Noah Smith: Mom in Hell

This is a guest post by Noah Smith. 

How can you be happy in Heaven while your mom is in Hell?

In his famous 1741 sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, Jonathan Edwards said:

There will be no end to this exquisite horrible misery. When you look forward, you shall see a long for ever, a boundless duration before you, which will swallow up your thoughts, and amaze your soul; and you will absolutely despair of ever having any deliverance, any end, any mitigation, any rest at all. You will know certainly that you must wear out long ages, millions of millions of ages, in wrestling and conflicting with this almighty merciless vengeance; and then when you have so done, when so many ages have actually been spent by you in this manner, you will know that all is but a point to what remains. So that your punishment will indeed be infinite.

Now, in a time when most people still lived lives of poverty and hardship, florid language like that was probably necessary just to get people to pay attention in church. But the sermon illustrates something that I’ve never really understood about Christianity - the idea of Hell.

In the Christian concept of Hell, if you believe in Jesus (and in some denominations, maybe satisfy a few other requirements), you go to Heaven, and if you don’t believe in Jesus, you go to Hell. So in Christianity, it’s perfectly possible for you to be in Heaven while your mom is in Hell, experiencing all the nasty stuff that Jonathan Edwards describes.

Now, a Christian will tell you, we don’t know who will go to Heaven and who will go to Hell. But after you die, you must surely be able to know. If you’re in Heaven, and you want to say hi to your mom, you can just look her up. If she’s in Heaven with you, you should be able to easily find her, using whatever version of the white pages exists in Heaven. If you can’t find her, you will know by process of elimination that she must be in Hell.

So, you’re supposed to be happy in Heaven, right? But suppose your mom goes to Hell. How can you be eternally happy, knowing that your mom is experiencing eternal torment?

Maybe Heaven changes you. Maybe once you go to Heaven, you don’t mind if your mom is in Hell. But that would be a really big personality change, right? I think that if I became someone who didn’t mind my mom suffering eternal torment, I wouldn’t really be me anymore. It would be someone else in Heaven, and I’d just be gone.

Now, a Christian believer in Hell might respond, “What’s to understand? If you go to Heaven and your mom goes to Hell, then you’re just going to have to deal with it.” But in that case, the idea that Heaven is a place where you’re happy forever has got to be tossed out the window.

So I just don’t understand how the Heaven/Hell system works. If people only cared about themselves, then it would make sense, but we care about other people too. And it’s just flat-out impossible for most people to be totally happy while knowing that someone they love is being tortured eternally in the most horrific concentration camp in the cosmos. But according to Christianity, that situation is perfectly capable of happening.

I just don’t get it.

Don’t miss Noah’s other guest religion posts:

  1. God and SuperGod
  2. You Are Already in the Afterlife
  3. Go Ahead and Believe in God

For other religion posts, see my Religion, Philosophy, Humanities, Science Fiction and Science sub-blog.

Update: David Beckworth tweets this very interesting video from a Christian ministry making trenchant arguments from within the Christian tradition against the picture of hell that Noah is attacking.