An atheist friend of mine, former leader of his church youth group, thinks the concept of Hell is brutal coercion and if God is good, he can’t possibly allow Hell to exist. Would you agree with him? Does the concept of Hell offend your senses?
It’s pretty hard to imagine anything worse than eternity in Hell. At first glance, it seems like the ultimate coercion tool to get people to follow a religion.
I am a philosopher by training. As such, I have thought a good deal about Hell and find that it cannot be simply dismissed. In fact, I have arrived at a somewhat startling and disturbing inference. Even if no one had ever thought of the idea of Hell, pure rational thinking seems to indicate it may actually be required if a flawlessly good God exists and certain other conditions are in place.
I’d like to work through my thinking with you here.
Premise 1: A good person will try to either rehabilitate or restrain evil
I think we could probably agree with the basic premise that a good person, when they encounter an evil person who is harming others, will try to either help rehabilitate the evil person or, if that is not possible, at least attempt to restrain, or limit, the harm done by the evil person.
This seems to be a fundamental premise of better justice systems in our world. For first offenders, a rehabilitation approach is often taken. In the case of dangerous offenders who represent an ongoing danger to the public and show no interest in rehabilitation, our justice system confines them for the purpose of limiting the harm they can do to others.
So I think we can grant premise 1 — A good person will either try to rehabilitate or restrain evil.
Premise 2: We are not perfectly pure and good
A second premise that I find most people seem to agree with is that we are not flawlessly pure and good. We seem to have an awareness that there is a difference between how we ought to behave and how we actually behave. Consequently, I have asked a great number of people if they think they have ever done anything wrong. Almost all of them say yes, even if it is just saying things they wish they had not said, or harboring resentment against other people, even if they never let it be known.
The question is, though, just how far short of flawless purity, rightness, and justice do we fall? That is hard to judge, because we tend to compare ourselves with ourselves and, by that standard, most of us are reasonably decent people.
The problem is that we are comparing ourselves with others who are not perfect either. After all, if vultures only compared their personal hygiene to that of other vultures, they would all think themselves pretty decently clean, even if they had just been feeding on a rotting carcass.
On a more objective scale, how good has humanity been, say, for the planet? Is nature better off because we live here? How much have we improved the well-being of the galaxy? If there was a civilization of extraterrestrials out there somewhere who were flawlessly beautiful and good, who had never even thought of the concept of evil and injustice, what would they think of us? When you stand outside of humanity, just off-planet as it were, and see what we have done to the planet, the wars we have fought between ourselves, and the personal drama and hurt that unfold every day, it would not be at all surprising if a flawlessly pure extraterrestrial civilization regarded humanity as a deadly viral outbreak that would either need to be rehabilitated or contained.
So, what can we logically infer from this? Even if we set aside all belief in God, Hell, and religion, just on the basis of these two premises alone, which most of us generally agree to, at some point humanity will either need to be rehabilitated or else contained if we wish to limit what might turn out to be a never-ending future history of harm.
The central message of Jesus Christ was essentially one of rehabilitation for the individual through spiritual rebirth and a relationship with the God who is the origin of beauty, love, music, and justice.
But Christ often spoke of something we call Hell as the other option for constraining evil.
We might rationally, even if reluctantly, infer from those two premises that if a human being willfully resists rehabilitation, then they must be constrained to limit the harm done to others, but there still remain some pretty huge objections.
First, why does the containment of evil have to last for all eternity? Why couldn’t God simply cause people who resist rehabilitation cease to exist?
Second, why would the final containment of evil, which we are calling Hell, have to be so awful? Why not contain evil in a place that was pleasant, with wonderful weather all the time, and an enormous amount of fun things to do? After all, constraining evil people from harming others does not mean we have to torture them, or even be unpleasant to them.
These are good and valid questions, so in my next two videos let’s think about them and see what rationally emerges.