We’ve had a couple of interesting posts on the concept of hell recently, so why stop…?
Why do so many people believe in eternal punishment and damnation? Some religions seem to have an eternal hell near their core, but why? Christians generally believe that non-believers will find themselves one day in the fiery lake of hell. Heck, some Christians even believe other Christians will end up there. Muslims believe similarly in an everlasting punishment for non-believers. Where does this come from? And does it even make any sense?
One of the biggest indicators of falsehood in any religion for me has always been the religion’s thoughts on hell, the non-believer, etc. The reason why this has always jumped out at me is that religion can so easily be used as a means to control people. Well, there are few better ways to control people than through fear, and, of course, an emphasis on hell produces precisely that. I think, for instance, of the medieval church teaching its illiterate congregations about why they needed to do as they were told through the use of dramatic images of fiery punishments at the horns of some anthropomorphized devil. The poor, uneducated souls of the time were undoubtedly frightened (to some extent at least) of what might await them if they did not practice what their church preached. It makes perfect sense for a religious institution eagerly seeking adherents to use such tactics. Politicians use fear too. It is an excellent motivator. One purpose for a doctrine of hell and eternal damnation is clearly the control of people.
But, this has nothing to do with God. God does not need to scare us into beliefs or behaviors. No, that is an all too human need. Human parents may use fear to help guide their children, but a creator-God has no need for such earthly antics. Furthermore, God would not use fear tactic such as eternal damnation to “win” our devotion. One reason why is free will. God does not need our love, attention, devotion, etc. God exists without humans, indeed, without the whole of creation. If we all strike out against God that’s fine, God will still exist. Now, God would likely prefer that we did not behave in such a way, but the fact that God does need our love is key. Because the love, affection and attention of humans to God is unnecessary to God, it does not make sense for God to cheapen that love, affection and attention when it does come. And using fear as a motivating force to drive that devotion would certainly cheapen it. If God used fear in this way it would be as if God made us like dogs that cower to their masters for food and seek affection despite the ever-present punishment dolled out with the newspaper. But, because God does not need our devotion but rather desires it, this is not how things are. No, God made us with free will, and it is that free will that makes any devotion that we give God that much more satisfying to God. Imposing a dramatic element of fear of eternal damnation and unspeakable punishment would limit our free will to a certain extent and cheapen any devotion we were to give to God. This idea has its mirror image in eternal reward. A God that uses the bait of eternal bliss in a cloudy heaven cheapens our devotion just as much as the God uses fear.
Another purpose of hell is to satisfy our need for justice. It just doesn’t seem right that everyone should get the same reward in the afterlife even if they were evil or didn’t conform to a particular religious scheme, etc. How could anyone say that Mother Theresa and Pol Pot have received the same experience after their lives on Earth? Well, this need for justice is certainly good, and I agree with it. I also think it is something that is important to God as well. But the way the idea of eternal hell has been developed in the minds and doctrines of billions of religious adherents around the world has actually begun to spin away from true justice and in a way begun to confuse humans with God.
This is actually very simple. God is infinite and eternal. Humans are finite and ephemeral. But the development of ideas of eternal damnation into doctrine may have inadvertently blurred those distinctions, by implying that some humans are infinite (or at least capable of achieving some sort of infinity). Either that or they don’t believe in justice they way they think they do. Justice is about the equity of things. Simply put, in a just world, the punishment fits the crime. So, to suggest that some sins demand eternal, infinite punishment is to imply that the sins themselves were eternal and infinite. That would in turn logically imply that those who committed the sins were themselves somehow eternal and infinite. Indeed, who but an eternal and infinite being can affect something that is eternal or infinite? So, with a doctrine of eternal damnation, one must either assume that some people are capable of committing eternal and infinite acts, or that the punishment is unjust because it does not fit the crime. Logic would tell me that no person is eternal or infinite, and therefore human sins aren’t eternal or infinite. And the God I know is just. So, doctrine of eternal punishment and damnation is fully illogical.
So, with justice in mind, some sort of atoning period in an afterlife seems to make sense and have its source in God. But, an eternal state of damnation and punishment seems to have its source in humans, because it is either illogical, unjust or both, and it serves the very human need of control over other individuals.
Some will point to their scriptures and demonstrate that an eternal lake of fire for the non-believers must be true because it’s written down in their books. And that’s fine. But that means that their god is either illogical, unjust or both. That is something with which they must come to terms. Of course, I am not surprised that many religions do have teachings that are illogical and unjust. That is precisely the sort of thing that man creates, and no more can be expected of those who would deify a man. But, such an illogical, unjust god is not sufficient for many believers, and even less so for many would-be believers. At some point people will need to reexamine that which they call “scripture.” Much of it may be in need of reclassification. Any scripture that speaks unequivocally of eternal damnation is either illogical, unjust or both. For me, God is neither illogical nor unjust. As a result, it is impossible for me to see such scripture as having a divine source.
As a final thought, the use of fear to control people has a strange cousin when it comes to a doctrine of eternal hell. It seems that those who are most hot – so to speak – on the subject may be those who are most afraid. And so they channel that fear into zealotry. They become completely convinced that the “others” are going so fast and so deep to hell. And because they are so convinced, they become equally convinced of their own righteousness. We can use our own fear to assuage our own doubts by screaming our fear onto others. So, not only does the element of fear allow for the control of certain people, it allows for a level of certitude to be gained through zealous stigmatization of the “other.”
A doctrine of eternal hell, damnation, and punishment may serve a number of purposes. But none of those purposes seem to have anything to do with God.