Digest of terms

heaven and hell

widely understood as the states, respectively, of supreme happiness and unhappiness in a post-mortem existence. As such they feature prominently in traditions of Christian and Muslim (and to a lesser extent Jewish) ethics. They appear to have originated in attempts to safeguard the value of justice - in this life bad people often prosper and good people suffer, so heaven and hell function to redress the balance, good people finally receiving compensation for undeserved earthly deprivation and suffering, and bad people their just deserts despite earthly good fortune. Overall a fair system of due rewards and punishments is upheld, and personal responsibility and accountability upheld. (With respect to hell, there is theological disagreement over whether the punishment is eternal or for a restricted period.)

Similar ideas are found in Eastern religions, but typically in a more graduated system such that there are various levels of heavens and hells, inhabited by gods and demons as well as humans, and the state of supreme bliss may be thought to transcend all the heavens, as in Buddhist nirvana or Hindu moksha.

Heaven and hell are described in figurative language that has often been criticized when taken literally, the former if it emphasises pleasures of the flesh, the latter if it glorifies masochistic torture. Defenders insist on the symbolic nature of such descriptions, but have to contend with the power with which they have been invested by centuries of repetition in scriptures, rituals, literature and art.

Sceptics question the credibility of anything beyond death, suggesting instead that the hope is more simply explicable as the projection of wishful thinking. In counterargument to this, reference has been made to Near Death Experiences, many of which appear to involve some degree of continuity 'out of the body' and to anticipate a kind of heavenly condition.

Some religious believers respond with the claim that without such a transition beyond death, life for most people would be unjust and even futile. Very clearly the fact of death does highlight questions about the point of bothering to be good. Yet in humanist or deontological ethics, for example, goodness simply has intrinsic value, and is to be pursued irrespective of just consequences. They may argue, indeed, that this is a higher form of morality than a religious one which risks encouraging (even though theologians warn against it) egoistic motivation - honesty for a nice reward, or because of fear of dire punishment, not honesty for its own sake.

Critics further query the propriety of post-mortem punishment, whether eternal or limited, for such alleged misdemeanours as failing to be persuaded by the teachings and example of, say, Jesus or Paul or Muhammad or whomever. With the development of liberalism, freedom of thought and of religion have come to be prized in a way that stands in sharp contrast to the traditional claims of religious authority.

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