Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Why Hell, Anyway?

Failing the Insider Test is one of those great blogs that almost never gets updated.  That means that I forget that it exists for months on end, then suddenly think, “Hey, I wonder if anything’s been posted?”  Today was just such a day.  And I discovered a great, if long, post about the morality of god that was written back at the tail-end of May.

It posits that the question of how people base their morality without the Bible is just a weasel attempt to get out of answering questions about how you can call a homicidal maniac of a god “moral” and “loving.”  It also includes this brilliant thought:

The truth is that Jesus loves people in much the same way that a stalker in a horror movie loves the woman he's harassing. When he's turned down, he'll turn nasty, hunt her down, and begin torturing her. But if only she hadn't rejected his love, she would have seen how loving he is!

But it really got me thinking about something else, a question.

What, precisely, is the purpose of Hell?

Let’s accept for the moment the three premises upon which Hell is founded:

1. Hell is eternal.
2. Hell is punishment for sins.
3. Hell is part of the plan of the infinite god.

Now let us ask what the purpose of punishment is.  I would argue that there are two purposes:

1. Punishment is a deterrent.
2. Punishment is a corrective behavioral measure.[1]

We see punishment as a deterrent in the idea that you do not want to go to prison.  We also see quite a bit of the idea in ancient/primitive systems of law.  If you steal, your hand is cut off.  If you kill, your head is cut off.  Therefore, you probably don’t want to steal or kill.  I most civilized nations there is a move away from this attitude.[2]

We see punishment as a corrective behavioral measure in the treatment of children.  If you don’t play nice you don’t get to play at all.  If you don’t do your homework you don’t get to go hang out with your friends.  The idea is to say, “If you don’t do what you’re supposed to do, you don’t get to do what you want to do.”  The primary difference between punishment as a corrective measure and punishment as a deterrent is that punishment as a corrective measure is not permanent.[3]

Hell is not, and by definition cannot, fall under category 2.  An eternity of suffering pretty much precludes that idea.  Catholic doctrine attempts to work around that with the idea of Purgatory, but even so it leaves Hell as a place where any rehabilitation is impossible.

So that leaves Hell as a deterrent.  But it’s really not good at that role, either.  See, the thing about prisons is that we can see them and we can think, “Yeah, I don’t want to end up in that place.”  I cannot see Hell, however.  Moreover, the descriptions we get of Hell are from people who also did not see it.  Our primary Biblical conception of hell comes from the Book of Revelation.  Our modern idea of Hell comes from a combination of Dante, Milton, and Medieval and Renaissance painters.  The one thing that John of Patmos, Dante, Milton, and all those artists had in common is that none of them ever actually went to Hell.

Moreover, the idea of Hell doesn’t actually fit in to a Jewish cultural context.  The punishments of Yahweh were made against people, their descendents, and their tribes.  “I will punish you, your children, and your children’s children,” is actually far more effective of a deterrent than, “After you die you’ll be sent to this horrible, horrible place that neither you nor anyone else has ever seen.  Trust me.”

This argument, however, is a dead end.  It’s one of those that would be answered with a, “Yeah, just wait and see…” sort of response.  So let’s end it here.

Instead, let us go back to the basics.

What is the purpose of punishment?  To get people to follow the rules.  Period.  Full stop.

So what rules am I supposed to follow in order to stay out of Hell?  Is it the Ten Commandments?  Is it Jesus’s two commandments?  Is it the codification of rules decided on at the Council of Constantinople?  Last week’s Papal Bull?

It’s none of that.  The entire point of Hell is to force people to acknowledge that Jesus is god and totally in control of everything.  That’s it.  You can be a loving, caring, peaceful person who does not accept Jesus and be sent to Hell.  You can be a complete bastard and get your ticket stamped for Heaven.  This is problematic for the idea of Hell, but not for the reasons most people argue.

Quite simply, if Jesus shows up and takes over the world, anyone who doesn’t acknowledge that it happened is a moron.

Imagine that you lived in Rome at the time of Attila the Hun.  Someone says, “The Huns are coming, evacuate!”  You don’t actually believe that there is any such tribe as the Huns, so you stay where you are.  One day Attila shows up with his horde and all of the sudden you’re forced to acknowledge that, yes, Attila and the Huns exist.

At the point the ravening horde of Huns shows up at the gate the question of belief is thrown out the window.  In the same way, if Jesus were to show up today at the head of the Heavenly host, belief and non-belief would become a non-issue.  Hell, too, would become a non-issue, since the entire purpose of Hell is to act as a deterrent to non-belief.

Moreover, at the moment of death if there is a Heaven and Hell non-belief becomes a non-question.  So, again, Hell becomes a non-issue, punishment for something that is now no longer an issue.

It also makes god and/or Jesus in to a pair of complete jackasses.  If Hell exists as a place of eternal punishment for non-belief that was set up as part of god’s plan, then you cannot, by definition, say that this fits in to any example of love.  And it certainly doesn’t fit in with the concept of forgiveness.[4]

You can, however, say that it fits quite well in to a primitive understanding of law as a deterrent from breaking the rules.


[1]This can fall in to two categories.  There’s retributive, or an “eye for an eye” mentality.  In this if I do something bad an equivalent bad should be done to me with an eye towards teaching me that if I don’t like something, other people probably don’t, either.  There’s also a code of laws idea where certain things are judged to be of a certain level of pain.  For some transgressions I would need to pay a fine, for others I would need to be incarcerated.

[2]Just, y’know, not America, where we’re coming up with fun new ways to throw people in to prison and make sure that it becomes a stigma that follows people throughout their lives.  Because we wouldn’t want to actually evolve as a society or anything.  It’s much easier to say, “They’re bad people, that’s why they’re in prison and not out here with us good people.”

[3]Prison, in theory, should be a corrective measure.  Separate offenders from the normal population, force them to serve their time, and in the process help them find some way of contributing to society when they get out.  But by overcrowding prisons, understaffing them, and basically reducing it to a situation where a whole lot of people are just killing time, waiting to be released and ostracized from their communities we turn prison in to a deterrent.  There’s a very strong chance that it will basically ruin your life.  And all the prison rape stuff doesn’t help…

[4]This is one of the biggest problems with the love/forgiveness idea of Jesus and why the whole “Jesus as a stalker” thing is so apropos.  If I love someone, I want to see that person happy.  If it turns out that me not being involved in their life makes them happy, then if I love them it means I let them go off and do whatever.  If they then turn around and say, “Wow, I just realized that my life would be much better with you,” then love means that I take them back and forgiveness means I don’t hold any bitterness I might have against them.

For that matter, if there was someone I loved (in a romantic sense, since it’s an easier story to tell that way) who left, then many years later came back and said, “I’ve made a mistake, I’m sorry,” I would not then force them to be punished for all those years of neglect.  It’s entirely possible that if my world had moved on since then and I’ve gotten married and am quite happy then I wouldn’t say, “Hey, sweet, I’ll dump my wife just for you.”  But when confronted with this sort of situation what sort of sadistic bastard would say, “I still love you, I forgive you, but now I’m going to have to chain you to the wall in my basement and poke you with white-hot metal pokers for all eternity.”

Because that’s what Hell is.


David said...

I would argue that there's another purpose that punishment serves: glorification of the powerful.

Specifically, I'm thinking of instances where the punishment is all out of proportion to the crime -- hell's a good example, or execution for petty crimes. While I think deterrence plays a part in this, I don't think it can account for it all.

The severity of the punishment serves as a demonstration of tremendous power. It doesn't take much to conclude that whoever can mete out such terrible justice is an awesome/awful being worthy of worship.

Like I said, I think there's an element of deterrence in this, but it's not the whole story. I think in order to establish a cult of some sort (of the state, a god, a person, or whatever) the displays of great power (through punishment or some other means) are essential.

MTimonin said...

Quite simply, if Jesus shows up and takes over the world, anyone who doesn’t acknowledge that it happened is a moron.

If we take this as a given (and, sure, let's take it as a given), then no one is going to Hell.

Seriously, though, there's very little Biblical support for the idea of Hell, especially not as a space of eternal suffering and damnation. Yes, there's some hyperbole in the Gospels, and the Revelation, but I think it's closer to the "if you don't shut up, I'm going to pull your bottom lip up over your head and staple it there" type of threat - so clearly over the top as to be unbelievable. That doesn't really address the "purpose" of Hell, but I think it addresses your foundational premises.