Friday, January 20, 2012

Why I am Catholic - Part 2: the possibility of eternal damnation

All of us experience pain. But at the root of our ability to endure pain is the belief that it is not permanent, or at least that its intensity will be dulled with time, or in extreme cases - that death will bring release. 

However, eternal damnation has no such hope. Its proponents posit that it is a living death, where one is always dying but never dies. While we might sneer at such a prospect, our sneering does not diminish the odds that it might be real. We really don’t know for sure, do we?

A popular argument against such a horrific eternity is “What sort of a God would make such a place and condemn people to it?” The question is understandable. Both inexplicable pain and the concept of eternal damnation have driven many to atheism or to embrace cyclical religious forms where at least the tortures are not forever. However, whether we choose atheism, Buddhism, or a version of a loving God that does not punish, the possibility of eternal torment, at least for the intelligent inquirer, is diminished not a wit. So let us examine it...just in case.

We start with the religions that teach it. While most religious systems hold to some version of a state of post-death torment, most do not hold to its being eternal, i.e. the suffering ends either with the annihilation of the soul or a release from hell after a period of purgation. 

Surprisingly there are only two religions of any consequence that universally teach the existence of a place of of post-death torment to which the damned are sent forever: Christianity and Islam.  

Of the two we will choose to examine Christianity for the following reasons: 

  1. Christianity predates Islam and there is some reason to believe that Islamic teaching relative to eternal damnation is derived in part from Christian teaching, 
  2. The Christian witness of being killed for the truth versus killing for it demands proportionately more credence, 
  3. The claims of the founders.

Point 1 is self-explanatory. Islam arose in nearly 600 years after Christianity, and in a land largely infected by a Christian heresy (Nestorianism).

As for the second point, it doesn't take much human reason to see that choosing to die for the faith, often rather cruelly, versus killing for it, is a much more difficult choice and thus is an act of faith requiring more notice.

And, while it is true that Christians may have killed in God’s name, Christianity itself teaches no such thing. Islam does. While individual Muslims may choose a spiritual interpretation of such Muhammedan directives as “slay the infidel wherever you find them” (Surah 9:5), there is no getting around the literal reality of how Muhammed himself understood it. (He slew the infidels wherever he found them.)

Let us then examine the claims of the founders. Whereas Muhammed - and the founders of every other major religion - either claimed to have heard from God or found a way to him, only one founder of a major religion every claimed to BE God: Jesus Christ. And he went to his death without changing his story.

But what about that story? Can we really know there was a Jesus Christ? Couldn’t this be a monstrous ruse? After all, what we call the New Testament was written by Christians for Christians, so of course they could have made it up. 

Plus there are no original copies of the New Testament books. All we have is copies of copies of copies and translations of translations. Couldn’t the whole thing have been concocted and perpetuated in order to enslave centuries of human beings to serve a sinister clerical empire?

In response to those who doubt the biblical account, Christian apologists often attempt to make the case for Christ from extra-biblical sources. But the historical record for the Christian Jesus is sparse, and the authenticity of what does exist - such as the account found in the writings of the first century Jewish historian, Josephus - are usually discredited as the later interpolations of zealous Christian copyists.

Christian apologists also attempt to make the historical case for Christ by first making a case for the historicity of the Gospels. The case is easy to make. Their is more evidence for the historicity of the Gospels than there is for works of similar or greater age.

Example: While few question the authorship of Plato’s Republic, Virgil’s Aeneid, or the works of Homer, there is far more evidence for the authentic authorship of the Gospels than there is for these unquestioned pillars of classical literature.

However, if such evidence would suffice then we would not have unbelievers, and yet we do. So, for our purposes, the historical evidence for Christ will need to be made from non-Christian historical sources already accepted as authentic.

Go here for Part 3.

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