How to stay out of Hell

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As the story goes, God told Charleton Heston two things to do and eight things not to do, and he listened. Then he passed the rules along to others, and human morality was born.

The commandments weren’t always easy to work with, they found. Specifically, many of them enjoyed violating the one about not killing. Chuck had passed on the divine orders in his own personal style, and couldn’t resist including the Second Amendment in the Ten Commandments somewhere.

There was a real awkward moment when God was telling Chuck specifically not to carve likenesses of anything in the Heavens, precisely at the moment he was carving His words into stone tablets. Chuck had smashed the originals during a tantrum, and without some notes he was always in danger or forgetting what right and wrong were.

This was about 33 centuries ago, and before then there was no right and wrong because the Heavens hadn’t mentioned anything about it yet. Murder and double-parking were rampant.

Even after Chuck and his friends knew the new rules by heart, sometimes they found they did accidentally covet their neighbor’s ox, or even his ass. As they knew, equally offensive to God as coveting one’s neighbor’s livestock was to covet one’s neighbor’s wife, or her ass, or any other material possessions of his neighbor’s. They had an especially tough time with this one, because as pious as they were, it’s really hard to obey rules against thinking.

They didn’t usually steal, except from indigenous populations, until many centuries later when Napster came out and a free-for-all descended that not even God could stop. 

They also kept arguing over whether it was Saturday or Sunday that they were supposed to take off. To this day, most of them think it’s Sunday, and so they stay home to watch NFL football, where they can vicariously enjoy their favorite runningbacks and wide receivers toiling away in total defiance of God.

He doesn’t strike them down, but interestingly it is NFL policy to play through any weather except lightning and hurricanes. These players, heretics though they are, will still sometimes name-drop God or His son as helpful conspirators if they happen to win. God is a Denver Broncos fan these days.

Honoring their father and mother was pretty easy compared to the others, and they took comfort in this. If God ever audited Chuck’s people (and despite His omnipresent threats, He often forgot) they could play up how well they honored their parents, and change the subject before it got to coveting and killing.

They did try their best, but Chuck and his followers found a lot of these commandments to be generally unworkable. The idea behind them was great though, by all accounts: a moral code that’s stamped, sealed and backed up by a well-known name.

But they kept running afoul of themselves. In fact, they slipped up so often that they began to suspect it was all an empty threat. They would never say so out loud, even though God was supposed to be reading all their minds all the time anyway. And so they continued to do the odd bad thing, or even just questionable things, but talked about doing good things all the time.

The problem they had, whether they realized it or not, was that the commandments denied them the opportunity to be moral beings themselves. It was God’s will, not theirs, and so their own individual wills could never be moral, only obedient. They were not invited to participate in either understanding or deciding what is right and wrong.

So the implicit expectation was to throw out any personal feelings that conflicted with what God told them, or what Chuck told them that God had said, or with what some sickly abbot in a church told them that Chuck said that God had said. Trust anyone bearing a cloth or collar before you trust yourself, was the inevitable message, and so they never did.

Now, that means under this system, which billions of people heartily subscribe to, human beings are devoid of any moral sensitivity of their own. Nobody would know, for instance, that pushing someone down the stairs is wrong, unless they’d been to church a few times at least.

It’s a Good thing for us then — I’ll go ahead and assert that without God’s permission — that many people don’t think that’s true at all. I wish I could say most, but statistically it doesn’t look like it.

How to make it all workable

I think that if Mr Heston and his descendants had looked at the Commandments in a different way, they may have gotten more consistent mileage out of them.

While Christianity has its famous dictatorial approach to morality, some other traditions also have moral doctrines, but they present them as precepts.

Precepts aren’t really that different from commandments, in terms of what they are: they’re ethical rules, prescribed by an institution, sometimes attributed to a deity or someone else more important than you. But you can absolutely discover your own.

Some people do treat them just like commandments — follow them, or to Hell with you. But that’s a shame, because they’re missing out on their incredible power. The difference is in how you apply them.

Imagine if instead of obeying a moral precept under threat of punishment, you took it on voluntarily, and the consequences of not doing it were yours to discover. You treat it as a personal commitment, in the service of your God (if you have one) or whatever else is important to you: human solidarity, world peace, evolution, or even just yourself.

Whereas in Christianity you have:

Thou shalt not steal.

in, say, secular Buddhism you might have:

I undertake the rule of training to refrain from taking that which is not freely given.

Same dif, on the surface, but the fact that it is ultimately voluntary is what changes everything. You have to understand why you’re doing it, first of all. You’re allowed to wait until you really are ready to do it, which is only once you’re actually ready to delete all those seasons of Mad Men you lifted from BitTorrent.

From tradition to tradition, the rules aren’t that different. Killing is widely agreed to be a no-no, same with stealing, harming people with your lewd sex acts, and lying.

The value doesn’t come in simply not breaking the rules — because sometimes you will — but in being aware of exactly what’s going on in your mind when you’re tempted to. Where do immoral actions come from? What’s happening in your mind when you’re doing the wrong thing? That knowledge is enormously valuable — if indeed you are interested in peace and happiness — and you can’t get it simply by following orders.

All moral transgressions come down to a decisive moment, between the instant you feel a desire to violate your rule, and the instant you respond to that desire. Most of the time those moments come obscured by the heat of emotions and conditioning, and reaction just happens, without any conscious choice being made. And if you’re Catholic you feel really guilty after.

Observing precepts trains you to become acutely aware in those decisive moments, and prompts you to consider exactly why you’re finding it so hard not to steal something right now. What are you attached to? What rationalizations is your mind coming up with right now?

That is exactly what the commandment approach misses: that moment of reflection on why you have such a hard time following the rule, and why you might want to. Just following the rule because you’re scared not to is a complete avoidance of morality.

The precept approach triggers you to zero in on that crucial moment, and all the feelings, rationales, and possibilities that accompany it. Commandments concern themselves only with the What, and precepts engage the Why, which is the whole reason for morality anyway. Why not kill? If the only reason you have is “To avoid going to Hell,” then Hell might just be the best place for you.

Whether you violate the rule or not is not as important as whether you watch what happens internally as that decisive moment comes and goes. This is where morality comes from — the direct, voluntary experience of doing the right thing (or not doing it), and the direct experience of the consequences that arise as a result.

In those moments, when you become aware of the pull toward doing the lazy thing, the easy thing, or the wrong thing, and you consciously don’t do it, there is an incredible feeling of freedom. That’s what morality is, freedom from the grinding mechanical hell of acting from fear, lust or reaction. Like I’ve said before, Hell is real, and it doesn’t wait for you to die.

Chuck and his epic cast never knew this kind of freedom. They were under perpetual peril and did what any self-preserving people would do. Commandments can’t supply morals because they deny you the autonomy to do the right thing.

The commandments leave you no freedom. The moral landscape they create is the opposite of freedom. It’s oppression, especially when you remember that you’re forced to play the game for eternity.

As Christopher Hitchens sometimes puts it, “It’s a celestial dictatorship, where eternal praise and submission is demanded. A divine North Korea, if you will. But at least you can fucking die and leave North Korea.”

***

Photo by David Cain

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{ 127 Comments }

Tobi December 26, 2011 at 4:41 pm

Major Catholic here

I know I already commented, but then I read your response to another comment saying you wanted to find out what Christian readers would think of this, so I’ll give you something a little more useful.

I found it funny even though I don’t know who Charleton Heston is. I love this church with all my heart but that is one major flaw I don’t like. The fact that we focus more on ideas, symbols, and ceremonies more than ourselves. For most it’s all about the statues and the procedures instead of becoming a better person.

The reason God didn’t negotiate the commandments is because there is no negotiating necessary. No one ever feels good when they do any of those things, that’s the whole point. God is our Father and he is laying down the rules of His house just like any good father, because He knows what’s good for us and what’s bad, and as His children we don’t always know that. A lot of people don’t understand that they shouldn’t necessarily feel bad if they mess up as long as they understand what they did wrong and apologize, and make and effort to do better next time. I’m a bit of a glutton, which is one of the 7 deadly sins, but I don’t feel like a horrible person every time I pig out. I do it without thinking sometimes and next time I have a little less chocolate, or pass the Starbucks by.

I don’t mind when people make fun of my religion, so long as it is not in a mean way. Simply because I laugh at jokes about other religions all the time lolz.

Nada January 6, 2012 at 1:56 am

You’ve made several great points.
I’m a Muslim; our religion paradoxically dictates personal moral perception and decision like almost every other religion. You are expected to obediently adhere and under no circumstances may you question the given doctrine.
In my humble opinion, morality is measured and determined by one universal standard and that is the complex mechanics of the human conscience.
To expand on your idea of hell not strictly being a concept pertaining to the afterlife, this very hell is the primary by-product of a guilty conscience.
Religious scripts threaten sinners with eternal PHYSICAL damnation and suffering which is completely irrelevant to the sin itself. It only makes sense that this hell is what we experience when we deliberately defy our better judgment. And this is anything but physical. Human guilt is the most powerful and destructive of all emotions; and what are we if not emotional creatures.
Moral codes are individualistically created and internally enforced.

Vijay P January 13, 2012 at 7:51 am

Hi David,

I agree with your view that morality comes from our inner thinking of freedom and choice. I think the commandments or percepts or whatever we may call, are only broad guidelines which only support or reinforce what people inherently believe in. I think it is ingrained in all living beings (human and animals) to follow a pattern of living in a way that it helps in developing social harmony, interdependence and love, which we may call as a moral behaviour. Can we say that if there were no prescribed commandments or religious prescriptions or fear, then humanity would have been all immoral, hell and chaos? I don’t think so, as that would have made the survival itself extinct. Ofcourse there will be exceptions of digressed behaviour that do not fit the rule, but that will always be a minority. Deep within our hearts, whether we believe in religious sanctions or not, I guess we all know what is right or wrong; but at times deviate from its practice due to our temptations or fears.

I love your posts. I have joined it recently, and am reading them one by one. It gives me joy; keep it up.

Kurt January 29, 2012 at 8:55 pm

I appreciate much of what you said. When you were writing about the 10 commandments and especially about the motivation behind doing them. Where you actually don’t tell the story correctly though, is you make it sound like it was God’s desire to institute these laws on man. When in fact, the opposite is true. God had led Israel around in the wilderness showing them that if they would simply acknowledge him and ask, he would and could provide anything for them. Which is why he has the name, Jehovah, meaning I am… (fill in the blank). It was only because they failed to learn this lesson that he offered them the law — which is actually 10 commandments, plus thousands more in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Exodus 19:8 — “And all the people answered together, and said, All that the LORD hath spoken we will do. ” And so they agreed to follow these laws for thousands of years, until Christ’s death on the cross established a new covenant with them. Which is why Paul explains in Romans 3:19-20 — “Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight. for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” The whole point was to show that they could try to live up to this moral standard, but wouldn’t ever accomplish it. They needed God, which was the point all along back in the wilderness. You can’t live to that standard, but Christ did because he was God in the flesh, and its only by him that you can deal with those moral failures (sin). And now that God has shown us his grace and given us his free gift, the motivation like you say has completely changed. Its no longer one of fear and guilt but of thankfulness and of a renewed mind. Which is why Paul uses the phrase, I beseech you.. so often. It is no longer a command but a request. Romans 3:17 — “But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you. Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness.” Not that you will never make a mistake again or do something wrong, but now you are no longer a servant to those mistakes.

terry February 9, 2012 at 9:23 pm

David, a small note. I just came across your site via stumbleupon. Very nice and thought provoking. Simple thanks here.

Dan Snavely February 19, 2012 at 10:49 pm

Hi David. I too am new to your site and I really enjoy your writing style. I firmly believe that God’s commandments are not to instill the fear of burning in hell, (yet there are ways that one can consciously choos that), but are instead given to us to cultivate the ability to give and receive love for God, ourselves and others.

While all the reasons for my beliefs would take up too much space on your blog, (and I have to say that you articulate your views with great clarity and wit), I have developed my thoughts at length on a November 30 and a December 6 post entitled ‘God’s Commandments of Love’ parts one and two respectively, on my blog http://www.yourgodmoments.com, and humbly invite you to peruse them.

Thank you again for your literary gifts.

John Nasaye April 25, 2012 at 11:26 am

David,

The consequences of not living according to these instructions or commandments are certain, and that would apply to any faith or religion or whatever.
Second, whether these commandments invoke fear or peril or whatever cannot be generalized. For instance, the commandment about not coveting or desiring your neighbour’s stuff will inevitably give birth to other possibilities (evil) like jealousy and other temptations and will cause a chain reaction of undesirable conditions, the worst of which could be the death of personal initiative and industry.

Third, human beings generally operate through instructions. Everyone follows some kind of instructions. They could either be instructions from your instincts, your environment/upbringing, or even self-instructions. Its just the way that we function, whether we question them or reason them out!

Fourth, while I have always tried to put into perspective all the commandments and dig a little deeper as to their application and potential benefits, I have chosen to submit to God and that means all His instructions as well.
Lastly, I am a christian and these laws have been found to be grievous and cannot bring salvation and happiness. Their strict observation does not automatically bring the desired moral uprightness. In a nutshell, each of us must capture both the law and the spirit of the law

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