The Answers that Atheists Hope No One Has? (Chapter Nine)
Is this mortal life we live all that there is to our existence? When we shut our eyes for the last time will our consciousness, will our “souls” continue on to some other realm or plane of existence? Or are we the brief flickers of flame in the darkness that we appear to be? Is there any hope of an afterlife and more specifically of a Heaven and a Hell? Do the villains and wicked men and women of our world meet their maker only to be cast into a pit of fire? And do the righteous and those under the protection of divine grace truly live again in Paradise?
It is this question, the reality of Heaven and Hell, that is the focus of Chapter Nine of Mark Mittelberg's The Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask (With Answers). He hopes to shed some light on why so many Christians have an extreme sense of hope about their future heavenly home and have such an impetus to evangelize so that their fellow humans do not end up in Hell. Could it be there is compelling reason to think that something lies beyond this life, something governed not just by any God but by the God of the Bible? Mark seems to think so.
So without further ado we will dig into chapter nine! As always I will be reviewing and arguing from my perspective as a skeptic, an atheist and a former Christian. Excerpts used from the book fall under Fair Use as they are used expressly for criticism and critique. The rights to said excerpts belong to Mark Mittelberg and Tyndale House Publishers.
Disclaimer: This one may get dark as we are going to have to delve into the realm of people being burned alive for eternity. Reader discretion is advised.
Mark begins with an anecdotal account of a good friend of his family nicknamed Auntie Marie who believed that she was going to Heaven after she died. Mark believes what Marie believed, that there is an afterlife, a better place where the faithful can go and rest and be at peace for all eternity. In fact apparently as her death approached Marie couldn't stop talking about this place and was actually looking forward to her death.
Outside Looking In
From my perspective on the outside there is no clearer a portrait painted of the delusional nature of certain religious beliefs than this. Here is a woman being celebrated for looking at death as a graduation ceremony rather than looking at it for the sobering reality it is. I say that not as someone claiming to know the secrets of death or pretending to know whether there is or is not an afterlife but as someone who sees no reason to delude myself regarding the nature of death by pretending I'm going to a big graduation party in the sky. That sort of childish conception is, to put it bluntly, delusional, and I make no apologies about saying that.
Perhaps my attitude on this subject makes me a bit of a dick but as I said in previous installments I don't want to pull any punches here and as this hub continues I hope you the reader will understand why I hold the position I hold regarding the Christian conception of Heaven. All we know about Marie, from an empirical standpoint, is that she's dead. As near as we can tell that physical death is all there is as no evidence of any immaterial world beyond has ever been cataloged, observed, or presented. To look down at a lifeless body and tell ourselves that that person is alive elsewhere and living it up may be comforting, it may be commonplace, but that doesn't mean it isn't delusional.
So Marie is a textbook example of the Christian hope of Heaven, of someone who longs for paradise and wants nothing more than to rest after a life well lived. In and of itself there is nothing wrong with this sentiment, nothing immoral or inherently illogical in wanting there to be a Heaven, an idyllic eternity beyond this rocky roller coaster of a life. But is there any evidence? Is there any reason to believe that it's actually true? Apparently Christians aren't sure how to answer that question.
A Lack of Material Evidence
The first issue that Mark brings up is the question of the material or immaterial nature of the soul. Mark understands that attempts to document the existence of the soul by looking for detectable empirical evidence is probably a dead-end because of science working from a place of naturalism and materialism. The soul, Mark argues, and Heaven and Hell themselves, are not part of the material world that we are familiar with in our everyday lives.
Skepticism and Dualism
My first complaint here is his dismissal of these experiments on the grounds that they do not conform to Christian theology as if the Christian notion of some spiritual essence or soul is obviously true and other concepts that might yield results aren't worth investigating. It almost seems as if he's almost claiming the lack of evidence helps prove the Christian perspective on the soul, using lack of proof as proof – but perhaps that is not his intention, it's hard to say.
Mark readily admits that there shouldn't be evidence and isn't any evidence for the soul or Heaven and Hell, though I'm not sure that admission is intentional, when he says they are immaterial. The word immaterial and the idea of substance dualism, of there being some element of soul or mind that is beyond the material, is an ill-defined and completely hypothetical notion. It is also an unproven assertion upon which claims of a Christian afterlife stand or fall.
As far as I'm concerned if there is no detectable demonstrable effect on external reality how can it possibly be reasonable to believe in the phenomenon? In other words how does it make sense to have a CAUSE with no EFFECT, a PHENOMENON with no manifestation in the real physical world? In other words if the immaterial has some manifestation in our material world that manifestation SHOULD be detectable through testing, observation or experimentation. The complete and total lack of empirical data on the supernatural is not just cause for doubt but rational justification for disbelief.
Mark acknowledges that the lack of evidence is a problem but I can't help but feel that this is where the faithful, like Mark, and the faithless, like myself, diverge completely. As a human being who is destined to one day die I would very much like there to be an afterlife of some kind, maybe not a Christian one, but some kind of post-death continuation of consciousness.
Like most living self-aware beings who can contemplate death I don't enjoy the idea of my own demise and I especially don't enjoy the idea that if I live into old age I will watch friends and family drop dead around me before my time finally comes. Mortality is indeed an inescapable reality. But as a skeptic I also prefer to coordinate my personal beliefs with the evidence at hand and the most reliable form of evidence available to us currently is the empirical scientific variety.
The lack of such evidence for the existence of an afterlife, by itself, makes disbelief the default position for a skeptic no matter how much I want there to be some great beyond to cross over into. Skepticism requires that our personal desire to believe be countered.
Mark Understands Doubters?
Mark shows some signs of understanding those who doubt the afterlife in a section called 'Making the Case' when he asks the reader to answer why they believe in an afterlife. Most, if not all, were taught about the afterlife from an early age and just never really questioned it or saw a reason to disbelieve. Mark asks his readers to then flip the situation around and imagine if that was the answer the atheist gave them. Imagine if they just replied that they had always rejected the afterlife and have never really given any serious thought as to why. Mittelberg understands that this is an unsatisfying answer, to simply reply that you've always believed/disbelieved without giving justification.
So Mark does seem to “get it” at least to some degree, he understands that there is a need for Christians to provide actual reasons to justify their beliefs if they hope to convert doubters and disbelievers.
The Prevalence of Belief
Mark's first attempt to establish the likely reality of Heaven and Hell is by explaining that most cultures and religions throughout the ages espoused some sort of afterlife belief. The afterlife is an almost universal human longing which Mark says may stem from God himself implanting this belief in us. Mark admits, wisely, that this is not evidence by itself because there are so many different versions of eternity that different cultures have dreamed up.
Somehow though Mark still assumes that the prevalence of these beliefs points to an external reality. Could we not use the same logic to say that the division of these beliefs, the fact that every persons eternity is different, is evidence that there is no reality to these claims at all?
After all even among Christians the conception of the afterlife (and God for that matter) varies wildly. You can even find differing beliefs in the same pew in a single church. Some see Hell as Separation from God and see the burning and brimstone as mere metaphoric language for how bad it is to be apart from God. Others are annihilationists who see eternal Hell as far too wicked a thing for a loving God and propose, instead, that sinners are burnt in Hell for but a moment and then cease to be. Some think heaven and hell are already waiting for them while others hold that only after the final judgment at the end of days will the actual heaven and hell open their doors.
All Mark has here is evidence that wishful thinking is a universal human trait, that we're all capable of imagining a better world and a better tomorrow, even beyond death.
Near Death Experiences
Now before I read this chapter I had a feeling that Mark would rely quite heavily on the reports of Near Death Experiences, or NDEs as they are often referred to as. Surprisingly his section on them is exceedingly short and doesn't amount to much. He argues that they are important but doesn't go into why or how they confirm exclusively Christian beliefs. It is actually somewhat refreshing that rather than rely on these accounts Mark barely touches on them although I have to wonder about why he doesn't stake more of a claim to them. Perhaps he has heard of the non-Christian NDEs out there that contradict the afterlife he is arguing for?
NDEs do not always conform to Christian beliefs nor are experiences of Heaven or paradisaical realms exclusive to Christian NDEs. Much like the hallucinations caused by LSD or hallucinogenic mushrooms – which can often produce an experience of love and 'oneness with the Cosmos' – NDEs appear to be the dying brain awash in chemicals hallucinating. There is absolutely no evidence that NDEs are legitimately supernatural in origin. The fact that Hindus have Hindu NDEs while Christians have Christian NDEs suggests that what is happening has its origin in the brain of the individual rather than in any REAL spiritual realm beyond time and space.
That's not to say that no afterlife exists at all nor is it to discredit one or another version of the afterlife, but it does suggest that NDEs cannot be used as evidence that the afterlife actually exists. There are some elements that NDEs tend to have in common, such as a bright light, a tunnel, and a feeling of peace and while more research is needed it may actually be the case that NDEs are the reason belief in the afterlife is almost universal.
Human ancestors in ancient times experiencing such things may have told stories of these experiences and combined them with a primitive form of animism to create the first religions. A quirk of brain chemistry may actually be the source of one of mankind's most prevalent superstitions! But as I say, much more research is needed into the subject, either way NDEs do not prove or disprove Mark's version of the afterlife.
Ultimate Justice League
Mark touches on the human desire for fairness and justice and the idea that a higher power could give us what we crave, an ultimate end to evil and a reward for those who choose good. The problem is that Mark's God is not just and good and that the system of salvation he proposes is not based on being a good person but is based on submission to God and an act of human sacrifice.
I will elaborate more on this later when Mark gets into his argument from the Biblical perspective but for now all I will say is that the Universe we live in is under no obligation to provide cosmic justice to us. The belief that some form of karma or cosmic judgment exist is not evidence that an afterlife exists. The universality of a human superstition is meaningless unless some evidence justifying that superstition can be presented. If there is no foundation in reality, no manifestation of this principle, no fulfillment of this 'divine promise' of final judgment why should anyone believe that it is real?
Christians have been waiting for 2,000 years for Christ to return and judge the living and the dead and for thousands of years before that the Jews waited for their Messiah (as far as they are concerned they are still waiting) and before that the human species lived on this earth for one hundred thousand years and then some. And all this time there has been no divine justice. Not from the gods of today and not from the gods of 10,000 years ago or the gods that preceded them, ad infinitum. I hate to say it, Mark, but justice from on high appears to be a pipe dream.
But I suppose it feels better for those alive if they believe that Hitler is burning in Hell while their favorite grandparent is living in lavish style in a gilded mansion on the highest hill in the nicest neighborhood in Heaven. It feels right. Justice and fairness and an afterlife FEEL right, we long for them, and that is ultimately the best argument Mark has.
Battle Beyond the Stars
Mark begins his next segment digging into what I believe is the best argument he makes in this entire chapter, the idea that human beings just know, or feel, deep down, that they don't belong here. Human beings look up at the night sky, at the wonders of the Cosmos, and they have a sense that their destiny is greater and their purpose more grandiose than to simply die on this miserable little space rock. He quotes CS Lewis:
Lewis is considered quite the titan among a great many Christians and this is not the first time that Mark has quoted him. While probably the best AUTHOR in terms of writing and style Lewis' arguments aren't any better or more profound than most modern apologists. Lewis may be able to turn a phrase more poetically than Mark Mittelberg but his arguments aren't really any better or worse. Here we have a quote that shows off the best argument for the afterlife, that it is something universally pined after and hoped for by almost all human beings.
The problem with this is that it's fanciful nonsense of the highest order that ignores the very important fact that the Heaven everyone longs for is different.
A Nice Place to Visit
To illustrate my point I want to introduce all of you to one of my favorite Twilight Zone Episodes. A Nice Place to Visit begins with a small time crook being shot while fleeing, and shooting back at, police. After he dies he awakens in a paradisaical afterlife where a man who he assumes is an angel grants his every wish. The crook then spends his time gambling, sleeping with beautiful women and enjoying every comfort or pleasure he could ever imagine. Every wish he has is granted and every gambling game he plays let's him win.
Quickly he grows bored of Heaven. He tires of the constant attention from women who are conjured up just for his delight. But most of all he is sick of there being no risk, no one to fight with and nothing to fight for. There is no chance of getting caught. He lived his life as a criminal for the thrill, the adrenaline of planning a burglary or a heist and almost getting caught. His end by the bullet from a policeman's gun was a fitting one, one that he deserved, almost wanted.
In this artificial world created for his pleasure he is going crazy. His guardian “angel” even offers to create a scenario where he does have a percentage chance to lose but the man rejects the artificial nature of that scenario. If it's not legitimate – if he can crank up or crank down the difficulty at any time with a mere wish – than it isn't real and it isn't worth while.
The criminal ends up miserable and in desperation he insists that some mistake has been made. He was a no good crook he doesn't deserve to be in Heaven, he begs his “angel” to be sent to the “other place”. He belongs in Hell, not in Heaven with beautiful dames and all the money he can spend. The angel then reveals that all along he has been in Hell, not Heaven, and that this is his punishment, to be trapped in a world without real risk, without reward, without end.
The moral of the story is that each man's Heaven and Hell are totally different. While some might think money and women are the ideal paradise this man, this two-bit criminal, found the meaning of his life was in the the chase, the pursuit, the almost-getting-caught. For him getting everything he wished for is a punishment, not a reward, and thus his Hell is to have his every whim catered to carefully, to the letter, with no escape.
What is the paradise that CS Lewis longs for? What other world and far off place was he made for? His words reveal the wishful nature of such beliefs and ultimately the hollowness of promises of paradise. After all even the wicked have their own concept of Heaven. Even the two-bit crooks, the rapists, the murderers and the thieves have their own idea of what Heaven and Hell are like. Can any religion promise such tailor made punishments and rewards? Christianity certainly doesn't. And even if they did would that make any of it likely to be true? Simply because someone promises it? Someone pines for it? Gimme a break!
Christian Happiness = Proof of Heaven?
Mark goes into Dinesh D'Souza's book Life After Death: The Evidence to talk about how those who believe in some sort of afterlife, particularly Christians, tend to be depressed less and live longer. Belief in heaven, it would seem, may have demonstrable health benefits. Now personally I don't trust anything D'Souza says. D'Souza is a dishonest asshole and ideologue. You may recall in earlier chapters that he laid the deeds of Nazis and Communists squarely at the feet of atheism as if atheism is a ideology rather than a position on belief in god (despite Hitler's Catholic faith and insistence that he was doing the will of God).
But let's pretend for a moment that it's just Mark reporting these stats. I trust Mark far more so than I trust D'Souza. As far as I can tell Mark has not been willfully dishonest, unless you count him quoting D'Souza about the Nazi atheist thing. Let's pretend that Christians tend to be healthier and live longer than atheists. So what?
This book, as far as I know, is not about hidden health benefits of religious faith. Even pretending for a moment that correlation = causation and there are genuine health benefits to faith I fail to see how this establishes the objective reality of an afterlife. There is no reason why a false belief can lead to some good outcomes or why a true belief might leave someone more open to depression. In fact in the case of the afterlife it's kind of a no-brainer.
The knowledge that I will one day die might, indeed, be depressing, and the belief that death is not the end and I will see all my loved ones and live in perfect bliss for eternity may alleviate fear or anxiety about that death to an extent. But again that has no bearing on whether or not the belief is ACTUALLY true or not. As scary or depressing as death might be without an afterlife I nevertheless, as a skeptic, try to match my beliefs to reality as best I can and I see no reason to believe in an afterlife.
Christians are happier so therefore afterlife? Not buying it Mark.
Some Candid Thoughts on Heaven and Hell
So before we get into the Bible and Jesus portion of the chapter I want to go deeper into what I mean by everyone's Heaven and Hell being totally different by explaining my own experience with both the fear of death and the fear of eternity. When I was a teenager growing up I went to a Pentecostal church, I was an Old Earth Creationist and I believed in heaven and hell. I was terrified of Hell because in my branch of Christianity the risk was always there to end up in Hell even for Christians.
The way I was taught it if you sinned and failed to repent of that sin and Jesus came back or you died with that sin and hadn't prayed about it you went to Hell no questions asked. Salvation wasn't some permanent band-aid. And worst of all there was a lot of confusion as a teenager about what counted as sin. Sexual fantasies? Masturbation? Violent video games? Swear words? Dirty jokes? You know, the kind of things that are totally normal for teenage boys to spend their time on. But all of them made me feel guilty, all of them made me feel “back-slidden” and I spent time in fear and constant repentance that I was going to go to Hell.
The branch of Christianity I was in made simple natural things that the teenage brain does, like fantasies about classmates, into sins, thought crimes. Lust in your heart, Jesus was against that, how dare you do a double-take at that girls ass, prepare to burn for eternity!
And to make matters worse the older I got the less interesting and more frightening Heaven sounded. I was beginning to learn that in order to truly appreciate the good things in life you had to experience bad things. You either had to struggle to get where you were or suffer in some way if the joys of life were going to truly effect you at all.
So how in the world was I going to spend billions of years, trillions, septillions, an eternity? What was I going to do for all that time? And there would never be an end – never – an end wasn't even an OPTION. There was no choice in it, you either bow and sing and enjoy Heaven for eternity or you burn and languish and ache in Hell for eternity. You have no choice to opt out of living forever.
The madness of attempting to imagine forever really fucked with me but it didn't seem anymore comforting to imagine the alternative of genuinely being dead and gone. In fact it seemed quite impossible to imagine non-existence at all and that made my teenage brain hurt even worse. So during my 'spiritual journey' I rejected both the idea of no afterlife and the Christian concept. I couldn't see myself bowing before God, the monster who was burning members of my family and friends in Hell, for eternity and being forced into subservience and FORCED HAPPINESS FOR ETERNITY didn't sound like heaven at all.
Much like the character in the Twilight Zone I didn't want an eternity that was all easy and all joy. I wanted discovery, struggle, strife and even occasionally sadness. I also didn't want to maintain the same stream of consciousness throughout eternity, surely that would lead to madness. So eventually, while a pantheist, I settled on reincarnation. And that belief, in reincarnation, comforted me for a while. It was an afterlife that allowed for self-improvement but it also allowed you to become a totally new you while your core essence remained the same.
What would Heaven be for me today? Probably to explore the Universe in a TARDIS, to have all of time and space at my disposal and to live for thousands of years as a Time Lord like on the show Doctor Who. Exploring, discovery and exploration would be elements of Heaven to me, the chance to meet new people, new species, to see the stars but to still experience the breadth and depth of emotion, from sadness and loss to triumph and love.
I can't imagine happiness having any meaning if it were mandatory and every Christian description of Heaven sounds like a cult prison compound of sycophants bowing before a dictator on a throne. Even as a Christian it never appealed to me all that much and it frightened me almost as much as the concept of Hell did. And yet this eternal prison sentence with forced happiness in Heaven is talked about as if it gives your life more meaning and purpose – yet surely it is the brevity and scarcity of life, the joy of discovery the wonders of love and yes even sorrow and loss that give life it's value and meaning.
But for all the emotions about the afterlife, for all the longing, and the wishes that there be something more to life, there isn't any evidence. Perhaps my skepticism prevents me from the extra happiness and extra longevity that Mark and D'Souza say believers enjoy but that is no reason for me to convince myself of something I do not believe to be true. To do so would be to lie to myself just so that I feel better and that is an action bereft of any intellectual merit or rational justification.
I doubt anything will greet me on the other side of death and all the wishful thinking in the world, all the empty faith and self-deception, are never going to make the afterlife real. If Christians really want to prove to doubters that Heaven and Hell are real they are going to need actual evidence, not Bible verses and vague anecdotes about people who were floating above their hospital bed listening to nurses and doctors talk.
I have moved beyond both hope of Heaven and fear of Hell and judgment from on high but I understand why doing so is hard for many Christians especially those taught from a young age to fear Hell and hope for Heaven. For Mark it is even more difficult because he is not only mentally and emotionally tied up in this religion he is financially tied up and socially tied up. For a man like Mark to have serious doubts about his faith now could bring with it serious consequences.
I'm not just talking about the horrors of Hell that Mark might believe he could be in danger of if he let's even the most reasonable of doubts find purchase in his mind. I also mean social consequences, a broken marriage, estranged children. And financial consequences. No more speaking tours or book signings or seminars or sermons, Mark faces negative consequences on all sides if he begins to question Christianity.
I too struggled with that fear when I was younger and doubting, though not the financial side obviously there were friends I feared losing and that's not to mention what reaction my parents might have had. And what of God? Was I betraying him? Was I in danger of hellfire? Even as I read and investigated and applied my skepticism more thoroughly to get at the actual truth I feared that any day Jesus might return or might grow fed up and simply smite me and of course that in the end even if I survived I might face Hell for eternity.
Merely for the act of doubting, of thinking for myself, of trying to get at the honest truth. For Mark and for millions of Christians fear of Hell and hope of Heaven don't just serve as beliefs about the fate of mankind they serve as insurance that they will remain steadfast in their faith lest they be destroyed in the fire.
Jesus Christ - Authority Figure
Mark says at the end of the day the divine authority of Jesus is the best argument that Christians can make in favor of the existence of Heaven and Hell. The non-sequiturs abound in this section but we'll start with the obvious – even if we accept Jesus is a real historical person who was also really God's divine son how does this in any way establish his honesty? The assumption that God cannot or would not lie seems to me utterly unfounded and intellectually indefensible. Even if Jesus is the son of God does that mean he is immune to making mistakes or just outright deceiving humanity? His benevolence is simply assumed for no good reason.
In fact I would argue that, with the Bible as our primary evidence for the character of both Jesus and Yahweh, that there is ample reason to conclude that God is not benevolent in the slightest and not at all adverse to lies, deception and all manner of evil. Even if we grant Mark the reliability of Jesus and the Bible we are left with a portrait of God that is not at all favorable. And the doctrine of Hell, which starts with Jesus, should be the ultimate nail in the coffin of the notion that this God is inevitable.
It is the presumably meek and mild Jesus, the humble suffering servant of the book of Isaiah, who introduces us to the concept of Hell.
Mark's argument for the afterlife, which is reliant on Jesus, is a clear argument for the malevolence of Yahweh and Jesus. He lists verse after verse about the reality of Hell as put forward by Jesus feeding it to the reader as a clear and sobering teaching that proves that Hell is real. After all would Jesus make things like this up? Given that we don't know whether or not Jesus himself and/or what he said and did was made up I don't know where he gets the confidence to just declare the divine authority and benevolence of a guy who is talking about burning most of humanity for eternity.
The torturous depictions of Hell, both in the Bible and in artwork throughout the centuries, serves to reinforce Christian fear about Hell when really it should annihilate the illusion that the thing they serve is some beneficent spirit of mercy and grace and not a horrifying monster ruling with an iron fist.
Mark acknowledges that establishing the reliability of the Bible and Jesus is an important step in using this Christ centric argument about Heaven and Hell on non-believers but he seems to miss out on the fact that even if we accept the Bible and Jesus as supernatural and divine we are left with an evil God.
Internal to the Cult
Mark has failed to establish the Bible as any sort of reliable account of any sort of history and he did an even worse job, in my opinion, at trying to establish the divinity of Jesus. Keep in mind that Mark's argument for Jesus boiled down to the fact that Jesus was crucified and buried, that Jesus body went missing from the tomb never to be found and that the disciples all reported seeing him and presumably went to their graves believing Jesus had risen from his.
His beliefs are based on hearsay. Stories passed down by people who already believed, edited, translated, re-edited and re-translated and changed over the course of hundreds of years. He insists that these stories are authoritative historical accounts of actual miracles that took place. Stories that recount an actual incarnation of a supernatural creator that fine-tuned a Universe with trillions of galaxies just for us and then somehow without a sperm cell or a Y chromosome this God impregnated a jailbait married virgin girl in the first century so that he could later torture her/his offspring to death in an ancient ritual of blood-magic to appease himself. And this offspring wasn't just his son but was actually him.
This is a believable historical account to Mark, he's inside the cult – in fact he's so deep that his immortal soul and financial livelihood depend on the strength of his faith against doubts that might creep in. I'm outside the cult and I have to say but this all sounds a bit sketchy to me to say the least – if not downright looney. And when the best “evidence” you have are accounts that we can't even prove came from eyewitnesses, all of which contradict each other in some way or another and for none of which we have a lick of unbiased external contemporary corroboration (as in from outside the cult). And yet this is AUTHORITATIVE?
I should trust my eternal soul, an immaterial thing that they cannot even provide evidence for, to a divine man from a series of stories which are all internal to the cult that worships him?
This is absolute madness, it collapses under the slightest scrutiny and yet Mark believes it is his best argument. I am simply left astounded by the fact that the Bible is the meat of his argument but I suppose as the document central to Christianity it shouldn't surprise me.
Mark admits to believing in a literal Hell. So Mark believes that every human being who ever lived deserves to be burned not just to death but to death for eternity without end - LITERALLY.
I don't think it requires any explanation how anti-human and evil that doctrine is but let's remove the idea of being burned for a moment and replace it with the only thing I can imagine that would be more evil - if it was an eternity of being raped. Imagine for a moment if Mark and his Christian friends were arguing that every human being deserved to be raped by demons (or anyone) for eternity. No one would EVER let them get away with that, no one would ever defend their beliefs as sacred or shield them.
If Mark and his friends were teaching children that they were going to be violated in such a way for all eternity for the crime of being born "sinful" they would be arrested for child abuse and rightfully so.
And yet they get a free pass because violence like being burned alive doesn't carry with it quite as negative a reaction as sexual violence like rape does. Mark actually thinks, with a straight face and clear conscience, that we all deserve to be burned alive for eternity.
FUCK THAT, that is obscenely evil and anti-human and abuse if taught to children. If God's perfect righteousness allows him to get away with burning most of humanity alive for eternity would he also be okay with raping people for eternity? Can Christians say God would be against that? Or would Christians say that people going to that version of hell are raping themselves?
If God is Love
And here comes the part where I get angry. Here comes the part where I have to wonder whether Mark is being willfully dishonest. Mark says that people send themselves to Hell.
Every Crime the Same Punishment
Now as a former Christian and a current atheist this is one of the dumbest most asinine arguments that any believer in the Biblical God can make. I mean this is out and out BULLSHIT. And I know I haven't exactly been nice to Mark or his arguments and I know that crass language and swearing and my indignant atheist outrage don't help me make my point any better but seriously - what the fuck?
Why do I feel so strongly about what Mark is saying? Well because it contradicts the Bible completely. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that human beings are their own judges. Nowhere in the Bible is there depicted a scene where human beings all judge themselves, or judge one another, and then sentence themselves to Hell. What Mark is doing is twisting the words of the Bible to get God off the hook and it's legitimately disgusting to me.
If you're gonna be a Bible believer at least be honest about what the Bible says even if what it says doesn't fit your own personal beliefs. At least be honest. The Bible says that humans choose their own path, that much is true, but it is always God who is judge in the end. It is always God who is depicted as the final decider.
It is God on a throne in Revelations deciding who shall go away into the Lake of Fire, not human beings themselves. Mark wants to paint it as if Hell is a natural result of sin that no one has any control over except us. Like a lifelong smoker who develops lung cancer the sinner has no excuse, he knew all along how wrong it was to go down that path and so the consequences are what they are.
But the Bible says that God is the ultimate judge. Let's imagine a world, for a moment, where all crimes carry the same sentence, let's say death by burning alive is that sentence. Now death by burning alive is lenient compared to Hell, which would be burning for eternity, as Revelations says the smoke of their torment ascends forever. Now how would we view a world that punishes both a parking ticket and a pedophile priest by burning them alive? You might say that the latter is justified, or at least more so than the parking ticket. It's almost as if you understand that justice means a punishment that fits the crime.
Ah, but Mark even mentions in his book that the punishment will be determined by how many chances you got. In other words apostates like myself who were once basking in the light but turned away will get the brunt of the punishment in Hell while some remote tribe that never heard of God will only be lightly punished. So in our imaginary world where every crime is punishable by burning alive the apostates are burned for a long time, they are slow roasted for days until they finally die in anguish. While our remote tribesman are put to swift end, cremated in a blazing inferno, put out of their misery rather quickly.
God Created and Operates Hell and Decides Who Goes There
Putting the blame on human beings for the injustice of God is a common Christian tactic to get around the evil of Hell but it is a pathetic one. It makes no difference at all whether human beings “sin” or not. The very concept of justice demands that the punishment fit the crime and that a cruel and wicked punishment serves no purpose at all especially when levied against a minor offense. The God of the Bible owns, operates and ultimately created Hell. What Mark wants us to believe is that the sins humans commit force God to send us to Hell, that God has no choice in the matter.
What sort of weak God has no choice in where he sends his creation after they die? Does that sound like the almighty God of the Bible who created the entirety of the Universe? He has no CHOICE? Our sins actually FORCE him to do something he doesn't want to do? The excuse isn't even a defense against how obviously evil Hell is, but rather an admission that Christians KNOW how evil Hell is – that's the whole point because it makes such a strong deterrent against people leaving the faith or letting reasonable doubts in – but they don't want to go there so they have to pretend it's justice.
You are God's Property
What I'm trying to do here is color in between the lines of what Mark is saying to paint for you a picture of what Christianity looks like from my perspective as someone who escaped the cult. Mark can skirt around what Hell is all he wants but he has made it clear that he believes in the literal Hell as taught by Jesus, his ultimate authority figure. There is no ifs ands or buts about the evilness of the system he is proposing, where people are thrown into hell for merely being born 'sinners'. You are God's property, born damaged and deserving of punishment, and if you do not cower before him and surrender you will be damned.
Mark lays out his ideas about people damning themselves to Hell by trying to explain that it is a choice they make to forsake God. In order to do this he once again quotes CS Lewis. In so doing Mark outlines what his version of Christianity is REALLY about, submit to God or else.
So Lewis is laying out the choice for us as an obvious one. There are those who submit their will to that of God's and who go to heaven and there are those who refuse to submit who God allows to go their own way. That way, in the Bible, leads to destruction despite seeming right in the heart of man. So being a good person isn't enough nor is self-improvement or self-involvement rather what is required is submission to divine authority.
To me this is both repugnant and laughable and I'll explain why in a bit. Later in the chapter Mark talks about those who have very little experience of the Gospel, or perhaps none at all, and how they can find faith in God on their own just by looking around them and listening with their hearts.
Seek and Ye Shall Find?
So God will come to those who seek? God will reveal himself and his will and his true nature to those who honestly seek him? What would Mark have to say to my younger self? I spent years putting myself out there seeking the God of the entire Universe. Of course some of that time I was a Christian begging to be filled with the spirit, begging to be shown the way, to be cured of my sinful nature.
After I read and studied the Bible I came to the conclusion that the God I prayed to wasn't that God at all. The God I believed in would never be so petty, so small-minded, so genocidal, so wicked. Anything worthy of being called a God would never have characteristics that, in a human, would make them an intolerably evil tyrant.
Think of the worst atrocities ever laid at the feet of man, and the God of the Bible has supposedly done far worse than those. Why would anyone think that this being existed or call this being a loving God? No, I concluded the God of the Bible was probably man-made and I left Christianity behind to pursue the true God that I believed I was talking to when I prayed. I never received any revelation from the Christian God or any of the conceptions of God I pursued after I left Christianity.
Mark and many apologists paint it as this simple system, that if you seek you shall find, but he is setting up new converts for disappointment. Mark would probably argue that I was just judging God and I am guilty of some sin for thinking myself above God. In actuality though all I did was realize that in the search for the truth, if you actually give a shit about what's actually true, you have to be brutally honest and skeptical. You can't just assume that the Bible is actually true when it says God turned Lot's wife to salt or told Moses how hard Hebrews are allowed to beat their slaves or killed the first born of Egypt. You can't assume that a God had anything to do with it, you start from a null position.
Even though I wanted to believe in God I was honest enough to look at the Bible skeptically. I assumed that, just as Mark describes here, scripture would “come alive” and God would speak to me. I assumed that God would lead me if he was out there. Not only did my research and continuing journey in search of truth lead me away from Christianity and theism but in many ways it liberated me from mental shackles I had been indoctrinated to have. I made it OUT of the cult and it makes no difference to me how happy and hopeful the cult members reportedly are, if it ain't true I ain't interested.
I don't resent “God”. I'm not angry that I never got my answer from the heavens. And no I don't think my personal experiences with spirituality prove anything about the existence of God to anyone else or even to me for that matter. If the evidence was there for God I would believe it whether the personal experience was present to back it up or not.
But that's the thing, the double-whammy, not only was my experience with Christianity totally underwhelming and not at all as Mark describes but skeptical inquiry has led not only to the realization that there's no evidence and no good reason to believe in God (as near as I can tell). And on top of that there are compelling reasons to consider most specific concepts of God to be fictional or downright incoherent as concepts.
Mark has attempted to provide evidence for Christianity in this book and now he admits that hopefully once you've accepted Christianity the rest will just take care of itself. And it seems that for some people this is the case, hope and joy and emotional fulfillment do come out of their faith. But that doesn't make the evidence compelling and it doesn't mean that everyone will find fulfillment in faith. Contrary to what CS Lewis suggested the existence of longing for something doesn't mean it is true or real out there somewhere and that goes for having faith in something as well.
Submission and Slavery
Christianity is not about living a good moral life according to the teachings of Christ, it is about submitting to God. Oh sure some Christians do make an effort to stop sinning all the time though very few live like Christ (as Mark admitted in the last chapter). Submission and obedience are two themes that are present quite a lot in the Bible and God is often depicted as a King on a throne to be bowed down to. The Bible says every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
This is absolutely repugnant to me and it is one of the big doubts that came up during my time as a Christian reading and studying the Bible. I came to the realization that the Bible doesn't offer human beings freedom, in fact doctrines based on the Bible would be distinctly anti-human. While Mark may not see it the language he has used is clear, Christianity makes human beings into nothing more than property and if we do not surrender our own lives and will power to God we will burn for eternity.
Not only do Biblical laws restrict harmless natural behaviors like homosexuality and sex before marriage but there are sanctions against mixed fabrics, eating shellfish, eating pork, trimming the sides of your beard, women speaking in Church, cross-dressing, etc. Yet despite all these petty restrictions the God of the Bible openly condones slavery in Exodus 21.
The Bible offers a choice between two forms of slavery and Mark has laid that out for us here, slavery to God or slavery to mankind/self. You can either go your own way and live your own life and burn in Hell or get on bent knee and beg for forgiveness before the throne. For many years of my life I didn't see the obvious tyranny of this belief, that it creates more than just worshipers it creates sycophants.
Some Christians are willing to sell-out or outright forget their fellow human beings in pursuit of their faith. They claim that in Heaven they will sing the praises of this God for eternity but at the same time they will be singing billions would be burning in Hell, including family and friends and wives and husbands. Only a sycophant could have joy and bliss and eternal fulfillment while their fellow human beings were being burned mercilessly, purposelessly, flesh oozing off of bone as fat bursts into flame. Only a religious or political ideology could spin something so horrifically anti-human as Heaven and Hell as if it is a beautiful thing and make humans trying to better themselves and live independently into evils.
You are choosing to be a slave first and a human being second. The Bible and Christians hide this by using phrases that make it sound liberating to be a slave. His yoke is easy and his burden light. The truth will set you free. Whom the son sets free shall be free indeed. But the language is there plain as day. The Church is to be the bridegroom of Christ and Christians are to submit to God and take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. What an obviously oppressive idea.
This was a big sticking point for me when I was younger. Why would God give us free will if using our free will was anathema to his brilliant plans and tantamount to sin? And if our freedom of thought and action is so toxic to God how can it be said that he will set us free? How can Heaven be considered paradise when it is nothing more than a plantation for God's loyal slaves while the rebellious are burned away like blighted crops?
Christianity is anti-human. Its God is a dictator and slave-master - to paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, it is very fortunate for all of us that there is no evidence that this God exists and that there is, in fact, good reason to believe he does not.
In the end Mark hasn't presented us with much reason to hope for an afterlife much less a Christian one. The childish nature of a golden bejeweled city in the clouds should be apparent to everyone and though modern Christianity tries to paint Heaven as some vague 'other realm' they cannot escape the descriptions of their holy book.
And of course Mark and his quote from CS Lewis show us the stark reality of Christianity, that it is about submission to a tyrant who watches your every move and monitors your every thought – the slightest discrepancy, the most minor infraction, the most minuscule departure from the will of the Almighty Dictator, will earn you a place burning in agony.
I had expected Mark to spend some time waffling on about Near Death Experiences and consciousness but to my surprise he barely mentioned NDEs and I don't think he brought up consciousness at all. Instead he relied on the Bible to make most of his case and as you can see if you've made it this far in the hub that gave me plenty of material to dig out and pick apart.
It's fitting that this is the longest hub I've written for this series as in the next chapter Mark is going to summarize his case and I imagine that one will be short as I too summarize the book and offer a wrap up of thoughts about it. For those that have stuck with me thus far thank you. I might do another book review some time in the future like this but I'm unsure when or what book I'd cover. If you have a work of apologetics you'd like me to read feel free to leave a comment below and as always thanks for reading!
- The Answers that Atheists Hope No One Has? (Chapter ...
A chapter by chapter rebuttal to the book The Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask (With Answers) by Christian apologist Mark Mittelberg. This Chapter: Evidence for God.
- The Answers that Atheists Hope No One Has? (Chapter ...
Chapter two: Evolution.
- The Answers that Atheists Hope No One Has? (Chapter ...
In this chapter: the reliability of the Bible.
- The Answers that Atheists Hope No One Has? (Chapter ...
In this chapter: Jesus' divinity.
- The Answers that Atheists Hope No One Has? (Chapter ...
In this chapter: The Problem of Evil and Suffering.
- The Answers that Atheists Hope No One Has? (Chapter ...
In this chapter: Abortion.
- The Answers that Atheists Hope No One Has? (Chapter ...
In this chapter: homosexuality.
- The Answers that Atheists Hope No One Has? (Chapter ...
In this chapter: Christian hypocrisy.