Heaven and Hell
I rarely look at the "Faith & Values" section of the newspaper since it reliably pisses me off because religion pisses me off, reminding me, as it does, of my early religious training, specifically as to the nature of hell (fire and brimstone). Young though I was, I had pretty much figured out that "eternity" was a long time to burn and that scared the wits out of me. Fortunately, I recovered my wits and dismissed religious claims as nonsensical. But, today, for some reason unknown to me, I opened this section and got two gems.
The first gem was Stephen Hawkings saying he was warned off by that world class scholar, Pope John Paul II, from inquiring too closely into the origins of the universe "because that was the moment of creation and the work of God." At least the pope doesn't think creation began 5,000 years ago or however far back fundamentalist Christians think the moment of creation was. However, I think I will leave the origins of the universe in Hawkings' hands, not the Pope's.
Much more fun is the report that an emeritus prof, Jeffrey Burton Russell, from UC Santa Barbara is concerned with U. S. Christians' ways of conceiving heaven and hell, claiming they are "so feeble and vague that it's almost meaningless -- vague 'superstition.'" Uh, Professor Russell, I feel it is my duty to tell you that the concepts of heaven and hell are inevitably vague and meaningless whether conceived of by ordinary people or big time religious scholars.
Let us ask what sort of nouns "heaven" and "hell" are. Are they place names like "New York City?" If so, then they refer to specific regions of .... (you fill in the blank, for I can't). Unfortunately, we are stuck either with locating heaven and hell somewhere in our universe or nowhere. I suppose we could posit the existence of some parallel universe for heaven and hell to exist in but, boys and girls, and men and women, the notion of a parallel universe is a mathematical fiction. Until a given parallel universe can be shown to exert some force on this universe there is no way to prove it exists. So, I think we must conclude that heaven and hell are noplace.
Professor Russell would replace the ordinary man's and woman's view of paradise with the idea that heaven "means being in harmony with God and the Cosmos and your neighbors and being grateful." Hell is not the place where there is nothing but fire and brimstone but is simply "the absence of God, the absence of Heaven." I guarantee that you will not find expressions in English that are a bigger mess than Professor Russell's. Lumping God, the Cosmos, my neighbors, and being grateful in one package constitutes a major category mistake (or set of category mistakes). We have God, who exists nowhere, a Cosmos that embraces everything, my neighbors, who are next door and therefore in the cosmos, and feeling grateful, which does not per se have a location.
This is the problem with religion. We are required to use English or Japanese or Swahili to express our concepts of "God" and "salvation" and "heaven" and "hell" and all the rest but the net result is always something vague and nonempirical. How about just saying, "I am awed by the universe and that evokes feelings in me that are reverential and this makes me want to go to church." If you go any further, you will inevitably get into linguistic trouble.