How The Christian Concept Of Hell Is Incarcerating America


“Of course we need the concept of hell.  Do you really think that someone should be able to murder someone else and get away with it?  Well, without hell, they’re never going to get punished if they don’t get caught; and even if they do get caught, they may not get punished enough.  Is that justice?”

The response I usually give to that common Christian argument is that, for most Christians, what you do doesn’t really matter.  What matters is what you believe.  In the world of Christianity, you can be a Jeffrey Dahmer or even a Ted Bundy…and if you ask God for forgiveness before you die, you’ll spend eternity in bliss.  Why?  Because the most awesomely perfect innocent guy who ever existed got punished instead.  Right.  OK.  And you’re lecturing me on justice?  What kind of justice is that?  Honestly?  That’s outrageous.  I mean, if you start out saying hell is necessary for justice and then turn around and say that your own moral system depends on an innocent man suffering for the very worst evils of the worst people in history so they could spend eternity in heaven…um, you’re a bit off, to put it mildly.

But there’s possibly a deeper problem here, I think, in the fact that here in the United States, the most religious western country in the world, we have the highest incarceration rate in the world.  The HIGHEST.  That’s right.  Russia, Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, China, Cuba, etc., etc., etc…..amateurs.  We outdo them in the number of people who we imprison by a wide margin — we have about 40% more incarcerated per capita than Cuba, the country in second place.  It’s absolutely extraordinary.

And yet, when you talk to people, it’s almost as if they don’t think we’re actually getting the job done unless we incarcerate even more people.  It’s an amazingly vindictive attitude that we have here in the United States.

Lemme give you an example.  I watched a documentary last night about Judge Ciavarella, who was accused of sending kids to a for-profit juvenile detention center for a cut of the check the detention center got from each kid sent there.  The children got taken to trial at 12, 13 years old.  Oftentimes, their parents were discouraged from bringing in an attorney.  The trials themselves were closed to the public (purportedly to protect the children).  Parent after parent told stories of taking their kid in thinking the kid would get a slap on the wrist, or maybe a week or two in a detention center.  They thought the judge would carefully look over the facts of the case.  They weren’t bad kids, to hear the parents or kids talk.  They just made mistakes here and there — maybe got caught drinking, or making a spoof MySpace page of their vice principal, or even jumping over a cafeteria table.

But Ciavarella looked down from his intimidating seat as judge, glared over his glasses, and condemned kids right there in front of their parents to sentences of three, four, five years for minor offences in the stunning space of 60 seconds or less.  The shocked kid was shackled in front of the screaming parents and taken to a detention center where they were locked in a dirty detention center, in a cell for most of the day, every day, suddenly, for the next several years.

They unsurprisingly come out, often, with severe PTSD, health problems, depression leading to suicide, repeated worse offenses (due to the lifestyle learned in jail), and thoroughly ruined lives.  Interviewed parents frequently cried that their children weren’t the same.

But here’s the thing — Ciavarella was giving these sentences out before he began allegedly accepting bribes (and the evidence indicates that the “bribes” probably weren’t quite that).  And the people in his district KNEW about it and LOVED him for it.  People in the county were urging and rallying for harsher punishments for kids who acted up in school, and Ciavarella, their instrument of justice, delivered.  Before, when you threw a spitball, you got sent to the principle’s office and maybe got a couple weeks of suspension.  In Ciavarelli’s jurisdiction, if you threw a spitball, you went to a juvenile detention center for three to four years and had to come out of your key developmental years after that and somehow put your life back together.

And everyone not in a detention center loved it.  Served those kids right.  Deserved to be put away for being troublemakers.  Knowing my audience, several of you may be thinking that, too.

But here’s the disturbing thing:  What good does that serve the kid?  I mean, the kid is going to come out a worse criminal.  He or she will likely have their education ruined.  There will be ripple effects of pain throughout the family’s sadness.  Locking the child up will not make him or her a better person, in most cases.

Likely, you probably know this.  And perhaps you don’t care.  Why?  Because the kid deserves what he or she got.  There are some people who seem so insistent on this point that I am not in the least surprised when someone says that such children should go to prison for life for a spitball.

Which is weird and downright strange, because no other country really has this problem.  I mean, this country’s incarceration rate for those under 18 is FIVE times higher than that of any other country in the world, according to a citation of Amnesty International at the end of the Kids For Cash documentary.  What is going on?  Why are so many going to prison, and why are so many of us cool with it and cheering for more to be locked up behind bars?

It’s almost as if people have three hardwired premises.  One is that if you do something wrong, nothing you experience will adequately make up for that thing you did wrong.  A second is that the goal for people — especially those we label as “bad” — is not rehabilitation, but retribution and punishment; we can’t have all of this coddling when people do something bad, because they need to SUFFER for the bad that they did.  A third is that they CHOOSE their punishment.  Punishment for the wrong deed is never the fault of the system of law, and only the fault of the offender.

Where did we learn these principles?  Why do they seem so hardwired in the American psyche?

…all these beliefs, on a major scale in the United States, are preached from childhood to adulthood.

In church.

Seriously, I think that’s the issue.  When I talk to people about hell, they are taken aback when I don’t take these three beliefs for granted.  Really, seriously taken aback, and at times fairly dismissive.  Christians almost invariably accuse me of being intellectually dishonest.  It’s truly eye-opening, in discussing the concept of hell with Christians, how sure they seem to be that the analogy of hell is the way things are supposed to work in our justice system.

Many Americans don’t really seem to care if the prisoners will get better.  They care about whether the prisoners are punished.

Because the procedures don’t work.  Now, it’s pretty hard to compare crimes between countries, due to different laws.  But one thing is universal:  Homicides.  Those are the closest we can come to a definition of crime all the countries agree on.  And the United States homicide rate is 5.2 out of 100,000.  That doesn’t sound too bad…until you realize that in Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Italy, Austria, France, Australia, and several others, the homicide rate is about 1 out of 100,000 as of 2012.   And yet we have an incarceration rate of 716 per 100,000 — again, the highest in the world (second place is Cuba, with a rate of 520 per 100,000).  And if you break it up by state, 12 of the states in 1-14th place are in the religious South. In fact, taking a closer look, 8 out of 10 of the most religious states in the United States are in those 12 states with the highest incarceration rate (Utah is Mormon, so it almost doesn’t count with its theology, and Tennessee is in 19th place).  The most religious state, Mississippi, is second place in incarceration, with 1,155 incarcerated per 100,000…which is more than twice the incarceration rate of that of the country with the second highest incarceration rate in the world (for scale, that’s more than 1 in 100 people — which is a lot of incarcerations).  Louisiana, which has the highest incarceration rate, is the fourth most religious state in the nation (and also has the fifth highest violent crime rate in the United States — maybe the incarceration isn’t doing the job).  By contrast, in the 14 states with the smallest incarceration rate, you’ll find 7 of the 10 least religious states (Connecticut and Oregon are in 18th and 19th place, and Nevada — home of Reno and Las Vegas — unsurprisingly has the 20th highest incarceration rate…but it’s still lower than those of any of the ten most religious states, save Utah).

I know that correlation doesn’t equal causation…but it makes an awful lot of sense.  And again, the high incarceration rates aren’t really ending crime, it seems.  Our homicide rate is still nearly the highest among developed countries.

This phenomenon, I think, exposes an importance in breaking up the logic of hell in the United States that seems to be ruining so many lives.

Instead of thinking that prisoners deserve whatever punishment they get, so that anything they don’t get is undue grace, maybe we can think about the importance of deterring certain crimes, so that the focus is more on prevention than on punishment.  Doing so may require turning away from conservative Christian thinking that sin deserves infinite punishment and that anything less than that is grace.  It may require us to forget about punishment and the murky concept of what people deserve and think about deterrence. A switch to thinking about how we can effectively deter crime, instead of about how to punish criminals.  The justice of hell is not interested in deterrence as much as punishment — if we do away with punishment and try to focus on deterrence, we may find that — surprise — we actually have less crime, especially if we see that the prisons and detention centers that we currently have contain conditions that encourage crime.  And trying to deter crime will also make us concerned about how prisoners are treated, perhaps, so that we prepare them better to succeed in society.

Instead of having the mentality that “you choose to go to hell/prison,” perhaps we can start thinking about what people are actually after.  Most criminals don’t choose prison time — they chose the benefits they anticipated from whatever activity they were participating in.  We can take a step back and look at that benefit to determine whether its fulfillment would cause more overall harm than benefit.  If does cause more overall harm, we can go back to the discussion in the previous paragraph and deter it.  If it does not, then we can stop assuming the choice to partake in that activity is a choice to go to prison, and let people do it because there is more benefit than harm in doing so.  If individuals find that they want to change their behavior but don’t have the ability to (with drug addiction, for example), we can simply give them treatment that is looking out for their best interests, because that’s what makes sense.

People may say, “But that will cause money!”  Yes.  Yes it will.  But prisons are pretty expensive, already.  I mean, they’re so expensive that the state of Utah has found it less expensive to give the homeless housing and  a caseworker than to put homeless people in jail (note that Utah was the only one of the top ten religious states that wasn’t high on the incarceration rate list).  The average prison cost per inmate is about $31, 000 a year — for often terrible conditions.  Imagine spending that money helping the people, instead, getting on their feet.

Well, you don’t quite have to imagine it.

Let’s travel to Norway.  According to a 2010 poll taken by the European Commission (on page 381), only 22% of people in Norway believe in God.  44 believe in a spirit or life force, 29% don’t believe in a spirit, God, or life force, and 5% say they don’t know.  Anyways, Norway has a prison called “Halden.”  It’s a maximum security prison — where you would put your murderers and others who have done terrible crimes.  Here is an overview of it on YouTube:

Here are some descriptions from the write up of the prison in Time magazine (taken from here):

To ease the psychological burdens of imprisonment, the planners at Halden spent roughly $1 million on paintings, photography and light installations. According to a prison informational pamphlet, this mural by Norwegian graffiti artist Dolk “brings a touch of humor to a rather controlled space.” Officials hope the art — along with creative outlets like drawing classes and wood workshops — will give inmates “a sense of being taken seriously.”

The maximum sentence in Norway, even for murder, is 21 years. Since most inmates will eventually return to society, prisons mimic the outside world as much as possible to prepare them for freedom. At Halden, rooms include en-suite bathrooms with ceramic tiles, mini-fridges and flat-screen TVs. 

Every 10 to 12 cells share a kitchen and living room, where prisoners prepare their evening meals and relax after a day of work. None of the windows at Halden have bars. 

Security guards organize activities from 8:00 in the morning until 8:00 in the evening. It’s a chance for inmates to pick up a new hobby, but it’s also a part of the prison’s dynamic security strategy: occupied prisoners are less likely to lash out at guards and one another. Inmates can shoot hoops on [a] basketball court [that] absorbs falls on impact, and make use of a rock-climbing wall, jogging trails and a soccer field.

There’s also a recording studio with a professional mixing board. In-house music teachers — who refer to the inmates as “pupils,” never “prisoners” — work with their charges on piano, guitar, bongos and more. Three members of Halden’s security-guard chorus recently competed on Norway’s version of American Idol. They hope to produce the prison’s first musical — starring inmates — later [in 2010].

Halden’s architects preserved trees across the 75-acre site to obscure the 20-ft.-high security wall that surrounds the perimeter, in order to minimize the institutional feel and, in the words of one architect, to “let the inmates see all of the seasons.” Benches and stone chessboards dot this jogging trail.

Halden hired an interior decorator who used 18 different colors to create a sense of variety and stimulate various moods. A calming shade of green creates a soothing atmosphere in the cells, while a vivid orange brings energy to the library and other working areas. A two-bedroom guesthouse, where inmates can host their families overnight, includes a conjugal room painted a fiery red.

Norway’s prison guards undergo two years of training at an officers’ academy and enjoy an elevated status compared with their peers in the U.S. and Britain. Their official job description says they must motivate the inmate “so that his sentence is as meaningful, enlightening and rehabilitating as possible,” so they frequently eat meals and play sports with prisoners.

To help inmates develop routines and to reduce the monotony of confinement, designers spread Halden’s living quarters, work areas and activity centers across the prison grounds. In this “kitchen laboratory,” inmates learn the basics of nutrition and cooking. On a recent afternoon, homemade orange sorbet and slices of tropical fruit lined the table. Prisoners can take courses that will prepare them for careers as caterers, chefs and waiters.

It’s amazing, to put it mildly.  Just jaw-droppingly ornate.  Not all prisons are like this, of course.  However, as Time magazine reports:

Thirty-six percent of prison places in Norway, including all of those at Bastoy, are classified as low-security. With perks like unlimited phone calls and up to four days of leave per month, they act as inducements for good behavior elsewhere: inmates at high-security prisons can apply for transfer at any time, and authorities are legally obliged to consider transferring them during the final year of their sentence. And while the conditions at Norway’s 52 prisons vary, even the strictest facilities stress rehabilitation over retribution. The maximum sentence, even for murder, is just 21 years. “At some point in the future, these men will live in the community,” says Knut Storberget, Minister of Justice and the Police. “If you want to reduce crime, you have to do something other than putting them in prison and locking the door.”

And does it work?  Well, remember the US homicide rate of 5 per 100,000?  Norway is at .6 per 500,000.  But the prisoners would all be rushing into the prisons, right?  Well, remember how the Mississippi rate of incarceration was 1,155 per 100,000?  In Norway, the same chart shows it as 72 per 100,000.

Now, you can say that it’s a different environment, that it’s like comparing apples to oranges.  And it is.  Vastly different cultures.  And we are so used to thinking that prisoners will take advantage of luxuries we give them that, here in the US, doing these reforms tomorrow would turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.  People would also be furious that criminals weren’t punished and were instead respected as human beings.  You might even be furious at the prisoners of Norway at this point.  So, for those and many other reasons, Norway’s solution doesn’t seem workable in the United States right now.

But if the goal is not to say what people deserve, but, rather, what can help people live dignified lives; if the goal is to deter the actions that create harm in society as opposed to punishing individuals; if we can see the criminal as not choosing prison when they commit their acts, and thus be self-critical of our own justice system and strategize to determine win-win situations consistent with the prisoner’s choice and the public’s safety…then we may have a shot at getting closer to where Norway is right now.  I doubt I’ll see it in my lifetime, but I’d like to help us get there.

Getting there will require us to get rid of the concept that people deserve eternal punishment for any wrong they do, and that anything less than that is grace from the justice system.  It will also require us to dispose of the concept that it is just to punish retributively instead of seeing if a kinder, more respectful approach that recognizes dignity in those who break the law is potentially more effective at reducing overall harm.  Finally, this change will require us to be critical of those who enforce the law — making sure they are making society better for all involved instead of seeing those who do wrong as “choosing” whatever fate they assign them, without examining this fate.

And that starts with pulling out of the American psyche the linchpin that so many are taught from childhood, especially in states in which the incarceration rate is highest — the concept of the Christian hell.  We need to stop believing it, stop preaching it, and stop teaching it to the next generation. That’s not the last step, but it seems a needed first step for us to stop incarcerating America.


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