Travel in the Spiritual Worlds
Confronting Non-Biblical Folk Concepts of Christian Hell
Popular concepts of Christian hell as a fiery place of eternal torment for sinners have been a source of nightmares for Christians throughout the centuries. Such threats may be helpful in motivating conversion to Christianity and ethical behavior in Christians. However these threats, when taken in the context of the larger biblical text, are small in number, inconsistent, and so rare as to be accurately described as outliers and generally non-biblical.
The thesis of this article is that the biblical hell where human beings can go after death does not contain Satan, demons, fire, smoke, brimstone, or intentional torture. We support this thesis by examining the various words and concepts used for hell in the Bible and showing how they have little to do with the above list of attributes.
This is a statistical approach to the Bible where we look at the probabilities that a term was altered or redefined from its original meaning by examining its various meanings throughout the text. If we have dozens of places where a word such as "hell" means one thing and only one or two where it means something totally different, we can assert that the "outlier" meaning is false or at least questionable.
An "outlier" in statistics occurs when almost all the measurements on a given graph show a definite pattern except for a small number that diverge from the pattern. These dots or measurements are termed outliers. These few outlier dots are usually assumed to be spurious or false resulting from inaccurate measurements or in rare cases intentional distortion. We assert in this article that the popular or folk conception of hell as a place of hot or burning punishment is such an outlier and therefore probably a distortion or redefinition of its original meaning.
As mentioned earlier, many of our popular or folk concepts of hell come from noncanonical (non-biblical) texts such as the Book of Enoch, which influenced the early Church in the patristic period. This book describes four levels of hell or Sheol, with levels ranging from those that contain God's chosen souls to those that contain damned or rejected souls. Another early source for biblical ideas of hell is the Revelation of Moses, which is a Jewish apocalyptic text describing various punishments in hell. Yet another is the Testament of Solomon where King Solomon receives a ring from an angel that gives him magical control over demons and learns about the levels of hell. The desert fathers were also fascinated with demons and their temptations that made their ascetic life difficult. St. Anthony in particular wrote in great detail about how he was attacked by demons during his meditations which magnifies the power of demons and gives insight into their activities in hell. The Medieval Irish knight Tondal also wrote of the horrors of hell and the torture Satan visited upon his captives in hell based on his personal visionary experience of hell.
Another more modern influence is from Dante's Inferno with its nine layers of hell with the seventh layer being the fiery one. Dante's literary depictions of hell were spread far and wide by Renaissance artists like Hieronymus Bosch and Michelangelo who painted multiple fantastic images of demons torturing those in hell. All these writers and artists created a strong folk tradition concerning hell that had very little to do with anything biblical.
These non-biblical accounts of hell were what one researcher called "the science fiction of the day" and were widely read and discussed. Their entertainment value made them compete with comparatively boring Catholic Church doctrine and ritual for relevance but ultimately supported the church by increasing people's fear of hell, and motivating them to embrace the church to seek salvation.
Many noncanonical texts were strongly influenced by pre-Islamic, Persian Manichaeism (Zoroastrianism which preceded Mani's system is probably closest to this religious or philosophical tradition in the modern world) where the forces of Light (God) and the forces of Darkness (Satan or similar) are engaged in eternal warfare. The Persian Ahriman figure was a powerful demon who lived in a dark place below the earth and tormented the wicked. He was an early prototype for Satan and represented a separate, independent, and opposite force from God. Since the two were evenly matched, all religious people had to fight continuously against this force of darkness or be defeated by it. This is a fundamentally heretical doctrine since as the Nicene Creed states, God is the "maker of all things, visible and invisible" and this includes hell, demons, and Satan. Since Satan is a created being, he can never be equal to or as powerful as God. The most famous convert from Manichaeism to Christianity was St. Augustine who rejected it but probably unwittingly adopted some aspects of it into the Catholic tradition in the Medieval period.
While the Gospels are full of examples of Christ casting out demons, there is generally no struggle involved and the demons are weak and afraid, and no match for Christ's power. It therefore seems unbiblical to represent demons as powerful and a constant threat to religious people, mankind in general, and sometimes even God himself as we often see in the above-mentioned texts and folk traditions. Demons are no threat to God or Christ in the New Testament. There can be no desperate, eternal war against evil when your enemies are weak and easily defeated. Similarly Satan was not a threat to Christ during his 40 days of fasting in the desert but only a source of temptation. The proper response to temptation as Jesus demonstrated was not war but rejection or indifference. Also the Lord's prayer says "deliver us from evil" which suggests avoidance of evil rather than "fight and conquer evil" which translates to confrontation and war.
However, the above-mentioned early Jewish and Christian texts absorbed this Manichean view of Satan as an ever present danger and the religious militarism, fear of evil, suspicion of outsiders, and hatred of enemies associated with this world view. When societies accept these dualistic assumptions about the nature of good and evil, anxiety and a mild paranoia will be pervasive. When this world view dominates a person's perception, there will never be enough guns, government surveillance, police, prisons, and prosecutors or a powerful enough military to overcome this insecurity. Political leaders and parties, law enforcement, conservative media organizations, intelligence agencies, and church denominations are all subject to this sense of foreboding and insecurity. We will discuss the negative effects of adopting this world view on our society at the end of this article when we discuss the issues of eternal war and eternal punishment.
We will also mention later how this process of absorption occurs as early biblical scribes who copied and compiled early biblical texts routinely added, subtracted, miscopied, and intentionally changed the contents to suit what they thought the texts should say. This dualistic or Manichean perspective is best reflected in the Bible in the Book of Revelation where God and his righteous angels go to war with the "fallen angels" at the time of the last judgment. Because Satan was viewed as having enormous power, he could do battle with God, tempt mankind at every turn, and imprison fallen angels and demons (and by association human souls) in his vast underworld realm subjecting them to unspeakable tortures for eternity. However, as stated before, the view of hell where souls are punished and tortured with fire is ambiguous at best and mostly non-biblical.
This is the fascinating story of how what is mostly a Christian folk tradition of Satan, hell, and eternal punishment transformed the identity of Christ, the prince of peace and forgiveness into something almost unrecognizable. Christ, who said blessed are the peacemakers and the poor and counseled followers to "turn the other cheek" to insult and to "love their enemies", became a God of war, vengeance, and retribution with many followers who wished to be like him. Here we see the figure mentioned in Rev 6:2 who rides a white horse, carries a bow, and comes to conquer, and the figure again on a white horse who in righteousness "judges and make war" (Rev 19:11) interpreted as Christ. Here Christ returns as a warrior and conquering hero to destroy the wicked and save the righteous. This figure of judgement and vengeance which is mentioned in only a few places in the Book of Revelation is identified as the "king of kings" and assumed to be Christ but seems to have little relation to the Christ who walked the earth. The earthly Christ unlike the returning Christ consistently preached against arrogance, violence, and war as he emphasized mercy and forgiveness. However these passages along with many references to war in the Hebrew Bible seem to have become the basis for an isolated and narrow Christian theology of war and struggle against evil.
It is a true irony that religions of love and peace can be easily transformed into religions of hatred and war, and religions of morality can be converted into transgressive religions that find multiple justifications to violate and ignore their own moral laws and principles. The love of and hunger for war whether religious, tribal, economic, or racial is the Pandora's box of Western civilization, and the Manichean heresy in Christianity is the key that opens the box. Opening the box lets loose its many evils. This makes the waging of war either a sacred duty or an opportunity to demonstrate one's deep devotion to God in order to ensure one's salvation. The most toxic approach to war sees every war as an opportunity to bring about the "end of time", the mass rapture of Christians, and the destruction of their enemies.
And of even greater concern at the present moment is that being at war justifies lying, deceit, and spreading misinformation since ethical rules can be ignored when a group's earthly (or heavenly) survival in threatened. Thus we see conservative Christians and nationalists proudly and self-righteously supporting and spreading obvious lies that threaten our democracy and system of government (elections are rigged, the free press is the enemy, voter fraud is endemic, climate change denial, crime statistics are the worst ever, most Mexicans are criminals, etc.). Helping one's group win against an enemy such as liberals or liberal Christians, socialists, secularists, scientists, and supporters of big government is a heroic act regardless of the tactics used. To put it more directly, when in a war where winning is always the highest value, "All is fair in love and war". Or as the former mayor of New York City said when asked if the US had the right to steal Iraq's oil, "of course it's legal, until the war is over, anything is legal". However for many Christian culture warriors, the war will never be over and Christian ethics therefore no longer apply. The constantly repeated claims by conservative Christian writers and talk radio hosts that their fellow Christians are threatened victims and rejected outsiders to society powers the engine of war.
But the disturbing result is a morally confused and corrupted Christian tradition with the values of Caesar (politics) displacing the values of God (religious ethics) in churches all over America. When Caesar (heavily politicized Christian ministers and paid political operatives) interprets the Bible, the Bible will say exactly what Caesar wants it to say. Churches then become political action organizations and unified voting blocks.
In the Manichean world of eternal war, there are no rules and that is one reason unprincipled religious people who dislike the ethical constraints that they find in their religion find eternal war so attractive and even irresistible. The objection to "political correctness" is basically an objection to civility and mutual respect in public discourse. Many conservative Christians appear to be at war with Christian ethics but claim instead to be at war with evil secularists and liberals to avoid the appearence of disunity and moral confusion and corruption. With
With Catholic sex scandals and the strong support of two recent conservative presidents, a sesmic shift has taken place within and outside Christian communities in the United States. Christians are no longer perceived to have the moral high ground by many people outside conservative Christian circles. They are now tarred with the corruption and dishonest politicians and organizations that large majorities supported, and the young are taking notice. Their future as religious institutions that provide moral leaders and role models is in serious doubt. Their numbers are consistently seeing decreases year after year with the highly secularized prosperity gospel churches which focus primarily on entertainment, positive thinking, and worldly success seeing increases.
We may ask the following very serious question. How do Christians who dislike Christ's teachings, find him weak and impotent in the face of evil, and disregard or flout his overall message concerning forgiveness, honesty, loving one's neighbor, and the value of serving the poor expect to be saved? The answer seems to be that believing in Christ's existence and acknowledging his power to save the wicked and imperfect is the basis for this expectation of salvation. Strong faith overcomes all obstacles to salvation in many interpretations of Luther's theology. This is true even if the sin or obstacle involves opposing, suppressing, or distorting the core teachings of Christ.
But this poses a problem for Evangelicals who are tasked with converting unbelievers to Christianity. It is (again) a true irony that in the name of spreading their faith, such conversion may introduce new converts to a distorted and highly-politicized version of Christianity that bears little resemblance to biblical Christianity while also claiming a Protestant world view which is supposedly firmly based on the Bible.
But now let us return to our discussion of how the folk doctrines of hell and eternal punishment became central to the Christian tradition even though there is little support in the Bible for these doctrines.
The Source of the Term Hell
Researching the etymology of "hell", the folklorist Elli Kohen describes the Scandinavian goddess Freya who was called Hel or Holda in Germany. She was known as an "affectionate, benevolent, nurturing mother goddess" in Scandinavia but her role changed somewhat in Germany where she became a kindly and beautiful ruler of the winter season of snow and ice, as well as the goddess of love and death. However her version of death was not a place of punishment but rather a place of peaceful slumber where a deity called the dead home like a "loving mother recalling her children to sleep on her bosom." (World History of the Myths of Cats, Elli Kohen, The Edwin Mellen Press, 2003, P. 107)
As a pre-Christian deity, she was branded a witch and a demoness by Christians and her followers became the evil women of German folklore performing weekly rituals on Freya's Day (the source of the English day Friday). As bestower of love, Hel's followers kept her love potions and charms, and people would continue to seek them out in hopes of finding and attracting love. Hel riding on her chariot (originally pulled by cats) became the basis for the hags and witches who would ride through the skies during their ritual sabbaths.
The term hell which started out as the name of a beautiful, pre-Christian deity of love, death, and winter was thus transformed in the folklore into a realm of hideous punishment and associated with sorcery and witchcraft.
The Terms for Hell in the Bible
We begin by showing that the terms that translate to the English word hell in the Bible have almost nothing in common with the false folk doctrine of hell adopted by many Christians.
There are five terms used in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament that are commonly translated to (or conflated with) the English word "hell". They are Sheol which is mentioned 66 times (or 65 in the King James Version) in the Hebrew Bible, Hades which is mentioned 10 times in the New Testament, Tartarus which is mentioned once in the New Testament, Gehenna which is used 12 times in the New Testament, and abussos which is mentioned 7 times in the New Testament (5 of them in the Book of Revelation). The number of references to hell (in specific words as opposed to conceptual references) is 96.
None except "abussos" can be accurately said to literally describe a fiery place of punishment but it is a place of punishment for fallen angels and demons rather than for human souls. In describing abussos as a place of punishment, God often looks vengeful however his vengeance is directed at his disobedient angels rather than at humans. However, even this term is used inconsistently and appears to have other meanings outside the Book of Revelation.
The Hebrew word "Sheol" literally means pit or grave. Sheol also means more generally the place of the dead and it is sometimes neutral in deciding whether it will be the place of misery or of happiness. Clearly an unconscious or sleeping soul is neither happy nor unhappy. In other cases, it is an undesirable place but not a place of fire, demons, or punishment. In the Hebrew Bible, it is clear that in many passages, Sheol can only mean "the grave". Sheol is not associated with punishment (eternal or otherwise) or destruction of the wicked but only describes the destination of bodies. Thus, the resurrection of the dead (mentioned in the Nicene Creed) was a Hebrew idea since the body went into the grave at death and awaited the coming of the Messiah before it (together with the personality) could be raised from the dead (See Ezekiel 37:5-6, which states that God will add flesh to and breathe life back into the dead, dry bones of the grave).
The "immortality of the soul" idea (a popular folk belief which is not supported in the Nicene Creed) opposes the "resurrection of the dead" concept, and was grafted onto the Christian tradition from the Greek tradition. It has been a source of confusion about the nature of the afterlife for Christians for centuries, since it says that souls remain conscious after death and go to some place such as heaven, hell, purgatory, or limbo to await a "second judgment" and the end of the world. Much effort has been expended by theologians trying to resolve these two essentially contradictory views of the afterlife. In Christian theology, the study of the afterlife is called Eschatology.
The confused definition of the term "Sheol" can be seen in the fact that the King James Bible mixes the rendering of the term "Sheol" variously as "hell" (31 times), "grave" (31 times), and "pit" (3 times) depending on the context. Only in two places (Deuteronomy 32:22 and Song of Songs 8:6) does the term "Sheol" have anything to do with burning. In Dt 32:22, the Bible speaks of God's anger as kindled like a fire burning in the lowest pit. The pit is used as a metaphor to describe God's wrath rather than as a literal place of burning punishment.
In the Song of Songs 8:6, we have a reference to Sheol being associated with fire but the "flame of the Lord" refers to the emotion of jealously which burns like a flame:"Put me like a seal over your heart, Like a seal on your arm. For love is as strong as death, Jealousy is as severe as Sheol; Its flashes are flashes of fire, The very flame of the LORD.The other uses of "Sheol" have little to do with fire and have different associations. Beyond the literal meaning of the grave, Sheol has different connotations. On the positive side, we have the "bosom of Abraham", a place for the righteous. On the negative side, it is a place for the wicked or unbelievers, and of death, darkness, sorrow, semi-consciousness or unconsciousness, or banishment but not a place of fire, demons, Satan, and torture.
This surprising fact is strong proof that the common, popular understanding of hell that we have today is a late Christian creation that is not derived from the Hebrew Bible. This is an important statement for those who believe Christianity is at least partly based on the Hebrew Bible and that it is a significant source of revelation. It is a serious question as to why Christians thought it necessary to introduce a new folk tradition together with the apocalyptic Book of Revelation to redefine what happens in the afterlife, and in the process make the Christian afterlife potentially much more negative and painful than its Jewish counterpart. One major reason may be that the greater the punishment for damnation, the greater the need for salvation and thus the greater the need for a Christian savior who has already come as compared to a Jewish savior who is yet to appear.
The term Hades is used only 10 times in the New Testament. Like its Hebrew counterpart, Sheol, it means a deep grave or pit. Peter uses the term Hades (Acts 2:27) when he quotes David from Psalm 16 stating that God will not leave his soul in hell (the grave). In 1 Corinthians 15:55, we have the translation "O death, where is thy sting? O grave [Hades], where is thy victory?" where Hades (as with prophet Hosea's use of a similar phrase) translates to grave or pit, and not hell as a place of burning fire and suffering.
Hades is mentioned four times in the Book of Revelation where it generally means the pit or place of death. In all four cases, the phrase used is "death and Hades" as if the two are synonyms or at least closely related in meaning. The first three do not speak of punishment. The fourth (Rev 20:14) curiously speaks of death and Hades being "thrown into the lake of the fire" thus separating hell and the "lake of fire" into two distinct entities. Hades is thus not the same as the "lake of fire" but appears to be a separate holding place for souls. However we must acknowledge that Hell is associated with but not the exact same as burning punishment here, and this is our first clear example where this is the case.
In Luke 16:23-24, Christ tells in a parable that a rich, proud man and a poor, virtuous man (Lazarus) both die. The rich man looking up from Hades (the grave) asks Lazarus and Abraham for water because he is in agony "in these flames". However since Hades is not generally associated with torment by fire in other contexts, it is assumed that Lazarus is in psychological torment rather than in physical pain. In the Latin, the term "flamma" (for flame) can also mean heat or passion.
In yet another irony, the rich man in torment is in hell addressing Lazarus and Abraham who are also in hell or Hades (the Bosom of Abraham). So the rich man in one area of hell is addressing Lazarus in a different, more pleasant area of hell asking him for water. Note that the "gates of heaven" were opened by Christ's death on the cross, and Abraham could not get into heaven prior to this event and so he stayed in Hades.
However this passage, though not consistent with several dozen other uses of the term hell in the Bible, is perhaps the most compelling one outside of the Book Revelation supporting the notion that the grave (or some parts of it) is a place of fire or at least heat, pain, and punishment (apparently for the rich and proud). It is however clearly an outlier definition and may be questioned or reinterpreted by reasonable scholars of the Bible because of this obvious inconsistency of usage. This is our second example of hell being associated with burning (or at least hot and thirsty) punishment.
None of the other uses of Hades is associated with a hot or fiery punishment.
We should also note that the dualistic view of Christianity requires that the devil and his abode (hell) be completely separate and the opposite of God and his abode (heaven). God and the devil are eternally at war for the souls of mankind. However in the above story in the New Testament and throughout the Hebrew Bible, hell is a place for the righteous i.e., the prophet Abraham and those rejected by God (the rich, proud man). This idea that hell contains these opposites destroys the foundation of Christian dualism and supports our approach that the whole dualistic world view is not biblical.
If the righteous who are favored by God share a space with those damned and rejected by God, hell and the place for God's chosen souls are not opposites but are both part of a continuum, and God and the devil may be neighbors living in different areas of the same neighborhood. This may change after Christ's death and resurrection but the fact that the saints shared their abode with God's rejected souls means that the two types of souls cannot always be at war and that they are not inherently different.
The verse 2 Peter 2:4 shows that "Tartarus" (our third word for hell) is a place of confinement especially reserved for the fallen angels and is temporary. It suggests nothing associated with what is commonly considered hell.
So thus far, the evidence against the idea that hell is a place of fiery punishment is overwhelming. With two exceptions, the three major words for hell in the Bible which include 77 references and all references in the Hebrew Bible are in conflict with this popular concept of hell as a place of fire and burning punishment in the afterlife.
Gehenna (our fourth word for hell) may be the word that comes second closest to our contemporary view of hell since it is associated with burning, impurity, and sometimes with suffering (as mentioned previously, "abussos" comes closest). The term Gehenna is the name of a valley south of Jerusalem where the refuse of the city was burned. It is also associated with the worship of the Canaanite god Moloch who was said to demand child sacrifice. Gehenna is translated as or used as a synonym for "hell" twelve times in the New Testament. In Matthew, it refers to the valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem, where rubbish and carcasses were burned. It can thus easily become a graphic metaphor for a place of impurity or garbage, a place where pagan idols are worshiped (an abomination to God and therefore a place rejected by God), a place where the dead bodies of animals and criminals were burned, or a burning wasteland of suffering (closest to the popular meaning of hell). If we think of Gehenna using a more popular and modern interpretation, threatening the wicked with Gehenna is like telling them that if they sin, they are wasting (or making a wasteland of) their lives.
Gehenna is symbolically a place where souls may go after death, but is literally a dumping ground. The best translation may be "smoldering wasteland" since fires are seldom very intense when garbage is burned. Symbolically, Gehenna also lacks associations with hell being under the earth or in a deep pit, as a place of burning sulfur or brimstone, and as a place where Satan or demons dwell. It is thus both inconsistent with definitions of Hades and Sheol, and difficult to associate with more common views of hell which contain demons, torture, and are in the ground.
In Matthew 5:22, we see him saying that the anyone who says bad things about his brother or sister is "in danger of the fires of hell." This is our third and perhaps most unambiguous reference to a burning punishment in hell.
Beyond this first reference to Gehenna, there are two repeating patterns in the rest of the Gospels which reference this term. We see the first pattern in Matthew 5:29, 5:30 and 18:9, and again in Mark 9:43, 9:45, and 9:47-48. The six passages are very close semantically but the first two verses in Matthew translate Gehenna as "hell", and the third as "hell's fire". Unlike the second and third references in Mark which only mention "hell", in the first passage above in Mark, there is the following "unquenchable" qualifier: "hell's fire that shall never be quenched". Verse Matthew 5:29 says in the King James Version:And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell [Gehenna] (or in Matthew 18:9, hell's fire)And the very similar statement in Mark 9:43 talks of unquenchable fire but the other two verses in Mark do not:And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell [Gehenna], into the fire that never shall be quenchedOf eight references to Gehenna in Matthew and Mark (NAS - Strong's translation), three translate Gehenna to "hell's fire" and the other five to "hell". Again the addition of "fire" seems questionable.
It is difficult to argue that its proper interpretation of Gehenna is a lake of fire where souls burn eternally rather than simply a place of death and impurity (in Jewish tradition, the dead are inherently impure) or a place hated and rejected by God. In any case, the translation of Gehenna to "hell's fire" rather than simply "hell" seems arbitrary and may not the best or most accurate translation.
The question arises that since these apostles both refer to the same hell in the above six passages (and in nine verses total), which definition is correct? Numerically, of the nine references in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, Gehenna is translated as having to do with fire three times and only two of those references where the fire is "unquenchable" or "never goes out". Beyond that, our argument is that the redactors of the Gospels (or one of the scribes who copied the text) added what was a common folk tradition of a "burning hell" to one of the references to hell in each text and ignored the other references creating the inconsistency. But the references to hell which do not mention burning are much more consistent with the larger Biblical tradition of hell as a place of destruction of the body and perhaps soul. For instance, in Judaic tradition, the Pharisees believed in the 'resurrection of the body', so this destruction could later be undone by God at the time of the coming of the messiah. Therefore Mark's single reference to "unquenchable fire" is the outlier and generally outside the biblical tradition that came before it.
Verse Luke 12:5 speaks of fearing the one who has the authority to cast a person after death into hell [Gehenna]. This verse implies punishment but not by fire or demons. Verse James 3:6 says the "tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell." Again such poetic statements make it difficult to determine what type of punishment is associated with hell. Clearly fire is a metaphor since the course of a person's life cannot be literally "set on fire".
The Abyss as a Term for Hell
The Greek term abussos (word number five) is translated as the Abyss, "the deep", or "bottomless pit" in Revelations and is sometimes assumed to refer to hell. It is identified with the dwelling of Satan and the place into which Satan and his fallen angels will be cast by God (i.e., imprisoned) at the "end of time". It contains both smoke and fire. All five references in the Book of Revelation refer to supernatural beings (angels or "the beast") coming from, going to, opening, or having the key to this "bottomless pit". It has little clear relation to any human afterlife except by association with other descriptions of hell in the Bible.
However, it is also used once in Luke (Christ is asked by a demon not to cast him into "the deep") and again in Romans 10:7 where Christ is referred to as being brought up from "the deep" which appears to mean the deep ocean. Here Christ is being compared to Jonah who was swallowed by a fish in the Hebrew Bible (similar to Matthew 12:40 where Christ's three day stay in the "heart of the earth" or hell following his death on the cross is compared to Jonah staying in the whale's belly for three days and nights). The ocean deep is unlikely to mean hell or the place of the dead in this context. But note that the Luke reference confirms that "the deep" is a place for demons and not humans which is consistent with the way it is used in the Book of Revelation.
So in examining all 5 words in the Bible that could be translated as "hell", we see only 3 references out of 96 that see it as a place of hot or burning punishment, and 93 instances that do not. In addition, 2 of the remaining 93 could be seen as ambiguous in this regard since they occur repeatedly in two sets of similar phrases across the gospels ("be afraid of the one who has the power to cast you into hell" ' and "if your hand, foot, or eye causes you sin ..."). Only 2 out of 8 similar phrases mention fire at all.
So the probability that hell is in fact a place of fiery (or at least hot and thirsty) punishment is very low (between 3 and 5 percent based on the semantics of terms used for hell) and the probability that 2 of those 5 outlier definitions were additions, mistranslations, redactions, or misinterpretations is quite high.
The Book of Revelation
First, it is important to decouple what happens to human beings after death with what happens to disobedient angels or demons at some point. Their two fates are generally not linked in the rest of the Bible but become closely (and arguably falsely) associated in the Book of Revelation. But after giving biblical examples of the fate of fallen angels, we can ignore what happens to them and why it happens since our interest here is the afterlife of human souls only.
The Book of Revelation has a number of references to the "Abyss" which emits smoke as if "from a gigantic furnace" (Rev 9:2). This term and other phrases in Revelations most resemble the place of fiery punishment associated with common definitions of the word hell.
Historically, the Book of Revelation was a late book added to the Bible and one of the most disputed additions during the compilation of the Canon. The work is John of Patmos' private vision and there is no mention of it occurring in the context of a larger Church community. He almost certainly never met Jesus and the text was chosen from a number of competing Christian apocalyptic works circulating at the time the Bible was put together (examples are the Apocalypse of Thomas which focuses on the "end of the world" whereas the Apocalypses of Peter, Paul, Stephen, and First and Second James have less of this focus). It has much imagery that has been popularly understood as referring to hell though it does not often use the terms for hell used in the rest of the New Testament. Most of this imagery is associated with God's wrath and how it will manifest at the "end of time" when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. It does not specifically mention hell as a place where souls are punished in the present.
Also, the imagery of hell-like places is inconsistent with most of the prior definitions of hell in the other portions of the Bible.
An important question is what the end of the world and the predicted events of that time have to do with hell which is assumed by most to be an existing place where evil souls are currently punished. The confusion is closely related to the Hebrew versus the Greek (resurrection of the body versus immortality of the soul) dualism in Christianity. This inconsistent view of the afterlife makes it near impossible to answer this question, which must wait for another article on "systematic theology".
Returning to inconsistent definitions of hell in Revelations versus the rest of the Bible, we see hell imagery and fiery punishment in Rev 9:18 where angels will be released to kill mankind at the "end of time" but this passage does not describe hell as the place of punishment. It also involves death as a punishment but this is not the eternal punishment associated with popular notions of hell:A third of mankind was killed by the three plagues of fire, smoke and sulfur that came out of their mouths.Also in Rev 9:1-12, we see angels releasing supernatural locusts from the fiery pit (abussos) to torture mankind for 5 months but the souls are not being tortured in hell itself.
In Rev 12:9, we see a reference to being "hurled down" to a place like hell as it involves punishment but it refers to angels and the devil (or beast), and not to people:The great dragon was hurled down--that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.In Rev 20:1-3, we again see angels or Satan being punished in an Abyss:And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. 2 He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. 3 He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him ...Again in Rev 19:20, here is a punishment that will be given to Satan and his false prophet who had magical powers and not to normal human souls:But the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet ... The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur.This next passage (Rev 14:10-11) is perhaps the most powerful threats of punishment to human souls in the Bible but it again refers to the "end of time" and does not mention hell. Also, it states that a holy angel will preside over the punishment rather than Satan, and one might dispute that holy angels and Christ the Lamb both reside in hell. So where is such punishment actually occurring? This contradiction further confuses the place of punishment and the concept of hell.9 A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: "If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, 10 he, too, will drink of the wine of God's fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever.So here we have the outlier concept of hell again which is inconsistent with most other notions of hell in the rest of the Bible, and does not specifically mention the proper name "hell" (only burning sulfur as God's wrath leading to eternal punishment).
Revelation 20:14-15 is similar in that the wicked are thrown into the lake of fire at the end of time or final judgment. However in the passage, "Hades" itself is thrown into the lake which strongly implies that "hell" is not the same as the lake of fire. Based partly on the following passage, Hades is sometimes considered a holding place where souls will reside until the end of the world when the "second judgment" will take place.14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15 If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire
In Revelation 21:8, all immoral people will be punished in the lake of fire which is perhaps the broadest condemnation of sinful souls in this book:8 But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars--their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.
This "lake of fire", "fiery lake of burning sulfur", or torment by "burning sulfur" in these three passage are sometimes identified as Gehenna as a place of permanent suffering by fire but neither the word Gehenna nor abussos for that matter are used in the passages. So the connection is based solely on association with the semantics of earlier uses of these terms for hell. It is impossible to determine if the three "lake of fire" references above refer to either Gehenna or abussos.
The notion that these three passages refer to the same hell described in earlier places in the Bible is implied but these earlier references to hell do not resemble these lakes of fire in Revelation. So the context they assume and refer to does not exist which seems to invalidate their connection with the rest of the Bible. They are stand-alone references that can be connected with the larger text only with great difficulty.
So the three most important places in the Bible describing mankind's punishment in hell are based on little more than association with previous references to fiery or hot hells of punishment in earlier parts of the Bible. These earlier references are themselves ambiguous, appear in only three places, and two are associations as opposed to clear definitions. These definitions or associations are inconsistent with the other 93 (or 91 if other more ambiguous examples are accepted) references to hell in the Bible.
Note also that none of these references in Revelations mentions a pit or underground abode, a place of impurity, a devil, demons, fallen angels, other humans who share the experience of hell, or a burning wasteland. They are thus conceptually inconsistent with earlier definitions of hell.
The level of confusion is extreme. Therefore, if anyone claims to have a coherent view of hell based on the contents of the Bible, it is likely that this view is based on faith or inspiration. It is almost certainly not based rational or scholarly analysis, or common sense.
Our first conclusion is that of the 96 references to the word hell in the Bible that refer to human souls (as opposed to fallen angels), only three are specifically associated with or mention hell as a place of hot or fiery suffering. The three are Rev 20:14, Matthew 5:22, and Luke 16:23. All of these instances are outliers and inconsistent with other meanings of the terms for hell in the Bible. In addition, there are the repeating phrases (i.e., Mark 9:43 and Luke 12:5) in the Gospels where hell is associated with fire in a minority of eight instances adding two additional examples. This brings us to 91 passages potentially associated with a burning hell in total. However the inconsistency makes these minority phrases suspect in their authenticity which would bring us back to only 3 out of 96 referring to a burning hell.
Our second conclusion is that there exists a common tendency to mix up or conflate:
- The abode of Satan now (sometimes Tartarus)
- Satan's abode following the "end of time"
- The place of damned souls now (sometimes believed to be Hades)
- The place of damned souls following the "end of time" (sometimes believed to be Gehenna)
- The lake of fire, burning sulfur, and brimstone (sometimes believed to be Gehenna)
- The pit or grave (Sheol)
- A Place for God's chosen souls and the prophets (the Bosom of Abraham)
- A place of confinement for fallen angels (Tartarus)
- The burning dump south of Jerusalem (Gehenna)
- Hades in the New Testament (again defined as the grave or pit)
- The Abyss of Revelations, Luke, and Romans (Greek: abussos)
However this conflation is really a confusion of terms and concepts that occur throughout the Bible in many different contexts. The historical and linguistic evidence supports the general rule that hell be defined as "the grave" which is either a state of complete unconsciousness awaiting resurrection or a sometimes impure, dark, and undesirable place of death but also a place for the prophets and God's chosen people in Judaism. After the last judgment, hell may change but in either case, the definition of hell does not carry with it the extreme connotations of Satan, demons, torture (eternal or otherwise), sulfur, brimstone, smoke, a lake of fire, punishment, and intentionally-inflicted pain.
The highly symbolic Book of Revelation is subject to the broadest set of possible interpretations of any book in the Bible, and is therefore the subject of much argument and confusion. And the concept of hell described in it is no exception to this lack of clarity. The book is so ambiguous that the Orthodox Church almost entirely avoids mention of its contents in its liturgy and in discussions of theology (especially with laymen) because of concerns about wrong interpretations.
The exceptions to the above-stated general rule are in Luke 16:23, Matthew 5:22, and Mark 9:43 (all mentioned earlier as outlier definitions), and events occurring at the "end of time" in Revelations 14:10-11, Rev 20:14-15, and Rev 21:8 (6 verses in total).
We can consider these three passages from Revelations to be late "add-ons" to a formerly more consistent tradition that does not emphasize hell as a place of punishment and pain inflicted by demons, but only as a pit or grave. We use the term add-on because the apocalyptic nature of Revelations is very different from the contents and tone of the rest of the Bible. The Bible is on average about 1000 pages long and only the last six pages (three short passages in verses Rev 14 through 22) mention the apocalyptic warnings of what most readers assume to be hell (the term hell is not used so it is unclear in this regard) as an eternal lake of fire for sinners (as opposed to fallen angels whose destiny may be such a place of fiery punishment). Such warnings also seem to apply only to the time following the last judgment.
This huge disconnect between the concept of hell as a fiery lake in the final chapters of Revelation and the rest of the Bible seems significant enough to cast considerable doubt on the legitimacy of the concept of hell outlined in these final three passages. Such outlier concepts should not be taken as accurately representing hell because as we have demonstrated, they are based on unreliable associations with earlier ambiguous and confused terms and concepts of hell, and they are largely inconsistent with more than a thousand years of Jewish and Christian biblical history and tradition.
Many conservative Christians believe the Bible to be perfect (inerrant) and the inspired word of God. We may ask how perfect is it in the light of the history of how it came down to us and also how may have the "mistakes, additions, mistranslations, redactions, or misinterpretations" mentioned earlier in this article entered into the text? As Bart Ehrman asks in his scholarly book "Misquoting Jesus",... how does it help us to say the Bible is the inerrant word of God if in fact we don't have the inerrant word of God but only the words copied by scribes - sometimes correctly but (many times!) incorrectly? ... We don't have the originals! We have only error-ridden copies, and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them, evidently, in thousands of ways. ("Misquoting Jesus", HarperCollins, 2005, P. 2)Dr. Ehrman in his book goes into precise detail about the ways scribes and scholars intentionally and unintentionally changed passages of early existing Greek and Hebrew texts (that eventually formed the modern Biblical text) in myriad and usually small but potentially significant ways over the centuries.
When we see small variations in sections of the text which are otherwise similar and find these variations occurring in passages that are grouped together and in only two or three out of multiple places, it is easy to see how zealous scribes could modify the text to add drama and their own interpretation to its original meaning. So for example in Matthew 18:9 and 5:29, and again in Mark in the group of passages 9:43, 9:45, and 9:47-48, the term "hell" becomes "Hell's fire" and then "Hell's fire which can never be quenched". This adds the concept of fire and then eternal fire to what could have formerly been just the term "hell" without the connotations of punishment and eternal torture by fire.
The Catholic and Orthodox Church Views
The above information on hell is most important to Protestant Christians who believe in the overriding importance of Biblical authority. This means that the interpretations of priests, tradition, and other kinds of authority are of little importance relative to what the Bible says about a given issue (such as hell). We should also note that the Catholic Bible includes the apocrypha which has additional references to hell which are not included in the Canon. This may give a slightly different view of hell when compared to the Protestant view which relies solely on the Canon.
But for Catholics, traditional interpretations by the Pope, bishops, priests, and Doctors of the Church are very important. So if the Church hierarchy believes in hell as a fiery lake, Catholics must submit and accept their authority as at least co-equal with that of the Bible. So the author recommends that Catholics consult the Catholic Encyclopedia, the Catechism, or a summary of past Pope's writings on hell and the afterlife.
Some of the important early authorities in the Orthodox Church believed in the doctrine of Universalism (or Universal Salvation) which means that a just and loving God would not condemn anyone to hell for eternity. In this view, everyone (including even the devil) eventually gets saved. But a correct definition of hell is still important for this tradition since some will still be required to spend a considerable amount of time there. We will also note that at the Council of Florence, the Orthodox representative disagreed with the Catholic interpretation that hell was a place of literal or physical burning punishment, and refused to sign the paper stating it was thus rejecting the council's conclusions about hell. So the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches have differing views on what constitutes hell.
Eternal War and Eternal Punishment
We have been discussing the difference between Hell in the popular imagination versus hell in the Bible and how the two are very dissimilar. The concepts of evil, war, and divine retribution (eternal hell being the most extreme example) are interconnected and interdependent. In the Manichean system and for Christians who take a similar approach, it is easy justify eternal punishment (a burning hell) if there is absolute evil which can never be redeemed. Eternal war can be justified in the same way, and fighting this absolute evil becomes a sacred duty.
All this popular or folk emphasis on Satan, eternal punishment, and fighting evil has some very important implications for our society. Since many religious people accept the dubious biblical notion that we live in a dualistic universe where God is engaged in a perpetual war against evil, they conclude that humans must do the same in order to ensure their salvation. If God is focused on punishing evil, we must give him a helping hand. If we fail to fight evil with enough effort and resources, God could turn against us as individuals or as a nation, and reject us sending us into exile like the ancient Jews. This fear of exile and rejection by God is a near constant warning given by conservative Christian ministers, and this exile can be the result of any number of actions or the lack of action by the government or individuals. But failing to participate in the war against evil is seen as a potent source of such rejection. God is believed to have punished Israel with exile when the Jews violated their covenant with God.
How these preachers came to identify the modern United States with ancient Israel is indeed difficult to comprehend but the effort to create a myth that sees the US as a modern day Israel no matter how unlikely and nonbiblical is unmistakable. The ancient Israelites made a covenant with God but there is little evidence that today's Christians have inherited or abide by this covenant. Christians seem to want to abide by a small fraction of the 613 laws set out in the Hebrew Bible that were the basis of this covenant with God. The covenant has clearly been broken in spite of many claims to the contrary. It is difficult to understand how Saint Paul's "new covenant" has replaced it since it is entirely ambiguous which of these laws if any are part of this new contract with God. It is clear that no contract is valid if one of the parties to the contract can change the text of the agreement at any time or choose which text to ignore.
One idea is that this new covenant is based on God's grace (a contact without "consideration", i.e., one freely given without requiring any form of payment in return which is really not a contract at all). Another is that it is based on faith in Christ and his message. This makes it quite ambiguous as to what this new agreement between man and God contains. For example, what does having faith really mean, how much faith is required, what part or interpretation of Jesus' message must be believed when so many differing interpretations exist concerning the meaning of his message, and what happens if you believe the wrong interpretation of his message? Unfortunately these issues of faith are difficult ones across the board in Christianity. But when something as murky as faith or love is what is offered to fulfill one party's obligation to a contract, it makes it hard to see whether there is a contract (or covenant) at all in any conventional sense.
This ambiguity makes a coherent understanding of the concept of a new covenant very challenging, and allows theologians to make all sorts of promises about the good things God will do for people if they accept Christ while it limits and down-sizes what is required in order to obtain all these gifts. Many people seem to appreciate a good deal when they see one.
Another definition of the contract or covenant is that it consists of carrying out the "Great Commission", a term that became popular among theologians during the protestant reformation. Here Christ commanded his followers to go out and convert (or baptize) all people and also spread the "good news" of the Gospel. This is something various evangelical denominations take seriously and strive to do. But there is little justification as to why it is greater than any other commandment. Its popularity seems to rest on the fact that missionary work is something relatively easy to understand and carry out. A fourth approach to the new covenant is that the new covenant is fulfilled if Christ's disciples "love one another" which is the new commandment given by Christ at the Last Supper. This has similar problems as the faith requirement when it comes to determining if the contract has been fulfilled and the commandment properly followed. How can it be determined that any person loves properly or strongly enough or enough people to fulfill this requirement of the new covenant?
As with most religions, this is where faith becomes important when the limits of rationality are encountered as one attempts to understand an ancient and complex religious text.
Finally, a fifth approach to the new covenant is sacramental. Here, Christ says at the Last Supper, "... do this in memory of me." Catholics take this command very seriously and require their members to attend mass weekly to reenact the Last Supper in order to fulfill this command. Again, obeying this command could be interpreted as a ritual activity that is an obligation necessary in order to fulfill the new covenant.
While it may be difficult to understand what the new covenant is, it is easier to understand what it is not. In any of the above five interpretations of the "new covenant", it is clear that fighting evil has nothing to do with this new covenant. However Christian dualists and crusaders against evil for some unknown reason seem to see it as an essential part of this new covenant. So the notion that we will be rejected by God for breaking this new covenant by failing to fight evil seems entirely false. Therefore the new covenant does not justify fighting such evils as same-sex marriage and abortion which serve as the primary moral basis for the highly politicized social conservative movement. These crusaders simply have no scriptural basis for claiming that the new covenant requires them to fight evil and wage war eternal or otherwise.
When society accepts this dualistic world view and its ideal of fighting evil, creating and enforcing repressive laws becomes divine legislation and retribution. Eternal punishment in hell goes hand-in-hand with giving long prison sentences to offenders, long periods of solitary confinement, and capital punishment. Torturing enemies here is consistent and proper just as God will later torture them in hell. This may explain why a Washington Post/ABC poll found that 69% of white evangelical Christians said that the CIA's use of "enhanced interrogation" was acceptable while only 41% of the secular population believed that it was acceptable.
Many people find meaning and purpose as they join what they consider a divinely inspired struggle. Some even believe that going to war especially in the Middle East means we are closer to the "end times" and support it in hopes of bringing about the end of the world and Christ's return. Angry individuals, groups, and nations who feel they have been victims of injustice often seek additional moral justifications for making war. People see themselves as victims of liberal elites, secular humanists, government regulators, the IRS, an unelected Supreme Court, the Israeli lobby, foreign terrorists, theistic Muslim states, or a "kingly" President, and want to express that anger in some form of war. Pride in "exceptionalism" further increases these bellicose tendencies since Americans are special (chosen by God) and therefore have additional responsibilities to punish evil.
The source of evil that justifies making war can be from insiders or outsiders and the source of the evil can be an individual or group. Terrorists are generally outsiders and part of a group. Saddam Hussein was seen as an outsider but also as an evil individual although he controlled a nation state, Iraq. Criminal gangs, corporations (for some liberals), unions (for some corporate leaders and investors), the government (for some Libertarians), and the Mafia are insiders to the culture but their evil involves groups of people. The last segment is the individual criminal who is an insider to our culture and operates on his or her own.
Making war is a group effort on our part to fight the real or imagined individual or collective evil of an outsider to our culture. The problem of war becomes more complex and dangerous when war is declared against individuals or groups who are insiders to the culture. This justifies the police adopting military tactics and government agencies using tactics usually reserved for foreign enemies and spies against them. The domestic enemies seem to mostly consist of poor people, immigrants, protesters of any sort, and whistle-blowers.
War That Absolves Sin and Guilt
The grand paradox of prosecutors and police is that there is often tremendous pressure to skirt or break one set of rules or laws in order to enforce a different set of laws. In order to bring criminals to justice and fight evil, it is very tempting to bend the rules and violate due process. But a religiously-oriented crusader against evil can easily come to see the laws and rules of criminal procedure as impediments to attaining justice rather than something that supports justice. Breaking the rules or being immoral when the goal is fighting evil is forgiven.
As an illustration, the Guardian Newspaper published the article "America's Deadliest Prosecutors" on July 1st, 2016 which shows how five prosecutors were responsible for generating 440 death sentences. The article claims that the sentences were "personality-driven" and that a study showed in one case that 46% of verdicts had prosecutorial misconduct and another prosecutor had one third of the 54 capital sentences challenged when misconduct was discovered with three overturned. These five "overzealous" prosecutors whose prosecutions represented one out of seven of the people currently on death row clearly were on a crusade to punish evil and the sentence of death was what they were consistently seeking as punishment.
Similarly in order to win a war, it is easy to insist that "the gloves must come off" and that we must go over to the "dark side" and violate the rules of war and civilized behavior. Here even state-sponsored torture and assassinations can become good public policy. We must win out over evil no matter what the cost. This is the difficult moral challenge that the police and soldiers that we ask to protect us must face repeatedly. The problem of how to fight evil without becoming evil in the process is one of the most difficult moral challenges any person or institution can confront. This is one important reason that police and soldiers are given the benefit of the doubt in morally ambiguous situations and respected for their sacrifices by most citizens. It is assumed that dealing with evil on a daily basis predisposes police to overact. It takes discipline to avoid taking on the hatred and pain police are exposed to and crossing the line when it comes to dealing with difficult people and criminals.
Popular beliefs spread by preachers, pundits, politicians, and culture warriors that imagine a god of vengeance who fights evil and meets out eternal punishment can give a veneer of righteousness and religiosity to making war as well as adopting a policy of overly aggressive policing. In a war against supernatural evil, the ends justify the means as people suspend or ignore the moral codes and laws that normally govern both individual and institutional behavior. Almost anything can be justified in combating the external evils of communism, terrorism, illegal immigration, and weapons of mass destruction, and to a lesser extent the internal evils of drugs, criminal activity, and the dependent poor. In the end, this moral degeneration makes it increasingly difficult for us to claim the moral high ground and argue that we are the good guys fighting the bad guys.
The image of the US has suffered greatly in the eyes of the world with it now being ranked the 10th most popular nation. Bedrock principles such as the rule of law, freedom of the press, prohibition against torture, fair elections, open courts, union rights, separation of military and civil authority, corporate accountability, personal privacy, universal suffrage, and many more are openly under attack. Outsiders see a democracy in serious decline as government and business ban together in security and information sharing agreements while claiming the need to maintain institutional secrecy at all levels. In many cases, the justification given is fear of evil, criminal behavior, and terrorism. Terrorism is a modern term which is very elastic in its meaning that defines our fear of evil but without the clear and direct religious overtones that make it seem metaphysical or biblical. This makes it acceptable as a legal and secular term but it still retains an indirect religious or symbolic power, and thus becomes a thinly-veiled religious term describing demonic, diabolical, or evil action. We are all "terrified" of supernatural, random, or irrational evil (or terrorism).
Faith That Absolves Sin and Guilt
We have mentioned that strong faith brings salvation for some Evangelical Christians regardless of how unethical a person is. When engaged in war, it is important to have a way to avoid guilt for the immoral events that occur in war. We find a good illustration of this approach in the man who recently attacked a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado and killed several people. The man according to his ex-wife was a serial philanderer, a wife beater, and a problem gambler who fathered two children out of wedlock while married to another woman. His ex-wife was quoted in a New York Times article on Dec. 1st, 2015 as saying,He claims to be a Christian and is extremely evangelistic, but he does not follow the Bible in his actions. He says that as long as he believes he will be saved, he can do whatever he pleases. He is obsessed with the world coming to an end.Here, the most vile and destructive behavior becomes irrelevant to the religious life as salvation is based purely and completely on the strength of one's faith. Unfortunately, there are many conservative Christians who take this approach which is an extreme but increasingly common interpretation of Luther's doctrine of salvation by faith alone.
The Tipping Point
Those who sometimes unconsciously identify themselves as warriors in a metaphysical war against evil and the allies of an avenging God often cannot see that there is a tipping point where the extremes of fighting evil become worse than the evil they were meant to overcome. This is just like taking a medicine that causes more harm than the disease it is intended to cure. Headache remedies that cause heart attacks should never be sold.
Heroic attempts to fight evil can easily surpass the evil they were meant to stop because such attempts are often institutionalized and involve large, well-financed groups, government organizations, churches, the police, the courts, and the military. Mass efforts to fight evil can be much more powerful and destructive than the evil of smaller groups or individuals that these mass organizations seek to eliminate.
For example, as two former directors of the federal Asset Forfeiture Office wrote when describing how law enforcement personnel were confiscating billions of dollars from citizens in the War on Drugs with no proof of wrongdoing:
Over time, however, the tactic [Civil Forfeiture] has turned into an evil itself, with the corruption it engendered among government and law enforcement coming to clearly outweigh any benefits. (The Washington Post, September 8, 2014, Government self-interest corrupted a crime-fighting tool into an evil)
Tactics used in fighting the war on drugs became so toxic that even the Justice Department came to realize the dangers but it took decades before these officials noticed the damage. However without the recent expose by the Washington Post, the injustice might have gone on for more decades. This recent change affects only a small portion of seizures and so much of the injustice continues but it is the beginning of reform. This is the kind of blindness that can be traced at least partially to our religiously-based requirement to fight evil.
To give other examples (where the medicine is worse than the disease), if drone warfare, torture, counter-insurgency tactics in the Middle East and Viet Nam, and the war on drugs are all ineffective and obviously "do not work" while they also cause enormous injustice, suffering, and death (a trinity of evils), it does not matter. We are fighting evil and that is all that counts regardless of how ineffective our tactics or how much suffering we cause. The good that came from these wars and tactics is minimal at best compared to the evil created.
For instance, the CIA director John Brennen admitted that torture did not lead to valuable intelligence in a December 11, 2014 televised interview. A recently leaked CIA report and some high-profile ex-CIA people have concluded that drone attacks create many more terrorists than they kill.
In spite of some recent disastrous wars, some Neoconservatives and religious conservatives simply seem to have an addiction to waging war to fight that which they perceive to be evil, and this addiction can be partially traced to a misreading of the Bible and its approach to evil and punishment. War should be the absolute last choice when all other options have been exhausted but it is often the first and best option for religious or secular crusaders against evil.
The Goal of War is More War
This attitude towards war where the process of fighting is most valued rather than trying to reach a specific goal through war (such as winning) could explain why almost no one in power seemed to really care how unsuccessful we were in managing and fighting the wars in Viet Nam and Iraq. Roadside bombs all but stopped the US in its tracks in Iraq and made the rebuilding effort impossible. In spite of trillions spent on weapons, our soldiers were mostly defenseless against them. The US in Viet Nam was basically an occupying army regardless of the claims of the Defense Department that the South Vietnamese wanted us there. As such, the US soldiers were surrounded by enemies wherever they went and their defeat was inevitable.
Nor did our leaders seem to care that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or that Saddam had no connection to Al Qaeda, and therefore that there was no reason to go to war in the first place. Of course the Bush Whitehouse public relations people said Saddam was a "bad man" who "killed his own people" forgetting that President Lincoln's actions during the Civil War would also make him a "bad man" if this were by itself a valid criterion for evil.
It also did not seem to matter that the Gulf of Tonkin (the naval attack that was the initial justification for the war in Viet Nam) never happened. This approach towards evil may further explain why the public did not hold these leaders accountable for these failures since many are complicit in this world view and therefore will not criticize it. It is as if most of the country simply forgot about the Iraq war and experienced a form of mass amnesia. Nothing else could explain the fact that conservatives still have any credibility when they claim to be the party of limited spending, low deficits, and small government when they borrowed and spent between two and three trillion dollars for the Iraq war. The official silence both in the government and mass media concerning "lessons learned" has been deafening. The unwillingness to hold anyone to account for mistakes made is the tip of the iceberg of denial and media or self-induced amnesia.
The goal seems not to be to win but simply to fight and keep fighting since this is an extended (or eternal) battle that awaits the "second coming" or some other similar cosmological event. Costly, futile wars and quagmires are therefore not a problem. They are in fact highly desirable given this dualistic world view. In the Manichean system, if you are not fighting evil, you are evil and not worthy of salvation. So if you have no enemy, you need to find an old enemy or create a new one. If you have an enemy, you can multiply that enemy through drone strikes and indiscriminate bombing. If you are not currently in a war, you need to start a new war in order to gain or maintain God's blessing.
God's Side is Always the Good Side
The important thing is to be on the side of God in this eternal war. This is the ethical confusion that arises when one's "goodness" is based on one's identity rather than one's actions. President Nixon thought his goodness was based on his occupying the office of President ("It is not wrong if the President does it"). J. Edgar Hoover thought he could do no wrong in his role as director of the FBI (in spite of a mountain of evidence to the contrary). During the colonial period, the Pope and the Catholic church declared the "doctrine of discovery" which sanctioned and sanctified Christians attacking and stealing the land of pagans and savages throughout the world, and especially in the Americas. Some Christians believe they are good simply because they are Christians regardless of the sins they commit.
The "we are all sinners" statement can be interpreted as a Christian variation of the "everybody does it" defense of evil action. People who have accepted this approach to sin often tell themselves that all people are the same as they are (i.e., are selfish, lustful, vengeful, or greedy) but they are dishonest and won't admit it. These people are therefore not required to change for the good or cannot change because "everybody does it" and they cannot be an exception to the universal rule of the fallen nature of mankind. It is a very common method of absolving themselves from guilt.
When this approach of "we are all sinners" leads to compassion and universal forgiveness of all sinners, it has a very positive effect, lessens conflict, and prevents the escalation of events that can lead to war. But when a dualistic approach is taken to good and evil, it often has the effect of encouraging forgiveness for one's self or one's group (i.e., the good or "chosen" or Godly people) while fiercely condemning and punishing outsiders and enemies. Christian Dualism is so dangerous because it takes our greatest virtues and transforms them into vices with potentially terrifying results.
To continue on with the previous topic, police are good not because they properly enforce the law but because of their role as policemen and protector makes them inherently good and sometimes above the law. The wealthy are "economic royalists" who consider themselves to be kings because they have money. Kings are inherently superior and often "chosen by god" (i.e., have a "divine right") to rule their subjects. They have an inherent right to treat their subjects as pawns in their efforts to gain more money and power, and their subjects are expected to bask in the reflected glory of their ruler. This is a peculiar economic form of Stockholm Syndrome where the victims are expected to identify with and support their abusers.
We are Americans and are therefore inherently good regardless of how we trample the Constitution (which is probably the most uniquely positive feature of America), invade other countries, prosecute whistleblowers as spies, and kidnap, torture, and kill people without due process.
There is the mythical view of inherent goodness and innate moral superiority that is obtained by having the correct identity which is in turn defined by cultural, tribal, economic, or religious affiliation. There are many ways of defining and cementing this affiliation but for Christians that accept Martin Luther's theology, being part of a community that believes in the same theology of salvation (justification by faith in Christ) creates a strong bond that is generally independent of any ethical requirements for membership. For Luther, believing the right things is far more important than doing the right thing. Feeling sorry for unethical actions and confessing one's sins after the fact which is necessary to gain forgiveness does little to right the wrong that was done.
John Calvin created yet another Christian category of "inherent goodness" with his notion that the "elect" were those blessed by God and destined for salvation. For Calvin, it is success and wealth rather than moral righteousness that are the best indicators of this divine blessing. Calvin's early form of the "prosperity gospel" which influenced the colonial Puritans as well as the Dutch Reformed and Presbyterian Churches also became gradually secularized, and influenced the development of Capitalism. Capitalism came to be regarded as an institution or philosophy with inherent religious virtues, and the corporation much like a religious congregation came to be sanctified. The individual or worker on the other hand was regarded as more likely to be sinful, lazy, and fallen. The rise of Capitalism and its religious origins in Christianity were documented in Max Weber's popular book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, one of the seminal works in the field of Sociology. One can clearly see how the modern conservative movement has used these Lutheran and Calvinist religious ideas to justify their innate superiority while keeping such superiority independent of any ethical requirements.
Both religious and secularized Calvinists (who retain their attitudes and religious fervor but not their theology) can be especially cruel, condescending, and hateful towards the poor. This is because in Calvinism, the poor deserve their pain because God is its source and he predestined them to suffer. Note that the poor are evil here not because of their deeds but because God has rejected them and they are on his bad side. They are headed for hell in the afterlife while the wealthy who are blessed by God are his elect and chosen. Scrooge, the miser in Charles Dickens' tale, is a perfect example of a Calvinist personality when the negative aspects of Calvin's theology are predominant. Scrooge is hard-working, miserable, miserly, rich, places unreasonable demands on his employees, and dislikes the poor.
Modern day Calvinists are those who love the invisible hand of the market and seek to ignore what the Constitution calls "the common good" in all of its facets. For them, government which seeks to improve anything for average people or the poor is evil and controlled by the devil. Of course the secular version uses different terms but retains a similarly rejecting attitude.
Positive Calvinists are dedicated workers, highly creative, builders and maintainers of companies and institutions, and generally highly productive people. Positive Calvinists seek to "glorify God" through their work which they see as a vocation and part of their path to salvation. Negative Calvinists see anyone who does not see work in this way and lacks the "Protestant work ethic" way as evil, lazy, and corrupt. This is yet another flavor of Christian dualism that divides the universe into two parts, the saved and the unsaved, those destined for heaven versus those going to hell. This approach is less destructive and less focused on warring with an enemy but it has the negative side of advocating public policies that support the rich and the corporations while defunding and resisting policies that support the poor and middle class. Punitive policies such as the War on Drugs, overly aggressive policing (stop and frisk), and promoting corporate and government spying on citizens can also be traced to a disdain for the lower economic classes.
Negative Calvinists dislike government that attempts to help the poor or the middle class since dependence on government puts both groups in the same corrupt and "fallen" category. Only a deeply felt dislike of dependency which has its religious origins in certain forms of Christianity could explain the conservative attitude towards the poor and dependent middle class, and the "welfare state" government which seeks to improve their lives.
Since almost all of the people who accuse others of being dependent on government are dependent themselves, they must continuously find ways to ignore and deny the benefits they have received from government. This creates a split personality in these people where they become practiced creators of excuses as to why their dependency is different from the dependency of others or hypocrites who say one thing and do the reverse.
However looking at the larger picture, those who have lost jobs and fallen into dependency can justifiably blame the businesses who systematically moved their jobs overseas, lobbied the government to create trade agreements to encourage their relocation, eliminated pensions, and destroyed the unions which created jobs with higher wages and benefits. The businesses have been effective at shifting the blame to the government which certainly has done little to stop these job losses. So government is often seen as the enemy of the working man, the source of these trade agreements, and this hated state of dependency. The businesses, investors, and "job creators" are thought to be blameless. But blame-shifting is a specialty of right wing think tanks, media corporations, and politicians who do the bidding of the investment classes. Of course the left has its own methods of denying responsibility while consistently voting for these trade agreements, and then claiming that most of the lost jobs were replaced by automation. This appears highly unlikely when millions of manufacturing jobs that were lost in the US somehow reappeared in Mexico, Viet Nam, and China.
People who use public road and bridges, accept Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security, take out school loans, attend public schools and universities, accept food stamps, drink water from public water supplies, use electricity supplied by companies that are backed by government bonds, and benefit from an endless series of other government programs must steadfastly and dishonestly maintain their claims of independence from government.
The dualistic definitions of goodness outlined above are devoid of rationality since the good can be completely divorced from ethics and moral behavior. It is absurd to claim that people who do evil are good or that people who have done nothing wrong like the poor are cursed by God. However a dualistic world view which claims people are inherently good because they are fighting on the right side in a war against evil and chosen by God seems to absolve people of responsibility for their evil or immoral actions. Such actions are sometimes justified because they promote a "greater good" which can be conveniently redefined as any action that helps our side win the war. In addition, they can be further justified because God is punishing the poor and weak, and therefore his chosen people can help him along in this important activity.
As long as we keep fighting on the good side for vague goals which are determined by some authority often in way that has little to do with morality or justice, we are told we are special and will receive our reward some day perhaps in heaven. One hopes this is the case since it seems pretty clear that there are few rewards to be seen on earth as a result of the recent wars we have mentioned.
Single Issue Moral Superiority
A more rational but still questionable approach to morality and "goodness" is to take a vast rainbow of complex moral laws and choose to unconditionally support one or two in an effort to make one or one's group morally superior in order to gain favor with God. If you are engaged in a war against evil, it must be a simple task to define your enemy in order to rouse the troops. A single-issue morality where opposition to, for example, abortion or same-sex marriage is elevated above all else (despite that fact that abortion is not prohibited in the Bible) is a common way of separating the good people from the evil ones. Opposition to abortion is low hanging fruit for persons seeking moral and spiritual superiority since few people will need an abortion and the wealthy can easily hide it from their friends and family if they have one.
The opposition to abortion also throws new fuel on the fire of the culture wars. In this form of dualism, the good people belong to God and the evil people belong to the devil and this separation is the basis of the culture war. Ironically, the sin of divorce and remarriage (or adultery) which is prohibited by Christ in Matthew 19:9 is largely ignored as a single-issue moral law since it is so inconvenient to many divorced Christians (such as the far right's Christian champion, President Reagan).
Protestant theology began as a radical simplification of Catholic doctrine and ritual, and the desire to simplify ethics was also present. People who accept this "God versus the devil" dualism need a clear and simple method of separating good from evil. Politicians and preachers take full advantage of this need by trumpeting these moral wedge issues in order to perpetuate conflict and convince people that they are on the Godly side of the great dualistic moral divide. Most religious people in the West have some element of conscious or unacknowledged guilt for past behavior. They therefore seek a simple way to gain assurance that they are doing things properly in order to feel they are accepted by God. These simplistic, single issue approaches to righteousness therefore have mass appeal. Using these moral wedge issues, preachers and politicians can easily both increase the number of loyal church goers and gain support from these reliable groups of single-issue voters.
Abortion is a slow-motion tragedy both for the woman who must deal with guilt and the unborn child who will not have a chance at life. However making abortion illegal is a good example of how the medicine is worse that the disease. Outlawing abortion and driving women into back alleys where unqualified practitioners cause sickness and death in pregnant women is not the answer to the problem. But to those who think it is their God-given responsibility to punish evil, forcing women to raise unwanted children or to undergo dangerous abortion procedures outside the medical system fits well into a model of the universe where the evil act of abortion should bring punishment and suffering to those women who have sex without wanting children. Punishing abortion while ignoring other more obvious prohibitions in the Bible has the highly desirable side-effect of punishing women exclusively while leaving men pure and blameless in the eyes of God.
God's Chosen - The "Industrious" Rich and Powerful
Another simple way of separating the good people from the evil ones arises from another feature of Calvinism which saw God's elect as industrious, thrifty, and "inner worldly ascetics". The good people are productive, work hard and save for a rainy day while the bad people go on disability, collect welfare and food stamps, refuse to get educated and waste their money on frivolous things and enjoyment. Such a distinction ignores the fact that the wealthy owners in our society collect rents and lightly taxed stock dividends and capital gains while engaging in a wide variety of non-productive activities involving financial transactions and schemes to avoid taxes.
These "work" activities produce little or nothing of value for society at large. Many rely to a significant degree on various forms of corporate welfare and well-paid lobbyists who control the levers of power and get laws passed that lower taxes on the wealthy and all but eliminate taxes on large corporations. In reality, there is serious competition as to who are the greatest sponges and malingerers, the non-working rich or the non-working or low-skilled poor. This is especially true when much of the new wealth is inherited with six out of ten of the top wealthiest Americans being heirs to large fortunes. But the wealthy have less of an excuse for laziness, predatory financial activities, and bad behavior in general than the poor since they have the advantage of good education and many choices in life that the poor do not have.
In addition, the working poor do obvious useful work like taking care of old people and children, food service work, cleaning, and grounds-keeping. The wealthy and well educated, in contrast, often participate in forms of "labor" such as mergers and acquisitions to promote monopolies, mutual fund management that puts the management firm's interest above the client's and takes an average of 40% of the earnings in management fees (with returns that virtually alway trail the S&P500), stock buy-backs to pump up stock values, gambling with government-backed funds on credit default swaps and other obscure financial "products", predatory lending, participating in market timing schemes to defraud clients through the manipulation of stock values by buying stocks milliseconds before the client's trade and reselling them to the client at an inflated price, hiding money in off-shore tax havens, rigging loan rates such as the Libor Index, and insider trading to name just a hand full. Not only are these not productive but instead they are generally parasitic on the overall economy. The two words financial and industry appear to have opposed meanings in the modern world and should no longer be used together based on the fact that many of today's financiers are the opposite of industrialists.
Since criminals and confidence men are often motivated and work hard at their craft, it is clear that one needs to add the notion that hard work must be beneficial to or at least not harm others to give the worker "elect" or "chosen by God" status. As is evident from the list of activities above, much financial work does not meet that standard though the wealthy often do not notice they have failed Calvin's test for moral superiority or elect status. At least they can always fall back on being wealthy and hard working as evidence of being chosen by God even if they fail this important productivity test. Again we see how immoral or criminal behavior can be laundered and sanctified using selected interpretations of Calvin's theology.
We have mentioned that failure is not a big cause for concern for those who believe we are engaged in an eternal war against evil. But not everyone takes this approach and they reject the dualistic world view. So there is the necessity of denying, justifying, and ignoring failed policies. Failure is often said to be an orphan i.e., it has no relations. But the task of justifying failure presents few challenges when the population is inclined to believe that any war is a righteous war. Transparently false or senseless reasons for war are readily accepted and defended and challenges to these reasons are easily rejected or avoided.
This has been shown in the case of Iraq. In a documentary by Bill Moyers, a variety of the news people, pundits, columnists, and politicians who supported the Iraq war were invited to discuss the failures in Iraq reporting and policy leading up to and after the war. Almost all of these stridently pro-war individuals declined to be interviewed. Similarly some Christian conservatives who vocally and uniformly supported President Bush's election and war policies have been exceptionally quiet in reacting to the results of those policies. But failure may be all right if leaders publicly announce that they prayed to God for guidance before acting, and perhaps failure is part of some larger divine plan if our President is a good Christian. Perhaps we will lose the earthy war in Iraq but win the larger and more important divinely inspired war against evil.
When President Bush was confronted with the fact that there were no WMDs in Iraq, he defensively replied that "everybody believed there were WMDs". This is the classical "everybody does it" defense. To translate, it says, "If I am not alone, I am not guilty." It is similar to a child who gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar and says that since all his friends steal cookies, it must be OK. Our foreign policy had been reduced to juvenile efforts to deny responsibility when you do something wrong by blaming the other guy who did it first. This can seem to make sense if a weak and ignorant younger child follows in the footsteps of a more powerful and dominant older sibling. But the President of the United States and the largest and best funded intelligence agencies on the planet are neither weak nor ignorant. So the defense looks somewhat childish and pathetic. Unfortunately instead of missing cookies, we have 100,000 US soldiers with serious injuries and at least 100,000 Iraqis dead. The Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins concluded that there had been between 390,000 and 900,000 Iraqi war-related deaths by 2006 with the likeliest number being close to 655,000 (about 4 percent of the Iraqi population).
Exaggerated Threats and the Justification for War
Advocating unending war without regard to its success or failure is a largely irrational approach to addressing international or domestic problems from a strategic or pragmatic point of view. Many secular people therefore see it as a kind of mass insanity. They fail to understand the power of Christian mythology and sacred stories in the culture because they cannot enter into the popular religious way of thinking that promotes and justifies this world view.
But an examination of the Crusades, the European and Salem witch trials, the Inquisition, Prohibition in the 1920's and 1930's, and even the methods used in early 1950's against alleged communists by Senator Joe McCarthy illustrate the ways religiously-based mythical thinking about evil temporarily takes over whole institutions and societies whether they be secular or religious. In retrospect, we can see that many of these efforts to fight evil were based on false claims, immoral, and often ineffective while they many times created enormous suffering and corruption.
There were no witches but there was land that could be seized by the Church when the women "witches" were eliminated. The crusades increased the power of the Church and sometimes the wealth and status of the warriors but did God sanction all that death and destruction, and admit the crusaders into heaven as the Church claimed he would? The massive corruption of the police and courts that occurred when alcohol was banned in the 1930's based on the moral demands of a small minority of Christians and social reformers eventually became obvious to all. The ban was lifted with very few negative consequences. The fear of Protestants by the Church justified torture and death of heretics but who would claim such action is morally justified in the modern world? The corruption of the Church and its desire to maintain its position of power is obvious in hindsight.
Hitler's fear of the Jews was clearly pathological but he convinced the majority of Germans they were evil and an extreme threat to their society. As with witches, there was the added bonus of seizing the wealth and property of the Jews as the evil was cleansed. Note that though Hitler became the 20th century embodiment of evil, his evil was supported and powered by his fear and hatred of the Jewish people who he falsely accused of being evil incarnate. Without a Jewish enemy, he would most likely never have gained his power to make war. So the fear of evil as embodied in the gypsies and Jews by a primarily Christian German culture is a near perfect example of how fear and hatred of evil outsiders (who actually posed no threat) was a primary ingredient in the causes of World War II. The war resulted in the death of over 50 million in Europe.
The fear of communism destroyed countless lives and reputations in the 1950's while a few crusading politicians such as Senator McCarthy gained fame and power. When the Senator's accusations were found to be false, the investigations ceased without any apparent increase in danger from communists.
But communism and communist countries later became our friends and allies as soon as importers and middle men could buy cheap products from China and Viet Nam and sell them at a profit. The United States government would never tolerate the massive trade deficit with China and the massive transfer of our wealth to China if we considered them an enemy. "Red China" and our fierce enemy Viet Nam had mysteriously ceased to be evil. Iraq was considered an extreme threat due to its supposed WMDs but invading had the added advantage of giving President Bush, a former "oil man", and the US oil companies control over the country with the second largest oil reserves of any country in the world.
One might notice a pattern here where those who scapegoat and call others evil can gain wealth and power when the evil people are eliminated or attacked. If there is more wealth to be gained by making enemies into friends, as in the case of Viet Nam and China, they are transformed and given the new roll of ally and trading partner. All the focus on human rights, spreading democracy, and freedom evaporated when it came to fighting communism once there was money to be made. The argument floated by the "business community" was capitalism comes first, then democracy will follow. After over 20 years of capitalism and the normalization of trade relations with China, we are still waiting to see any sign of democracy.
One must ask how many of these individuals, groups, substances (i.e., drugs), philosophies, or countries were evil in the first place? And did those that had evil features (such as Stalinist Russia) pose a serious threat? The answer is in general, with perhaps the exception of certain battles with Ottoman warriors and unstable nuclear powers such as Pakistan, either "no" or any threat was greatly exaggerated. Of course when nations are not directly threatened, the typical statement is that an enemy poses a threat to "our way of life" and this gives politicians ample reason to go to war based on the vaguest notions of threat.
However the threat is described, there is usually someone or some group in power that have a vested interest in convincing people that there is a threat and that arrest, assassination, or war is the best way to respond. People always need to question authority when leaders make claims that we are threatened by evil outsiders but it seldom happens. They often claim or imply that God, truth, and righteousness are on their side in an eternal war against evil. President Bush was convinced that God wanted him to invade Iraq and said as much on different occasions. And even in conflicts such as World War II that were necessary for the US and its allies, if the German people had questioned Hitler's false claims about the threat posed by the Jews and the genetic and cultural superiority (i.e., inherent goodness) of the German people, the war could have been avoided.
When one group or nation embraces war, other groups must respond and are pulled into that war. Each side sees their foe as the embodiment of evil. Thus the cycle repeats throughout history as the Manichean system and religious dualism provides the fuel to keep the the war machine rumbling down the tracks.
Paranoia is a highly contagious emotion whether the supposed threat is from pagans, protestants, Jews, witches, Muslims, or communists, or from forbidden substances such as drugs or alcohol. People who seek power know this and use mass fear and paranoia to manipulate others into conflicts, "defensive wars", religious crusades, ethnic cleansing, banning substances, signature strikes, and acts of "protective retaliation". Powerful people often require enemies and scapegoats to create fear and righteous anger towards evil in order to maintain and increase their power.
As an example, Margaret Thatcher's satisfaction rating doubled going from the low 30's to almost 60% during the Falklands War, and it hovered around 50% for the next 18 months and through the general election which she won. President George Bush hoped to replicate such success with the Iraq War and used his "war president" status to get reelected. He was successful in being elected to a second term partly based on the argument that it would be bad to change the commander-in-chief in the middle of a war. Such popularity and support also leads to added power and influence to accomplish a legislative agenda.
Similarly President Nixon created the "war on drugs" to target and criminalize his enemies, the hippies and black people. As John Ehrilicman, President Nixon's Whitehouse council was quoted saying in an interview in the article Legalize It All in the March 23rd 2016 issue of Harpers Magazine,We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about drugs? Of course we did.Again we see how to scapegoat and destroy certain groups by branding them evil. Politicians can then go to war with them based on false claims of how they threaten the "good people" in order to gain political advantage.
Victims of Moral Injury
War creates suffering and many victims. One group of often unacknowledged victims are the war-fighters or foot soldiers and police who do their jobs in good faith believing that the goal of any war is to win it. Many return from their jobs fighting drugs on the streets of cities or from fighting enemies in foreign lands debilitated and confused about the reasons for, goals of, and results of these wars. It is clear that almost no one in authority wants to address the questions about the meaning and value of these wars with returning soldiers because the answers might appear nonsensical and be too painful to bear. It is hoped that calling them heroes will end the conversation and keep them quiet.
The same approach played out after Viet Nam where the formerly top secret Pentagon Papers revealed that the war was believed to be unwinnable by the generals in 1968 but the war dragged on until 1975. What pro-war politician or military leader would want to defend the war to a returning wounded soldier or the parents of a soldier who died in battle after that revelation? It is highly desirable that no leader who advocated war be challenged and required to answer these difficult questions.
The biggest problem from a public relations standpoint was invading Iraq based on false claims of weapons of mass destruction. No one likes powerful aggressors who invade and make war on other countries without very solid justifiable reasons. But the WMD rationale for war is of little importance when one is dealing with radical evil (i.e., "the axis of evil"). Once the enemy is identified by those in authority, questions about why they are the enemy are likely to be criticized as unpatriotic, ignored, or actively suppressed. As President Bush said in November, 2001, "And we are fighting evil, and we will continue to fight evil, and we will not stop until we defeat evil." Since evil will never be eliminated, the President is committing the nation to a metaphysical war against evil (or terror) that will last until "the end of time".
The disturbing thing is that much of the population seems to have accepted and now supports this world view. Using sacred narratives to influence the "sacred values" of the population in order to extinguish their capacity for logical reasoning and enhance their emotional openness to morally-questionable behavior is a common method used by the creators of propaganda that encourages war. The acceptance of perpetual war as a given in modern life illustrates the power that this folk Christian mythology has when it is expertly framed into narratives that are served up to listeners with strong religious identities.
The author would argue that it is our adherence to our principles (Constitutional, legal, and ethical) that makes us strong as a nation, and denying these principles weakens us in multiple ways as it saps our pride and idealism. This, in turn, leads to depressive kind of pessimism and a collective national malaise. So on the surface, these wars seem to make us strong, but under the surface, they weaken us as a nation in very substantial ways. This is like a soldier who goes into battle idealistic and strong. However when that soldier is forced to violate his or her value system and ideals, that soldier will often become irritable, depressed, conflicted, anxious, and distracted because he or she has sustained a serious "moral injury" during war. As David Brooks writes in his New York Times column titled Moral Injury:People who have been to war have left this universe behind. That's because war, no matter how justified or unjustified, noble or ignoble, is always a crime. It involves accidental killings, capricious death for one but not another, tainted situations where every choice is murderously wrong.Brooks is being disingenuous here by implying that all wars are somehow morally equal (i.e., crimes) because there are difficult moral situations in every war and soldiers will experience moral trauma in all wars. The fact that individual crimes occur in all wars in no way means that all wars are equally criminal enterprises. But an unjustified and failed war seems to supercharge and magnify these moral injuries and make the sacrifice appear meaningless to many who have fought. Individual immoral actions are much harder to justify if the war itself is immoral. Moral injury is a big part of the epidemic of PTSD affecting veterans of recent wars.
This moral injury can also happen on a grand scale affecting in a more subtle way a sizable portion of the US population. Many would like to forget this sad tale in our history but the suicide rate of the veterans of the Iraq War is currently running at an estimated 23 ex-soldiers per day based on a partially completed study. This extraordinary number if it is even close to accurate is difficult to ignore for those that would like the past to just go away as it continues to remind us of the depth of the anguish caused by this war of choice. Denying the wrong of the past is easier. The war comes to resemble an uncomfortable family secret whose shame is difficult to bear when the family members are reminded of it. However elections bring up the past and the discomfort is likely to continue.
Those who deny guilt and this move towards moral ambiguity and repressive government retreat into a bubble of exceptionalism, patriotism, propaganda, scape-goating, fear mongering, and authoritarian leadership. They insist that conservative economic market principles or conservative Christianity are the cure for these and all other problems and see the world as filled with evil that only they are strong enough to overcome. They also await the next war to show that they were right about the last one in spite of much counter-evidence. This is the old "God (or King) and Country" rallying cry of the British Empire recycled for modern US consumption.
Secrecy, Security, and the Meaningless Oath
Since threats are everywhere, we need a strong leader to protect us from this evil (i.e., terrorism), and we should not let the rule of law or the Bill of Rights get in the way. As the politically popular saying goes, the Constitution is not a "suicide pact." When the highest value of supporting and defending the Constitution of the United States (the oath that Congress and the President take) devolves into "protecting the American people", we are in danger of becoming just another amoral tribal group seeking to protect ourselves against or gain dominance over other tribal groups through war and other means. The oath of office becomes political theater and is devoid of meaning. The classical Western argument that we have a divine or moral responsibility to bring civilization and democracy to the savages breaks down as we embrace the savagery of our enemies and chip away at democracy at home. The false choice offered by many who support the "war on terror" which is really a war against evil can be stated as follows: We can either be safe or have the rule of law and the Constitution but not both.
We should note here that the US Constitution is like the roots of a tree and the United States is the tree itself. The health, uprightness, and survival of the tree depends on healthy roots. Ignoring and violating the Constitution is like cutting away the roots of the legitimacy of government, the role of citizenship, and the rule of law itself. Protecting the branches or leaves of the tree (the safety of citizens, and public or private institutions) from terrorism is of limited value if roots are cut or rot, and the tree cannot find nourishment. The tree may continue to look healthy for a while as we focus massive resources on preventing terrorism and in that process abridge the rights of citizens, but the tree will eventually rot from the inside and fall.
There are many kinds of war. We have wars against abstract social evils such as the war on poverty and the war on drugs. There were cold wars with the Soviet Union and hot wars in Viet Nam and Korea against communism. There are currently wars against enemies who employ a strategy of terrorism, and a broad and expanding group of tribes and militias who use this tactic. We have drone wars, and secret wars, and proxy wars which justify massive weapons development and spending. We have had villains such as Saddam Hussein, Noriega, and Castro who were demonized by the government and media, and needed to be killed or arrested or driven from power. We have tortured enemies, bombed people in Pakistan and Yemen because they were engaged in "suspicious activities", and killed our citizens without due process. We have created secret laws, courts, and legal interpretations that corrupt our judicial system in the name of fighting evil and reducing our fear of sometimes real but more often imagined threats. Justice that is determined in secret is generally not justice at all but is instead a very effective way of hiding various injustices and interpretations that would not stand up to public scrutiny. The goal seems to be to interpret, enforce, and sometimes stretch the meaning of existing law to the breaking point mostly in the shadows so no one can be held accountable.
The laws passed that seem to directly violate the constitutional provisions in the Bill of Rights are legion. Security letters (violates Article IV, Unreasonable search and seizure), gag orders (violates Article I, Abridges the freedom of speech), signature strikes, civil forfeiture (violates Article IV, Unreasonable search and seizure, and Article V, no private property be taken for public use, without just compensation), dragnet data collection (violates Article IV, Unreasonable search and seizure), misuse of material witness laws (violates Article V, No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law), generalized warrants (violates Article V, No Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized), peak and sneak warrantless searches (violates Article IV, Unreasonable search and seizure), laundering of illegally obtained evidence in criminal trials (violates Article VI, The right of the accused to be confronted with the witnesses against him), ambiguous material support laws, warrantless collection of cell phone data using fake cell phone towers (violates Article IV, Unreasonable search and seizure), public-private security partnerships, treating reporters like spies (violates Article I, Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press), Orwellian redefinition of legal terms such as redefining "imminent threat" to mean "ongoing threat" to justify killing American citizens without due process (violates Article V, No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law), - the list goes on.
Democracy and the protections in the Bill of Rights are on the ropes as the value on security becomes paramount. Ironically there is little or no evidence that any of these changes have made us more secure but when fighting evil becomes an end in itself, as stated before, results do not matter. Security becomes the mysterious, unquantifiable, and unattainable goal that is used to justify bypassing the Constitution and waging perpetual war.
Being attacked by terrorists shows we need more security measures, and not being attacked shows the repressive security measures already taken are working, and that we need more of them. There is no arguing with those who are never safe enough, and whose religiously (but not biblically) based fears of Satan, demons, and external evil provide a divinely-inspired world view to support and justify such fears.
Protection - A Confusing Mixture of Love, Heroism, Paternalism, and Lust for Power
When evil is everywhere, there is an unlimited need for protectors: politicians, police, security agencies, soldiers, militias, guards, etc. Evil creates threats and the response can be mass fear. Mass fear permits the transformation of a negative situation where Big Brother is watching us and thus encroaching on our freedom, dignity, and privacy to a positive situation where Big Brother is watching over us and thus protecting us. Those who live in an electronic fish bowl where government and industry know everything about them (while these same entities claim the right to unlimited secrecy for themselves) are deluded in thinking they have liberty. They are under a virtual kind of house arrest where their leg monitor has been replaced by CCTV, Internet, and GPS and voice cell phone monitors.
These government and private entities are seeking primarily to enhance the power and security of the state and the multinational corporations who support it, and not the individual citizen's security. When intelligence agencies are headed by generals instead of civilians and the "collect it all" philosophy reigns supreme, we are conceding that taking a military approach to collecting private information is appropriate, and that the state is engaged in a low-intensity military conflict with a small number of its own citizens. But in order to find those people, it must conduct surveillance on the entire population thus treating everyone as a potential military threat. Civilian political leadership has been compromised since 9/11 because of this new military interest in the activities of citizens.
This is the all too common progression where the fear of the evil without expands to the fear of the evil within. When evil has no bounds, as in the case of a dualistic universe where half the world is believed to be ruled by the forces of darkness and chaos, nothing could be more natural and necessary.
However individuals and government and military leaders also have more positive motivations.
First many people seek to protect others out of love. They join the military out of a deep love of country. Doctors care about patients and want to protect them from disease. Police see the social order as fragile and want to create order to protect citizens. Teachers see education as essential for a productive and rewarding life and express love by protecting students from the burden the ignorance.
Government officials sometimes feel like parents who do not want their children harmed and seek to protect them from attack at all costs. Leaders do not want to be running things when a terrorist attack occurs because they (like the parent) would feel responsible for their citizens (or children) being harmed. The weight of responsibility is a great burden which officials must bear when they head security and intelligence agencies, and they tend to want to use every tool available to stop an attack regardless of its legality or constitutionality. Heroically protecting the weak from harm out of love or duty is a very praiseworthy activity, and one that requires sacrifice and often putting the safety of others ahead of one's own safety.
However this fear of harm can become paranoia when the world is seen as overwhelmingly evil, and this fear sometimes drives leaders and parents to take extreme, repressive measures that harm citizens (and children) in numerous ways. For instance, children are "safe" while locked in a room their whole childhoods but no one would call this a desirable childhood. Giving children freedom to roam and explore then becomes child abuse as the world is seen as a dangerous and evil place.
We see paranoia in the evolving story concerning the invasion of Iraq. The first claim was that Iraq has WMDs. This changed to the claim of Iraq being in the process of developing WMDs. This claim then morphed into the claim that Iraq has the "potential" to create WMDs (everybody has that potential) at some point in the future. Last is the claim that Iraq has the "desire" to create WMDs. But no serious effort is expended to provide evidence to show when these weapons will appear or discuss the probability that such development will take place, or that they can or will be used against us if they are developed. Of course the evidence for WMDs presented at the UN was almost completely false. So it is questionable that such evidence would or should be trusted even if it were presented.
The final fallback position which has an idealistic instead of a paranoid motive is that we were "spreading the seeds of democracy" in Iraq. Unfortunately, conquering a religiously and culturally divided nation and supporting the underdog cultural group over the ruling group is more of a recipe for starting and spreading civil war than for spreading democracy. Thinking that an external power such as the United States can use military power to bring peace to a country divided by a political conflict that stretches back to the 7th century is the height of hubris and vanity.
However note that the first four claims above are each totally different but were seen as equivalent by our leaders. All were equally justifications for going to war. As one claim failed, there was always another one available. This is classic revisionism driven by the outsize fear of a supposedly diabolically evil and cunning enemy. Not only must existing evil be overcome but even the potential for evil must now be fought with every means at our disposal. The war on evil is now officially an eternal war where a one percent chance of an enemy attack is the same as a one hundred percent chance. Fear then becomes the driving force behind most government and military activity.
In the information war on evil, citizens are perhaps a little safer when spied upon by multiple government agencies but few think of this as adulthood, or as being a respectable or autonomous way of life. When the city of Boston was virtually shut down and 600,000 people were warned to stay in their houses because the 19 year old Boston Marathon bomber was on the run from police, it is clear that paranoia has taken over the minds of officials and rational judgment has faded. Terrorism has become the official, state-sanctioned Bogeyman of our society. In all these examples, as stated above, the cure for evil is worse than the disease.
This heroic approach of protecting citizens while being generally positive also has a down side. Here the authorities who are the protectors may start seeing their fellow citizens as children who are weak, dependent, and incapable of taking responsibility for their lives. Then these protectors become parents who can easily come to view these child-citizens as having (like children) no rights and no power, and they therefore cease to see them as citizens at all. This approach is also used to justify secrecy since children do not need to know and indeed have no right to know about their parent's affairs. The citizens are thus transformed into serfs who are protected by overlords. Then another problem arises where the overlords are afraid the serfs will rise up and limit their power. The overlords therefore seek additional security measures and pass additional laws in order to protect their position, and as always claim it is all done for the good of these citizen-serfs. Kings and overlords often revel in their power and find it more addictive than many drugs.
So expect that those in government who wish to increase the power of the state and lessen the power of citizens in cooperation with a compliant, ratings-hungry, corporate mass media will promote and magnify threats at home and around the globe. This process will maintain this state of fear by focusing on one new enemy after another. A recent statement by a former deputy director of a federal law enforcement agency said the goal of the agency was to "keep fear alive" concerning terrorism (in an ironic contrast to the "keep hope alive" slogan) in order to maintain generous law enforcement budgets. All the while, these voices will keep preaching that it is our sacred duty to fight evil (and terrorism) eternally in whatever shifting way they define it wherever they claim to find it.The strange thing about evil is that people are very selective in their outrage towards different types of evil. For example we have had massive numbers of deaths from traffic accidents (35,000 per year), gun homicides (31,000 per year), alcohol abuse (107,000 per year), smoking (400,000 per year), food poisoning (1,500 per year), and medical errors (200,000 per year). Many of these deaths (i.e., smoking, gun-related, malpractice, prescription drug, and traffic deaths) could be drastically reduced with better laws, regulations, and enforcement. Reducing these "evils" or negative influences would protect our citizens and save lives.
This occurred when seat belt laws reduced traffic deaths and when lead was removed from gas and paint which reduced poison-related deaths and diseases nationwide in the 1970's. Air pollution-related deaths and diseases were reduced in California with clean air laws during the same period. The number of smokers was reduced by more than 60 percent after limits were put on advertising by government regulators and warnings were added to packaging.
It could be argued that industries such as the chemical, alcohol, auto, arms making, tobacco, and medical industries were all to some extent unethical in promoting their harmful products and services while resisting costly change and better regulation. Chemical companies resisted removing lead in paint and gas for years. They also protect their right to sell toxic chemicals and avoid external testing and government regulation under the cover of "trade secrets". Auto companies resisted adding safety features. Food companies do not want to label GMO foods and promote highly processed, unhealthy foods, and indirectly obesity and heart disease. Petroleum companies deny global warming and will not acknowledge ground water pollution resulting from drilling for shale oil. Tobacco companies claimed for decades that their products were safe and even sponsored studies showing that these products were beneficial long after they knew these claims were false. Aviation companies resisted strengthening cockpit doors in large airliners for decades which had they been redesigned could have prevented the destruction of the Twin Towers.
But these companies are generally immune from prosecution and certainly not subject to the animosity and moral condemnation we apply to terrorists. The executives in these industries are consummate "insiders" to the system, and provide valuable products and services to people. Such contributions to the greater good should not be ignored or go unrecognized. But the many good things companies do are mixed with some bad elements which makes the bad harder to see. But the number of preventable deaths from tobacco, guns, unnecessary surgery, pollution, prescription drugs, highly processed unhealthy foods, alcohol, etc. is so large in comparison to deaths from terrorism that it is clear that the threats from within is at least as dangerous as the evil without. However these internal threats are mostly invisible to us as it produces increased income for the investors and executives and are easily ignored. Many of these negative elements have also been rebranded and associated with freedom, and have therefore been advertised as positive influences by the corporations that produce them.
It was only after the Twin Towers came down and 2,800 people died at the hands of an external enemy that we decided to spend additional hundreds of billions of dollars a year on enhanced security. It was only evil outsiders that motivated us to change our laws dramatically and ignore the Constitution in order to "protect the American people".
Mysteriously, the almost 800,000 people mentioned above that die every year (over 10 million since 9/11) often from preventable causes did not seem to need much protection. The great value attached to "protecting the American people" suddenly becomes considerably less important when economic gain is factored into the equation. Limiting these forms of evil is a complex task for courts and regulatory agencies but not as complex as fighting wars in remote parts of the world. Security for citizens who are victims of corporate wrongdoing often has a very low priority. These kinds of evil influences do not cause strong reactions because they do not fit into the mythological narrative of fighting a divinely sanctioned crusade against a demonic enemy. Only a war against an external enemy who represents "the worst of the worst" and near supernatural evil makes us willing to fight for decades and bear any financial and personal cost to destroy that enemy.
What this means is that it is not so important that our citizens die or are killed unnecessarily. What is important is who is responsible for these deaths (insider/domestic versus outsider/foreign) and why they do it. Hatred is unacceptable and provokes a furious response. Whereas noxious products that increase the wealth of corporations are accepted and the corporate leaders that promote them are sometimes even admired as embodiments of the entrepreneurial spirit. When hateful foreigners are responsible, we seem to fight as if our immortal souls hung in the balance.
The Dangers of Biblical Illiteracy
This false, dualistic reading of the Christian tradition which emphasizes external evil and divine punishment distorts our cultural and religious history. It also provides us with religiously sanctioned justifications to struggle against enemies and waste both lives and financial resources in perpetual conflict, violence, and war.
As long as religious people view fighting evil and dispensing punishment as godly qualities based on a false understanding of the Bible, we will do little to resist war, and even seek out ways to start unnecessary wars. And "war presidents" will continue to be elected and proudly exercise their right to declare war. We will continue our collective, self-defeating romance with war.
As long as people are unaware and unconscious of the influences of the past on their behavior, both religious and secular people (whose ethics are derived largely from the religious ethics and ideals of their culture) will act based on these false, mythical, partly unconscious beliefs and assumptions. It is only by knowing their actual textual and religious history that they can overcome their blind allegiance to an imagined, unexamined past. Then they cannot be easily manipulated by popular culture and its powerful public relations and media institutions who use these false histories and mythologies to justify and goad people into war.
So we see that a religious or mythological orientation is valuable because it can give us meaning, ethics, and direction in life. However it can become dangerous and highly destructive when divorced from rationality and pragmatism. Secondly, popular religious trends and interpretations tend to magnify the fearful and destructive aspects of religion, especially in western religions such as Christianity. When it is shown that the biblical God is not focused on fighting evil and punishing people in Hell for eternity, the power behind these dualistic systems disappears. Then eternal war is no longer part of a spiritual quest but rather a barbaric activity to be avoided. Stripping away these folk elements and examining the original Biblical text can counteract these false mythologies. This approach can give Christian cultures a more constructive approach to the other cultures so as to counteract their love of and commitment to punishing evil and eternal war.
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