Hell has been imagined in various different ways, but let’s just start with the premise that God loves us, and also that he has the power to do pretty much whatever he wants. (Common enough religious tropes, though the specifics I use will probably stay somewhat Jesus-centric.) Why, then, would he choose to send some of us to Hell, generally agreed to be a place of eternal and infinite suffering?
Well, maybe we simply deserve this punishment. Most belief systems that include a Hell will also describe their god as just and righteous. Presumably, then, when he sends us to eternal torment, it is entirely fair of him to do so. His justice is unquestionable, and in this way as in all others his acts are entirely noble and good.
My question is… really? An infinite punishment meted out for a finite crime? Totally fair? It seems counter-intuitive to say the least. It also doesn’t allow for the chance that, eventually, people might start to feel a tinge of regret for whatever it was they did. I don’t know what the recidivism rates are like in this (or any) country, and I don’t care to do the research, but even if many people don’t turn themselves around after a decades-long prison stretch on earth, surely a few thousand millennia of unceasing pain might induce a smidgen of remorse.
And even if somebody isn’t remotely sorry for what they did, infinite punishment? Really? Look, however many people you’ve raped and murdered and taken to Westlife gigs, it’ll be no time at all in cosmic terms before every trace of suffering you’ve caused has been wiped clean and forgotten. Sure, if there really is a God, then the rapists and murderers and criminally insipid boy-bands might have a bit of explaining to do if they ever bump into him. But the suggested punishment is 100000000000000000000000000 times worse than any compendium of crimes a person could ever commit. And way more than that, too. Infinity’s pretty huge. If we’re supposed to accept that a just god could do this to us, then I’d want to be let in on the logic supposedly at work to justify what seems like a colossal over-reaction. At least give me a hint.
In Christian doctrine, there is one truly unforgivable sin, namely that of “blasphemy against the holy spirit”. Mark 3:29 reads: “But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation.” Quite what this Holy Ghost character would take as blasphemy seems to be left open to interpretation – which is just what you want in an explanation of what actions will condemn you to infinite punishment – but whatever it is, he sure don’t like it.
But, obviously, there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation here. The thing is, y’see, is that God is the one being offended here, and he is infinite, so therefore a crime against the infinite god is an infinite crime and deserves infinite retribution. So, it all makes sense.
This, if you’ll excuse my using some technical jargon for a moment, makes no motherfucking goddamn sense. If you’re arguing that your God’s ego is infinitely fragile, then you might have a point, but that’s not a thing I’ve heard anyone proudly proclaim in so many words.
Maybe it works both ways. “Hey, God, lookin’ sharp today.” Is that enough to win me an eternal reward in paradise to balance out the endless punishment I already earned by tossing out an equally casual one-liner? No? So, the deal is, we have to work really hard for any hope of happiness, and one little momentary lapse into sacrilege is enough to bollocks up the whole thing. We’re all sinners, and the only thing that can save us from a hell-bound life of depravity is if we ask for God’s grace – from the right god, obviously.
Um. Why does it work that way around? I mean, is it just me, or does this God guy seem just a little bit eager – particularly for someone who loves us all infinitely – to watch us have our genitals skewered on pitchforks by all the demons of Hades? There are a number of people whom I love, but very few of them I would enjoy watching scream in agony while Satan eats their intestines and rapes them with swordfish for more than… I guess ten thousand years or so. Very few.
Our relationship with God is often compared to that of a child and a parent. God allows the existence of human suffering for the same reason parents don’t save their children from every possible harm: they don’t want to over-protectively shield them from the world, because this would do them the greater injury of preventing them from truly experiencing life. We’ve been told how to behave, and like a naughty child, sometimes we must learn the hard way what happens when we flout the instructions of our more knowledgable authority figure.
My question is… really? That’s how some people are justifying the existence of Hell? You don’t think there comes a point where maybe a parent should intervene for the good of their children – to protect them from, say, I don’t know, the worst thing that it’s possible to imagine? Even if it might diminish the richness of their experience of life, or impinge on their free will? (Oh, Christ on a cracker and Mary in a cheese toastie, don’t get me started on free will.)
Sure, letting your kids graze their knees from time to time with mildly dangerous activities is important, but that doesn’t begin to compare with what’s at stake here. A good, loving parent might be standing by with a bottle of Witch-hazel and an elastoplast. God, in this metaphor, is telling us, “Well, you used your free will to ride your bike across the roof, and it would’ve been wrong for me to intrude on that, and now you’ll never use your legs ever again. Let that be a lesson to you.”
Taking a blame-the-victim mentality to the extreme, the excuse is sometimes made that anyone who is sent to Hell has in fact chosen this path. They are responsible for their own fate, which could have been easily avoided simply by accepting Jesus’ offer of salvation, or by following God’s law and repenting their sin, or whatever else it is we’re supposed to do. Those who ignore these handy escape routes will be punished for their foolishness, and it’ll be their own fault. So, it’s not only disobedience and insufficient sucking-up which will lead to our benevolent creator allowing us to be tortured without end, but also making an honest mistake as to which improbable and incoherent mythos to buy into.
If you really think that a person whose only crime is subscribing to a belief system that’s different from yours is choosing pain and suffering without end, you really need to choke on the nearest sharp and pointy thing. Nobody walks up to the gates of Hell, accepts its reality, understands the exact nature of what lies inside, and genuinely decides, “Well, I think I’ll go in here and be brutally maimed and tortured for eternity or so”. It’s still God making the decisions about what happens to us.
To stretch the analogy further, imagine a parent telling their young son or daughter, “Now Wayne/Ingrid, Mummy and Daddy love you very much, but if you spill any more food on our nice carpet, I’ll bash you around the head with a shovel. It might seem disproportionate, but because I’ve told you exactly how to behave and how to be safe, if I do have to smash your face in, you’ll only be doing it to yourself.” Better yet, rather than talking to their child directly, imagine that the parent leaves several notes lying around, all of which contradict each other about what the child should do, and make similar threats about what’ll happen if they get it wrong, and are all signed “Your loving parents”. This is obviously unhinged, and none of the qualities so commonly attributed to God give him any more of a right to be such a dick.
If you believe in Hell, and also believe that God is unfair, cruel, and evil, then at least that’s consistent, if just a mite cynical. But if you think that the kind of loving god so many religions claim to worship is also capable of allowing such brutality as this, then either you have a pitifully shallow imagination (and just don’t get quite how atrocious this kind of brutality would be), or the charade that you are any kind of a reasonable human being is a very flimsy one. Having to believe that anyone who wrongs your god will suffer for it forever is a contemptibly primitive way of thinking, which we as a species should really have grown out of centuries ago.
This is adapted for the Skeptictionary from some older material.