Hell: A monstrous doctrine

This Catholic Encyclopedia article on Hell shows how the idea of Hell not only is horrible in itself, but pushes people to develop other horrible ideas in order to justify it. I don't know to what extend Catholic Encyclopedia reflects official Catholic doctrine, but a number of websites have this public domain work, and I get the impression it at least isn't violently at odds with church doctrine. I don't think there's been a major revision of the Catholic doctrine of Hell since it was written. The current Catholic catechism states: "The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, 'eternal fire.'"

Mainstream Christianity (and, as far as I can tell, Islam) holds that "sinners" who aren't redeemed will go to a place of eternal punishment after we die, and that one of the main criteria of sinfulness and non-redemption is failure to believe their religion. This is a monstrous doctrine. It posits an infinitely sadistic deity and encourages people to be as hostile toward others as they imagine God is. In offering justifications for Hell, the Catholic Encyclopedia article demonstrates that it isn't possible to stop at a single evil idea.

The article emphasizes that Hell is a place of infinitely prolonged pain. It tells us that by "reason," remitting punishment even after a sextillion millennia would be wrong.

But what is the attitude of mere reason towards this doctrine? Just as God must appoint some fixed term for the time of trial, after which the just will enter into the secure possession of a happiness that can never again be lost in all eternity, so it is likewise appropriate that after the expiration of that term the wicked will be cut off from all hope of conversion and happiness.

And sinners, says the article, deserve infinite punishment:

The objection is made that there is no proportion between the brief moment of sin and an eternal punishment. But why not? We certainly admit a proportion between a momentary good deed and its eternal reward, not, it is true, a proportion of duration, but a proportion between the law and its appropriate sanction. Again, sin is an offence against the infinite authority of God, and the sinner is in some way aware of this, though but imperfectly. Accordingly there is in sin an approximation to infinite malice which deserves an eternal punishment. Finally, it must be remembered that, although the act of sinning is brief, the guilt of sin remains forever; for in the next life the sinner never turns away from his sin by a sincere conversion.

The author dares to accuse a large part of the human race — not God — of "infinite malice"! Normally, attributing anything infinite to humans would be blasphemy. But it's necessary to justify the infinite sadism which the author attributes to God, so he presents a manifestly absurd, even blasphemous, charge against humanity. Remember, he isn't talking just about Hitlers and Stalins, but about ordinary people who committed some crimes, or perhaps just didn't go to the right church.

Once you accuse people of "infinite malice," it's a short step toward devising tortures that don't wait for God to act — thumbscrews, racks, and the whole panoply of tools that were used against heretics and apostates. Why not? They might convert under duress, and the worst agonies any human can inflict are literally infinitesimal compared to what the heretics would suffer otherwise.

The weasel-word "approximation" is meaningless. No finite quantity approximates infinity. Try to imagine how long eternal punishment is. The time till the sun burns out? The time till the heat death of the universe? Neither of these is the tiniest fraction of a percent of the punishment the author says sinners merit. Saying they "approximately" deserve it has no meaning.

The article twists the word "justice" into its opposite, refusing to grant any consideration to the correction of error:

But justice demands that whoever departs from the right way in his search for happiness shall not find his happiness, but lose it. The eternity of the pains of hell responds to this demand for justice.

To justify that, the author says that correction of error is impossible:

The damned, then, can never choose between acting out of love of God and virtue, and acting out of hatred of God. Hatred is the only motive in their power; and they have no other choice than that of showing their hatred of God by one evil action in preference to another.

Perhaps it isn't loss of free will, but merely the natural reaction of torture victims:

The damned can never divert their attention from their frightful torments, and at the same time they know that all hope is lost to them. Hence despair and hatred of God, their just Judge, is almost inevitable, and even the slightest good impulse becomes morally impossible.

That amounts to saying that God torments people to the point of driving them mad, and uses their madness as justification for continuing their pain without end. Nazis running concentration camps were humane by comparison.

The article is one rationalization piled on another, adding up to a picture of a God who is transcendentally evil. No one would have invented such horrors, except for the need to defend an indefensible doctrine. But by having invented them, they promote evil in humans as well. The Inquisitions, the witch trials, the Crusades all relied on the idea that "sinners" deserve infinite punishment and that God is prepared to do things to sinners which are infinitely worse than anything his followers might do.

The more consistently a bad premise is defended, the worse the consequences become.

Original article March 3, 2010
Last updated March 3, 2010
Copyright 2010 by Gary McGath

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