Friday, 6 June 2014

Answers for an Atheist (Part III)

I'm continuing my answers to Hemant "The Friendly Atheist" Mehta's video "78 Questions for Christians". The video I'm responding to can be found here and the previous parts of this series are here and here.

#5 Should a kind hearted atheist be forced to go burn in hell for all eternity?
#6 What about any non-Christian good person, should they be burning in hell?
#7 Could you be happy in heaven while someone you loved was burning in hell?

#5 and #6 have already been partially answered in my first part of this series. As a Catholic, I don't believe that non-Christians of whatever sort automatically go to hell. Having said that, there is no getting around the fact that Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular does call upon people to believe, and we do think that belief, or unbelief has at least the potential to impact where one might be spending forever and I can well understand why many people believe this is unjust.

To explain why I believe Catholic belief is, in fact, just, I need to explain a bit about what Catholics believe. Central to Catholicism is the belief that God is the source of all truth, goodness, beauty and love. I've read and heard a lot of atheist critiques of Christianity where the one making the critique seems under the impression that we regard hell as some arbitrary punishment and heaven some arbitrary reward that God has chosen to inflict or grant to those who break or follow His rules. That's not the Catholic view at all.

In Catholic belief, the essential nature of heaven lies in the possession of the "Beatific Vision". This means that we will directly see God as He, in His essential nature, is, enjoying perfect communion with that source of love, goodness and beauty.

By contrast, hell consists primarily in what is called the pain of loss. By this, the Church means that the damned will know, with clarity, that they were created for the purpose of enjoying the perfect happiness that comes from the beatific vision and that, through their own choices, they have eternally lost that chance.

With these definitions in mind, I think it can be seen what I meant about heaven and hell not being an arbitrary reward or punishment for following or not following certain rules. Heaven, the beatific vision, is the logically necessary consequence of a person embracing the sort of relationship that God wishes us to have with Him. Conversely, hell is an equally necessary consequence of consciously rejecting that relationship. On the subject of hell, let me add this, Satan and the other fallen angels are in hell, they are direct creations of God who rejected Him with a full knowledge of what they were doing. I do not claim to know how many humans might be there with them, nor who they are. I do not even know with certainty whether any humans are there; I fear there are, but I hope there may not be.

I think the above clarifications will help to show why it is just that belief will have some effect on where one spends eternity. Now, to be clear, I am not saying that all atheists, or non-Christians generally, are going to hell, that's more than I can judge. I am, however, saying that, the person who is given an opportunity to know that God exists but resists this opportunity out of pride or an unwillingness to give up some sin or for some other unworthy reason, is deliberately putting his or herself on the road to the same place as the fallen angels. (Please note! I am not saying that this is the case for all or even most atheists. Absent a supernatural window into my neighbours' hearts, I can't even say with certainty that it's the case for any atheist.)

This applies, not only for atheists but for those of other religions. In arguments I've gotten into and things I've seen written in various places, I frequently encounter the assumption that, if God cares about relationships, this means he won't care what specific beliefs people hold. This strikes me as pretty silly. Generally speaking, if a person is in, or wishes to be in, a relationship with another person, that person wants to know as much as possible about the other person. If Catholicism is true, then the things about God's nature which the Catholic Church teaches must also be true. If a person truly wants a relationship with God, he or she will want to know those things. Again, this is not to suggest that all non-Catholics, or non-Christians are on the road to hell. What it is to suggest is that if someone is given the opportunity to know that Christianity/Catholicism is true and rejects that opportunity out of pride or unwillingness to submit to some difficult Church teaching, that person is, in fact, rejecting a real relationship with God.

Having said all this, I think I can give reasoned answers to the questions above.

#5 - No, I don't think a truly kind hearted atheist should go to hell. I do, however, think that such a  hypothetical atheist, in order to be truly kind hearted needs to want his or her fellow human beings to know the truth and needs to want to know the truth his/herself.

#6 - No, I don't think a good non-Christian person should go to hell. However, once again, to be truly good, this hypothetical person needs to be concerned about and open to the truth.

#7 - I found this the hardest question to answer. I have to admit, I feel the force of this objection and a big part of me wants to agree with Mr. Mehta and say no. I've said already, I want all of my fellow human beings to go to heaven and, obviously, this is a fortiori the case for my family and friends. I sincerely hope the none of the people I know and love will end up in hell. I have to say, though, that if it happens, yes, I could be happy. I don't believe any earthly happiness, however multiplied, could compensate for the knowledge that a person I loved was undergoing eternal torment. However, as I said, heaven is not just earthly happiness multiplied and then made eternal. Heaven is the direct vision of the source of all goodness. Given this, yes, I believe I could be happy knowing someone I loved was suffering in hell, given that I would also know that this was the result of his or her own choice.

I will, Deo Volente, have more answers to Mr. Mehta in the near future. I will also answer the question which Fr. John F. was kind enough to leave in the comments thread of my last post.

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