Why has the idea of hell survived so long?

Kathryn Gin Lum has an interesting piece on hell over at Aeon: Why has the idea of hell survived so long? – Kathryn Gin Lum – Aeon.

Chellew-Hodge’s understanding that punishment is an essential feature of religion, and her students’ confidence that it need not be, might seem to represent a simple generational divide. That so many young people in the US identify as ‘spiritual but not religious’ at least partly results from their impression of organised religion – particularly the Protestantism that has long dominated the US religious landscape – as judgmental, exclusive, and punishing. This longing for a feel-good faith with a friendly deity might help to explain why so many fell for the Pope Francis parody and why they were so disappointed that it was untrue. But the longing for a hell-less faith cannot be attributed to a contemporary generational shift alone. Time and again in the history of western Christianity, this longing has surfaced, only to be subdued and hell reaffirmed as not just scripturally but also morally necessary.

Gin Lum discusses the development of heaven and hell, of reward and punishment in the next life, from the simpler undifferentiated afterlife of earlier religions, such as early Judaism.

Christian ideas about the afterlife drew from and expanded on ancient traditions that conceived of the afterlife as a single, neutral zone where everyone ended up, regardless of their behaviour in this life. The ancient Jews had no concept of ‘heaven’ as a place of rewards, or ‘hell’ as a place of punishment, but instead held that all humans went to a shadowy and monotonous afterlife after death: Sheol. Rewards and punishments accrued to people in this life, not in the life to come. Similarly, the ancient Greeks believed that everyone went to the lethargic and gloomy underworld of Hades.

From what I’ve read elsewhere, it’s not entirely accurate to say that pre-Christian religions never had a concept of reward or punishment in the afterlife.  Ancient Egyptians believed that their their sins would be weighed against the weight of a feather to see whether they would be allowed into Osiris’s kingdom, or consumed by Ma’at’s demon.  And many other religions had special places in the afterlife, such as the Norse Valhalla or the Greek Elysian Fields, for those who had led exemplary lives.  (Although what pleased or displeased the gods often had little relation to what we today would call morality.)

That said, it probably is accurate to say that the concept of eternal punishment is pretty unique to Abrahamic religions.

Anthropologically, I tend to see hell as a control mechanism.  A notion that I think is born out by this snippet:

More importantly in the new, monarchless US, defenders of hell argued that the threat of eternal punishment was necessary to ensure the morality of citizens. Even a temporary hell, they claimed, would give humans leave to commit socially harmful transgressions, from lying to cheating to murder, since they would still eventually end up in heaven after paying for their crimes. Indeed, the social argument in favour of eternal hell anticipated the arguments we hear today in favour of the death penalty. Both are supposed to serve as ultimate deterrents against crime.

…and this…

And numbers can hardly tell the whole story, anyhow. Believers in hell thrive on a sense of opposition and injustice – to affirm the stark either/or of heaven or hell requires it. Where Bell sees the violence humans enact against each other on earth as already a kind of hell, those who support eternal hell argue that it alone can make up for the world’s violence and suffering, and act as a deterrent against future forms of human-on-human brutality. Others say that there has to be a hell, if only for Hitler, or Stalin, or Mao, or Saddam, or Osama bin Laden.

I think that the concept of hell endures because it’s an important component of the long term survival of a world religion.  It’s the stick that discourages people from even contemplating that their particular religion may not be true.  (Whether or not it actually keeps them moral is another question.)  Religions that dispense with it probably lose adherents, and are probably more likely to eventually die out.

Of course, if you believe in hell, then the concept endures because it is true, and all my talk of control mechanisms is tragic nonsense.

As a nonbeliever, I’m not convinced that heaven, hell, purgatory, or anything else awaits us on the other side of death.  I am sometimes bothered by the idea that evil people might be consigned to the same eternal dreamless sleep as the rest of us, that someone like Hitler might get away with just oblivion, but I’m also aware that reality doesn’t seem to care about what bothers us.

21 thoughts on “Why has the idea of hell survived so long?

  1. The argument I heard from a Catholic was that Infinite Torment was supposedly the flipside of God’s “Infinite Mercy/Forgiveness” – you got the former if you rejected the latter, for some reason. Still kind of leaves God as a jerk, since he drop-kicks you into the former forever.

    I am sometimes bothered by the idea that evil people might be consigned to the same eternal dreamless sleep as the rest of us, that someone like Hitler might get away with just oblivion, but I’m also aware that reality doesn’t seem to care about what bothers us.

    Same here, although it does motivate me more to support efforts at justice in the present.


  2. Control mechanism, pah! Your comments about Hitler reveal why Hell endures. Even you, an atheist, educated liberal, still yearn deep down for the brutal, simplistic, black & white version of justice that Hell provides 🙂


    1. Eh? Momentary emotional annoyances and my intellectual positions are too different things. Even at my worst, I never think infinite punishment is right, although it would be pleasing to know that some people got some punishment in the afterlife. Pity there probably isn’t one.


  3. this topic is really scary … so if i could with a substantially different problem… i’m curious if we can imagine how that shaped our understanding of the Universe if our planet was in this galaxy… (Omega Centauri, NGC 5139)


    1. Hmmm, with stars only 0.1 light years apart from each other in that cluster, I think we’d have a much brighter night sky. Not sure what all that closeness would mean for radiation exposure. (0.1 light years is still a vast distance)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. and it seemed to me that this would be such (surprisingly) a wise question… but stupid Pole, think first before you speak! only a small fear that our scientific faith isn’t knocked us to the scientific (or pretty real) HELL!
        Michael. thank that at least you tried…


          1. let’s stay with what is! just a little note for our well-being as lovers of this universe… actually, we avoided at the last moment to ridicule if it turns out that it is our galaxy that was awarded the Nobel Prize this year!

            Liked by 1 person

  4. It doesn’t bother me that Hitler is in oblivion. I see the desire for retribution as a regrettable atavism. Punishment should be for consequentialist reasons only, in order to deter others from committing crimes. Eternal torment in an afterlife (without evidence for such available to the living) serves no such purpose. Hitler was going to do what he was going to do because of who he was (genes, enculturation, etc.) and the political situation at the time. The thought of his eternal suffering for what he was essentially predestined to do does not bring me any joy.


    1. I agree. As I replied to Steve, my momentary emotional desires for retribution shouldn’t be taken as the same as my intellectual positions. Even at an emotional level, I can’t imagine any crime sufficient to warrant eternal punishment.


  5. Hi ‘SAP’, my first thought on seeing this post was of the Frans de Waal presentation you posted a while back that included the video clip of the Capuchin monkey rejecting his lesser food item. I’d say that the persistence of belief in hell must be related to innate conceptions of equability and fairness and the need to believe that there is order and stability inherent in the universe – part of a psychological counter to the essence of existence being “change”. Thus the belief that those who don’t get their just deserts in this life surely do in the next.

    Maybe I’m stating the obvious, but it’s been warmish here lately and my brain just isn’t used to what passes for hot weather up here 🙂


    1. Hi amanimal,
      You may be right. I’m now suspecting that hell exists for a variety of reasons, including yours and the control aspects.

      The high is reaching the mid 90s here. But everyone here has air conditioners; I’ve heard that people at your latitude often don’t.


      1. The carrot/stick aspect is definitely there – interesting that while belief in an punitive god has been linked with poor mental health, belief in the place those that displease said god end up has been shown to have beneficial societal effects:

        ‘Belief in Angry God Associated with Poor Mental Health’

        ‘Belief in hell leads to heaven’

        I may have to look further into that someday. I did watch a short intro to transhumanism video that said we’re still basically the same aggressive, jealous, and anxious creatures that our savanna-dwelling ancestors were so maybe that explains it.

        I visited New Orleans once – can see the AC being mandatory. We usually only get a couple of weeks at most of 80*+ temps(rarely 90*) so a couple of strategically placed fans is usually enough. And if it does get the least bit uncomfortable that’s all the excuse I need to head for a lake or the ocean – stay cool!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. i found a forgotten text with a note “via sap” … interesting but unfortunately it has a huge drawback – the lack of your comment. as is at all possible? maybe i missed something?
    (Machine envy by Philip Ball) which the main idea may be a fragment “that science is driven by ideas, not numbers…” and even more by “also determine to some extent what can be thought”
    i don’t know if this is not perhaps the result of my naivety but i think that … although the whole text is a bit boring that some threads of this article deserve a more detailed description! and probably needed to do that are more efficient minds than mine! i don’t know whether it will meet with a deeper interest! but according to my lousy opinion this is one of the most interesting articles in which i encountered this year! so maybe, dear Michael, a deeper and more extensive reflections and thoughts on this article! because if it was supposed to prove that i was wrong what the essence of this article, it means that ….. i’m afraid to even think about it… i hope YOU’ll forgive me my excessive demands…


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