Many churches still teach that God will send nonbelievers and others to eternal punishment in hell. Although this doctrine is consistent with a literal interpretation of the Bible, it is very harmful.
According to Matthew 13:40-42, when Jesus returns to earth his angels will gather those who “do iniquity” and “cast them into a furnace of fire.” At Luke 16:19-31 and Revelation 20:10-15, hell is described as a place where people are “tormented” in flames forever. Revelation 21:8 says unbelievers and other sinners “shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone.”
Besides a complete lack of evidence to support those bizarre assertions, there are other serious problems with them. If taken seriously, they can promote violence, persecution, and cold-heartedness.
In his treatise A History of Torture, Joseph McCabe states that during the Middle Ages in Europe, torture was used with a greater frequency and ferocity than in any society in history. He attributes this extreme cruelty mainly to medieval Europe’s belief in hell.
McCabe explains that medieval people – including popes and church councils – reasoned that because God punishes his enemies with eternal torture in hell, his followers may surely use torture against God’s opponents on earth.
A similar report is contained in Andrew White’s book A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. He says the doctrine of hell was a principal source of religious support for torturing people accused of witchcraft in medieval Europe.
White relates: “The natural argument developed in hundreds of pulpits was this: If the All-wise God punishes his creatures with tortures infinite in cruelty and duration, why should not his ministers, as far as they can, imitate him.”
Humanist philosopher Corliss Lamont notes that in sixteenth-century England, the Catholic Queen Mary (“Bloody Mary”) cited the doctrine of hell to justify executing religious dissenters. “As the souls of heretics are to be forever burning in hell,” she decreed, “there can be nothing more proper than for me to imitate the Divine vengeance by burning them on earth.”
The early Protestant leader Melanchthon used identical reasoning to argue for torturing certain prisoners. He asked, “Why should we treat them any better in this life than God is going to treat them in the next?”
Thus, because the doctrine of hell depicts God as being extremely violent and intolerant, his followers conclude that they may behave in a similar manner. And they have done so for centuries.
Not only does this doctrine lead to extreme acts of violence and persecution, it also conditions people to be desensitized to – or even enjoy – the sight of human suffering.
The Church Father Tertullian was practically ecstatic at the thought of someday viewing those being tortured in hell. He stated: “How I shall admire, how laugh, how exalt when I behold so many proud monarchs groaning in the lower abyss of darkness . . . so many sage philosophers blushing in red hot fires with their deluded pupils.”
The twelfth-century theologian Peter Lombard had the same attitude. “The elect will come forth to behold the torments of the ungodly,” he taught, “and at this spectacle they will not be smitten with sorrow; on the contrary, while they see the unspeakable sufferings of the ungodly, they, intoxicated with joy, will thank God for their own salvation.”
Saint Thomas Aquinas, one of the most influential Catholic theologians of all time, likewise declared that “in order that nothing may be wanting to the happiness of the blessed in Heaven, a perfect view is granted them of the tortures of the damned.”
The popular eighteenth-century Puritan clergyman Jonathan Edwards added, “The sight of hell’s torments will exalt the happiness of the saints forever.” He also proclaimed: “Can the believing husband in Heaven be happy with his unbelieving wife in Hell? Can the believing father in Heaven be happy with his unbelieving children in Hell? Can the loving wife in Heaven be happy with her unbelieving husband in Hell? I tell you, yea! Such will be their sense of justice that it will increase rather than diminish their bliss.”
Some Christians apparently have a similar attitude today. At least the right-wing author Ann Coulter seems to think so. In regard to the atheist author Richard Dawkins, she said: “I defy any of my co-religionists to tell me they do not laugh at the idea of Dawkins burning in hell.”
Can any teaching be more horrible and sick than the idea that torture is acceptable and the sight of people being subjected to it – including one’s family members – is highly enjoyable? This dogma can only bring out the very worst in humans, and history shows that it has.
The historian William E. H. Lecky summarized the historical effects of literal belief in hell by stating: “The doctrine of a material hell in its effect was to chill and deaden the sympathies, predispose men to inflict suffering, and to retard the march of civilization.”
This same doctrine was partly responsible for the fact that, as historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. reports, torture was part of the normal investigative procedure of the Catholic Church and most European states until the end of the eighteenth century.
The harmful effects of believing in hell support the American patriot Thomas Paine’s observation: “The belief in a cruel god makes a cruel man.” Or in Coulter’s case, a cruel woman.
These problems with the belief are also a reason why some Christian denominations no longer accept the doctrine of hell. (Or, as one person put it: “Some churches say, ‘There ain’t no hell’; but other churches say, ‘The hell there ain’t.'”)
Many opponents of the doctrine agree with Luther Burbank: “The idea that a good God would send people to a burning hell is utterly damnable to me – the ravings of insanity, superstition gone to seed! I don’t want to have anything to do with such a God.”
More religious leaders need to stop supporting the ridiculous, barbaric, and pernicious belief in hell.
As the great nineteenth-century agnostic Robert Ingersoll said: “All this damnation business is damned nonsense.”
[For more information about this subject, please see the article titled “A Humanistic Damning of the Doctrine of Hell.”]