Even if you were not raised in a fire and brimstone household, you are surely acquainted with the final resting place of those who are evil incarnate, the pit of eternal fire, hell. And I don’t mean Hell, Michigan. The current Catholic catechism defines hell like this:
The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.”617 The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.
Which is quite mild compared some of the more lurid descriptions of hell which seemed to revel in the sadistic punishments that await the likes of someone like me. But what is the actual purpose of hell?
One purpose that is sometimes given is to contain evil, but if so, it has failed miserably at its purpose. Evil is alive and well in the world and most Christians will assure you that the devil is running around tempting people and causing mischief every hour of the day. In human society one function of prisons is to keep bad people separated from society so they can’t harm innocent people. Hell, in the afterlife serves no such purpose. So, as a container of evil, this is a total fail.
It’s next purpose is as an all purpose threat, the cosmic stick to counter balance the golden carrot of heaven. Even the Catholic catechism propounds this view:
[T]he teachings of the Church on the subject of hell are a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny. They are at the same time an urgent call to conversion: “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
Or to put it more bluntly, “Wise up pal — or you’re going to hell.” But if god designed hell for that purpose, he has a pathetic understanding of human psychology.
We know from behavioral psychology that the most effective forms of punishment immediately follow the behavior and this even follows for deterrent effect of preventing future behavior. Swift and certain punishment has been found to have a much greater deterrent effect than more severe, but less certain punishments. In this sense, hell is a total fail. It is certainly a severe punishment, but it is quite literally so abstract as to be mythical. Maybe it exists, maybe it doesn’t. Maybe I’ll get sent there, maybe I won’t. Who knows? The Catholic Church famously says they have no idea who actually in hell. Not even Hitler. Or Christopher Hitchens.
It seems to me that the only people afraid of hell are those who wouldn’t actually do anything bad enough to land them there. Martin Luther King showed that there is nothing to fear from going to jail, what most of us fear is the social stigma. We don’t need actual prisons to convince people like me not to commit crimes, I would be mortified just to be arrested. That is enough deterrence for me and most other people.
There is a whole other class of people for whom hell is no deterrence, and that is those who think they are on the right side of things. Dante made fun of these self-righteous people in the “Inferno” and there might be some satisfaction of imagining that someone who is so sure he is on the right side of things facing eternal wrath, but it is of no deterrence at all. People like Hitler think they are doing god’s work, much like psychopaths think chumps deserve to lose their money. So, the threat of hell is not going to stop the Hitlers of history. So, the church is wrong, the threat of hell is not really going to convert anyone.
Hell is certainly not for rehabilitation. It is apparently irrevocable and final. So, it is not punishment that will change your mind in any way.
Justice is a purpose that comes up often in discussing hell, but certainly by human standards, it fails. I have no problem with people being punished, but it certainly has struck many people that meting out infinite punishments for finite sins is not just. It seems even more unjust when you compare the sinfulness of humans versus to the essentially infinite power that god is supposed to have. How could a human possibly hurt an all powerful god so much that they deserve infinite punishment? To me, hell tips the cosmic scales too far — into injustice.
The only purpose I can see for hell is vengeance. In the old testament god promised many times that he is a vengeful god. If there is a hell, he was most certainly right. And if you want to worship a vengeful god, feel free to so do.
I’ll pass, thanks.