Eternal Accountability

Vic Reppert recently posted this on his Dangerous Idea site under the title “Eternal Accountability”:

“I don’t think atheists appreciate the force of the doctrine of eternal accountability in restraining evil. Unless there is eternal accountability, either of the Hindu karma-birth-rebirth kind, or accountability before a monotheistic God, if we get away with it on earth, we get away with it period.”

Response: I don’t think that theists appreciate the lack of force of the doctrine of eternal accountability in restraining evil or the fact that the doctrine has often promoted evil. Criminologists tell us that it is the certainty of punishment—not its severity—that serves to deter. Thieves will be more effectively deterred by a 99% chance of a one-year sentence than a 1% chance of a 99 year sentence. If this is so, then the awfulness of hell is not so much a deterrent as the sense that one is genuinely in danger of going there. But how many people really believe that they are in danger of hell if they do something they oughtn’t? Hardly anybody thinks that hell is for him. Hell is for liberals, feminists, gays, atheists, evolutionists, secular humanists, and Democrats. You know; those other people. Let’s not forget that revolting atrocities have been—and are being—committed by people who believe firmly in eternal accountability. From Torquemada to ISIS, cruelties have been committed not only in spite of the threat of hell, but with the glorious conviction that the cruelties are sanctioned by God. It is the people whom you are righteously murdering that are going to hell. Besides, even if you do something that you know is rotten you can always repent. God will forgive you if you repent. He has to.

Also, as I say, the doctrine of eternal accountability inspires and justifies much evil. As Thomas Paine put it, “Belief in a cruel God makes a cruel man.” Truer words were never spoken. If the God you worship enforces sanctions infinitely greater than any imposed by humans, then any degree of punishment or torment that we can inflict is justifiable if it saves souls from eternal damnation. The actions of inquisitors were cruel, but they themselves almost certainly were not sadists who delighted in torture. No, torments with the strappado, rack, and stake were inflicted in hopes that temporal pains would obviate eternal ones. Further, let’s not forget that it is not only actions that can consign sinners to hell but beliefs. Those who reject certain required beliefs have ipso facto condemned themselves. But if one’s eternal fate depends on having a set of beliefs, then you had better be really, really, really sure that you have the right ones. This is why believers crave the “blessed assurance” of absolute certainty, and when the religious need for certainty far outstrips the actual epistemic certainty of the required propositions (which it does), mischief is on the way. Fanaticism is shouting that you are right so loudly that you hope that it can drown out the insistent inner worry that you are not.