July 23, 2010

Recently I discovered a cool interfaith forum, and got drawn into (among other things) a discussion of Hell. It got me thinking – why is belief in some sort of afterlife so widespread among the world’s cultures? Is it just that people generally enjoy life, and don’t want to see it end? Or grieve over their lost loved ones? That could account for speculation, fantasy, story-telling, but not such a widespread (and culturally transmitted) conviction that there just has to be something beyond…
On the other hand if these beliefs were hardwired into the brain, or for that matter if they resulted from a divine revelation, why would they be so different? The Abrahamic faiths have their once-for-all Judgment Day, the Hindu/Buddhist family have their possibly endless series of incarnations… classical European cultures had a dimly-lit sort of place where most people went, places of torment for real bad guys, Valhalla for fallen warriors…
The most common theme is some sort of reward or punishment. So maybe that’s the key, that’s what gives the idea of an afterlife its survival value – not that we have a need to believe we’ll go on forever, much as we may like to, but rather that life in society, life with commitments and expecations, life with a need for moral standards and an unattainable ideal of justice, naturally leads to a sense of unfinished business. The thought of people dying without having adequately paid for what they have enjoyed, or been paid for what they have done, feels fundamentally wrong and is a challenge for our very survival as a social organism.
I think the idea of Hell functions less as an effective threat to the wicked – people bent on wrongdoing can always persuade themselves they’ll get away with it – than as a reassurance to the rest of us, who, seing the wicked prosper, cannot help wondering if keeping to the strait and narrow is really worth it.


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