“Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all, but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed
With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed.
70Such place Eternal Justice has prepared
For those rebellious; here their prison ordained
In utter darkness, and their portion set,
As far removed from God and light of Heaven
As from the centre thrice to th’ utmost pole.”
-John Milton, Paradise Lost
Having to deal with the great and innumerable mysteries and shortcomings of this world, humanity has turned to the supernatural world for answers. Gods held the fate of humanity in their hands, arranging their fates like puppeteers with their toys. They created storms, exploded volcanoes, and decimated populations through drought, famine and plague. These entities were the focus– the embodiment– of the darkest corners of the world, from which we could offer no explanation or extract any sort of knowledge or consolation, even.
Among these are the injustices laid upon one another by other human beings. The innocent saw themselves declared just as guilty; as long as there was an accuser, you had little escape from the irreverence of such primitive laws. The guilty may have been powerful men who sought a scapegoat– and you were the unlucky sheep taken from the flock to be sacrificed for their safety. So, to console yourself and to offer consolation, you vowed vengeance. Maybe not by you, and maybe not in this lifetime– but sometime, someone will right the wrong that has been wrought. The wicked will pay for the transgressions they got away with, and the condemned innocent shall be set free. In our time, this was our most consoling thought.
Because of this, we have paid little critical attention to it. The idea of hell seemed to be as natural and just as any other. If someone greatly wronged us or our brethren, then we secretly wished eternal torment upon them without thinking for a moment the implications of this. We were raised to think this was good– that God knew what he was doing and those our holy text condemned were, in some way, worthy of their judgments. But it is here that I plan on crumbling this notion. If this were to be my final act as a heretic, I would use it to address the judgments I am being condemned with. If I were to be made threats of hellfire, I will make my final stand like Socrates when he, himself, was convicted of the same crime. I would tackle the problem head-on and face their arguments without fear, stating that it is not just ridiculous and absurd, but unjust and even immoral.
The standard doctrine of Hell involves four basic premises weaved into this particular aspect of the afterlife. These are:
- The Punishment Thesis:
- The Purpose of hell is to punish the wicked, name those whose actions deserve to be reprimanded.
- The No-Escape Thesis:
- Hell is an inescapable judgment; once you are condemned to it, you will remain there forever (you can’t escape).
- The Eternal Existence Thesis:
- You cannot perish in hell; you are subject to an unending existence.
- The Anti-Universalism Thesis:
- Contrary to the Universalist belief (which we will be covering later on), there are people who will, in fact, be consigned to it.
In conjunction, these properties make up the Traditional Model. In essence, this entails that Hell is a place of punishment for the wicked, where one remains there, unable to perish, and there are, indeed, individuals that are subject to its tortures. Many of us are unable to find the injustice and capriciousness behind such an act due to the indoctrination that occurs during childhood, but this is the greatest philosophical evil we have yet to encounter.
There are alternatives that we will discuss later, but these involve the exclusion of one or more of the above precepts. A slightly modified version takes the form of Jesus descending to Hell after his crucifixion and rallying up the willing and the virtuous to him and leading them to heaven. Other interpretations have all souls waiting in Hell for Jesus Christ to open the gates of heaven for them mortals. This may have solved the problem where the bible states that it is only through Jesus that they will reach the Father (God) and countless people died before he arrived. Even if I grant this, however, philosophically speaking, this is a rather worthless answer. They still have to deal with those born after him who have not heard of him or those that have but don’t deserve eternal punishment for their finite deeds– it still does not solve the question of hell’s fairness.
There have been several attempts to justify this by stating that the punishment deserved is not just a factor of the harm done and intended (along with several others), but the very status of the individual being wronged. Now, since God holds the highest status– one of infinite grandeur– then to sin against god would constitute an act of infinite evil. Thus, finite evil becomes infinite evil and deserve nothing less than infinite punishment. However, even believers themselves can see the flaw behind this logic if they took the time to look at it for more than a few seconds.
How does an offence committed harm or offend God? Defenders of this theory use the analogy of a parent-child relationship, or that of personal property. What they argue is that to commit evil against a child or to destroy someone’s property– independent from their good or bad intentions– they have wronged the parent or the owner themselves. A child, however, does not remain under the custody of the parents, so there is a point where to harm him would not carry over that evil to anyone else. Even if we do grant this claim and say that the sin is, in fact, done against the parent or the owner, it’s still ignoring other primary factors.
So, even being so generous as to grant the proposition and declare that, indeed, it was an act against God himself, it still begs the question of the circumstances, intentions, plans, goals in the individual’s mind, and other such variables.
Not all evils are willfully intended: a car accident might injure a child or punch a hole though someone’s tent– that does not mean the event is inherently evil. Killing a man is one of the most abominable things a human might do to another, but even this cannot be called sinful. Just wars have been fought just as men have died at the turn of a tragic accident– are any of those sinful acts? Should you be held as the perpetrator of a purely accidental car collision? What about killing in order to eliminate evil? To let it run free: now that is worthy of being called sinful.
The alternative methods I described earlier consists of removing a concept of this Traditional Model of hell in order to construct a better justification. This need for alternative explanation gives us a hint that even the believers themselves have already cast the shadow of doubt over the fairness or justice of hell. The Catholic Church created other “dimensions” such as Purgatory and Limbo in order to accommodate these excuses and find a way to bend over backwards to keep up the illusion of a healthy spinal cord.
It’s somewhat ironic that these alternatives that were made to avoid the problem of unfairness in the Traditional Model still see themselves plagued by the same issue. First of these is Annihilationism, where the thesis of ‘Eternal Existence’ is abolished. Instead of suffering through the torments of hell, you are utterly destroyed. Our conception of punishment, however, considers capital punishment as a worse fate than life imprisonment. This is much less of an issue if you say that it is, in fact, preferable to an eternity of torture– but the same problem persists, only in a slightly lesser scale.
Universalism abolishes the– can you guess?– Anti-Universalism clause. In essence, it states that it is impossible for one to be sent to hell. Even if it was metaphysically possible to end up in hell, they say, as a matter of fact, no one will. This conflicts with God’s omni-benevolence. Some might say that this Universalism is contingent, but if that were the case, then some people are, indeed, suffering through the torments of hell– undermining the notion of an all-good deity.
The third alternative, called Second Chance proposes the motion that due to the severity of hell and its infinite punishments, some might deserve to avoid it after death– or even after descending to the fiery Pitts themselves! This creates an eternal regress: what if I turn down the second one, does that mean I get a third? A fourth? A fifth? Doesn’t this go back for eternity? Doesn’t an infinite regress entail that you are to be stuck in hell forever? Isn’t the idea of Hell also supposed to grant some sort of finality rather than temporary housing? What good is the afterlife when there seems to be a state of constant change? What ever happened to immutability? If the afterlife is subject to changes, then wouldn’t its ruler change as well? Is God himself devoid of this unchangingness?
But finally, have you listened to these accounts of hell? Don’t they seemed to be hyperbolic or exaggerated examples of our own model of reality? Isn’t the world around us leaking into our belief systems- changing them? How much of this is natural? How much of this anthropocentrism toxic to our beliefs? Aren’t the accounts of lakes of fire and sulphur strangely similar to our own actively volcanic areas? What effect would the sight of a volcano have had on the ancient civilizations? Aren’t the accounts of a divine monarchy somewhat reminiscent of the government systems of the time? What about influences from other religions? Is this not taken into account when dealing with the suspicions of a new belief system?
These questions have become lost in our minds. We take things on faith– that fancy and romantic word we use when we mean simple, blind credulity– and never even bother to question them. Even if we manage to cast doubt, we say, “Oh, but God knows what he’s doing.” And thus the thought is discarded, never to be spoken of again. What’s worse, some of us who take the time and effort to resolve these questions and end up discarding the entire system are locally seen as being pitiful, unreflective creatures. We are harshly judged and labeled as lost, as if we would have no way to know right from wrong– people who just can’t do anything but sin and immorality. No! The sin here is against humanity. The system of beliefs at its core promotes injustice and blind obedience– pardon me, faith! If unbelief condemns me to eternal torment; if I or anyone else is subject to undeserved punishment, then I could not willingly follow the judge and still hold on to my integrity at the same time.
In any case, given the record of those that, according to Christian Theology are condemned to hell, then…
… it might not be so bad after all.