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Our panel of 88 professional philosophers has responded to

Question of the day

Hello, What I am about to say is a desperate call for help. I am reaching out to you so that I may be assisted with this dear worry I have been plagued with for several years… Basically, I am paranoid about what will happen to me after I die. Because of argument amongst equally learned, intelligent, capable philosophers, I can’t figure out what the afterlife (if there is one) will consist of. The reason this is an obsession and highly alarming to me is because several different religions state you must believe such and such in order to escape hell (eternal torture). You can’t simultaneously be a follower of incompatible religions, so it’s like you’re taking an eternal chance in believing anything. Moreover, it seems the superiority of one religion over the other cannot be determined. Philosophers argue about this stuff night and day, and the arguments never end...nothing is ever decided for certain. No one can be sure of anything. Must I believe that when I die, I’ll more than likely go to some sort of hell? My morals aren’t terrific, you know. This is driving me mad! It is something I dwell on ALL the time. Life is so terribly fragile, and any of us could go at any time. I’m at a higher risk of death than a lot because of heart disease problems in my genes. What is a man supposed to do in a predicament like this? You probably have beliefs about the afterlife, but how can you be SURE of them when you are aware of the other equally knowledgeable minds that don’t believe as you do--that have solid arguments for their own worldviews and against your own? You can’t say that you’re somehow superior to a whole mass of intelligent minds!

Allen Stairs offers a spirited reply, and an amusing last line, but I am a bit more sympathetic with your worry. You might check out the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on beliefs about the afterlife which I co-authored with William Hasker. There is a terrific book on hell by Jerry Walls called Hell: The Logic of Damnation and a good reference work published by Oxford University Press, A Handbook on Eschatology. Jonathan Kvanvig also has a good book on hell that carefully runs through the possible justifications for belief in hell. Minor point: for many religious traditions in which there is a hell, hell is understood to be self-created rather than created by God. This is colorfully and vividly represented in Milton's Paradise Lost. Philosophical arguments for belief in an afterlife (or life beyond life) are often developed in the context of the case for and against theism, though philosophers who are atheists have believed in an afterlife (e.g. Buddhist philosophers). The British idealist McTaggert made an interesting case for an afterlife without theism --his viewpoint has been described as Heaven without God. Ronald Dworkin in his book Religion without God also has some interesting speculation about how secular humanism can (in principle) accommodate an afterlife.

You likely won't like my answer, but here goes. You write

"You probably have beliefs about the afterlife, but how can you be SURE of them when you are aware of the other equally knowledgeable minds that don’t believe as you do--that have solid arguments for their own worldviews and against your own?"

Sorry, but I think this is just false. It's not a matter of my "worldview" (Not sure I have one of those.) It's that the supposedly "solid arguments" just aren't there.

If you don't believe me, try to find anything like a good reason. The fact that some religious texts seem to say that non-believers face such a fate doesn't count. Saying something doesn't make it so and doesn't count as an argument. Trying to make the case that there's life after death at all is hard enough; adding unpleasant speculations about what such an afterlife might be like makes the overall package less likely, not more.

Theologically, the case for Hell is (pardon me) God-awful. We're supposed to believe that a being worthy of our worship would consign people to everlasting torment because of — what? The finite harm they've done in their finite lives? Or more risibly, for not believing the right things about dark and difficult metaphysical matters?

Here's the short version: in spite of its popularity in some religious circles, the belief in a Hell of eternal punishment is an idea for which no one has ever produced anything like a good reason. There's enough to worry about without worrying about this. In fact, I'm tempted to say that there's a special place in Hell for people who teach people to believe in Hell.