Every year in Kampala, the most popular Pentecostal Church stages a production called “Heaven’s Gates and Hell’s Flames”. They’ve been doing this every year for the last 20 years or so, and this production has been extremely successful in winning converts to Christianity, and getting ‘lukewarm’ Christians ‘back on track’.
I’ve watched it twice – once in 1993, and the second time in 2008. The first time I watched this play I was already a born-again Christian, so for me, at the time, it served as a great reinforcer of my beliefs. The second time around, it was at the behest of an attractive lady who (bless her heart!) was trying to ‘convert me’ back into Christianity (I had long-since abandoned the faith by then).
In this play, various scenes depicting the lives of various groups of people are presented. In the one scene, we are presented with 2 strangers sitting next to each other on a flight to some destination. Once they get the small talk going, one of them starts trying to share his Christian beliefs to his new found friend. This new found friend is supposedly some sort of corporate intellectual who has no time for ‘such things’, and shrugs off the other guy’s attempts to evangelise. At that moment, the plane experiences a mid-air malfunction and crashes, killing everyone on board.
When the two of them ‘wake up’, they are at the gates of heaven. The ‘saved’ guy is obviously impressed, while the ‘unsaved’ chap begins panicking. An angel then steps forward and declares that Mr. Intellectual rejected Jesus and so is doomed to spend eternity in hell. Scary music starts to play, and a man wearing a monster mask (Satan) suddenly appears from back stage and prances about with joy as he drags the new inmate (who, at this point, is kicking and screaming and begging for mercy) into Hell’s flames.
Hell is depicted as – you guessed it – a LAKE OF FIRE – and I must say some very interesting effects were used to animate the flames on stage. It had a real ‘fiery’ look and feel to it.
Anyway, once Satan and Mr. Intellectual disappear, Jesus appears and leads our saved friend through the gates of heaven, as approximately 50 angels (standing on several elevated platforms spread across the back of the set) cheer his acceptance into the Kingdom of God.
This routine of sudden death springing upon unsuspecting people prevails throughout the various scenes with different people, and in each case the deceased wake up to find themselves at Heaven’s gates to be judged by Jesus. Indeed it is a spectacular production, with bright lights and beautiful costumes and some decent acting as well.
The moral of this story is clear…reject Jesus, and Hell will be your eternal home.
At the end of the play the presiding pastor initiates an altar call, and invites those who wish to give their lives to Christ, or those who wish to ‘rededicate’ their lives to Jesus to come forward. Hundreds of people rush to form long lines, frightened out of their wits, wondering where they might end up if death came to them as suddenly and abruptly as it did for the characters in the play.
One thing for sure is that, for them, HELL is not an option.
This play is essentially an attempt to dramatise Pascal’s Wager, which is a ploy used to highlight the supposed dangers of not believing in ‘God’.
According to Wikipedia:
Pascal’s Wager (or Pascal’s Gambit) is a suggestion posed by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal that even though the existence of God cannot be determined through reason, a person should wager as though God exists, because so living has everything to gain, and nothing to lose.
In other words, you’d rather believe in ‘God’ than not, because if ‘God’ doesn’t exist, presumably nothing has been lost by the believer and the non-believer. However, if it turns out that ‘God’ does, in fact, exist – then the non-believer will go to Hell, where as the believer will go to Heaven. From this it is argued that one would therefore be better off believing in ‘God’ than not.
This argument has for a long time been deemed unconvincing.
To me, the most compelling objection, and it being one that I can relate to, is that believing tends not to be something one can wilfully, or consciously, do. One cannot ‘decide’ to believe. Each individual has, by virtue of his/her age, life experiences, upbringing and education, different standards for what he or she will find to be persuasive evidence. So no matter how much an individual wants to avoid Hell, if the burden of proof required to induce that belief has not been met, then the most this person could ever do is pretend to believe – in which case he or she would still be damned. Belief can only occur after one has been convinced – which is not something a person can claim to have control over.
Theologians are also not keen to use this as a tool of prosletysation because, first of all, it gives the impression (and rightly so) that one has to be coerced into believing in Jesus. Naturally, theologians would rather not have Christianity reduced to being one-giant-not-so-veiled-threat. Secondly, if ‘God’ exists and is omniscient, presumably, he would know that a non-believer was feigning belief for the sake of self-preservation (avoiding Hell), and so that non-believer would still be damned.
Consider also, that there are thousands of religions in existence with some of them explicitly clear on what one must do to avoid eternal damnation. This means, even if one believed that a ‘God’ exists, this would not be sufficient to guarantee that one could escape Hell or eternal damnation.
For example, if Islam is true, then the Christian who continues to worship ‘God’ as a triune entity would be guilty of idolatry and end up in Hell. Meanwhile, the Muslim who rejects the divinity of Jesus and refuses to accept him as personal saviour would also go to Hell – if Christianity is true. So even if one believed in the existence of a ‘God’, one would first have to sift through and consider every religious tradition in existence in order to be reasonably certain that they were doing the things required by ‘God’ (that is, assuming that this ‘God’ – if it exists – requires humans to do, or believe, anything specific) in order not to be sent to Hell for eternal torment.
Thus, trying to convince a non-believer to believe in ‘God’ for the sake of ‘avoiding Hell’ really can’t work. As we have seen – technically, a believer in ‘God’ is in no better position himself, for he cannot know for sure that his religious tradition, or his THEOLOGY is the correct one, out of the tens of thousands of religious traditions and theologies that exist, have existed, or are yet to exist.
(Several other interesting and effective objections to Pascal’s Wager can be found here.)
As an atheist, of course, I don’t lose any sleep over this because there’s no good reason to think a Hell, let alone a ‘God’, even exists.
Life is beautiful..
There is only one life to live, and not a minute of it should be spent on unwarranted anxieties based on ancient myths and superstitions.
(Cross-posted from my blog Freethought Kampala)