I’ve been away for a while, but I wanted to get back to the discussion of hell that I started several months ago. I found the combox really interesting – I just didn’t have the leisure at the time be able to engage much.
So, I want to address the argument that there is a coherent, rational notion of hell which a minority of people hold, and also a horrific, manipulative notion of hell which is leveraged by powerful religious elites in order to secure compliance from their congregations.
To start off, I want to acknowledge that this is true. Whether hell exists or not as an actual existential possibility, it’s an obviously tempting idea for people who want to be able to wield coercive power over others. It’s basically a much more drastic version of the “Just you wait until your father gets home” disciplinary strategy.
That means it gets used in two ways. First: as a method for gaining moral compliance with principles that are good in themselves, but that are a hard sell.
Think back, for example, to the various different strategies that the Medieval Church adopted for trying to deal with the problem of rapacious and violent nobles marauding about the countryside sticking it to the peasantry.
One of these strategies was to try to invoke supernatural fear. Since the nobles basically held the lion’s share of secular power, there was no earthly authority that could hold them in check. The threat of divine retribution asserted that ultimately there would be justice, and that the temporal benefits of abusing other people would pale utterly in comparison with the eternal consequences.
It’s difficult to say whether using stories about lakes of fire and demons with red-hot pincers is justifiable in a case like this. The problem, when it comes down to it, is that most people are not functioning on a philosophical level. The imagery of hell is basically a symbolic representation of one the most profound moral discoveries: that virtue is happiness, and that you literally cannot get away with evil, because evil always harms the evil-doer.
Thing is, this is very difficult to demonstrate to someone who believes that they are benefiting from evil choices. Part of the harm that evil does to a person is to twist their perceptions so that they are no longer conscious of the relationship between their own suffering and their evil choices.
So for example, let’s say that our abusive noble is plagued by anxieties and fears, and that he has lost several family members in violent conflicts with neighbouring lords. Instead of realizing that these are the inherent consequences of a life of violence, that “he who lives by the sword will perish by the sword,” he instead out-sources the blame. The problem is that his peasants are unruly and disobedient, his brothers are conniving and ungrateful, his neighbours are ambitious and warlike. He sees his own cruelty as a necessary response to protect himself against these external threats, and he construes his own evils as the justified means by which gains and exercises the goods of power.
It’s unlikely that you will be able to sit this guy down with a copy of the Republic and convince him that he is, in fact, harming himself and that the virtuous peasant suffering in his dungeon is somehow objectively happier. It’s too abstract, and the head-space that you have to be in to get it is too far removed from anything in this man’s experience.
But the idea of a just King who metes out punishments and rewards according to what a man deserves, who repays violence for violence, and forgiveness for forgiveness? Maybe that’s something he can understand. Someone who cannot relate to the notion that the good is worth pursuing for its own sake might be able to relate to an image of a higher authority whose strong right hand protects the poor.
And it’s not exactly a lie. It’s more like a fiction – a story that is not true in itself, but that illustrates a deeper truth. God isn’t a King. He doesn’t have a strong right hand. There are no fiery dungeons that He’s going to throw you into if you abuse your power and authority. But if absolute Truth, Beauty and Goodness is the well-spring of creation, then failure to conform yourself to goodness will, in fact, do you an ontological injury that is far more destructive than any sulfurous pit.
However, here we run into the problem of the second commandment: the temptation to take the name of God in vain. Using the fear of God to temper the evil ambitions of abusive people is arguably justifiable. However, those same threats can easily be used as means of exercising coercive power over the innocent.
All you have to do is start telling people that the same hideous punishments are going to be meted out for normal, harmless human behaviours, and then set yourself up as the sole authority with the power to stay God’s wrath. Basically, you try to keep everyone in a state of existential anxiety which can only be relieved by turning over authority, autonomy, and (often) money to you.
I think that this obvious risk is a big part of the reason why Christ, in the gospels, and Paul, in his letters, are so hard on religious authorities and the power of the Law to save. While Christ Himself uses the imagery of fiery Gehenna, He situates it in relation to failures of charity: what is damnable is the neglect or abuse of other people especially the powerless and the poor. The purity codes of the Old Testament are struck down, and in their place love is established as the highest commandment.
This is the backbone of the Gospel, and it is the context in which any discussion of hell must be situated. The idea is not that God is an arbitrary tyrant who offers eternal punishment in response to nominal violations of purity codes, but rather that if we do not seek to form ourselves into the image and likeness of divine love we alter ourselves ontologically and cut ourselves off from the possibility of authentic happiness.
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