A little thing about hell

The United States is a religious nation. This Southeast corner is particularly pious.

Where the Bible Belt begins and ends is open to debate, but Tennessee inarguable falls within its borders. The religious influence here even reaches beyond the culture and into the Tennessee State Constitution.

Tennessee’s Constitution: Article 9: Section 2:

“No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.”

This remains in the Tennessee Bill of Rights today. It seems that the Equal Opportunity Employer law only applies to lower level government jobs. The jobs with real power are reserved for God fearing religious folk.

But not clergy, they specifically ban them from the legislature. They are supposed to be busy serving God, not piddling away their lives in politics.

Beyond being a non-ordained monotheist, one must also believe in “a future state of rewards and punishments.” This is likely referring to an afterlife composed of a pleasant place (heaven, perhaps) for the good, and a horrendous spot (maybe hell) for the bad.

This horrendous spot (let’s just go ahead and call it hell) is a recurring theme in many religions. They differ in their descriptions of hell, but they all seem to view it as an undesirable destination with varying degrees of eternal torture. There is no real evidence to suggest which depiction is the most accurate. In fact, there is no real evidence to suggest that hell exists at all.

In the absence of any form of proof, we are left with speculation, mythology, and spooky folk tales to guide our understanding of eternity. Legends are not firm grounds on which to base an afterlife. So many look for more substantial evidence: something in writing.

We turn desperately to ancient manuscripts that have been translated, manipulated, and adapted; then manipulated, adapted, and translated; and finally adapted, translated, and manipulated.

Today it is nearly impossible to know just what the fuck these collections were honestly trying to communicate at their initial writing.

Even prior to all of this translation, manipulation, and adaptation; the original words were written by people who believed that the world was flat. If they couldn’t get the shape of the physical world right, can we trust them to accurately describe the unseen underworld?

So we trust today’s religions to provide us with translators for these books. We hope that these people can tell us the true message held in those ancient passages, and we need them to apply that message to today’s culture and morality.

For instance, The Holy Bible’s (New American translation) Deuteronomy 13: 7-11 reads:

“If your own full brother, or your son or daughter, or your beloved wife, or your intimate friend, entices you secretly to serve other gods, whom you and your fathers have not known, gods of any other nation, near at hand or far away, from one end of the earth to the other: do not yield to him or listen to him, nor look with pity upon him, to spare or shield him, but kill him. Your hand shall be the first raised to slay him; the rest of the people shall join in with you. You shall stone him to death, because he sought to lead you astray from the lord, your god…”

In my interpretation, this passage is instructing the reader to brutally stone her loved ones to death if they expose her to new religions. The wording seems pretty clear and unambiguous. But before you pile rocks on your porch and lie in wait for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, you should probably consult a qualified interpreter.
Father Thomas Stegman, an Assistant Professor at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology with a Ph.D. from Emory University, has spent much of his life studying the Christian Bible in depth. He is a qualified interpreter in the eyes of most reasonable people.

Surprisingly, Father Stegman does believe that this particular passage is about stoning those who would draw followers away from the Jewish and Christian god. But it is not directed at you or I, nor any other modern reader.

According to Father Stegman, Deuteronomy is set at a time in history when the Jewish people were struggling to differentiate themselves to form Israel. There was a great fear that if they lost their religion, Israel would die. Deuteronomy Chapter 13 was a command issued primarily as a deterrent to those who might introduce other religions, thereby threatening Israel.

Neither Christianity nor Judaism faces any substantial current threat from exposure to other belief systems.

“It is a violation of fundamental human rights to coerce someone with violence,” Father Stegman reassures.

Apparently, threatening someone with death by blunt force trauma for a little religious experimentation is against Christian theology. But it did somehow make it into the Bible.

“As Christians we believe the scriptures are the word of God,” Father Stegman also said.

(Scriptures are defined as the books of the Bible).

So the word of God is a violation of fundamental human rights? Whether or not enforcement of this command was expected, it does contain a strong threat of violence. Threats are coercion. Did God see human rights as somehow less important then than now?

Perhaps these particular words of God are not to be taken as seriously as other words of God.

“There all sorts of texts in Deuteronomy that trump this text,” Stegman explains.

There seems to be some sort of hierarchy within the words of God. I don’t know who determines that hierarchy.

Then there is Vatican II, which issued its Declaration of Religious Liberty just a few decades ago. According to Stegman, this document negates Deuteronomy Chapter 13: 7-11 in its literal sense. That is reassuring, but can the Vatican actually remove the literal meaning from the word of God?

This is all very confusing. Again, I am obviously not qualified to determine what is truly being said in religious texts. I’ll leave such work to scholars such as Father Stegman and assholes such as Pat Robertson.

But holy religious texts; such as the Bible, the Torah, and the Koran, have a great deal to say about who is condemned to hell. Rather than risk misinterpretation of these holy words, my examination will rely on sanctioned representatives of the individual belief systems.

These people can decipher the words, explain contradictions, and bring the verses into a modern context.

Of course, they can also apply spin. Or just confuse us all more.

All I can do is encourage you, the reader, to apply critical thinking to anything they say or I write.

There simply is no one in the mortal plane more qualified to tell you that you are going to hell than a widely perceived representative of God.

So who is going to hell? There are over 300 million Americans living in this country today. Will we all be crowding into the underworld? Is there anything we can do? Do we have to be good people, or can we just believe our way out of hell?

One might avoid proselytizing to Christians for fear of a good stoning, but should one expect an eternity in Lucifer’s ’hood for simply not following the Christian god themselves?

Where do Jews, Muslims, and the secular crowd stand on this damnation issue?

The most comprehensive American religious census done to date is the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), which surveyed 50,000 Americans in 2001.

The ARIS found that 76.5 percent of the country’s population self-identifies as Christian. This is followed by 13.2 percent who report themselves as non-religious or secular, 1.3 percent self-identified as Jewish, and .5 percent followed Islam. Based on 2004 estimates, these are the largest religious groups within the nation.
The study’s 2004 estimates reported 224 million Christians, almost 40 million secular citizens, 4 million Jews, and 1.5 million Muslims.

Catch the next installment to explore which of the above people are damned.

About Benn Stebleton