The Hell You Say!

Fellow unbelievers: I don’t think we rip on hell often enough or stronly enough. The disgusting dogma of eternal punishment is still accepted doctrine for most “mainstream” denominations, and certainly for all the fundamentalist ones. Below is what I say back to two recent defenders of hell, Peter Kreeft, S.J. and Ronald Tacelli, S.J. It is slightly modified from my essay “Why I am not a Christian” on the Secular Web:

Many modern Christians have cooled the fires of hell, often interpreting hell as purgatorial or even as merely metaphorical. However, more orthodox thinkers argue that rejection of the traditional doctrine of hell is tantamount to the rejection of the entire Christian revelation. For instance, Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, in their Handbook of Christian Apologetics, insist that the exact same grounds for believing that God is love, Biblical revelation, also teaches the reality of hell (Kreeft and Tacelli, 1994, p. 285). So, Kreeft and Tacelli throw down the gauntlet to someone like me: Either I accept Christianity and the doctrine of an eternal, punitive hell or I reject hell and Christianity too. If that is my only choice, I reject hell and Christianity too.

The problem is that when Kreeft and Tacelli come to defending the traditional doctrine, their arguments are woefully weak. They claim that God is not to blame for the pains of hell since hell is freely chosen by those who go there. The obvious rejoinder is that anyone who consciously chooses eternal punishment over eternal joy would have to be insane, and lunatics clearly need treatment, not punishment. The reply of Kreeft and Tacelli is astonishing:

…the Christian replies that that is precisely what sin is: insanity, the deliberate refusal of joy and truth….Perhaps the most shocking teaching in all of Christianity is this: not so much the doctrine of hell as the doctrine of sin. It means the human race is spiritually insane (p. 290).

However, if an act is insane it is not a deliberate choice; this is entailed by the meaning of the words “deliberate” and “insane.” Is the bizarre behavior of the schizophrenic deliberately chosen? Does the paranoiac freely opt to believe that the Freemasons, the Trilateral Commission, Jewish bankers, the CIA, and the Martians are persecuting him? Maybe Kreeft and Tacelli intend something different by “insane” and “deliberate” than what those words normally mean, but one hesitates to accuse two distinguished philosophers of such blatant humpty-dumptyism.

Even if sin is freely chosen, it is God who decides what the consequences of that choice are. It is God who decides that unrepentant sinfulness must bear the consequence of eternal pain. The obvious objection is that finite and temporal sin, no matter how gross, do not merit infinite and eternal punishment, and so hell contradicts divine justice. Kreeft and Tacelli reply (a) that eternity is not endless time but an entirely different dimension than time, so there is no problem of endless punishment, and (b) that hell’s punishments are eternal but not infinite; there are degrees of joy in heaven and degrees of misery in hell.

Unfortunately, these replies raise far more questions than they answer: If hell is not endless suffering–indeed, if it lasts no time at all–why should we fear it? What would it be like to experience “eternal” as opposed to “endless” suffering? Is eternal suffering worse than endless suffering? If so, the problem of apparent injustice arises again. If Kreeft and Tacelli argue that these questions are out of order since eternal suffering is strictly incomparable with temporal suffering, I begin to wonder about the intelligibility of their concept of hell. The only kind of suffering which I have experienced or can imagine is temporal suffering, so Kreeft and Tacelli’s hell, with its concept of eternal, atemporal punishment, is utterly incomprehensible to me.

Kreeft and Tacelli seem to suspect that they have moved beyond rationality and intelligibility here since they conclude this section with the remark “To refuse to believe [in hell] is to measure God’s thoughts by ours (p. 300).” Allow me at once to plead guilty to “measuring God’s thoughts” by my own! As I see it, I have no other choice. If my intellect and my deepest moral convictions tell me that hell is a monstrous dogma, unworthy of belief by decent human beings, then it would be a grave sin for me to accept such a doctrine. It is a sad but edifying spectacle to see how intelligent defenders of the indefensible tie themselves in ethical and conceptual knots.

It is easy to see why Kreeft and Tacelli are loath to give up the concept of hell despite the conceptual gerrymandering and ethical contortionism it requires of them. Hell is Christianity’s most powerful instrument of control. Religious instruction ensures that the fear of hell is implanted in the mind in early childhood. When that fear is planted deep enough, the adult cannot entertain honest doubts without catching a whiff of brimstone. Dr. Johnson said “knowledge that one is about to be hanged clears the mind marvelously.” Fear of hell has the opposite effect; rational thinking becomes impossible when that fear is strong.

Remember, you cannot escape hell by being good; for Christians, everybody is bad. No matter how hard you strive to live a virtuous life, if you lack certain beliefs, you go to hell. That is what makes hell such a pernicious doctrine. Hell is the penalty for disagreeing with Christians! It is hard to imagine a more potent tool for propaganda, or one more subversive of rational thought. An appeal ad baculum is an attempt to persuade by intimidation or the threat of force. Hell is the ultimate ad baculum: Believe or suffer consequences too horrible to contemplate. In short, the doctrine of hell is Christianity’s campaign of psychological warfare against the human mind.