Infinite Punishment for Finite Sins

“So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.”
—The Bible, Matthew 13:40-50 (KJV)

“The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: and the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night…”
—The Bible, Revelation 14:10-11 (KJV)

“But as for those who disbelieve, garments of fire will be cut out for them; boiling fluid will be poured down on their heads, whereby that which is in their bellies, and their skins too, will be melted; and for them are hooked rods of iron. Whenever, in their anguish, they would go forth from thence they are driven back therein and (it is said unto them): Taste the doom of burning.”
—The Qur’an, sura 22:19-22

“Those who disbelieve Our revelations, We shall expose them to the Fire. As often as their skins are consumed We shall exchange them for fresh skins that they may taste the torment.”
—The Qur’an, sura 4:56

“O the greatness of the mercy of our God, the Holy One of Israel! For he delivereth his saints from that awful monster the devil, and death, and hell, and that lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment.”
—The Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 9:19

“Depart, ye cursed, to whom everlasting wrath and ruin belong, who are by your own wickedness prepared for nothing else, but to be firebrands of hell, who are the fit objects and vessels of the vengeance and fury of the Almighty, into fire. He will not send them away merely into a loathsome prison, the receptacle of the filth and rubbish of the universe, but into a furnace of fire. That must be their dwelling-place, there they must be tormented with the most racking pain and anguish. It is everlasting fire. There is eternity in the sentence, which infinitely aggravates the doom, and will make every word of it immensely more dreadful, sinking, and amazing to the souls that receive it.”
—Jonathan Edwards, “The Final Judgment

“You are going to see again the child about which you read in the Terrible Judgement, that it was condemned to hell. See! It is a pitiful sight. The little child is in this red hot oven. Hear how it screams to come out. See how it turns and twists itself about in the fire. It beats its head against the roof of the oven. It stamps its little feet on the floor of the oven. You can see on the face of this little child what you see on the faces of all in hell – despair, desperate and horrible!”
—John Furniss, “The Sight of Hell

“At certain revolutions all the damned
Are brought; and feel by turns the bitter change
Of fierce extremes, extremes by change more fierce,
From beds of raging fire to starve in ice
Their soft ethereal warmth, and there to pine
Immovable, infixed, and frozen round
Periods of time, – thence hurried back to fire.”
—John Milton, Paradise Lost, book 2

Before the advent of Christianity, Judaism was vague on the notion of what awaited us after death. Some verses in the Old Testament seem to teach annihilation, non-existence for good and evil alike. Others imply that we will all experience temporary oblivion, but the righteous will be resurrected by God on Judgment Day, while everyone else will stay dead. Yet others point to the existence of some shadowy realm called Sheol from which the spirits of the dead could be summoned and contacted. The doctrine of Hell first began to arise near the end of the Old Testament era, but it took Jesus Christ to fully codify and formalize it as a part of Christian doctrine, from which it migrated into monotheistic religions in general. As this great moral teacher explained it, Hell is a dreadful lake of fire where all those who disobey God will go when they die, to suffer and be tormented eternally with no hope of escape.

It is difficult to keep a clear head and not get angry when discussing this doctrine. Hell is by far the worst religious idea that human beings have ever invented; certainly, in terms of the sheer amount of cruelty one person can wish inflicted on another, it is by definition unsurpassed. Nor are the effects of this belief limited to theists passively wishing this fate upon their enemies regardless of what happens in this world. As Thomas Paine said, belief in a cruel god makes a cruel man, and many religious atrocities committed through the centuries can, directly or indirectly, be traced to belief in Hell. Thus, it is for the sake of this life – the only one anyone can ever know for certain that they have – that it is important to expose this vicious falsehood for what it is. By accepting this doctrine for the sake of argument, this essay will show that it collapses under the weight of its own absurdity.

Before going any further, it should be pointed out that this essay will only address the conception of Hell as eternal torment. Views of Hell which depict it as a temporary state will not be addressed here. This is not unfair or a straw man for the simple reason that a great many believers in multiple religious traditions specifically do claim that Hell is eternal, and are supported by their own sacred texts in this. This is shown by several of the quotes above. The Christian Bible depicts the damned as having “no rest day or night”. The Islamic Qur’an says that inhabitants of Hell are driven back into the fire whenever they would seek reprieve, and further reinforces this with verses such as 2:162 and 2:167, which specifically deny that Hell is temporary. The Book of Mormon describes Hell as “endless torment”. In light of these verses, adherents of these traditions who deny that Hell is eternal must first deal with the evidence from their own holy scriptures. Conversely, theists who do not believe that there is a Hell, or that God would send anyone there permanently if there was, are encouraged to read “God Is Love” rather than this essay.

The first argument against the existence of Hell is the simplest and most effective: Where is the proof that there is such a place? Until theists produce the evidence, there is no reason whatsoever to believe anyone who claims it exists. The mere fact that a large number of people believe in such a place proves precisely nothing if those people cannot point to the empirical evidence that convinced them in the first place, nor do hallucinations occasionally experienced by people in near-death states indicate the existence of anything outside the mind. In addition, there is positive evidence against the existence of such a place: as neurological evidence suggests, the best explanation for the functioning of the mind requires only the physical structure of the brain. It is highly unlikely that the source of consciousness is an immaterial soul, and thus it is highly unlikely that there is any part of us that survives our physical death and goes on to an afterlife, hellish or otherwise. Until theists who believe in such a state can supply the hard evidence to back up their claims, we can and should feel free to dismiss them as utterly without foundation.

Although there is absolutely no evidence to support the existence of such a place as Hell, that has not stopped fundamentalists from appealing to it in an attempt to frighten people into converting. In fact, rather than present a reasoned argument, they often go to great lengths to describe it in terms as horrible and terrifying as possible, in an attempt to provoke an emotional response rather than a rational one – to override reason with unreasoning fear. Fire-and-brimstone sermonizing such as the passages quoted at the beginning of this essay has been used for this purpose since the inception of the doctrine of Hell, as religious fanatics throughout history have delighted in imagining ever more grotesque and horrible tortures for those they view as God’s enemies. While the Bible only alludes to furnaces of fire, outer darkness, undying worms and wailing and gnashing of teeth, the Qur’an adds many gruesome details to its much more explicit depiction of Hell. In the Islamic conception of the underworld, the damned are forced to wear garments of fire, boiling water as hot as molten brass is poured on their heads, their skin is melted and burned off, and they are beaten with iron hooks. Not to be outdone, Christian poets such as Dante Alighieri (author of the Inferno) pictured a Hell where the condemned are boiled in excrement or blood, where demons continually hack their bodies into pieces, where they are imprisoned in blazing sepulchres or frozen up to their necks in ice gnawing on each other’s skulls. An English clergyman named John Furniss penned an even more horribly graphic pamphlet, quoted above, in which he depicted even children and unbaptized infants as suffering every manner of agonizing torture. Across the Atlantic, American evangelists such as Jonathan Edwards terrified audiences with vivid descriptions of the torments of hellfire.

All these gory descriptions of the suffering of the damned lead to an obvious question: Why would God ever create such a place? What purpose does it serve? How can Hell possibly be compatible with God’s attributes, which all the major monotheistic religions insist on, of benevolence, justice and mercy?

Imagine how much hatred you would have to have for another person to take his hand and press it against a hot stove, and hold it there while he struggles and screams in pain. Now imagine, not just burning a person’s hand, but setting his entire body on fire; and now imagine doing it not just for a few moments, not for hours or days or years or millennia, but forever; and now imagine tormenting not just one, but thousands, millions, billions of people like this, inflicting on each and every one of them a suffering beyond imagination or description, for every single instant without rest or relief throughout all the endless span of eternity. And this is the work of a good god?

Some theists say that God loves us and cares about us more deeply than we can imagine; and then turn around and say that he is ready at a moment’s notice to hurl into endless agony anyone who did not worship him exactly as he directed. This is a hopelessly self-contradictory set of beliefs. If there is such a place as Hell, it could not possibly be the creation of any being worthy of the appellations “loving” or “caring”; it could only be the work of an evil, sadistic monster. Theists who are unwilling to grant that there could be such a being are therefore faced with a choice: give up belief in Hell, or give up belief in God altogether.

There is another problem with the doctrine of Hell, which is as follows: No deed that a human being could possibly commit merits such a punishment. It is stressed by virtually all religions that God is just, but it is a fundamental part of justice that the punishment must be proportionate to the crime, and Hell is, by definition, infinitely disproportionate when compared to any human act. No matter how monstrous a person was in life, no matter how evil their crimes, they can only have inflicted a finite amount of harm, and no finite sin can deserve an infinite amount of punishment. Even when a damned soul has suffered as much pain as they inflicted on others during their life, we are told, the torture continues. Even when that soul has been paid back, pain for pain, a hundred times over, or a thousand times, or a million, they continue to suffer. Every damned soul will eventually suffer as much pain as every innocent victim of every evil act in the entire history of the Earth combined, and still their punishment will continue without end. This is not fair – this is an outrageous injustice. Again, believers in a just and fair god cannot hold this belief alongside belief in an afterlife of eternal torment, not without contradicting themselves. The only intellectually consistent route is to deny that there is such a realm, or such a being, or both.

Some apologists have put forth a defense against this argument, claiming that because God is infinitely good, a person who chooses to defy him is committing an “infinite crime” and therefore deserves an infinity of suffering as punishment. But consider: What does it mean to commit a crime against someone? Does the essence of a crime not lie in harm? Not all harm done to a person rises to the standard of a crime, but it cannot be said that you have committed a crime against someone if they have not been harmed in any way. But God, by his nature, can never be harmed. According to the monotheistic religions, God is omniscient, omnipotent, and perfect; he lacks nothing, he needs nothing, and certainly he cannot be injured or diminished in any way by anything a human being could ever do. Therefore, it is impossible to commit any crime against him at all, much less an infinite one. We may harm ourselves, or other people, but we can never harm God, and it defies justice to pay back an act that causes zero harm with an act that causes infinite harm.

The apologist argument of disbelief as an infinite crime can be refuted in another way. For justice to be served, the punishment for a crime should be set not only by considering the consequences of the act, but also by considering the intent and level of understanding of the person who commits it. This is why, for example, most societies punish minors less harshly than they would adults who committed the same crime, or why they generally treat rather than punish people who commit a crime while operating under a sense of diminished capacity that makes them less able to tell right from wrong.

The relevance is this. In God’s sight, compared to God’s mind, are we adults or are we minors? Do theists believe that people who reject God understand exactly what they are doing? Is it possible for anyone with a finite mind to fully comprehend the repercussions of such an act? It is said that rejection of God is an infinite crime, but can a human being really commit a crime that great even if they want to, even if they think they mean it at the time? While Hell-believing theists will undoubtedly answer “yes” to these latter three questions, I suggest that those answers arise from their a priori beliefs rather than a rational and objective evaluation of the situation. Such an evaluation is far more likely to come to the opposite answer.

This becomes even more acute when one considers that the length of the afterlife, in most major religious traditions, is believed to be eternity. The human mind is finite and thus, by definition, cannot fully comprehend such a span of time. How can it be fair to force beings as limited as us to make decisions that will influence our fate for an infinity thereafter and only allow us an infinitesimally short length of time to choose? This would be analogous to parents deciding how they will relate to their child for the rest of his life based on his behavior up until the age of two years old. If at some point during those first two years the child threw a tantrum and screamed “I hate you” at his parents, would the appropriate response be for them to throw him out of the house, disown him completely and never speak to him again for the rest of his life? Just as no two-year-old child could possibly be expected to have the perspective to make decisions that would be best for the rest of his finite life, so too could no finite human being be fairly expected to be able to make the best decisions for the rest of an infinite life. The conclusion remains the same: only an infinite being can commit an infinite crime.

Even assuming none of the preceding holds true, another question remains to be answered: Why can’t you repent in Hell and be released? What happens if one of the damned says, “I can’t take this anymore. I understand now that I sinned and I’m sorry. God, please forgive me and let me out of here”? Will this work? If not, why not? If there’s a rule that says it’s too late to repent once you’re in Hell, who made that rule and why?

Some theists might say that God does not allow this because, in this case, people would be repenting just to escape further punishment, not because they were genuinely sorry. If this is the case, then shouldn’t he also condemn people who repented on Earth only because they were afraid of Hell? Shouldn’t he also condemn people who repented on Earth because of some personal tragedy or catastrophe that befell them? Yet no religions I am aware of teach that God will do this; if anything, most monotheistic religions teach that such occurrences are very salutary in bringing people closer to God and making them realize their dependence on him. If God wants everyone to be saved, if he accepts repentance motivated by personal catastrophe on Earth, and if he accepts repentance motivated by fear of Hell while on Earth, then a declaration that God will not forgive anyone once they are in Hell cannot be seen as anything other than arbitrary and irrational. Such a declaration would be motivated not by any real reason or logical necessity, but by the desire of that religion to secure earthly power by coercing and frightening people into allegiance.

In the preceding paragraphs of this essay, I have argued that the doctrine of Hell is, in multiple aspects, starkly incompatible with the attributes of benevolence, justice, love, mercy and rationality attributed to God by mainstream monotheistic religions. It cannot logically be a part of a system that includes belief in such a god. This will, of course, not affect those theists who believe in an irrational or evil god; to these, I simply reiterate my argument that there is no evidence whatsoever for the existence of either such a place or such a being. In either case, the doctrine of Hell must be rejected.

In light of these arguments, I will again raise the question asked earlier. Since the doctrine of Hell, as it is formulated in monotheistic religions, defies so many of God’s attributes, one must ask why these religions believe in it at all. Why is there any need for such a place?

The most common apologist reply to this is that God has “no choice”. To refuse to worship him is to sin, and loving though he may be he cannot allow sin into Heaven; therefore, he had no choice but to create a Hell where he could send those who die in their sins. This argument, however, is plainly ridiculous. Of course God, if there is such a being, would have a choice – he is all-powerful, is he not? He can do anything he wants. If he wanted to, he could choose to forgive all people of sin unconditionally and let everyone into Heaven. He could reincarnate people until they get it right, so no one has to be condemned. He could make the people who refuse to worship him cease to exist. Even assuming he could not do any of these things and there must be such a place as Hell where nonbelievers go, there is no reason why it has to be a pit of torture – it could just be a limbo, or a realm basically like Earth, where unbelievers could simply go their own way. But, if we are to believe many theists, despite having all these other options God chose none of them, and instead decreed that those who die without believing in him are condemned, with no forgiveness and no second chance, and made a place of endless torture for them to go to. This idea is such a grotesque absurdity it hardly needs refutation; it is in blatant contradiction to everything else we are supposed to believe about God. Again, if there was such a place as Hell, it could never be the creation of a merciful, loving or just deity, but only of an evil sadist. Only a god who enjoys the torment and suffering of others would create such a place or allow it to exist, yet both atheists and monotheists agree that there is no such god.

When all the arguments are considered, the true purpose of the doctrine of Hell becomes clear, and it is not a theological but rather a thoroughly practical and earthly one. Hell is, and has never been anything other than, a fiction invented by religions in an attempt to gain power and followers by bludgeoning people into line through threats and fear. As an atheist, I reject this tactic; it is nothing but empty words. Without evidence to back it up, the tattered specter of eternal torment should not sway a rational mind in the least. No one has anything to fear from this myth. The doctrine of Hell is constructed to appeal to the emotions, but collapses when examined by simple conscience or logic.