The majority of Christians believe that God sends good people to heaven and bad people to hell for eternity. Various interpretations exist as to what constitutes hell-worthy behavior, how long an individual stays in hell, whether hell is a distinct place apart from the earth or the earth itself undergoing destruction as described in The Book of Revelation.
The Origins of Hell
Prior to the Exile, the Hebrews had no concept of Hell. There was a concept of Sheol, which is translated variously in the Hebrew Scriptures as "hell," "grave," and "pit." It is clear from each context that it is not a place of eternal torment. Jacob would hardly say "No, ...in mourning will I go down to [an endless hell] to my son." Nor is it probable that Job would pray to God to "hide him in a place of endless torment," in order to be delivered from his troubles. The only clear thing about Sheol is that this was a well-known concept amongst the ancient Israelites. It was not until the Pharisees (c. 100 BCE) that the notion of a spiritual life after death developed in any meaningful way in Jewish thought. The Pharisees, who were the forerunners of the rabbis, taught that when the Torah spoke of reward for following God's ways, the reward would be forthcoming in an afterlife, Olam Ha-Ba (world to come), as they called it.
Differing Views of Hell
A Place of Eternal Torment
The traditional view of Hell is a place of infinite suffering and misery. This view is support by Bible verses such as these:
- Luke 16:24 : "And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame."
- Matthew 13:42 : "And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth."
- Matthew 25:41 : "Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:"
- Revelation 20:15 : "And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire."
Separation From God
C.S. Lewis favored a softer view of hell in The Great Divorce. Lewis's hell is portrayed as an endless, desolate twilight city upon which night is imperceptibly sinking. The night is actually the Apocalypse, and it heralds the arrival of the demons after their judgement. Before the night comes, anyone can escape hell if they leave behind their former selves and accept heaven's offer, and a journey to heaven reveals that hell is infinitely small; it is nothing more or less than what happens to a soul that turns away from God and into itself.
It is odd to a secular way of thinking that any finite crime would warrant infinite punishment. Any human who proposed to torture other people eternally would be considered cruel and monstrous.
Some theists claim that there are no finite crimes relative to God; everything humanity does is infinitely worse than what God would do, so every crime is worthy of infinite punishment. But this means that morality is based on a relative standard rather than absolute scale, and it would mean that even supposedly "good" acts which humans perform (such as praying) would also be infinitely evil.
Yet atheists are not limited to arguing against forms of punishment that must necessarily go on forever. Even finite punishments are unjust because, according to its own doctrine, the theist's God is, himself, originally responsible for establishing sin and defining transgression to his likes or dislikes. Following the illogical view that God must punish human beings out to its natural conclusion, the atheist comes to recognize some formidable problems:
- God was unable to create or develop other systems of punishment/reward that were less harmful to human life and the high value he himself attached to it.
- God was bound to a higher standard of morality if he was unable to forgive sin without the blood sacrifice of animals or other divine beings.
- God cannot be omnipotent and "wish that none would perish" while declaring that some will perish.
- God is a liar if he wishes all to be saved yet devises an intricate sorting system that is the cause of those who will perish.