The Passion of the Atheist - Hell: The Finite and the Infinite

"The real heart of the problem is that the punishment of eternal torment does not fit any crime a mortal man can commit."

Hell: The Finite and the Infinite

The idea of hell elicits a very different emotional response in all of us. For the believer that response is most often fear. It is a place many of them truly believe in and earnestly do not want to go to. For some atheists the idea elicits the emotion of humor as they find the concept to be ridiculous. For other atheists such as myself who want to truly evaluate the idea and weigh it on its own merits, it can elicit very different emotional responses. Chiefly, when we really examine the idea we're left feeling a bit angry. This anger stems from the very unjust idea of infinite punishment for finite crimes.

This is what the idea of hell truly is. And the real heart of the problem is that the punishment of eternal torment does not fit any crime a mortal man can commit. Even we as humans understand that the death penalty is a finite punishment. A man can only be killed once. We do not kill him, then revive him, then kill him again in some vicious loop of madness and inhumanity. We don't even try to intentionally cause them to suffer. We simply try to balance the scale of justice by taking a life for a life being taken. Even so, many like myself are even against that, for various reasons.

Often, when a man is given a life sentence there is still a chance of parole. If there is an honest change in that person he may regain his freedom. If he is later found not to be guilty, he is released. Our sense of justice is one of the key things which makes us human. We have an urge to justify the scale and to make things even and right in as much as we can.

Still, many people would prefer vengeance to justice. They've not been shown what a truly balanced scale of justice looks like. They've been given the notion that only some god, their particular god to be certain, can be truly just and that even if that god acts in a way that is clearly unjust, he is still just in his actions. With a supposed right to supreme authority comes a supposed right to malevolence and depravity and inhumanity and injustice.

What truly makes the idea of hell so outrageously unjust is that many people will supposedly be going for nothing more than a lack of fealty, myself included: having never murdered, or raped, or committed such a morally egregious act that it could not be repaid; having been a mostly kind and generous person, willing to put aside my pride and do what is right even to those I dislike; having been someone, who although imperfect as we all are, is someone we would call a good person. Many people just like myself will supposedly end up in hell simply for our lack of belief and fealty. This is not justice, but the action of a tyrant bent on supreme rule by intimidation and through force.

If we look even deeper we can see something else which is greatly unjust here.

Say that you are the victim of a robbery that results in your murder. You were a good person who never harmed anyone and did everything you could to help your fellow man. You were also an atheist.

Now, the man who murdered you can, while in prison awaiting execution, repent of this act and apologize to god, and he will, if he's truly repentant, go to heaven.

You on the other hand, victim of a cold blooded murder and someone who was an upstanding human being, will be tortured for all of eternity simply because you didn't believe in a magic wizard from another dimension.

Is it so hard to see why this might cause anger? Is it hard to see that the idea is simply unjust? No just being would behave that way, certainly not if they're morally and intellectually superior to us. There is no reason to worship an unjust god even if it is real. Just like there is no reason to bow down to an unjust ruler, or to agree to an unjust ideology. No ruler worthy to rule does so by fear and intimidation. We have seen rulers come and go and always when they rule by fear they are met with resistance. Some of us will always choose to fight rather than give in to fear. Some of us will always stand against injustice and tyranny.

Some of us, rather than being afraid, become angry. We point out the injustice and ask how anyone can agree with it or follow it without question. If we are better than torture as human beings, should we not ask the same of our gods if we are to believe in them at all? There comes a point where we simply have to ask whether or not we would treat our children this way. Regardless of what they did, would you torture them for eternity? I think most of us would not. Most of us simply lack that level of cruelty within us. When we look at this we can see that, not only is it illogical, it is unjust and unethical. If we would not accept this behavior from humans, we most certainly should find that a god would also be above such things.

I do not believe in hell. I do not believe it is a real place, or that I'll be tortured for all of eternity. But when a believer invokes hell in an argument and they expect to elicit fear, instead I offer them anger. How dare they espouse the notion that eternal punishment for a lack of belief is justified. How dare they act as if they deserve an eternal reward for a simple act of spoken fealty. How dare they try to coerce us through fear and intimidation. If the idea was really so good, they wouldn't have to sell it. It would sell itself.


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