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.)
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.
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.”
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.
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.