It suddenly occurs to me that religious groups that persuade their members to stay loyal by threatening them with hellfire for questioning doctrine are very similar to child molesters who persuade their victims to keep quiet by threatening them with bodily harm. That is a sobering thought. Many child molesters use threats as part of a range of methods to manipulate their victims into compliance. The fact that most are never exposed and brought to justice only adds to the drama of the comparison. Is the hell doctrine, intentional or not, a way to limit the freedom of thought of members of these groups?
I don’t think it is this way by design. I’m sure religious leaders never met together to decide on the best way to scare followers into compliance. Perhaps it happened in an evolutionary way, by natural selection. Those groups which emphasized the eternal horrors of being “lost” tended to retain more members, so they beat out the other groups.
Remember, we aren’t referring to some mild metaphorical hell, but literal torment that continues for all time. Regardless of how this teaching entered religious doctrine, it is monstrous, and it would be even if it were true. Let me lay out why I believe that is so.
Two ideas presuppose the necessity of hell: the idea that evildoers must be punished to satisfy justice, and the apparent fact that some evildoers do not face punishment proportionate to their crimes before they die. Let’s assume these things to be true. Then, if punishment must satisfy justice, the punishment must equate to the seriousness of all the evil done. Determining the balance of these two things would not, presumably, be beyond the capability of God. It is certain, however, that the punishment meted out could not be infinite, because that would overbalance the finite sins of individuals.
William Lane Craig, in a debate with Ray Bradley, has some arguments that exemplify the conservative line on the issue of infinite punishment. He makes three points, of which the first and third really amount to the same thing:
(1) Insofar as the inhabitants of hell continue to hate God and reject Him, they continue to sin and so accrue to themselves more guilt and more punishment. In a real sense, then, hell is self-perpetuating.
(3) . . . it’s possible that God would permit the damned to leave hell and go to heaven but that they freely refuse to do so. It is possible that persons in hell grow only more implacable in their hatred of God as time goes on.
According to point (1), the longer hell’s residents are tortured, the more they continue to hate God. In point (3), Craig states that maybe it only hatred for God that keeps them in hell. In both, he is assuming that not believing in God, not accepting Jesus as savior, is the same as hating God. I know many people who don’t believe that the Biblical God exists. They don’t hate him. How do you hate something that doesn’t exist? One can see how they would quickly grow to hate him in this self-perpetuating sin generator.
Craig’s other point, the second in his list, is the idea of sinning against an infinite God:
Absurd. The only way a finite being could commit an infinite sin would be to continue in that sin for eternity. The only way that can happen is if hell is made in such a way that insures that it will.
It seems that this kind of hell doesn’t work. It doesn’t reform anyone, in fact, it apparently guarantees that sinners remain sinners. And the punishment never ends. The demons have eternal job security. Those in heaven can never, ever say to themselves, “At last, that’s finished.”
There is an easy way out of this dilemma that still permits the existence of God and heaven, one that Craig even mentioned in the debate. We can just accept that God, rather than continuing pointless torment, simply eliminates those who don’t get into heaven. That involves a manner of biblical interpretation that doesn’t sit well with fundamentalists. It also removes a valuable tool for keeping members within the fold. Fear is an effective way to keep believers from thinking too much.