Although the English words “heaven” and “hell” are used to describe similar ideas in numerous religions and various philosophies, in philosophy of religion, they usually refer to eternal post-mortem spiritual realms in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic theological traditions. Heaven is a permanent, eternal divine reward reserved for those who lived (in their Earthly life) morally upright, whereas Hell is a permanent, eternal divine punishment for those who have committed moral transgressions (commonly called “sins”) and have remained unrepentant. In Catholic theology, a third spiritual realm is added called Purgatory in which the souls of those who have committed some (perhaps minor) moral transgressions can be purged of sins for some period of time and then allowed to join the blessed in Heaven. It is often held that a soul with any amount of sin cannot be rewarded with a heavenly existence, since this existence is believed to be in the immediacy of God’s presence. It is generally believed that any repentant soul can be completely forgiven by God; thus, no matter the moral transgression, if one were to repent prior to their death, she would be rewarded by being allowed to enter Heaven. Heaven and Hell in these traditions are parts of philosophical/theological theodicies which aid in addressing the problem of evil.
Numerous philosophical problems arise from the doctrines of Heaven and Hell. First, is it just for a divine being to punish infinitely (i.e., eternally) an individual for a finite sin? Second, when coupled with the St. Paul’s doctrine of the resurrection of the body, how is the reward or punishment meted out to the actual individual rather than a replica (see the entry on resurrection concerning the replica problem)? Third, would it really be just for someone who (most would believe) was an “evil” person (e.g., Hitler, Ted Bundy) to go to Heaven simply if they chose to repent immediately prior to their death? Fourth, is it just for a divine being to eternally punish an individual for a sin he was unaware he committed (for instance, a Buddhist who never believed in, or heard of, Jesus, which is required in Christianity)? Along with these, many other problems concerning the Heaven and Hell have been discussed in theological and philosophical literature.
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David Bourget (Western Ontario)
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