Most religious people prefer not to think about hell. And who could blame them? Apparently, it’s not a fun place. Even worse than Atlanta. If you’re a Christian or a Muslim, odds are the idea of hell was indoctrinated into you at a pretty young age, and it scared the living piss out of you. And any idea presented in that fashion probably doesn’t inspire a lot of rational criticism later on. But I think even the overly religious would agree that the idea of hell is one worth thinking about. At the very least, it’s an idea worth examining.
I’m sure by now you all know that I do not believe in any sort of god or supernatural being, nor do I believe in an afterlife. But for the purpose of this post, I’m going to operate under the assumption that a god exists. The question at hand this time is not “Is there a god?” The question is, “Would God create a hell?” And I will also be operating under the related assumption that this god in question has the three main attributes as professed by the major world religions: namely omnipotence (all-powerful), omniscience (all-knowing), and omnibenevolence (infinitely good, according to a common-sense, universally accepted understanding of what is “good”).
When we consider the possibility of hell, we must look at these three possibilities:
- God had a reason to create hell, and therefore did so.
- God had no reason to create hell, but did so anyway, merely because he enjoys torturing the beings he created.
- God had no reason to create hell, and therefore did not.
It should be common sense that God, at least as described by any of the major religions, would not have created hell unless he had a good reason to, if he is indeed an intelligent (and moral) being, although we have no reason to believe that God can’t act irrationally or maliciously. But since we’re operating under the assumption that God is all-knowing and omnibenevolent, we will suspend our skepticism for the time being.
And we should also dispel any notion that “God did not create hell; hell is merely the absence of God.” This is inconsistent with any biblical description of hell, where “lost souls” are apparently given an eternal “body” that can withstand eternal torture. Even a superficial reading of the Christian and Muslim scriptures should lay waste to the “hell as an absence of god” hypothesis; in the scriptures, hell is described as a “lake of fire” filled with “wailing and gnashing of teeth.” It’s not some weird void with a bunch of bored, floating souls.
Under the assumption that God created hell for a reason, we have every right to ask the natural question, “for what reason?” Why would an all-powerful, all-knowing, and eternally-good god create hell? The vast majority of believers would answer that hell was created by god as a place of punishment, and many would cite as support the biblical idea that hell is where the devil will be cast on the day of judgment. To test the validity of this claim, let’s go over the basic concept of punishment.
The Motivation for Punitive Action
We need to differentiate between punishment that is initiated without good reason and punishment that is initiated for beneficial purposes. What motivates punishment? For what reason is, say, a murderer sent to prison, or a disobedient child sent to his room without ice cream? There are actually three such reasons to punish an individual:
- To use the threat of punishment as a deterrent, for the betterment of society
- To separate society from the potential threat posed by the wrong-doer
- To correct problematic behavior of the wrong-doer
For those that posit that wrong-doers are punished merely for the sake of “justice,” allow me to pose a question: suppose you have three sons, and one of them (let’s call him Charlie) breaks your favorite vase. What is the real reason you would punish Charlie? (a) Because he broke the vase, or (b) to create a precedent that would prevent him or his siblings from making this mistake in the future.
The answer of course, to any reasonable person, is (b). You wouldn’t punish Charlie simply because he broke the vase. The vase is broken. Punishing him won’t put it back together. Clearly, you are punishing your son because you want to make sure that he is more careful in the future, and perhaps to make sure that his brothers learn from his mistake. Punishing him for the other reason doesn’t make sense, and is nothing more than an irrational, vengeful reaction to the situation.
The Deterrent Effect
Now let’s explore the idea that God created hell to produce a deterrent effect, intended to benefit society. Let’s recall that the god we’re dealing with here is omniscient. The great paradox about omniscience is that, no matter what you decide to do, you are aware of all the potential consequences of your actions, even before you do them. Considering this, it’s reasonable to assume that if an intelligent and just god created a place of eternal punishment for the purpose of producing a positive deterrent effect (wow that’s a lot of P’s), he would have only done so if he knew that it would be effective.
This makes sense, doesn’t it? If your intent is to, say, stop people from stealing, you certainly wouldn’t take cruel and barbaric measures to do this if you knew that these measures weren’t going to be successful at preventing theft. Yet, this is precisely what God does.
“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
So according to Jesus himself, all but a precious few will ultimately end up suffering an eternity of torture in this lake of fire that he himself created. Of course, this isn’t the only instance where Christianity suggests that most people are going to hell. It’s a common tenet it both Protestantism and Catholicism. Because of his omniscience, God has to have known that hell is not a powerful enough deterrent for his own creation, and he had to have known it even before he started creating hell. This means one of two things: either (a) God is not omniscient and didn’t know the future when he created hell, (b) God created hell specifically to torture most of his creation and is therefore not a good god, or (c) God cannot have intended hell to deter human behavior and therefore must have had some other purpose in creating hell. By the constraints of our assumptions about the god in question, we are forced to conclude that (c) is the only reasonable choice.
Hell As a Separating Agent
One important reason why we throw violent criminals in jail is that these people pose a threat to the order and safety of our society. Perhaps God used the same reasoning when creating hell. Is it possible that God created hell for the same reason that a teacher moves the kid that pokes people with his pencil to a desk far away from everyone else?
Well, let’s examine this idea. Suppose that the teacher in the previous example, rather than putting the bothersome student in an isolated desk, decides to make the student sit on a pile of flaming tires in the corner. Is that the best way to separate this student from the others? No matter how bad this kid is, it would never justify such a capriciously cruel punishment, and any sane person can agree.
Likewise, if God’s purpose in creating a hell is to separate the righteous souls from the unrighteous, his objective could clearly be achieved by less malicious means. I’m not a god of any kind, and even I can come up with better ways of achieving this end: after a person’s death, I could (1) return their soul to the same state of non-existence as was the case before their birth, or (2) transport their soul to a place that isn’t heaven, but doesn’t call for unnecessary eternal torture and pain. Both of these would easily and successfully accomplish the desired “separation,” without inflicting everlasting pain on the souls of the people I created. How is it that I can think of this, but the all-knowing eternally-good Abrahamic god can’t?
We are therefore left with the same three conclusions: either (a) God is not omniscient and cannot come up with a more benevolent alternative for separating the saved from the lost, (b) God is not good, since he would rather watch souls burn and suffer forever than provide a pain-free alternative which wouldn’t require any effort on his part, or (c) God’s purpose in creating hell is neither deterrence nor separation. And again, given our previous assumptions, the case is clearly (c).
The third reason to punish is to rehabilitate the wrong-doer. This is the last viable reason left for punishment, and you don’t really need me to see how completely useless it is. It’s simple common sense: if hell is really “forever,” then the punished don’t ever get a second chance, so they have no opportunity to learn from their mistakes. In fact, since a soul cast into hell can no longer interact with live humans, these humans cannot even learn from the experience of another person’s punishment. It is therefore impossible to reason that God would need to create hell to correct problematic behavior in his creation, and all of our rational reasons for hell as a means of punishment have been refuted.
At this point, we can no longer assume that God had good reason to create hell. We can only conclude from the list of possibilities previously mentioned, that God either had no reason to create hell, but did anyway, or that God had no reason to create hell and didn’t. Based on the omnibenevolent characteristic of God previously described, we cannot reasonably choose the former, and must assume that an eternally-good god, having no reason to create a place of eternal punishment, did not do so. The only way we can accept the existence of a hell, while simultaneously accepting the existence of the all-powerful, all-knowing creator of that hell, would be to discard his omnibenevolence; this would mean that, if we assume that hell exists, it immediately follows that the god who created it did so purely to torture the very souls he created.
Having spelled out the reasons why the concept of eternal damnation doesn’t make sense, I will now address the most common theist arguments and objections concerning hell, and the problems that arise when trying to reconcile an all-loving creator with his creation of a place of eternal torture. Naturally there may be more, but these are the most prevalent.
God is not the one who sends people to hell. He loved us enough to give us free will, so that we could choose save ourselves from hell by accepting the alternative that he provided [for Muslims, the alternative is Islam; for Christians, it’s Jesus].
Taking Christianity as an example, the Christian Church would claim that Jesus is God, who came to Earth to sacrifice himself to save us from eternal torment. Fine. But who, may I ask, is threatening to impose this torment? The answer is God himself. So, in essence, Jesus died on the cross as a substitutionary sacrifice so that he could (only for those willing to accept this sacrifice) remove the threat that he himself placed on humanity. This is not only redundant, since a truly all-loving god could just forgive mankind unconditionally and avoid the needless slaughter of his son-who-is-also-him (which would have no affect on free will whatsoever), but it also violates the assumption that God is all-loving, and instead makes him evil and cruel.
To illustrate this point, suppose I pull a gun on you and say, “Give me your money, or I’ll shoot you.” You refuse to give me your money, and I kill you. Should I be acquitted of murder because I offered you a “free choice”? Am I not evil simply because I gave you an alternative?
On the flip side, would I deserve praise and worship if you surrendered your money and I decided not to kill you? Obviously not, because I am merely removing the threat that I imposed on you unwarranted and unwanted. And yet Christians claim that God is “worthy” of praise because he saves a small minority of people from his own horrible tortures.
This argument is also common among Muslims, who claim that Allah is “merciful” for sparing those who accept Islam from the fires of eternal torture, while at the same time balking at the suggestion that if Allah were truly merciful, he wouldn’t have created those flames in the first place. The “free will” argument reeks of someone making weak excuses for their god’s utterly abhorrent behavior.
But without bloodshed, there can be no forgiveness of sin. God merely asks that we accept the blood sacrifice that Jesus offered us on the cross.
So remind me… who established this rule that “without bloodshed there can be no forgiveness of sin”? Again, the answer is God himself. If God were truly omnipotent, he could have made it so that “without the consumption of alcohol, there can be no forgiveness of sin,” or “without the watching of Steven Seagal movies, there can be no forgiveness of sin.” He could even have forgiven all sinners unconditionally, without having to establish this capricious and sadistic “bloodshed rule.”
This demand for blood to atone for sin is merely a reflection of the savage mindset of the primitive cultures who wrote the Old Testament. Doesn’t it seem obvious that “God” was created in man’s own spiteful, bloodthirsty image?
God is forced to torture those sinners because he is holy, and cannot be in the presence of anything unholy.
Ignoring the contradiction behind “holy torture”, and ignoring the question of how an omnipotent god can be “forced” to do anything, the whole idea that “God is holy” is a completely empty and useless notion. Calling God “holy” is as useless and has no more meaning than calling L. Ron Hubbard a “good Scientologist,” because each controls the definition of the concept that he fulfills. Since L. Ron Hubbard defined Scientology and set up its official tenets, it’s useless to label him a “good Scientologist.” Likewise, the phrase “God is holy” is useless because God himself controls the definition of the word “holy.” So how is it that Christians can so unflinchingly cite this tautological error as justification for God’s “divine plan” to torture untold billions of human souls?
Human souls are punished in hell because they lived in sin and rejected Islam / rejected Jesus Christ as their Lord.
In other words, you are saying that this punishment (as with the example of Charlie, mentioned earlier) is directed at the sinner’s past, and is not intended to have any beneficial effects. This argument says absolutely nothing. It provides no reason for the existence of hell, and forces us to conclude that God implemented eternal punishment in hell as an end itself, for no useful or constructive purpose.
In even simpler words, you are saying that God is a vengeful asshole.
We, as humans, are foolish to question God’s divine plan. Just as a child may not understand why his parents are punishing him, we too are incapable of understanding God’s reason for punishing sinners for eternity. If God created hell to torture sinners and fallen angels, he definitely had a good reason to do so, and it would be a fool’s errand to attempt to understand his reasoning.
This is usually the final desperate attempt to defend these particularly unsettling articles of religious dogma, thrown out when the defender has run out of other arguments. It’s what I and many other atheists refer to as “The Mother of All Cop-Outs.” The obvious flaw of this “logic” is that it assumes what it sets out to prove. If you start your argument by assuming that (a) God exists, (b) he is the God of the Bible or Koran, (c) he is all-powerful and all-knowing, (d) he created the universe, humans, heaven and hell, and (e) he has a good reason for everything he does, then clearly your conclusions will mirror these assumptions, all of which are articles of faith that you admittedly accept blindly, without supporting evidence. I am therefore not obligated to accept these conclusions, since the supporting premises are nothing but unfounded figments of the imagination.
If hell exists, it means that God would rather torture his creation than forgive them unconditionally. It means that God created hell for no other purpose than to inflict eternal suffering on the larger portion of humanity, and that this God, therefore, is unintelligibly malevolent and is not worthy of our praise. And if we operate under the assumption that God exists and that he is good, it is reasonable to believe that creating hell would be inconsistent with these characteristics.
If hell does not exist, it means that an omnibenevolent god would not inflict cruel, unnecessary punishment, and that man, not God, created hell. To me, this conclusion is clearly the most probable, and the one most consistent with history. As Robert Green Ingersoll once noted, the myth of eternal damnation in hell reflects “all the meanness, all the revenge, all the selfishness, all the cruelty, all the hatred, all the infamy of which the heart of man is capable.” I’ve stated before that, as an atheist, I do not believe in any kind of god. But if there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, eternally-good supreme being, it’s pretty clear to me that he would be insulted by the blasphemous suggestion that he would create a place like hell.
Or as Frank Zappa said, there is no hell. There is only France.