are born into original sin, and can only be saved from eternal torture by following His rules. Because if you don't, there's no chance of forgiveness, reprieve or parole from Hell. Not from this loving All-Father, anyway. (That's why I like Odin. If I had to pick a God, I'd pick one who at least had a sense of humor. But I digress.) In point of fact, I believe in no kind of afterlife whatsoever, certainly not Pearly Gates and harps and halos for the good and lakes of fire for the wicked. I think that just like a dog or a squirrel or an oak or a dandelion, when I'm gone, I'm gone -- so I had better make the absolute most of my time while I have it. I should try to live a life in kindness and spend it bettering myself and others where possible, and doing as little harm to others as I can -- in short, to treat the rest of the world the way I would hope and wish to be treated by them myself.
So if the Baptists want to debate Hell, it's their time to waste, I guess. I'll settle for a good book, or a good deed, or good times with the people I love.
Everybody else can ... well, you know.