Heaven and Hell (Part 3)

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Growing up with the idea of heaven was not as easy for me as one might think. There were many times I wished my life would just end; for me to go to sleep and not wake up. There were many times I prayed for God to just take me home. I do not remember clearly now the reason for such thoughts, but I remember having them from time to time as a teenager all the way to my twenties.

I am not suicidal. I have never seriously or actually attempted ending my life, though I do remember entertaining the thought and trying to decide which method would be fastest and most pain-free. At the lowest points in my life when I wanted to die, I wondered why most people, especially Christians, seemed afraid to die and clung on to life. Why would they endure the heavy cost of hospitalizations and being hooked up to this and that machine? Why delay the inevitable? Why not instead by joyful and excited to go to heaven and be with God?

There were early groups of Christians who thought this way, most notably the Donatists, a 4th century sect that went against the priests and bishops, believing their authority to be invalid and therefore refusing to be subjugated by them. They were politically active, stirring up violence and protests in the street against the creeping hold of Roman authority in the church. Even when most of the Christian world came to accept the emperor Constantine as a leader of the church, the Donatists saw him as the devil incarnate.

Donatists also thought that suicide, in the name of their cause, would make them martyrs and thus guarantee their place in heaven. This line of thinking is eerily familiar when one reads of the motivation of Japanese kamikaze pilots in World War 2 (redemption, payment for debts in this life, honor) and of suicide bombers who are promised heavenly comforts (the famed reward of 72 virgins) as well as earthly securities for the loved ones they would leave behind.

It is not difficult to see that this was a dangerous train of thought. In the 5th century CE, Augustine of Hippo (later canonized as a saint) condemned suicide as a violation of the fifth commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” explaining that the prohibition included the killing of one’s self and not just others.

By the 6th century, suicide had become a secular crime as well, which is not surprising knowing how tightly intertwined religion and government were at that time. Even those found attempting suicide were in grave danger of excommunication and all the social consequences that entailed. Those who died by suicide were forbidden Christian burials on “consecrated” ground, and denied ecclesiastical rights, which was a sure way into hell.

In the Catholic tradition, it is possible for a person to die with unconfessed sins. If they die with unconfessed venial sins (like lying, petty theft, and the like), they undergo a cleansing process in purgatory to be “purged” from these sins. If they die with unconfessed mortal sins (like murder, suicide, divorce, and even masturbation and participation in Freemasonry), then they are in very real danger of going to hell.

In the Protestant tradition, however, there is the belief that when one accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior, one is cleansed from all sin — past, present and future — and so one is now under the grace of God. The bible passage often quoted is Romans 8 which begins with saying that there is “no condemnation” for those who are in Jesus and ends with a grand statement that nothing, no powers, angels, demons, nor life nor death can separate a person from God’s love.

It is interesting to note though, that despite this, I have heard sermons or teachings from certain pastors (especially the more legalistic ones) that suicide is an unforgivable sin pointing to Jesus’ reference to an “unforgivable sin” in Matthew 12:31-32: “Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.”

The argument is that a Christian’s body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19) and so to commit the ultimate sin against one’s body by killing it is a “blasphemy against the Spirit.”

Nevertheless, in my experience, very few people today are willing to take a firm stand on who goes to heaven and hell. Even when I express my atheism to Christians, when I ask them point-blank, so do you think I’m going to hell? Very few would give me a straight yes or no answer and would be very roundabout in their responses, but mostly along the lines of “Who am I to judge? God will decide.”

 

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

 

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3 thoughts on “Heaven and Hell (Part 3)”

  1. blas·phe·my
    ˈblasfəmē/
    noun
    noun: blasphemy; plural noun: blasphemies
    the act or offense of speaking sacrilegiously about God or sacred things; profane talk.

    Most of the discussion of the unforgiveable sin being suicide that I have heard comes from the Catholic tradition because, in the Catholic tradition, Jesus’ death on the cross only atones for original sin and not all sins. Every other religion is works based. Biblical Christianity is faith based. Catholicism is the only religion that I am aware of that is faith and works based. In that sense, since you have to ask a priest for forgiveness of your sins, you can’t really ask for forgiveness if you are dead.

    To follow the argument of the Christian’s body being a temple of the Holy Spirit, ignoring that blasphemy is about speaking (and, by implication, thinking), you have to assume (we all know what happens then) that a temple and the Holy Spirit are the same thing. Hopefully, this erroneous thinking does not need to be played out anymore. Even if it was somehow right, than any killing, especially of a Christian (since they would also be temples of the Holy Spirit), would be an unforgivable sin.

    As far as telling people if I think they are going to go to hell, I believe the most proper response is, “Where do you want to go? Why?” If you tell me you are an atheist, and want to know if I think you are going to hell, what would the answer have been when you were professing to be a Christian? What will happen to you between now and the time you die? You may think it is a roundabout answer, but it is a question along the lines of “when did you stop beating your wife?” or “what number am I thinking of now?”

  2. //Most of the discussion of the unforgiveable sin being suicide that I have heard comes from the Catholic tradition…//

    Well, that is your experience. As far as I am concerned, I have heard this argument in my former church as well — in Bible studies, and even from the pulpit.

    //I believe the most proper response is, “Where do you want to go? Why?”//

    What? Why?

    //You may think it is a roundabout answer, but it is a question along the lines of “when did you stop beating your wife?” or “what number am I thinking of now?”//

    I do think it is a roundabout answer and I don’t understand the point you are trying to make with the comparison to the last 2 questions.

    If a Christian really had 100% belief in his doctrine, then I don’t see why he would have any qualms about telling me I’m definitely going to hell.

    Tangential question: Have you ever thought that referring to your own belief system as “Biblical Christianity” sounds a tad arrogant? It’s not as if other Christianities like Roman Catholicism don’t use the Bible as their basis, and I know of a few Catholic theologians who would gladly challenge your right to use that self-indulgent reference.

  3. /I believe the most proper response is, “Where do you want to go? Why?”//

    What? Why?

    Because I believe that people make that choice. If they want to spend eternity with God, they will. If they don’t, they won’t.

    I do think it is a roundabout answer and I don’t understand the point you are trying to make with the comparison to the last 2 questions.

    The reason that I compare it with the last two questions is because the beating the wife question is framed expecting a certain type of answer. If you have never beaten your wife, it maybe correct, but does not answer the question, therefore the question is unanswerable the way the question is phrased since the truth does not correspond to the question. Since I cannot see into the future (or into anyone’s heart), the second question demonstrates this quality in your question.

    If a Christian really had 100% belief in his doctrine, then I don’t see why he would have any qualms about telling me I’m definitely going to hell.

    I can’t imagine a Christian who has 100% belief in his doctrine. I do not. I believe I have 100% in His doctrine, and my limited, finite mind cannot comprehend all of His. Also, a Christian presumably believes in the Bible, which (in one of the most abused passages by non-Christians) tells us not to judge others. This speaks to the very heart of that passage.

    Tangential question:

    Why does that sound a tad arrogant? It is not intended that way. In every day life, I see people who say they are Christians (or any other religion) but do not believe in Christ (or the other leading figure of their religion), people who have a pot luck approach to their sacred writings, and so on and so forth. The term is simply meant to describe people who believe the Bible. See the many debates, especially between protestants and catholics regarding sola scriptura.

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