It was clumsy from people who aren't known for clumsiness. It didn't ring true to form, yet I couldn't put my finger on it. Early this year, the atheists slapped this inspirational message on British buses and sent them all over England:
"There probably is no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."
Richard Dawkins, the grand old man of atheism, appeared himself on launch day. Did he bless the buses as they left the terminal?
Now be honest. Is not your first reaction that those atheists should 'man up?' What is this milquetoast 'probably?' Either there is or there isn't. If it's just academic musing - well, then I guess 'probably' is acceptable - but no! we're authorized to take drastic action based on this 'probably.' We're to 'stop worrying' and 'enjoy life,' something none of us would dare do if there's the mere possibility of God lurking about somewhere! And what about this statement from Dawkins himself: "...if we say 'there's definitely no God' - you can't say that...." You can't? He does exactly that in his bestselling book The God Delusion. Why this pussyfooting around?
These folks are not milquetoast and they're not equivocal. Some of them you'll think are pit bulls should you run across them on the internet. It doesn't faze them at all to declare God a centuries-old, world-wide fraud- unfit for modern consumption. So why, all of a sudden, do they go weak in the knees? 'Probably?' And why does Dawkins put a positive spin on a mealy-mouthed message he can't stand?
Awake! magazine (Nov 2009) solved the puzzle. Citing The Guardian newspaper, it states "the word 'probably' is used in order to meet the rules of Britain's Advertising Standards Authority, since it is impossible to prove that God does not exist."
Ah....now it makes sense. That 'probably' is legalese! It's a disclaimer! It's like those interminable American pharmaceutical ads in which happy, vibrant, fulfilled people frolic on screen....so positively ALIVE now that they don't have to pee as much thanks to consuming this or that drug, and all the while the background announcer drones on and on with his long disclaimer of truly horrible side effects users may encounter, so that we begin to say "who in their right mind would take this stuff for ailments of mere inconvenience?" Ha, but those atheists want their message out so badly that they put up with a word that scuttles all it's impact. And we won't (for now) go into the 'impossibility of proving God's non-existence,' nor the ridiculous assertion that shedding faith is the pathway to worry-free happy life.
And yet listen to the words of Ariane Sherine, who dreamed up the project, and you can begin to empathize with her, and even with the grand old man Richard Dawkins:
"This campaign started as a counter response to advertising running on London buses in June 2008 which had Bible quotes on them, for instance Jesus died for our sins, and then an URL to a website and when you visited the website it said, among other things, that all non-Christians would burn in hell for all eternity in a lake of fire, and I thought that that was really quite strong...."
Yes....it really is....I see her point. Is it even more offensive than 'there (probably) is no God?' You can certainly argue the point. One side says God doesn't exist, and the other says - yes, he does, and he loves nothing more than to see those 'not with the program.' tortured forever. I like the way Isaac Asimov put it: hell is "the drooling dream of a sadist" crudely affixed to an all-merciful God; if even human governments were willing to curtail cruel and unusual punishments, he wondered, why would punishment in the afterlife not be restricted to a limited term. [Wikipedia entry on Isaac Asimov] Or, take this quote attributed to Sidney Hatch (the athlete?): “A civilized society looks with horror upon the abuse and torture of children or adults. Even where capital punishment is practiced, the aim is to implement it as mercifully as possible. Are we to believe then that a holy God—our heavenly Father—is less just than the courts of men? Of course not.”
What is truly exasperating is that the Bible emerges as the source of the hellfire teaching. Those fire and wrath people have long hijacked the book and present it as their own, so that the casual observer assumes it really does teach hell. It doesn't.
With a single exception, all instances of “hell” stem from only one of three original language words. Find the meaning of those words, and you’ve found the meaning of hell. Two of those words are Hebrew-Greek equivalents: sheol and hades. They refer to "the place of the dead." Bad people are said to go there, but so are good people. When the patriarch Jacob was told his son Joseph had died, for example, he "kept refusing to take comfort and [was] saying: “For I shall go down mourning to my son into Sheol!” Did he really expect to burn in hell someday, or did he figure on dying and going to the grave? (Gen 37:35) Or Job, who, amidst great suffering, prayed "O that in Sheol you would conceal me, that you would keep me secret until your anger turns back" (Job 14:13) A sensible request if sheol is the grave. Not so bright, though, if it is a burning place of torture.
How I miss the good ol Catholic Douay Bible, which consistently translated 'sheol' as 'hell!' But most translations, like the King James, only sometimes translate it as 'hell' and other times, when 'hell' is clearly ridiculous, translate it 'grave.' Why not translate it 'grave' each time, if that's what it means?
Or what about this verse speaking "of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption. This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses." (Acts 2:31 KJV) Now, if there is one person whom you would not expect to have gone to hell, wouldn't it be Jesus? But he was in the grave [hades] for three days.
The third and last word translated 'hell' is gehenna. Every instance of hellfire is 'gehenna.' The term refers to the valley of Hinnom outside the walls of Jerusalem. It served as the municipal garbage dump and fires were kept burning continually to consume the refuse. Carcasses of criminals and those not thought worthy of decent burial might be tossed over the wall into gehenna below. It even became symbolic. Giving one a proper burial presupposed they were worthy of future resurrection. Heaving someone into gehenna presupposed their death would be permanent. Thus, when Jesus denounced religious hypocrites: "Serpents, offspring of vipers, how are you to flee from the judgment of Gehenna?" he was suggesting they merited no future resurrection, not that they deserved everlasting torture.
The New World Translation declines to translate the three words into English. Instead, it transliterates sheol, hades, and gehenna directly from the original language into the English. This is an invaluable aid for students in uncovering what these words actually mean. One suspects other Bibles don't do it precisely to keep hidden how shaky is their derivation of 'hell.'
The phrase 'lake of fire' occurs only once in the Bible, at Revelation chapter 20:
"And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever." (Rev 20:10 KJV) One would think it painfully obvious that we're into heavy symbolism here. Literally speaking, the devil ought have a summer cottage on the lake of fire; it ought not bother him a bit! Later (vs 14) death and hades are tossed into the lake. Are they also entities that you can torture forever and ever? Or is the lake merely symbolic for permanent destruction, the "second death?"
It's a little like when you accompany someone (alas, we still have a few like this) to the door, and that one is so persistent and so argumentative that the householder finally slams the door shut, and you say "I don't blame him...what else could he have done?" So it is with these born-again hellfire buses running all over the place. You can only push atheists so far. Sooner or later they'll send out buses of their own. Listen, regarding Sherine and Dawkins, I'm not their friend, nor do I understand their evangelistic zeal for spreading atheism. The same fervor Ponce de Leon used to put into finding the fountain of life, these guys put into finding the fountain of death. No, I don't like the atheist bus campaign. But as a response to religionists threatening everyone with hellfire....well, suddenly I can empathize with them a little.