A recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life suggests that nearly sixty percent of Americans believe in heaven and hell. In spite of its popularity, the traditional Christian doctrine of heaven and hell is riddled with problems. It implies that God is cruel, unjust, and evil, and it contradicts fundamental Christian doctrines. One does not need to dig very deep to uncover these problems.
The basic idea of the doctrine of heaven and hell is that after death, believers are sent to heaven and unbelievers are sent to hell. Heaven is a place of eternal happiness and hell is a place of eternal torment. Your ultimate reward or punishment is determined by your beliefs. It is not a matter of “works,” as they say—good works will not get you into heaven. The only way to get into heaven is to believe in God, and to believe that Jesus Christ is God.
There are of course a number of variations on this doctrine within the Protestant and Catholic traditions, and I make no attempt to survey them in this essay. Most discussions of heaven and hell within Christianity start from something similar to the basic idea summarized above. I believe the problems with the basic idea are so severe that it is unlikely the doctrine can be salvaged by adding exceptions, amendments, or refinements.
The most obvious problem with the doctrine of heaven and hell concerns cruelty. If God sends unbelievers to hell where they suffer for eternity, then God would be enormously cruel. This would contradict the doctrine that God is perfectly good.
A common reply to this problem is to suggest that God is not really cruel because he gives everyone a choice. Unbelievers can avoid hell by choosing to believe in God.
This reply is not convincing. Let us assume for the sake of argument that everyone hears about God, everyone hears about heaven and hell, and everyone can choose to believe or not. (All of these assumptions have problems, but let’s assume for our discussion that they are true.) Even if everyone has a choice, that would not take away the cruelty of sending people to hell, because the cruelty does not arise from the issue of choice. The cruelty arises from the nature of the punishment. The Bible describes hell as a fiery furnace, and as a lake of fire, and many preachers preach about people burning in hell. According to this view, people in hell are tortured by fire—for eternity. Moreover, hell would be torture on a grand scale. I don’t know how many people would end up in hell, but it must be millions. With or without a choice, the idea of torturing millions of people for eternity is unspeakably cruel. If you wanted to make up an example of cruelty—just to illustrate the idea—and you wanted to make it as harsh and horrific as possible, it would be difficult to come up with a better example.
Of course not all versions of Christianity construe hell as a place of fire and brimstone. Some believe it is more a place of exile than a place of torment. A conception of hell that eliminates the use of torture would of course be more palatable, and it would reduce the level of cruelty involved in sending people there. However, it would not eliminate the cruelty. Essential to the Christian afterlife is the idea that believers are rewarded and unbelievers are punished, and in the Christian scheme of things, exile from God is severe punishment. Even with a more palatable conception of hell, it would be cruel to inflict severe punishment on people for their religious beliefs.
Another reply to the problem of cruelty is to suggest that God doesn’t really send unbelievers to hell, but rather, unbelievers effectively choose their own fate by choosing to reject God. On this view, unbelievers end up in hell because of their own actions.
This reply attempts to shift blame to the unbeliever, but it does not hold up to scrutiny. In the Christian scheme of things, God is the architect of the entire operation. God created heaven and hell, and he set the policy that determines who goes where. The policy was God’s choice—no one forced him into it. Presumably God chose his policy out of all the policies he could have chosen. He could have chosen, for example, to send everyone to heaven, or to send everyone to hell—who knows how many other options he had. In any event, God chose a policy by which unbelievers are sent to hell; and to make matters worse, in the Christian scheme of things God is all-knowing, which implies that when God chose his policy for the afterlife, he knew full well what the consequences would be. When God chose his policy, he already knew that some people would become believers and others would not; he already knew that his policy ultimately would lead to millions of people burning in hell. Evidently that did not stop him from selecting a policy of such extraordinary cruelty.
Let us grant that unbelievers choose not to believe in God. In the Christian scheme of things, the fact remains that after death we no longer have a choice. When we go to meet our maker on judgement day, God does not ask, “where would you like to go today?” If he did, everyone would of course choose heaven—but that is not what happens. On judgement day, no one has the opportunity to choose heaven or hell, because God’s policy has already been set. On judgement day, God follows his policy and sends unbelievers to hell. This is God’s doing—no one forces him to do it. Apparently it is all part of God’s plan. If God did not want to send unbelievers to hell, presumably he would change his policy, or would have chosen a different policy at the outset.
Another problem with the doctrine of heaven and hell concerns injustice. If God sends people to hell because of what they believe, it would be an enormous injustice. In order for a punishment to be just, it must be deserved: to punish someone who does not deserve the punishment would be an obvious injustice.
So let us ask, do unbelievers deserve eternal punishment? In a word, no. Unbelievers are not being punished for doing something really bad, such as murder, for example. They are not being punished for doing anything wrong! They are being punished for believing A instead of believing B—they are being punished for their religious beliefs. Their punishment is therefore an example of religious persecution.
We all know that religious persecution has a long history; in the days of the Soviet Union, many Christians were punished for their religious beliefs; in the days of the Inquisition, the shoe was on the other foot, and the church punished—indeed, tortured—many people for their religious beliefs. I believe these were dark days in our history, because I am against religious persecution. I support religious freedom, and I believe that no one deserves to be punished for his or her religious beliefs. If God sends people to hell because of their religious beliefs, it would be a travesty of justice. It would be undeserved punishment on a grand scale. This would of course contradict the doctrine that God is perfectly just.
The problem concerning injustice can be illustrated with an example. Consider some people who clearly deserve punishment: some of the dictators of the twentieth century come to mind, people such as Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, and Idi Amin. These people were responsible for the torture and brutal killing of millions of people. At the opposite end of the spectrum are people who have led admirable lives, people such as Mohandas Gandhi, for example, who was perhaps one of the world’s most effective promoters of nonviolence. If we compare what Gandhi accomplished in his lifetime, say, to what Hitler accomplished in his lifetime, they are complete opposites. And yet, in the eyes of God, accomplishments do not matter when determining one’s ultimate reward or punishment. As it turns out, Hitler was a Christian, whereas Gandhi was not. Therefore, according to God’s plan, Hitler goes to heaven and Gandhi goes to hell. What better example of injustice could there be?
This example brings out a fundamental flaw in the doctrine of heaven and hell: it is completely at odds with the notion of justice. It is based on the idea that your ultimate reward or punishment does not depend on what you have done—it is not a matter of “works,” as they say—it depends instead on what you believe. This puts it at odds with the notion of justice, because justice depends on getting what you deserve, and what you deserve depends on what you have done. So, the doctrine of heaven and hell all but guarantees injustice.
One reply to the problem of injustice is to suggest that unbelievers are not really punished for their beliefs, but instead are punished for their sins. The idea is that if you believe in God, then your sins are forgiven and you go to heaven; otherwise, your sins remain unforgiven and you are punished for them.
This reply is another attempt to shift blame to the unbeliever. The problem with this reply can be seen with a simple example. Consider an unbeliever on his death bed who—like most of us—has a long list of sins. Let us suppose that before he dies, a minister comes to his room to make one last attempt to convert him to Christianity. At that moment the unbeliever faces two options: he could end up in hell with all of his sins; or he could end up in heaven with all of his sins—all he needs to do is believe. What’s important in this example is that if he decides to believe, he will go to heaven with the same list of sins that he would have taken to hell. If he opts for heaven, all of the sins on the list would be forgiven, but it would still be the same historical list of sins he has committed during his lifetime. This example shows that the sins he committed during his lifetime do not make the difference. The bottom line is that if he ends up in hell, he will not be there because of his sins—he will be there because he did not believe.
There is another problem with the suggestion that unbelievers are punished for their sins instead of their beliefs: it presupposes that all unbelievers have sinned, which is not true. Although Christianity teaches that everyone has sinned, it is easy to disprove such an assertion. Everyone who sins must have a first sin. I don’t remember my first sin—or when it occurred—but in any event, on the day before my first sin I had no sins. The same is true, of course, for everyone who sins—you have to start sometime. Moreover, there must be many people who have not yet committed their first sin. Since tragedy can strike at any age, there must be people who have died before committing their first sin. No doubt some of these people were believers and others were not. We don’t know what percentage were unbelievers, but the percentage doesn’t matter; the point is that many unbelievers have died without committing any sins. No doubt many of them were children when they died; some of them must have been infants. According to the doctrine of heaven and hell, these innocent people are sent to hell for eternity. They certainly are not being punished for their sins.
Some versions of Christianity would reply to this point by appealing to what is called the doctrine of original sin. The basic idea is that we somehow “inherit” the sins of Adam and Eve, and therefore deserve punishment as soon as we are born. This doctrine is sometimes used to explain, from a Christian point of view, why children who die without sins are nonetheless sent to hell.
The most obvious problem with the doctrine of original sin is that it does nothing to mitigate the problem of injustice—it only makes matters worse. What you deserve depends on what you have done; no one deserves to be punished for the sins of another person; no one deserves to be punished for events that occurred before he or she was born. If you are punished for your religious beliefs, at least you are punished for something over which you might have some control. However, if you are punished for things someone else did thousands of years ago, you are punished for things over which you obviously have no control. If you wanted to make up examples of injustice—just to illustrate the concept—and you wanted to make them as blatantly unfair as possible, it would be difficult to come up with better examples.
The doctrine of original sin is in no position to aid in the defense of the doctrine of heaven and hell, because both doctrines guarantee injustice. The same point applies to various doctrines about child baptism. Some versions of Christianity believe in infant baptism, and believe that when unbaptised infants die, they are sent to hell, or perhaps to some intermediary place between heaven and hell. If an infant dies and is punished because of how she was treated by other people during her short life, it would be a disturbing example of injustice. It would be another example of undeserved punishment.
Perhaps the most serious problem with the doctrine of heaven and hell concerns God’s love. This problem is similar to the problem concerning cruelty, but more severe. According to Christian doctrine, God loves all of his creatures—including unbelievers. This doctrine might sound comforting, but when combined with the doctrine of heaven and hell, it has disturbing consequences. It implies that God loves unbelievers, and yet, sends them to hell to burn for eternity. If that is an example of what God does to people he loves, then God’s love is not such a good thing. If that is what God does to people he loves, then God would be some kind of monster. This would go beyond cruelty—it would be truly evil. It would be so twisted to love a person for a lifetime, and then in the afterlife, to turn on that person with such gratuitous brutality.
Occasionally we read in the news about a mother who kills her children. Such stories are deeply disturbing—the very idea is so abhorrent. But these stories would pale in comparison to what God does to people he loves.
These doctrines not only imply that God is evil, they also raise disturbing questions. If that’s really how God treats people he loves, then how can we be sure that believers will end up in heaven? Who knows—maybe all of us end up in hell. Of course it would be cruel to send believers to hell, and certainly unjust because they don’t deserve it; but when you think about it, it would be no more cruel and no more unjust than sending unbelievers to hell, because they don’t deserve it either. If God treats millions of unbelievers with cruelty and injustice, how can we be sure he would treat others any better? In any event, if God is evil enough to send people he loves to an eternity of suffering—if that’s really how God treats people—then one wonders why any decent person would worship God.
My arguments rely on minimal assumptions. I assume that torture is cruel, that undeserved punishment is unjust, that people do not deserve to be punished for their religious beliefs, and that it would be evil to send someone you love to an eternity of torment. These are not controversial assumptions and it would be surprising if anyone challenged them. It is striking that these mild assumptions are enough to bring out such devastating problems with the doctrine of heaven and hell.
The doctrine of heaven and hell is such a nonstarter, even from a Christian point of view. It does not fit with the Christian conception of God—it conflicts with the idea that God is perfectly good, perfectly just, and loving. One could go so far as to say that the doctrine of heaven and hell is anti-Christian. It thumbs its nose at some of the most fundamental Christian doctrines. One wonders why it has enjoyed such a long history within Christianity.