Reading Time: 3 minutes / Chris Whiteside
Reading Time: 3 minutes
  • I stole a loaf of bread. It was for my starving family. We had no other choice.
  • I stole two loaves of bread. I just felt I had to. I’m a kleptomaniac.
  • I stole 50 loaves of bread. I did it for the refugee camp just down the road. So many people starving.
  • I stole a hundred loaves of bread. I did it so I could sell them on and make a half-decent profit.

So on and so forth. You can think of 1 million different scenarios that would encapsulate a million different reasons for doing something that fits somewhere along the moral spectrum. Of course, these examples only involve stealing loaves of bread. You can talk about torture, murder, paedophilia, armed burglary, rape, teasing, bullying, workplace harassment, fraud, embezzlement, tax evasion, corruption… The list is almost endless. All of these misdemeanours are fixed on their own continua from worst-case scenario to the least worst case scenario.

Heaven and hell, on the other hand, appear to be rather digital. And by digital, I mean that they exist only in that one form or not at all. If you get to heaven, you get to heaven and you get the full riches of that sanctified place. If you go to hell, you get the full range of treatments and daemonic torture.

Now, of course, we can argue whether there is biblical evidence for whether heaven or hell even exist. There is scant textual evidence devoted to these two places within the holy book itself. One could easily argue that both places are symbolic at most, mythical at worst.

However, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that both places exist. Heaven is that wonderful place that you go to if you are a jolly good fellow. Hell is that place you go to if you are not. One is the world’s greatest carrots in human conception whilst the other is the world’s greatest stick in human conception.

The problem, as mentioned, is that they both appear to be rather digital. They are either this or they are that. There is no continuum, at least none evidenced in any holy book that we know.

As you can see, human nature covers a whole multitude of sins. And by multitude of sins, I mean that every action that we commit exists somewhere on a continuum whereby some actions are slightly morally better than other actions, and other actions still vastly worse than previous ones.

There is a sense that I go to hell for being Hitler and sanctioning the murder of 6 million Jews and get to meet Billy, an atheist who beat up his mate and accidentally paralysed him, for shagging his girlfriend. On these two people on a parallel? Arguably not, and yet they end up in the same place for the same amount of time and the same punishment.

The only sensible way around this is some form of means-tested hell-punishment or heaven-reward. If you are a 34% bastard on earth then you get a 34% punishment in hell. God becomes the ultimate judge, jury and executioner in doling out appropriate punishments.

Now I don’t disagree that this makes some kind of sense. It does. However, there is no evidence that anything like this happens within the holy books and past any ad hoc rationalisation of the average village theologian down the pub.

I just about scrape into heaven by the skin of my teeth and yet get to hang around for eternity with the most angelic of people who qualified by a country mile. There just doesn’t seem to be any fairness about it.

Probably because they don’t exist, of course.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...