The Appeal of Christian Hell

Domenico Beccafumi's Inferno: a Christian visi...
Domenico Beccafumi's Inferno: a Christian vision of hell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
When atheists discuss the concepts of afterlife that feature so prominently into most varieties of Christianity, we tend to focus on the notion of eternal life and heaven. We recognize that a fear of death is common, and it is rather easy for us to comprehend a desire to live on. Those of us who have lost people close to us also understand the appeal of a heaven where we are reunited with our loved ones. It is obvious why these ideas would appeal to many people, and we can see the role that wish fulfillment plays in faith when we consider them. In short, many people believe in souls, an afterlife, and heaven because they desperately want these things to be real. This pull, combined with early indoctrination and/or cultural pressures go a long way toward explaining their popularity.

Of course, atheists are also fond of discussing Christian conceptions of hell and highlighting their disturbing implications for morality. We like to note how doing good works or believing certain things to avoid punishment is not a terribly sophisticated form of moral behavior, certainly not one to which one should aspire. We also like to point out the cruelty inherent in eternal torture, especially for a "crime" as trivial as not accepting a fictional entity as one's "savior." We ask what this says about the character of this particular god. And we love to comment on how some Christians seem to delight in the prospect of people they don't like burning for all eternity. It is almost as if their god has the same prejudices they do and is every bit as vengeful and petty!

It seems to me that this last bit - the massive appeal of hell - is something we probably don't address as much as we should. As easy as it is for us to understand why the prospect of eternal life and being reunited with one's loved ones in eternal bliss is so appealing, we should be able to understand how the hope of real justice might be equally so. We know that life is anything but fair, and we are surrounded by examples of good people living miserable lives while bad people get all the breaks. All the stuff about the meek inheriting the Earth sounds great, but how nice would it be to be convinced that the real monsters would eventually receive the justice they escaped in this life? I'm imagining Dick Cheney roasting in a pit somewhere as a write these words, and I cannot deny that the image is pleasing.

We hear so much more about heaven than we do about hell, especially from the liberal to moderate Christians. And even though we do not share their belief, I think we can understand why they would want to believe in it. I suggest that the same is possible with hell. One need not be a sadist to derive at least some satisfaction from the idea that those who harmed others in this world might face punishment in the next. Unfortunately, we have no reason whatsoever to believe that this is true. Unlike the theists, we cannot bring ourselves to believe that it is true merely because we wish it were so.

If we want justice and realize that there is no afterlife in which it is handed out, we are going to have to seek justice in this world. We need to overcome the sort of fatalism that leads some Christians to pray instead of doing anything productive. We don't have the consolation that comes from an over-active fantasy life where we believe things on the basis of how much we wish they were true. If we really want the good to be rewarded and the bad to be punished, we're going to have to figure out how to make it a reality.