Fortunately, Hell isn’t such a bad place.
It’s actually a village in Norway, and although I’ve never been, it certainly doesn’t seem as harsh, torturous, or pyrotechnical as its reputation would suggest.
Of course, I’m talking about a Hell that actually exists.
The fictional kinds never seem like much fun. They’re not all quite as homogeneously horrible as the popular Christian imaginings, but unending torment seems to be a regular feature. Other religions had and have different ideas, and many Christians today reject the standard notion of lakes of fire and pitchfork enemas.
But the sadistic idea of never-ending suffering for people who’ve done wrong in life is still a popular and mainstream one, with a majority of Americans believing in some kind of punishment bad enough to earn the name “Hell”.
I don’t buy it for a second. It’s a primitive attempt to reassure oneself and one’s allies that your own tribe is morally righteous and specially preferred, and that injustices against you by “others” will be corrected in your favour, so long as you hold true to the values you were born into. Only humans could come up with something like this.
But it’s still a really scary idea.
Once in a while, I’ll start to really imagine it. I’ll just drift into that hypothetical worldview, picture myself in some dark pit, surrounded solely by creatures wishing me harm, powerless to escape or even to move, being bodily tortured and suffering immense pain, and knowing that this is truly unending – no lunchbreak, no knocking off at 5 to go home, no weekends, not a single other experience of anything that I’ve ever valued, not a moment’s respite from the pain, not even death and an end to it all, no end to this, ever.
Once in a while, I totally freak myself the fuck out.
Only for a few seconds, of course. I’ll let my head wander to this really sinister place, then just shudder and shake it off, reassured that there’s as close to zero chance of it happening as I could ever hope for of anything.
Sometimes, though, I shudder again a little later, as I think about people who can’t be so reassured.
There are people who really believe this shit. Some just loudly assert how agonising a fate everyone else deserves, because of some serious insecurities and a pathological need to claim some kind of superiority over people who won’t let them get their way, however imaginary that superiority might be.
But then there are those who live in terror of making a wrong step, and being consigned to an eternal fate that can make even a devout atheist’s heart beat a little faster. There are kids and adults who’ve had it driven into them that this unending pain is real, and is what their loving god is going to see to it that they get – because it’s what they deserve – if they do anything wrong, or even think sinful thoughts.
It’s not just a fleeting creepy thought for some people, but a permanent terror.
Richard Dawkins has described some kinds of extremist religious education as constituting a form of child abuse. When kids are being terrorised by fantasies like this, it’s hard to call him wrong.