by Robert Ingersoll
In the estimation of good orthodox Christians I am a criminal, because I am trying to take from loving mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, and lovers the consolations naturally arising from a belief in an eternity of grief and pain. I want to tear, break, and scatter to the winds the God that priests erected in the fields of innocent pleasure -- a God made of sticks called creeds, and of old clothes called myths. I shall endeavor to take from the coffin its horror, from the cradle its curse, and put out the fires of revenge kindled by an infinite fiend.
Is it necessary that Heaven should borrow its light from the glare of Hell?
Infinite punishment is infinite cruelty, endless injustice, immortal meanness. To worship an eternal gaoler [jailer] hardens, debases, and pollutes even the vilest soul. While there is one sad and breaking heart in the universe, no good being can be perfectly happy.
Against the heartlessness of the Christian religion every grand and tender soul should enter solemn protest. The God of Hell should be held in loathing, contempt and scorn. A God who threatens eternal pain should be hated, not loved -- cursed, not worshiped. A heaven presided over by such a God must be below the lowest hell. I want no part in any heaven in which the saved, the ransomed and redeemed will drown with shouts of joy the cries and sobs of hell -- in which happiness will forget misery, where the tears of the lost only increase laughter and double bliss.
The idea of hell was born of ignorance, brutality, fear, cowardice, and revenge. This idea testifies that our remote ancestors were the lowest beasts. Only from dens, lairs, and caves, only from mouths filled with cruel fangs, only from hearts of fear and hatred, only from the conscience of hunger and lust, only from the lowest and most debased could come this most cruel, heartless and bestial of all dogmas.
Our barbarian ancestors knew but little of nature. They were too astonished to investigate. They could not divest themselves of the idea that everything happened with reference to them; that they caused storms and earthquakes; that they brought the tempest and the whirlwind; that on account of something they had done, or omitted to do, the lightning of vengeance leaped from the darkened sky. They made up their minds that at least two vast and powerful beings presided over this world; that one was good and the other bad; that both of these beings wished to get control of the souls of men; that they were relentless enemies, eternal foes; that both welcomed recruits and hated deserters; that both demanded praise and worship; that one offered rewards in this world, and the other in the next. The Devil has paid cash -- God buys on credit.
Man saw cruelty and mercy in nature, because he imagined that phenomena were produced to punish or to reward him. When his poor hut was torn and broken by the wind, he thought it a punishment. When some town or city was swept away by flood or sea, he imagined that the crimes of the inhabitants had been avenged. When the land was filled with plenty, when the seasons were kind, he thought that he had pleased the tyrant of the skies.
It must he remembered that both gods and devils were supposed to be presided over by the greatest God and the greatest Devil. The God could give infinite rewards and could inflict infinite torments. The Devil could assist man here; could give him wealth and place in this world, in consideration of owning his soul hereafter. Each human soul was a prize contended for by these deities. Of course this God and this Devil had innumerable spirits at their command, to execute their decrees. The God lived in heaven and the Devil in hell. Both were monarchs and were infinitely jealous of each other. The priests pretended to be the agents and recruiting sergeants of this God, and they were duly authorized to promise and threaten in his name; they had power to forgive and curse. These priests sought to govern the world by force and fear. Believing that men could be frightened into obedience, they magnified the tortures and terrors of perdition. Believing also that man could in part be influenced by the hope of reward, they magnified the joys of heaven. In other words, they promised eternal joy and threatened everlasting pain. Most of these priests, born of the ignorance of the time, believed what they taught. They proved that God was good, by sunlight and harvest, by health and happiness; that he was angry, by disease and death. Man, according to this doctrine, was led astray by the Devil, who delighted only in evil. It was supposed that God demanded worship; that he loved to be flattered; that he delighted in sacrifice; that nothing made him happier than to see ignorant faith upon its knees; that above all things he hated and despised doubters and heretics, and that he regarded all investigation as rebellion.
Now and then believers in these ideas, those who had gained great reputation for learning and sanctity, or had enjoyed great power, wrote books, and these books after a time were considered sacred. Most of them were written to frighten mankind, and were filled with threatenings and curses for unbelievers and promises for the faithful. The more frightful the curses, the more extravagant the promises, the more sacred the books were considered. All of the gods were cruel and vindictive, unforgiving and relentless, and the devils were substantially the same. It was also believed that certain things must be accepted as true, no matter whether they were reasonable or not; that it was pleasing to God to believe a certain creed, especially if it happened to be the creed of the majority. Each community felt it a duty to see that the enemies of God were converted or killed. To allow a heretic to live in peace was to invite the wrath of God. Every public evil -- every misfortune -- was accounted for by something the community had permitted or done. When epidemics appeared, brought by ignorance and welcomed by filth, the heretic was brought out and sacrificed to appease the vengeance of God. From the knowledge they had -- from their premises -- they reasoned well. They said, if God will inflict such frightful torments upon us here, simply for allowing a few heretics to live, what will he do with the heretics? Of course the heretics would be punished forever. They knew how cruel was the barbarian king when he had the traitor in his power. They had seen every horror that man could inflict on man. Of course a God could do more than a king. He could punish forever. The fires he would kindle never could be quenched. The torments he would inflict would be eternal. They thought the amount of punishment would be measured only by the power of God.
These ideas were not only prevalent in what are called barbarous times, but they are received by the religious world of today.
No death could be conceived more horrible than that produced by flames. To these flames they added eternity, and hell was produced. They exhausted the idea of personal torture.
By putting intention behind what man called good, God was produced. By putting intention behind what man called bad, the Devil was created. Leave this "intention" out, and gods and devils fade away.
If not a human being existed the sun would continue to shine, and tempests now and then would devastate the world; the rain would fall in pleasant showers, and the bow of promise would adorn the cloud; violets would spread their velvet bosoms to the sun, and the earthquake would devour; birds would sing, and daisies bloom, and roses blush, and the volcanoes would fill the heavens with their lurid glare; the procession of the seasons would not be broken, and the stars would shine just as serenely as though the world was filled with loving hearts and happy homes. But in the olden time man though otherwise. He imagined that he was of great importance. Barbarians are always egotistic. They think that the stars are watching them; that the sun shines on their account; that the rain falls for them and that gods and devils are really troubling themselves about their poor and ignorant souls.
In those days men fought for their God as they did for their king. They killed the enemies of both. For this their king would reward them here, and their God hereafter. With them it was loyalty to destroy the disloyal. They did not regard God as a vague "spirit," nor as an "essence" without body or parts, but as a being, a person, an infinite man, a king, the monarch of the universe, who had garments of glory for believers and robes of flame for the heretic and infidel.
Do not imagine that this doctrine of hell belongs to Christianity alone. Nearly all religions have had this dogma for a cornerstone. Upon this burning foundation nearly all have built. Over the abyss of pain rose the glittering dome of pleasure. This world was regarded as one of trial. Here a God of infinite wisdom experimented with man. Between the outstretched paws of the Infinite the mouse, man, was allowed to play. Here man had the opportunity of hearing priests and kneeling in temples. Here he could read and hear read the sacred books. Here he could have the example of the pious and the counsels of the holy. Here he could build churches and cathedrals. Here he could burn incense, fast, wear haircloth, deny himself all the pleasures of life, confess to priests, count beads, be miserable one day in seven, make creeds, construct instruments of torture, bow before pictures and images, eat little square pieces of bread, sprinkle water on the heads of babes, shut his eyes and say words to the clouds, and slander and defame all who have the courage to despise superstition, and the goodness to tell their honest thoughts. After death, nothing could be done to make him better. When he should come into the presence of God, nothing was left except to damn him. Priests might convert him here, but God could do nothing there, -- all of which shows how much more a priest can do for a soul than its creator; how much more potent is the example of your average Christian than that of all the angels, and how much superior earth is to heaven for the moral development of the soul. In heaven the Devil is not allowed to enter. There all are pure and perfect, yet they cannot influence a soul for good.
Only here, on the earth, where the Devil is constantly active, only where his agents attack every soul, is there the slightest hope of moral improvement.
Strange! that a world cursed by God, filled with temptations and thick with fiends, should be the only place where hope exists, the only place where man can repent, the only place where reform is possible. Strange that heaven, filled with angels and presided over by God, is the only place where reformation is utterly impossible! Yet these are the teachings of all the believers in the eternity of punishment.
Masters frightened slaves with the threat of hell, and slaves got a kind of shadowy revenge by whispering back the threat. The poor have damned the rich and the rich the poor. The imprisoned imagined a hell for their gaolers; the weak built this place for the strong; the arrogant for their rivals; the vanquished for their victors; the priest for the thinker, religion for reason, superstition for science.
All the meanness, all the revenge, all the selfishness, all the cruelty, all the hatred, all the infamy of which the heart of man is capable, grew, blossomed and bore fruit in this one word -- Hell.
For the nourishment of this dogma cruelty was soil, ignorance was rain, and fear was light.
Christians have placed upon the throne of the universe a God of eternal hate. I cannot worship a being whose vengeance is boundless, whose cruelty is shoreless, and whose malice is increased by the agonies he inflicts.