Escaping the Threat of Hell
For perhaps the hundredth time over the past year or so, I've been asked by a new atheist how to get over the fear of hell. As anyone who's ever been indoctrinated into Christianity understands, the fear of hell is a powerful emotion, and even all the logic in the world is sometimes insufficient to rid the mind of those nagging "what if" questions. Since I've been writing a lot about morality recently, I think I'll take a few minutes to explain just why the concept of hell itself is morally bankrupt and completely incompatible with a loving God.
Before getting into the argument itself, I will remind the reader that morality is simply the box into which we put interactions between beings. When an action of ours has an impact on another being, we can judge that action based on its effect. This is morality in a nutshell. God, if he exists, is a being with agency. That is, it intentionally causes things to happen. Those caused events have an effect on other beings -- namely humans -- and so can be placed into the box with every other moral concept.
Ok, so on to hell. Hell is described as a place of punishment for those who do not accept Jesus as their lord and savior. For the time being, it isn't really important what type of punishment it is, only that it is unpleasant to some degree or another. What is terribly important is that hell is eternal, and there is no hope of escape or pardon. With this in mind, let's examine the concept in detail.
Think for a moment about why we punish children. All punishments fall into four categories: Instruction, rehabilitation, protection, and retaliation. We should note that the threat of punishment is not the same as punishment. The threat of punishment can be used as a deterrent. We hope that just by promising to do something bad to someone if they do a certain thing, we will prevent them from doing it. We could make the argument that the threat of hell is a deterrent against not accepting Jesus as our Lord and Savior, but this argument breaks down rapidly. If the threat of hell is meant to deter us from disbelief, then we are essentially being presented with the threat of hell as evidence for Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior! This must be so, because belief is not a decision. It is a state. I cannot choose to believe that I have no hands, for instance. I have overwhelming evidence that at this very moment, my hands are feverishly typing away at a keyboard, and that I have just recently scratched an itch on my left ear with the fifth finger of my left hand. For a threat to have meaning, it must be believed. If I say that you, gentle reader, will be struck by lightning that I have sent through your computer monitor if you do not wire ten thousand dollars to me in the next ten minutes, you are very unlikely to send me any money because there is no credible reason for you to believe my threat.
Similarly, the threat of hell has no particular weight upon those who do not believe that it exists. Since it is supposedly designed specifically as punishment for the crime of not believing that it exists, we must admit we're faced with a circular argument. The threat of hell is not sufficient evidence to pursuade someone to believe in it if they don't believe in it. The threat of hell only has relevance to those who believe that Jesus exists, but since they believe that Jesus exists, they are presumably in no danger of hell! In effect, if hell exists, it is only a danger to those who do not find the threat of hell to be a deterrent to nonbelief!
Let me make sure that this point is completely clear. The threat of hell only bears any weight for those who believe the threat to be credible. It is not designed to convert the unbelievers. After all, unbelievers don't believe, so the threat is empty to them. It is designed to scare believers into obedience. If nothing else, we ought to be able to discard the notion of hell based only on this observation, but let's not be hasty. Let's examine the actual punishment, not just the threat of it.
When we scold a child for getting too close to a hot stove, we are attempting to protect him from being injured, and we are trying to give him the knowledge that stoves are dangerous. If a child has been scolded and returns to the stove, loving parents will often make him go to timeout, or perhaps forgo a trip to the toy store. The unpleasant consequences of his actions are designed to make him a better, safer person.
When we put a criminal in jail for five years, and then release him back into society, it is in the hopes that the negative experience of going to jail will deter him from committing the same or similar crimes again. We hope that the punishment has rehabilitated him such that he will be a better member of society for the rest of his life. When we put a criminal in jail for life with no hope of parole, it is because in our judgment he is incapable of living peacefully in society, and is a real and present danger to other citizens. In fact, he is such a danger that the only way to ensure the safety of other innocent citizens is to prevent him from ever coming in contact with them.
Sometimes, punishment is not constructive. It is revenge, pure and simple. In reality, we should probably not even call this punishment, but it is often presented as such by those exacting it upon others, so we must address it in this context. There are times when we humans hurt other people to make ourselves feel better. If someone has wronged us, we don't wish to make them a better person. We just want to make them hurt because they hurt us. It's important to note that a loving parent would punish their child for exacting revenge or retaliation on someone. Revenge for revenge's sake is nearly universally recognized as a bad thing, as it is just perpetuating pain without contributing any good to the world.
So, which one of these things is hell? It cannot possibly be for instruction or protection. Since there is no way for the inmates to ever get back into society, there is no way that the knowledge of hell's reality can serve any purpose for the person in hell. Likewise, it's absurd to suggest that the person in hell is being protected from some danger.
But what about protecting others? Hell certainly separates the evil from the good, if we are to believe the Bible. Might it be that separating the evil from the good is done for the protection of believers, in the same way that we lock up some criminals for life? Unfortunately, no. Even this explanation does not wash, for the people in hell are already dead. They are no danger to any believer, and never will be again. If they are simply winked out of existence, the effect for believers is the same. Their eternal existence, separate from believers is not in any way different than if they simply did not exist any more, for in either case, they can have no effect on believers, either those on earth or in heaven.
In short, there is simply no benefit to either believers or the nonbeliever if hell exists. If it serves no function for humans, the only possibility left is that it serves a function for God. Is it possible that we've overlooked some "greater good" in the universe -- something about the eternal punishment of unbelievers that contributes to goodness by giving benefit to god himself? If we answer this question honestly, we must conclude that if God does in fact gain anything from hell, it can only be pleasure. The God of the Bible needs nothing for he lacks nothing. He has the power to do anything that suits his whim, and to create anything at all that he should ever desire. There is nothing that any entity could do for God that he cannot do for himself. However, if God desires pleasure, and derives it from putting people into eternal punishment with no hope of reprieve, we could say that there is a purpose in the existence of hell.
Is that a good purpose? Again, if we are honest, we must say that it is not. It is inflicting pain upon another without contributing to the greater good. It is revenge without rehabilitation, instruction, or protection. It is designed by the designer with the sole purpose of giving himself pleasure.
Perhaps this god and this hell do exist, but if they do, is God loving? Is he worthy of love, admiration, or respect? Clearly not. He is worthy of derision, scorn, and hatred. He is the ultimate evil force in the universe. Luckily, there is no evidence whatsoever that such a being exists, so we need not lose much sleep on the idea. Even so, let's suppose for a minute that we are convinced that God exists, and he is the ultimate evil in the universe. We might be persuaded that becoming a Christian is still the correct logical decision, for it must be better to spend eternity in paradise with an evil tyrant than to spend eternity in hell as a matter of principle.
Alas, this logic also fails, for if we have acknowledged that God is the ultimate evil in the universe, what possible reason could we have for believing that he has been honest with us about the standard by which hell or heaven is awarded to humans? In fact, why would we not immediately suspect that the ultimately evil God who created hell would also attempt to trick as many people as possible into sending themselves to hell? If he gains pleasure by perceiving the existence of people in hell, would not more people in hell provide more pleasure? It would be in his best interest to send as many people to hell as possible, and the best way to do that would be to trick us into d0ing exactly the thing that would send us to hell! But then, if I can figure this out, can I not also guess God's logic and suppose that he means me to discover his motive? If that is the case, doesn't it mean that the logical thing for him to do would be to tell the truth about how to get to heaven? For if I discover his motive, I should suspect that he is also wise enough to anticipate my discovery and reverse the playing field yet again so that I will be tricked into going to hell in spite of my discovery.
As you can see, this is an endless circle wherein one can never reach a conclusion about what is the correct way to get to heaven. Any guess we make is equally likely to send us to hell. Once we've realized this, it should dawn on us that the ultimate evil being would be best served by not creating heaven at all, but creating only hell and sending everyone there, regardless of their actions during life. Why, if he derives pleasure from sending people to hell, would he deny himself pleasure by allowing some people entry into heaven? Perhaps he derives pleasure from allowing people into heaven. If this is so, then the pleasure he derives is either equal or unequal to the pleasure he derives from sending people to hell. If the pleasure is equal, then there is no functional difference for God between sending people to hell and sending them to heaven. We are left with the conclusion that only malevolence would lead God to send anyone to hell under these circumstances. If there is a difference, we should expect that God would not bother sending anyone to the place which provides him less pleasure. If he does anyway, we can only conclude that his decisions are arbitrary and inscrutable.
In short, the existence of hell logically dictates a God that does not conform to any possible definition of "good." This in turn dictates that humans can literally have no confidence in any decision they make during this life. Either they will go to hell or they will go to heaven, and there is absolutely nothing they can do to alter this fact, nor is there any way they can hope to ensure themselves a spot in one or the other. In other words, if hell exists, then our knowledge of it is completely and utterly irrelevant to our lives. Even if we believe in hell, we can rest easy at night knowing that we are utterly helpless to determine our own fate. What will happen will happen, and there's nothing we can do to change it.
Of course, if we are going to believe that, we might as well believe that hell does not exist, for the outcome will be the same, and we shall be happier not believing. I suggest to you, gentle reader, that the absurdity of the paradox is enough evidence that we can reasonably conclude that neither hell nor a God who would create hell exist. This certainly doesn't prove that some other afterlife does or does not exist, but it does allow us to eliminate the Christian God and the Christian hell from our list of possibilities and move on to a more pleasant topic.