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The Moral Imperative of Hell

Not too long ago my father died very unexpectedly at the age of 51 from complications after heart surgery. Later on somebody asked me if my lack of belief in god could have had something to do with his death. Specifically, I was asked whether or not I believed I was being punished for my lack of faith. I explained that I had no reason to believe that any such thing occurred, and that heart surgery has the same risks regardless of the religious persuasion of the patient (who was Catholic in this case) or their family. However, I later entertained the idea for the sake of argument and came to the conclusion that even if a punishing god were to exist, it remained a logical and ethical necessity to behave as if it did not. If I were therefore sentenced to hell, moral consistency was assured.

Within the context of this discussion, let us assume two things. First, let’s assume the existence of a god that is all-knowing (omniscient), all-good (omnibenevolent), and all-powerful (omnipotent). We’ll call this basic god an “omni-God.” Second, let’s also assume that torture and suffering are morally wrong, and that the alleviation of suffering and the avoidance of torture in all cases is an ethical obligation. For any omni-God’s religious system that contains the idea of everlasting bliss in heaven and a hell where individuals are subject to suffering and torture for any period up-to-and-including eternity, common morality demands that every virtuous person go to hell. It isn’t a matter of whether or not hell itself is an immoral concept, or that ethical decisions cause damnation. Instead, it’s that any coherent sense of morality must insist on choosing hell over heaven wherever any choice is possible.

Mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal is most popularly known for the wager that bares his name. Pascal’s Wager states that if there is no god, belief and nonbelief have the same result. Yet if god does exist, to believe offers infinite reward/return (heaven) and nonbelief results in infinite loss/suffering (hell). Therefore, it is better to believe and “play it safe” so to speak. We have already accepted the existence of an omni-God of the type Pascal most assuredly had in mind, but the wager itself is unethical; we have accepted that torture and suffering are morally wrong, yet to take Pascal’s wager is to accept that suffering and torture are valid strategies in fostering belief. Moreover, taking the wager acquiesces to torture and suffering as the penchant of the omni-God we are to believe in. If taken as a moral exercise, as opposed to a win/loss gamble, it is morally incumbent upon us to choose nonbelief and ensure our ethical separation from one who orchestrates, or at minimum consents to, suffering.

To commit to any system where hell exists under the authority of an omni-God is to give at most overt, and at least implicit, support to torture and suffering. In fact, believers in such systems are often quite explicit in their acceptance of hell and often attempt to utilize its concept as a tool of conversion. Yet having allowed the assumption that suffering and torture are morally wrong, such belief in itself is a moral failure.

There is a paradox however. To accept hell is to increase suffering for oneself. Also, it may not support torture but it expands the pool of victims by at least one. So if moral behavior results in personal suffering and torture, possibly for all eternity, does it remain the ethical choice? Many martyrs have accepted that it is indeed an ethical choice, even a moral command. Consider the following; should an all-powerful figure offer at its discretion either hourly beatings for one year or a year’s worth of physical pleasure at the cost of deference to its edicts, is accepting the pleasure morally just when such acceptance recognizes the torture of the beaten? At times hell is described as mental anguish. In that case, were the same figure to offer hourly words of peaceful contentment for one year with the acceptance of its laws and punishments, and refusal to do so resulting in the hourly graphic description of sexual assaults to friends and loved ones, would it be a moral act to acknowledge the suffering of others while taking the offered gratification? If most concepts of hell are to be believed, these are rather mild tortures and sufferings compared to what has been so disturbingly detailed.

Regardless of the justifications one may give for accepting such offers, they remain morally corrupt because toleration engages in at least tacit approval of the suffering and torture that we took as immoral from the beginning. As the justices at Nuremburg rightly decided, simply following orders of the powerful is not an excuse to engage in a corrupt and coercive system, even if defection comes at personal risk. In addition, one’s own suffering and torture is limited to a single individual, yet subscribing to a structure where torture and suffering are the rule is to engage in a systematic and perpetual archetype of agony.

In response, we are powerless to stop the omni-God by its very nature, but we are not powerless to avoid it while living in the physical world. Countless religious believers may claim that life in the physical world is directly affected by the will of an omni-God, but if such is the case, it would stand to reason that a disproportionate amount of suffering would be experienced by nonbelievers and a proportional degree of happiness and contentment experienced by believers in such a god. Looking at the world however, we can see that religious adherents experience suffering to an equal, if not greater, degree than those who lack belief. Locations of the greatest suffering, such as Darfur, Iraq or the poverty stricken ghettos of western cities, are relatively free of admitted nonbelievers. If such a god is active, it appears that either belief is irrelevant to its activity or the activity is unrecognizable and thus cannot be justifiably attributed to an omni-God. The only morally just alternative then, is to seek the alleviation of suffering and the avoidance of torture in the material world as ends in themselves. Correspondingly, moral consistency would demand we behave as if the omni-God, who implicitly or explicitly sanctions suffering and torture in the afterlife, did not exist.

Based on the qualities of the god we’ve described, it knows that hell exists as well as every pain that is experienced there (omniscient). Also, it is capable of ending this anguish, yet chooses not to (omnipotent). Finally, it sees this suffering and torture as a good thing (omnibenevolent). It is this last quality in particular that makes such a being incompatible with our second assumption and thus incompatible with a moral life, since we have accepted for the sake of this discussion that suffering and torture are ethically wrong. To succumb to such a being is therefore a moral failure, leaving the only moral course of action nonbelief and the acceptance of damnation. In essence, the virtuous must all “go to hell.”