The attribution of moral significance to the afterlife is a relatively recent development. For most of human history, the notion of survival after death proceeded simply from assumptions about spirit, i.e. that the self, subjectivity, could not be mortal. The fear of death prompted much in the way of ritual, ceremony, and propitiation, for the sake of the departed spirits as well as for the living community. But ensuring the best outcome, the best experience, of the spirit’s travel to the “other” world was a process primarily magical and sympathetic in nature, not moral.
To speculate on the historical motivations behind the invention of heaven and hell is to risk confusion between conscious decisions and unconscious cultural developments. For the sake of exposition, we may discuss it as if a group of priests (of whatever ancient religion) got together to devise a strategy, but the truth concerning the history of religious beliefs involves great inward struggles followed by emergence of new convictions wielding the force of sudden insight or revelation. The birth of our beliefs about things unseen does not take place through cunning or calculation, despite the impression that is presented by later history to the atheist or skeptic. Such beliefs would have no power unless they emerged from the depths of our nature, from needs and desires that are imperative. This is a truth that it is important to remember at all times when investigating religion: all the concepts which seem so strange to the rationalist would not have arisen unless they had deep-seated causes, and one must take these causes seriously and respect their importance in order to understand the concepts.
There came a time in human history, then, when the desire for justice took on the nature of an overwhelming priority—indeed, a crisis in human affairs. The invention of law had allowed great advances, but its fallibility became more and more evident as society became more complex. Although the origin of law was attributed to the gods (and later to God), the idea that the Divine would reward good actions and punish bad ones on earth became impossible to credit. For one thing, law could be subverted by men who performed bad actions and then codified these bad actions as law. For every person who was judged by the law, there were many who escaped punishment and were able to hurt other people without consequence. The power principle itself, the dominance over others through brute physical force, presented a contradiction to the idea of justice, because the outcome depended on the degree to which the person wielding power was just, and this seemed increasingly a matter of chance rather than Divine will. Ultimately, tte suffering of innocent people presented a challenge to the notion that the cosmos was just—and thus we have the Book of Job. That great poem maintains human limitation and fallibility regarding such questions, but the religions and cultures committed to beliefs in an afterlife could not be satisfied with such an answer. (Here we must focus on the Western traditions—the Eastern religions took a different path, which we will postpone discussing until a later time.)
Then comes the revelation, the sudden thunderbolt of insight. If human beings are judged for their actions after death, then our desire for justice no longer contradicts the drama of life—there is no contradiction any more, because our preparation for the “next” life is now conceived as a moral one. Those who have acted justly, therefore, will be rewarded after death in such a way as to resolve any injustice experienced in this life. Those who have acted unjustly will be punished after death, so that even if they died peacefully in their sleep after committing terrible crimes against the innocent, the desire for justice will ultimately be satisfied.
Of course, the sum total of our actions are rarely, if ever, completely good or bad. So the process of judgment after death will have to take both good and bad into account, and the degree of reward or punishment will vary accordingly. But as absolutist thought became increasingly ascendant in human culture and religion, so heaven and hell gradually lost all degrees and became an either/or proposition, a development that injects a greater element of peril into the notion of judgment. (The Catholic Church tried to compensate for this by introducing purgatory, and also different circles or levels in heaven and hell).
The first phase of belief in the two great traditions born from Judaism—i.e. Christianity and Islam—indicates a final day of judgment in which all are judged together, a day conceived as occurring in historical time. This is actually a radical departure from the age-old beliefs about the survival of an individual spirit after death, because it posits a sort of interval of nothingness or cosmic sleep for the dead, between their death and the day of judgment. (In the case of Christianity, there’s the equally radical idea of an actual resurrection of the body, but that’s another issue).
Eventually, popular belief triumphed in the form of an individual surviving after death, being judged immediately, and then going to heaven or hell. An uneasy combination was made between this and the millennial doctrines, and there has always been controversy on this point. In any case, the moral significance is identical. The practical result, the design emerging in the form of human conduct, if you will, is that the fear of punishment after death is supposed to prevent us from committing bad actions, and the desire for reward after death is supposed to motivate us to performing good actions.
The eternal, or never-ending, nature of reward and punishment is a peculiar outcome of this development. Not only, then, are we punished or rewarded after death, but there is no end to these punishments or rewards. They last forever. To do evil is to risk not only painful consequences, but consequences that will never be exhausted, leaving the judged spirit without hope of ever finding relief from punishment. (It is noteworthy that this aspect of hell is more psychologically vivid to us than the corresponding eternity of reward in heaven. I think this is because the entire complex is motivated by fear of death, and therefore has an essentially negative character.)
Thus the great problem of justice seemed to have been solved. But was it really? The complexity of the after-life system presented its own contradictions. People eventually perceived the doctrine of hell itself as a symptom of injustice. The arguments are too many and diverse to enumerate here. Perhaps the most basic is simply that reward and punishment are not compatible with the true realization of virtue, that they represent a limited, self-centered view of human conduct that fails to comprehend the nature of good actions, or indeed of goodness itself as a subjective quality for human beings.
On the purely practical level, though, can we say that heaven and hell have improved the overall state of human conduct? It’s impossible to say for sure without speculating on how human history would have proceeded without the introduction of the moral element in the afterlife. Maybe it did improve things. But I think it should be abundantly clear that this belief did not result in the faithful and virtuous human society that one might have hoped for. The atrocities of human oppression, the massacres, tortures and cruelties of the last two millennia in the West have all taken place within a culture proclaiming the belief in heaven and hell.
To put it on a more personal, and therefore more comprehensible level, I will pose a question. If a person really believed that committing a sin would sentence him or her to a hell of eternal punishment, would that person ever sin? Or let us ask instead: if a person really believed that committing a sin would open up even the slightest possibility of eventually being punished in hell for eternity, would he or she ever sin? Could you imagine taking such a risk? If you really believed in eternal punishment of sin, wouldn’t you make every effort to live a blameless life, a life of such moral purity that you could manage to live in some ease from the fear of such a horrible and inconceivable punishment? And wouldn't therefore, the majority of people in our society, who believe in heaven and hell, be virtually blameless? We would expect, then, to be experiencing a more peaceful world, a much less violent world, than what we have.
The answer to the riddle, I think, is that no one, or at least very few people indeed, actually believe with full conviction in eternal reward and punishment. Religious people try to believe. They persuade themselves that they believe. But at a deeper level they don’t believe, because at the deepest and most unconscious levels of subjectivity we intuit reality, the absolute, essentially non-verbal reality of which we, so to speak, partake. And at this level, we know, despite all conscious suppression of knowledge, that these beliefs are a fiction. No one alive can actually tell us about an afterlife from experience, and this fact is perhaps the most obvious aspect of death we know—in a sense, it could even be said to define our intuitive awareness of what death is. So no matter how many sacred revealed scriptures we are given, or how many visions or stories we are told of, we know that it’s a fiction. In the form of mythology, such fiction has undeniable meaning and relevance for us, but when it is transposed into a method for maintaining a certain form of behavior through reward and punishment, it ends in failure.
Why? Because the fear of death is an insufficient cause for moral action. It only replicates our fear in ever-evolving, complex forms. Love, compassion, caring, respect, and all the other truths that we discern beneath the surface of virtue, originate and derive their meaning from some other source besides the fear of death. Heaven and hell are dead ends.(This is the second in a series of articles about beliefs concerning survival after death.)