Hell has been on my mind. I recently dug up a list of all the places in the Gospels where Jesus talks about hell (there are quite a few), so hell is all up in my face right now. It’s one of the religious beliefs that I find most disturbing and most profoundly fucked-up — and I want to talk about why.
Part of it, of course, is that there’s no evidence for it. But that’s true for a lot of religious beliefs — arguably all of them — and not all religious beliefs anger me nearly as much as hell does. (The evidence problem is, however, a problem I’ll be coming back to.)
Part of it is that it’s missing the entire point of punishment and justice. For me, the point of punishment is either to change people’s behavior — to show them that bad actions have bad consequences, and thus to teach them not to do it again — or to provide an example, to demonstrate to others than bad actions have bad consequences, and thus to teach them not to do it.
Hell completely fails on both counts. The permanence and eternity of it means that it utterly fails as a teaching tool. It’s not like you’re going to learn from your mistakes — the whole idea of hell is that, if you haven’t learned your lesson by the day of your death or Judgment Day, you don’t get any more chances. It’s like punishing a child by sending them to sit in the corner… for the rest of their life.
And as far as hell being an example for others… well, here’s where we come back to the fact that there’s no evidence for it. It’s not like the souls being burned and tortured in hell for eternity are on display for the rest of us to see, so we can go, “Oh. Got it. That’s what happens when you steal from your neighbor and cheat on your wife. Important safety tip. Thanks.” All we have is the word of some ancient texts, Jerry Falwell, and the guy screaming at us from the Powell Street cable car turnaround.
So it’s a truly lousy form of punishment. It takes all the good stuff out of the concept of justice, and turns it into pure revenge, simply for revenge’s sake. Simply because it makes people feel good to believe that bad people are being punished.
And then there’s the problem of how wildly disproportionate hell is; how it’s what Ebon Musings calls “infinite punishment for finite sins.” There is no math in the world that makes infinite torture a proportionate response to anything that any human might do on Earth. To punish even crimes like mass murder with burning and torture for infinitely longer than a billion years… it’s like punishing a parking violation with waterboarding.
But none of that is my biggest problem with hell.
My biggest problem with the idea of hell is that it’s such a powerful, insidious form of social control.
Here’s what the concept of hell does. It tells people, “If you behave in bad ways, if you disobey (God in theory, religious texts and teachers in practice), the consequences will be bad — extraordinarily bad, much more bad than anything you’ve seen or can even imagine. No, we can’t give you any evidence that this terrible bad consequence will happen — but take our word for it, you don’t want it to happen. In fact, even questioning its existence and asking for evidence of it is one of the most disobedient bad things you can do, and will get you sent there for sure.”
Now. Think about how learning, and the idea of consequences, works in an ordinary non-hell-based context. In everyday life, if you’re reasonably sane and don’t have a personality disorder, you learn about what to do and what not to do by experiencing consequences or seeing them happen to others. Touching a hot stove burns you; hitting people gets them mad at you; drinking too much makes you hungover; saying cruel things to people you love makes you feel sick and sad; etc.
We also learn from one another, of course — our parents or friends say, “Don’t drink milk past the expiration date,” or, “For the love of God, do not see ‘Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo,’” and much of the time we’ll just take their word for it. But at least we have the option of verifying their statements. We can see for ourselves that when our parents and teachers told us marijuana would lead straight to heroin, they were talking out of their asses, and we can see for ourselves what the consequences of smoking pot are and make a decision about whether it’s okay.
Hell doesn’t work that way. Because hell is invisible, people have no way of deciding for themselves whether it’s real… and because hell is such a grotesquely appalling consequence, people will do anything to avoid it.
Therefore. If you can convince people that hell is real and that you are an authority on its existence and what they have to do to avoid it… you can make them do ANYTHING.
Anything at all.
You can get them to give you money. You can get them to go out and convert more followers for you. You can get them to suck your cock. You can get them to turn against their children. You can get them to vote for your friends. You can get them to go to war against your enemies. You can get them to torture, to kill, to tie people to stakes and set them on fire, to blow themselves up in crowded places, to commit mass murder, to commit mass suicide. And of course, you can get them to never ask questions about you, or whether what you’re saying and doing is right, or whether this hell place even exists.
Anything. The combination of hell’s invisibility and the extremity of its horror makes it a singularly effective form of manipulation and social control. It’s a terrifying consequence that people will avoid at all costs… and they have no way to look at the world around them and ask, “Hey, is that really true?” Then when you add the “doubting hell’s existence will get you sent there” meme, it makes it even more powerful by making it self-perpetuating. And all of this is especially powerful, and especially troubling, when it’s directed at children… whose brains are, as Richard Dawkins points out, built, for very good evolutionary reasons, to believe what adults tell them.
Part of me gets it. It is awful to think of wicked people thriving, living their lives out in comfort and never suffering the consequences of their badness. I hate that Ken Lay died of a heart attack before he could rot in prison. Part of me wishes I believed in hell, so I could believe he was there.
But the idea of hell is an evil, hateful idea, and it’s not one I want in my world. It exists for one reason and one reason only: to scare people into doing what you tell them, to squelch questioning and dissent. It takes people’s innate fears — and maybe worse, their ability to trust and learn from one another — and manipulates them to create obedience. It is an idea that has nothing but contempt for people’s autonomy. It is an idea that has nothing but contempt for people, period. It is social control, pure and simple. It is completely at odds with the idea of a compassionate, loving God. And any religion that has it as a central theme has a tremendous amount to answer for.