Monday, April 30, 2012

The Purpose of Hell

Everyone agrees that criminals should be punished, but what many people don't realize is that there are several different theories about why punishing criminals is a good idea. Here I'll examine whether any of these penal theories apply to an eternal punishment in hell. I'll assume in this post, purely for the sake of argument, that unbelief is in some way a bad thing. But even granting this, what we find is that these five rationales either don't apply in the case of the Christian God punishing us in hell, or imply that some other punishment would be more just.

The first reason that one might be justified in punishing a wrongdoer is rehabilitation—punishment for the purpose of morally improving the criminal. But since people stay in hell forever, anything they might learn to better themselves could never be put to use. At most it would result in morally upright people suffering forever, which is clearly even worse than if hell was only filled with the unrepentant.

There's also restoration—punishment for the sake of repairing the damage resulting from the crime. But there's no reason to think that suffering endlessly in outer darkness would benefit God or any other possible victims in the slightest—unless we label God a sadist, who takes pleasure in our boundless pain. In fact, if we take at face value the apologist's claim that God is quite upset about having to punish us, hell seems to work against restorative justice.

The third is deterrence, which is intended to prevent crimes from being committed in the first place. Perhaps hell is a way to bully people into obedience. But there are two problems with this: First, given that 70% of people on earth are non-Christians, the threat of the Christian hell has been largely ineffective at the global scale. Second, by attempting to threaten people into genuine belief when in fact belief is not generally a choice, this form of justice would fall into the same trap as Pascal's Wager.

The fourth is incapacitation, or punishment for the sake of protecting potential victims from further harm. If believers are the victims here, hell would keep the evil heathens from corrupting them—but there are other ways to do this that don't involve excess suffering. If God is supposed to be the victim, it's unclear how hell is "protecting" him from unbelievers. Presumably he isn't so fragile that unbelief or even rebellion would cause him the slightest amount of harm. Perhaps rebellion harms God in some emotional sense. But in that case, hell is once again totally counterproductive: it's the perfect way to stir up even more resentment against him.

Finally, the crudest and most basic reason for punishing wrongdoers is retribution: the idea that evil deeds inherently deserve to be punished, apart from any tangible benefits that will result from such punishment. This may feel like an appropriate reaction, but it's really nothing more than barbaric, institutionalized revenge. What some perceive as punishment for the sake of some idealized "pure justice" is actually a combination of the other rationales listed above. Even if we accepted retribution as a legitimate penal theory, though, it still wouldn't justify hell. Retributive justice carries with it a sense of proportion: the punishment must fit the crime, and eternal punishment for even the tiniest sin certainly doesn't qualify in that sense.

There really is no justification at all for hell as a punishment. This is true because many sins are essentially victimless crimes, and because eternal punishment for sin results in no benefit to any party. However, apologists sometimes sneak around this by saying that hell is a choice: if we willfully reject God, he grants our wish by taking us to a place where we can be completely separate from him. Nonsense. He could accomplish the same thing by simply snuffing out our existence altogether, and avoid all the unnecessary suffering. This would serve as a perfect form of incapacitation (it's impossible to cause any further harm) as well as a more reasonable form of retribution (more proportionate with the perceived crime).

One last defense apologists occasionally give is to claim both that retributive justice is valid and that hell is a proportionate punishment, because our crime has somehow caused infinite offense against God's infinite dignity. Ridiculous. The relevant factor is not dignity, but actual harm. A crime against a king would deserve no more punishment than the same crime against a peasant. If the king threw a fit, demanding the culprit's execution due to some abstract violation of dignity, we would rightly label him a tyrant. If anything, the more power this king has and the more severe his demanded punishment, the more petty and unjust he becomes.

Hell is not only useless as a punishment according to most penal theories, but also highly unjust and even counterproductive. The onus is on Christians to show that this unending punishment can somehow be justified, and they certainly have their work cut out for them.

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