Monday, April 27, 2015

The Qur’an Surah 40: The Forgiver

The following is from a work-in-progress called The Qur'an: a Book Report, in which I read each surah of the Qur'an and write about what I learn.

I found this surah troubling for much the same reason that I find aspects of the Bible troubling.  The picture of God that emerges is disturbing.  On the one hand, as the title suggests, God is characterized by forgiveness.  It says, “Our Lord, you embrace all things in mercy and knowledge, so forgive those who turn to You and follow your path.”  So far, so Good.  God seems alright.  But what if you don’t believe in God, or the particular version of God as depicted in the “holy text”?  Basically, you’re fucked: “Enter the gates of Hell, there to remain—an evil home for the arrogant.”  What I find troubling is the idea of eternal suffering.  It seems profoundly unjust and, to me, undermines the “forgiving” nature of God.

The idea of hell is shared by Christianity and Islam, and it is indeed a difficult one to stomach.  These two major world religions have a lot of beautiful ideas to offer—love, forgiveness, grace, a concern for the poor and marginalized, even the idea of eternal life.  But I don’t think hell is a very good idea, when you think about it for a while.  It belies even a rudimentary understanding of justice.  It goes beyond even the old school “eye for an eye” concept.  Instead of saying, for example, “If you steal someone’s horse, you have to give them a horse,” the hell concept says, “If you sin, your punishment will be totally disproportionate to the crime—you will suffer forever.”

The idea of hell preys upon one of humanity’s weakest attributes—fear.  In pretty much any arena of life, fear is a poor motivator.  But in the realm of religion, fear is a powerful motivator.  And when people are guided by fear, they tend to make ill-informed decisions and believe in weird things. 

It is important to note that the idea of hell developed over time.  It’s not something people have always believed in.  Like pretty much all religious ideas, it evolved in response to very specific historical circumstances into its current state.  The same goes for Satan.  For more on the invention of the idea of Satan, I recommend scholar Elaine Pagels’ book The Origin of Satan.  In the Hebrew Bible (the Christian “Old Testament”), there is no concept of hell.  There are some references to “Sheol” but that is not a place of punishment or suffering.  It is simply the realm of the dead.

For these, and many other reasons, I reject the idea of hell.  I find it distasteful, unjust, and totally absent in the earliest biblical texts.  So why do people still believe in hell, especially today, in the 21st century?  Of course, I can’t speak for everyone, but I can speak for why I used to believe in hell, back when I was an evangelical Christian.  I believed in hell because it was in the Bible, and back then I thought that, to be a Christian, I had to believe pretty much everything in the Bible was true.  Despite my distaste for the idea, I felt I had to accept it as “part and parcel” to the whole Christianity thing.  

Interestingly, when I began to question my faith in college, hell was one of my biggest problems.  The more I thought about it, the more it caused me to question everything.  Today, I am an outspoken agnostic.  I don’t know whether God exists.  But I definitely do NOT believe in hell.  It is morally repugnant to me.

This is a painting of hell, a place which I do not believe exists.

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