The idea of Hell: its role in worldviews, and why some find it implausible


Many people do not believe in a physical place known as Hell, nor in the idea that some people are sentenced to spiritual torment after their deaths, and indeed find it difficult to understand why this idea is attractive and plausible to others.

Martin S. Bergmann suggested in his book “In the Shadow of Moloch” that the Christian idea of Hell evolved at least in part to fill a gap for directing a sense of guilt. “Since guilt feelings were no longer absorbed by the many commandments Jews were obliged to follow,” he explained, “the sense of guilt found an outlet in a harsher view of punishment after death.”

The Existence of Hell

A psychological need could make the idea of Hell attractive, but whether Hell’s actual existence is plausible is a different question. “If hell were plausible, it would only have to be moderately unpleasant in order to deter. Given that it is so unlikely to be true, it has to be advertised as very very scary indeed, to balance its implausibility and retain some deterrence value,” observed Richard Dawkins in “The God Delusion.” His analysis assumes that, whether consciously or subconsciously, people analyze the odds of their “wager” about Hell’s existence.

Such calculations are unadmirable not only because they are self-serving, but because they confuse the potential exploitation of supposed rules about the afterlife with the very question of whether there is an afterlife at all. In the legendary Discordian work “The Honest Book of Truth,” Kerry Wendell Thornley reportedly quipped that “Hell is reserved exclusively for them that believe in it. Further, the lowest rung in Hell is reserved for them that believe in it on the supposition that they’ll go there if they don’t.” One cannot cause Hell to exist by wishing to avoid it – unless, of course, Discordianism is true!

The Punishment of Hell

There has always been the question of whether the punishment of Hell would fit the crime, particularly if the crime seems forgivable by a fellow human with a modicum of compassion and patience. Neale Donald Walsch wrote in his third “Conversation With God”:  “People will always believe in hell, and in a God who would send them there, as long as they believe that God is like a man – ruthless, self-serving, unforgiving, and vengeful.”

Hell is also construed as the fate for people who place their chips in the “wrong” religion. Thus Philip Gulley and James Mulholland, in “If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Perso,” identified the problem of Christian doctrines that “suggested Hitler shared the same hell with the Jews he murdered.” Does it make sense to say that belief in incorrect religious teaching, or even atheism – in other words, an intellectual or cultural belief that turns out to be false, among all the other beliefs we have that could also be mistaken – should be punished on a par with mass murder?

Can babies be condemned to Hell as well?

Some historical Christian doctrines have held that even babies can be condemned to Hell. The Nobel Prize-winning Japanese author Kenzaburo Oe wrote in his novel “A Personal Matter,” written to cope with the birth of his brain-damaged son: “What if there was the last judgment? Under what category of the Dead could you subpoena, prosecute, and sentence a baby with only vegetable functions who died no sooner than he was born?” It would obviously be irrational and cruel for a human to cast judgment and subsequently torture the soul of an impaired infant, yet for some reason, many have believed that God does exactly that.

Some have argued that falsely threatening children with eternal suffering, and inculcating bigotry to bolster the belief that some people deserve damnation, is itself a crime that would merit damnation (paradoxically, since the threat is false and bigoted only if Hell does not exist!) The late atheist Christopher Hitchens put it somewhat indirectly in his book “God is Not Great”: “Those who preached hatred and fear and guilt and who ruined innumerable childhoods should have been thankful that the hell they preached was only one among their wicked falsifications, and that they were not sent to rot there.” So, too, did the Christian theologian Nicolas Berdyaev write in “The Divine and the Human”: “There is only one thing which perhaps earns the eternal pains of hell and that is the too insistent defense of them, accompanied by a feeling of satisfaction.”

Notions of the afterlife can prod people in an inspiring way, not just in a threatening way.

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?” the poet Robert Browning asked in “Andrea del Sarto”. Within the context of the poem, he meant that we cannot attain artistic perfection but it is useful to have the urge to strive. One could apply a similar commentary to spiritual and moral perfection, as the pastor Rick Warren did in his bestseller “The Purpose Driven Life,” when he wrote: “The most damaging aspect of contemporary living is short-term thinking. To make the most of your life, you must keep the vision of eternity continually in your mind and the value of it in your heart.  There’s far more to life than just here and now!”

The philosopher Rene Descartes wrote in his “Meditations” (1641) that it is fear of God and hope for a good afterlife that prompts people to choose the “just” over the “useful,” while the philosopher John Locke wrote in “The Reasonableness of Christianity” (1695) that the expectation of “Heaven and Hell” is indeed the only foundation for morality. “Open their Eyes upon the endless unspeakable joys of another Life,” he wrote, “and their Hearts will find something solid and powerful to move them.”

On the other side, Mary Wollstonecraft in “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (1792) was of the opinion that the dream of “airy castles in a future world” does not enhance morality, while Mary Daly in “The Church and the Second Sex” (1968), discussing the work of Simone de Beauvoir, pointed out that the afterlife can even “distract attention from present injustice.”

Not all religions are fascinated with the idea of an afterlife.

Steven Prothero in “God is Not One” said that ” Yoruba practitioners do speak of a “good heaven” (orun rere) and a “bad heaven” (orun apadi). They also hope for reincarnation…But the focus, as with Israelite religion, seems to be living long and well on earth rather than attaining immortality elsewhere.”

The former nun Karen Armstrong observed that Christianity and Islam are unique among religions in their intense focus on the afterlife and that the topic was not a major concern during the first millennium BCE. She told Salon in 2006:

“I think the old scenarios of heaven and hell can be unreligious. People can perform their good deeds in the spirit of putting their installments in their retirement annuities. And there’s nothing religious about that. Religion is supposed to be about the loss of the ego, not about its eternal survival.”

Or, as Paul Varnell put it in In Newsweekly in 2004,

“even and especially in religion, the goal is entirely selfish and starkly hedonistic. Above all it is one’s own soul that one strives to save…So religion too endorses hedonism and selfishness; it merely postpones the payoff.”

For some, the loss of the ego is itself more terrifying than the idea of eternal torture; thus they choose to believe in the latter. Of course, such people generally console themselves with the idea that it is other egos, not their own, that are doomed to suffer. In this, one sees simultaneously why the idea of Hell is attractive – and implausible.

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