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 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.