Of the 5.5 billion people on the earth, who has the worst life—the one who is tortured day and night, or starved, or chained, or beaten? Who has the worst life in all the world? Well, the person who has the best place in hell would change places in a heartbeat with the person who has the worst life on earth.
-Don Whitney, “The Reality of Hell”
Note: I wish to thank my friend Norton Herbst of Denver Theological Seminary, for his paper that critiqued my original article on hell, and spawned this one. Hopefully I have given him good material for his next assignment. And, Don Whitney, assistant professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, for his excellent fundamentalist definition of hell that takes me back to the tent revivals and pulpit-pounding sermons of my youth. It is this sort of Hell that we address on this site.
Most of us are familiar with Hell. It is a part of our pervasive Judeo-Christian heritage, and has become such an accepted part of our understanding of God and justice, that few stop to examine what a horrifying idea it really is. Like growing up next to a slaughterhouse, the smells and sights and sounds that revolt others are hardly noticed by we who have lived here all our lives. Instead we look in disgust at the practices of primitive pagan cultures, Satan worshippers and communists, while ignoring the far greater moral outrage of our own religion’s Hell. Even the most bloodthirsty and ruthless among us could not aspire to what the Christian God has in store for His children.
For those unfamiliar with the evangelical Christian understanding of hell, take a look at this Southern Baptist description of it. Even to those of us for whom Hell is the norm, this stark narrative with its simplistic morality grinds at our sensibilities. Or it should. But for millions of Christians, this is okay. They praise God the Father every Sunday morning for his love and mercy, all the while convinced that punishing unbelievers in Hell is completely ethical and morally sound. For them there is no human holocaust, nothing unfair about it. It is a deserved consequence meted out by a good and just God.
An unfair punishment, any way you cut it.
A just God, they say, must punish those who sin. Because we sin, we deserve to be punished, and punished, evidently, in any horrible way God sees fit. Just as parents must punish their disobedient children, so should God punish us. So let’s take their analogy and examine it further.
Punishment can be broken down into two types: active and passive. Active punishment is a punishment inflicted by the parent, such as a spanking. Passive punishment, on the other hand, has more to do with consequence, such as getting your hand burned by a hot stove after you’ve been told not to touch it. Here, punishment occurs, but the parent does not actively cause it. We’ll look at active punishment first.
If a child disobeys a parent, it is usually proper for the parent to discipline the child. More severe transgressions may require more severe punishments. However, there is a limit—a child deserving of punishment does not therefore deserve any sort of violence that can be done to it. Setting your child on fire, for example, is an unacceptable punishment. Why? Because it is inhumane to do this. It is no longer a matter of punishment, but of ethical treatment of another human being. Not only should the punishment fit the crime, there are punishments that do not fit any crime.
That burning someone to death is inhumane, is obvious. What apparently isn’t, however, is that unethical behavior does not become less so, just because a Supreme Being does it. If anything, it becomes more unethical, for the more intelligent and wise a being is, the more apparent this should be to it. Abuse is not okay, even if God does it. For an infinitely wise and just being, unethical behavior is infinitely worse. Actively punishing people in the fires of hell is abuse of the highest order. The Devil himself could do no worse.
But what if hell is the natural consequence of sin, sort of like getting burned is the result of putting your hand in a fire? And what if God does not send us there, rather He warns us against it? Does Hell become more just in this case? Some Christians think so. Using a passive punishment argument, they claim that God is like a parent who tells his child not to touch a hot stove, because he will get burned. And if the child touches it anyway, the result is the child’s fault, not the parent’s. Or is it? Those of you with small children, leave the stove on for a day, and see how responsible you feel when one of your kids gets burned. Again this should be pretty obvious, but based on the amount of mail we get using this very argument for Hell, it apparently is not. So let’s break it down.
The crux of the passive punishment idea is that hell is a natural consequence of sin, and not a punishment inflicted on us by God. That supposedly removes any moral responsibility on God’s part for the suffering we endure. After all, He warned us about it, didn’t He? Such an argument might work, except for one thing: God created everything, including Hell, and the scenario under which most of humanity must go there. What Christians leave out of the hot stove analogy is, who turned on the stove in the first place. So a more accurate analogy goes like this:
I am the owner of a daycare, full of preschoolers. In the playroom, I put many toys in the center, and surround them with hot stoves. With strict instructions not to touch the stoves, I let the kids loose in the playroom. You can guess what happens next. So who’s fault is it that many of the kids suffer burns? Using the Christian argument for Hell, the fault would lie with the children, because they were told of the consequences of touching the stoves, yet did so anyway. You think the police would buy that argument? Of course not. Not only would my daycare be immediately shut down, I would be arrested. Why? Because I created the dangerous condition in the daycare, and as a result, put the kids in harm’s way. Even though I may have warned them, children are not capable of avoiding such dangers, and the responsibility for their injury is still mine. And putting hot stoves in a room full of little kids is in itself insane, regardless of the consequences.
Similarly, if God created everything, then He also created Hell. He is solely responsible for its attributes, and what it does to people. He also created a system of salvation from Hell that is unattainable by most. Like the children in the daycare, we are not responsible for this horrible object that was placed so close to us. Nor are we equipped to avoid its danger. The Christian argument that Hell is a natural consequence of disobedience forgets the fact that God is the one who created this consequence and put it there, and this by itself is already an immoral act. Those who create torture chambers have already committed an ethical violation, regardless of what rules they later implement to determine who goes there. What is Holy Vible
No mercy or remedial value
Hell and its finality eliminate any notion of divine mercy that God might possess. The fact that Hell awaits you as soon as you die, limits God’s mercy to the mere span of a human’s life, even if that life is cut short for some reason. That means an eternal God can only extend mercy to his creatures for a few short years at worst, and a few decades at best. Even a human can be merciful for this much time, many a human parent has done so for an incorrigible child. And were they to live on, a parent may extend mercy to a child indefinitely. Hell, however, eliminates that possibility for a supposedly omnipotent God.
And since there is no remedial value to hell, no learning your lesson and being let out, it serves no purpose other than to inflict suffering. No responsible parent would do that to a child. With no remedial purpose, the punishment of Hell is merely sadistic.
An acceptable holocaust
Burning criminals to death is a cruel and unethical punishment, even if done by the most despotic dictator. Christians know this too, that’s why it’s puzzling that they would find the prospect of burning people alive forever, to be a fair and acceptable punishment when it’s done by a supposedly kind and loving God. It’s ironic that those who listen with horror at accounts of Hitler’s holocaust, can sit quite undisturbed at descriptions of their own God’s holocaust in hell. Maybe it’s because we have no pictures of Hell.
When we look at holocaust pictures, we are outraged. We are outraged at the crematoriums, the gas chambers, the emaciated bodies, and the horrible devices to inflict suffering. And at the same time, we are outraged at anyone who would create such a place, and commit such acts against people. No amount of hatred for another human could justify what was done there. Yet Christians would have us believe that Hell is a place infinitely worse than a Nazi death camp. In fact, they have to believe that all the Jews who did not become Christians before they died, and are now burning in hell, must long to return to these camps, if only to escape for one minute, the suffering of Hell. Can this really be? Then why is it that the Nazis are condemned, while the Christian God is praised, when he treats people infinitely worse?
Christians would do well to remember this, next time they visit a holocaust memorial. They should keep in mind that their religion says it’s okay for people to be treated this way, and even worse, so long as God does it. But even if there were pictures of it, I am afraid many Christians would still find Hell acceptable. Probably for the same reason so many Germans could justify their actions—they’re only Jews, after all. Only by marginalizing people, and not really regarding them as human, can we accept that such things occur. Perhaps the greatest injustice of Christian Hell is that it requires us to regard others in this way.
It is a sad day when we condone the abuse of one human being by another. It is also a sad day when we condone such abuse by our god.