injustice of Hell
Of the 5.5 billion people on the earth, who
has the worst lifethe 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"
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.
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 God should 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 limita 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 and abuse do not become less wrong, 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. 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, put a hot stove in your kid's room, 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 forget is, God, by creating hell and the mechanism for getting there, puts us in harm's way, then purports to "save" us from a danger he created.
A brief look at the Adam and Eve story illustrates this. Knowing that they could not refrain from eating the hazardous fruit, what does God do? He plants it right in the middle of the Garden. Rather than putting a fence around it, or locating it in some remote location (like even our own government does with hazardous materials), he not only places it squarely in their proximity, but further entices them by making it "good for food" and "pleasant to the eyes."
What would happen if humans did something similar? What would happen to the donut shop that sells poisonous glazed chocolate donuts alongside the regular ones? Would they be absolved of wrongdoing just because they included a sign that said those donuts were poisonous? And would they be heroes for having ambulances waiting around the corner to "rescue" those who got poisoned?
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
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.
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
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 actionsthey'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 people in this way. They're only sinners after all, and deserve what they get.
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 God.