Joseph McCabe (1867-1955) was one of the most prolific authors of all time. He was brought up as a Roman Catholic, worked on Latin documents, and made himself very well-informed about Christianity, but turned against it. But he was extremely naive about Jews; bear this in mind.

Click for Detailed notes on McCabe - scroll down for selections from A Rationalist Encyclopaedia (1948).

Here's the full A Rationalist Encyclopaedia (about 1.3 MBytes; Word format; includes notes on some of its limits)

Heaven and Hell

J. McCabe, Rationalists Encyclopaedia

From a study of the beliefs of the lowest peoples, which, when we eliminate adulterations, represent those of early prehistoric man, we learn that the shades of the dead, in which man soon learned to believe, were thought to hover about the hut or the village after death. [See Religion.] As man advanced he, possibly to explain why they were so rarely seen or their action felt, located them in the forest or beyond the mountains or seas. One can imagine that the primitive "priests" answered the sceptic by putting the shades farther and farther away until the idea that the shade was a spirit, and therefore invisible, was at length invented. However that may be, we see in the localization of the shades in the minds of savages - there is a full account in the article "Abode of the Dead," in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics - when we take carefully into account (as is rarely done) the cultural position of each people and its possibilities of borrowing, the whole story of the evolution of heaven and earth. When earth-burial began, it was natural to put the home of the shades underground, and this remained for ages a dim and misty world of unknown features, but generally conceived as unpleasant. So we find in many peoples of the higher or middle savage level to-day, from Africa to Siberia and America. This idea was taken up into civilization, and was the general feeling of the Semitic peoples, including the Jews, as well as the early Greeks and Romans, who gave little thought to the shades of the dead. But an ethical discrimination sets in at a fairly low level of savage life, the shades of the "good" ascending to the bright and happy home of the gods in the sky, and the underworld having its unpleasant features increasingly made worse for the wicked. Exceptional conditions might alter this. For instance, to the Eskimo a warm hell might not be unattractive, and some thought the home of the good was a land of perpetual sunshine underground, while the wicked were punished with intense cold. Among the early Teutons Hel (a hollow place underground) was the common and very dim abode of all the dead except warriors, who earned residence in Valhalla by ferocity in fighting. Other peoples put the shades of the good in beautiful islands (Isles of the Blest, etc.) across the sea. The general tendency was in the direction of an underworld of discomfort for all but a few who were particularly appreciated by the kings and priests, and these, naturally, went to the home of the great sky-gods. Some savage peoples regarded the rainbow as a bridge by means of which the shades mounted to the sky. Others believed that they went up in the smoke of the funeral pyre. How the Egyptians came at a very early date to have so definite a belief in immortality and an underworld is a matter of speculation, but their idea of an eternal reward - they had no idea of eternal punishment - had a profound influence on the evolution of religion. Whether the even more definite Persian (or Zoroastrian) idea of "the Kingdom" (heaven) for the pure and fire for the wicked, the beginnings of which we cannot trace, implies a debt at some unknown date to Egypt it is impossible to say. But by the second century B.C. the Persian and Egyptian idea spread all over the civilized world. The Jews, realizing the futility of their belief that Jahveh rewarded the good and punished the wicked in this life, adopted the other-worldly scheme, their religious leaders restoring confidence in Jahveh by promising a spiritual and eternal reward for their sufferings in their national disasters. The founders of Christianity accepted the barbaric side of this doctrine ("the fire that is not extinguished") as fully as the attractive side, while other movements of the time (Eleusinian Mysteries, Mithraism, Manichaeism, etc.) held out to the Greeks and Romans only the brighter prospect; and the debased Buddhism of the Middle Ages emulated Christianity in adding horrors to the repulsive doctrine of hell. See Mrs. Bradlaugh-Bonner, The Christian Hell (1913). The better-educated divines in all Churches except the Roman (which still permits no departure from the medieval idea) and the Fundamentalist now acknowledge with a shudder that the whole postmortem scheme is an error and the doctrine of hell repulsive; though this does not prevent them from retaining the dogma that a Holy Spirit has guided the Church for the last 1,900 years. "The local Heaven and Hell of medieval fancy has passed away," says Bishop Barnes in Should Such a Faith Offend, 1927 (p. 179). "The Jewish Gehenna, which became the medieval hell, is untrue," says Bishop Masterman in The Christianity of To-morrow (1929, p. 58). Less responsible Christian writers than bishops use more violent language, but they almost invariably avoid the fact that Jesus and Paul and all the Fathers, scholars, divines, and mystics of all branches of the Christian Church accepted, until the last century, what they call the repulsive medieval doctrine of hell. Most Christian scholars now leave the complexion of the next world open, and many begin to question immortality .


Back to Joseph McCabe extracts

Home Page

Scanning, HTML Rae West. First upload 98-02-08 revd 98-02-20