Why Do We Believe in Hell?

We inhabit a scary world in which those worse than ourselves escape unscathed.

Posted Nov 02, 2018

We believe in hell because we want others to suffer but are too afraid or weak or docile to inflict that suffering ourselves.

On shooters, stranglers, stalkers, bigots, bullies, dictators, homewreckers, drunk drivers and genocidal maniacs.  

I grew up not believing in hell because my parents said Jews do not. They said Christians invented it to scare themselves. They said this world is all we have, so be good in it, for it.

Whenever for slight infractions they scolded me, Shame on you, I saw and smelled shame descending upon me like a saturated mattress.

I thought that happened to everyone.

Dick Tracy taught me that all criminals are caught and, wailing, jailed. My meanest classmate tripped and cut her knee while teasing me.

Then I grew up and was robbed by someone who smirked as if to say Ha haaa. I met assault victims. I knew someone whose mother neither fed nor clothed her children but performed odd predawn rituals outside the homes of married men, forcing her teenage son to watch.

That she had friends and played in orchestras and chanted I'm a good mama torched my belief in God. Watching her do this, I silently imagined fates I believed she deserved. They manifested in my mind as all scorpions and sharpened spikes like a medieval tapestry.

Not that I thought I would be a good parent. Realizing that my anxiety would ruin my potential children's lives is one reason I never had them.

Meanwhile, liars, cheaters, bombers, molesters, and killers unrepentantly eat honey, learn calligraphy, and sometimes even seek our sympathy.

I had to get away from there, chortled a father at his birthday party 50 years after abandoning his wife and kids. Ice clinked. Everyone laughed.

I envisioned igniting gasoline. But most of us cannot punish wrongdoers, because most of us cannot fight. We fear blood and breaking laws.

Do our species alone love justice? Is this because we who suffer—as punishment or cruel fate—hate seeing individuals we think worse than ourselves escape unscathed? And/or because human hearts revile harm—done to animals, oceans, nations, anyone? And/or because we inhabit a scary world we cannot fix?

Cause and effect. Crime and punishment. If life were like that, we would never need hell.

Which, if it was invented, works. A study found significantly lower crime rates among societies that believe in harshly punitive deities than among those who believe in forgiving gods.

We who have less-than-stellar self-esteem cannot forgive ourselves for shaving inexpertly or secretly watching anime at work. We cannot fathom unapologetic arsonists and blissful burglars.

Rapists. Bombers. Three brutes who extorted money from my mom and got away with it. Poachers. Litterers. Deadbeats. Bus riders who rest their shod feet on seats where others will unwittingly sit.

If they. Would just. Beg for amends. But no.

We think: To harm without regret is to steal happiness and thus forfeit forgiveness.

Maybe this is all ironic because maybe I have done things for which others hope I burn.

We hate wrongdoers for doing wrong. We also hate them for making us hate them, which— compared to, say, surfing—hurts.

We also hate ourselves for being helpless in our hatred and we hate ourselves for being hateful and we hate ourselves for hiding it. We hate blithe wrongdoers for being hypocrites, yet so in our silence are we.

This multiplies their crimes. They don't feel cursed but we do. We are impotent interrogators bearing barbed backbreaking crosses they cannot see while we howl into an empty sky: Unfair unfair unfair.

If only we were superheroes, wielding weapons of mass justice...

Our fantasies strip us of sleep. And those valiant vengeance-bent combatants we portray in them we loathe and love.

If certain individuals do wrong because they survived traumas and/or suffer from addictions, disorders, and/or other conditions that the DSM deems illnesses, then who are we to hate the ill?

We can wish. We can dream. But in a world where laws abide, where we are but flesh and blood, we cannot actually damn.

Which is why we need hell.

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