I’m not able to worry about the prospect of going to hell for not believing in something. After all, it raises the following question: What about those who were never exposed to the belief? There’s generally two options the faithful go for:
1 – They’re all condemned to hell, despite having no chance to believe the right thing.
2 – They’re going to be judged by their own merits.
Option one seems absurd. You’re going to suffer forever, because of something you had no influence on. Option two is even worse, because if option two is correct, that means whatever belief you’re peddling is one you should keep secret at all cost. I’d rather live in a world where people are judged by their own merits than one where some genocidal dictator’s fate in the afterlife is decided based upon whether he was baptized or not.
The idea of hell is pretty hard to sustain and so most clever Christians these days tend to go with something more akin to universal reconciliation, the idea that we all end up being forgiven by God. Others seem to think that bad people are simply “deleted” after death. In a sense, that means the carrot remains, but the stick is gone. You don’t have to worry your lack of faith will condemn you to hell.
I think this is ultimately for the best. People shouldn’t adhere to a religion out of a sense of obligation, or a fear of what happens if they don’t. They should adhere to their beliefs because they’re better off with them. Most eastern religions function in this manner, that’s also why they can coexist. During bad times like funerals Japanese people tend to resort to Buddhism, during happy times like weddings, they tend to resort to Shintoism.
I’m of the opinion that you can apply the same general principle to Christianity. You don’t really need the promise of eternal life or the fear of eternal torture to justify a Christian outlook on life. The supernatural elements aren’t really necessary as a justification for what it has to offer either. On the other hand, the teachings wouldn’t have survived for two thousand years in the absence of the supernatural elements.
If you wish to understand what it has to offer, then you can boil it down to one word: Compassion. Jesus lived the perfect life, because he was purely driven by compassion. In doing so he set us all free. He also warned us, that everything we do for the least among us, we do for Jesus. The question worth asking yourself here is whether you should take it literally, or whether it’s meant as a metaphor. As a metaphor, you could imagine that the message meant is that you’ll be judged in the afterlife based on how you treated those around you.
Or, you could take it literally and come to the conclusion that everything in life you do for those who are worst off are things you’re literally doing for Jesus, that you ran into Jesus without realizing it. Christian mythology actually has a number of stories like this. There is for example, the story of St. Francis who kisses a man with leprosy, only for the man to disappear, leading him to conclude he was kissing Jesus.
But the question with a story like this becomes again, to what degree you should take it literally. Who performed the real miracle here? You could say that Jesus performed a miracle by showing up as a leper, only to disappear upon being kissed by Francis. You could also turn it around: Jesus had to live out a life as a leper. Francis performed the true miracle, when guided by compassion, he managed to set Jesus free from this plight upon kissing him.
Here’s a question to ask yourself: What’s true sacrifice? I think the greatest possible sacrifice a soul could take would be to occupy the most miserable life possible. Imagine all of the world is a stage. The roles are handed out, but nobody wants to play a particular role. To take on that role, would be to make a sacrifice.
And so, imagine the following problem: God wants to make a world, where humans are both happy and free. What does it mean to be free? It means the ability to make meaningful choices and the ability to understand the consequences of our actions. In such a world, some degree of suffering is inevitable. If your choice is between two different pleasures that have the same hedonic impact, then you don’t have any meaningful choice.
If there is no suffering, then our actions don’t have consequences. But that also leads to the next question: If God loves you, then God doesn’t want you to suffer more than is necessary for you to be an autonomous human being. So how does God minimize suffering?
Well, one way to do so, would be for God to carry the worst suffering himself. Humans insist on practicing slavery, so God takes on the role of the slave. We practice genocide, so God takes on the role of the victim. That is of course, quite literally what Jesus says, but I doubt that many people interpret it as such. It is however, the closest thing I can think of to a definition of love. You love someone when you wish to undergo suffering so that they don’t have to.
It’s also, at least in my opinion, a pretty elegant answer to the problem of evil. If the worst possible suffering was undergone by God as an expression of love towards us, then that moves us in the direction of solipsism, but it does answer the paradox of how a good God could allow evil to occur: God undergoes the evil for us.
Here’s a question for you: Someone brings you a magical button and everytime you press it, someone somewhere is cured of leprosy. How many times do you press the button? A thousand times? Does that mean you love those thousand people a lot, that you are truly a good person? Of course not, it took you no effort. If it’s true that we have a loving God, then that love can only be expressed by carrying a cost on our behalf.
I’ve seen it argued by people who have smoked too much 5-Meo-DMT, that all of reality is a competition between God and us, in regards to expressing love. God takes on the most painful roles, leaving us with the happier ones. In those happier roles we find the opportunity to discover God and so we move towards trying to reduce the amount of suffering necessary for the creation to exist. We do this in the manner that Jesus explained: We seek out those few individuals who are worst off, because that’s where we find him.