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Do People Believe in Hell?

God it is, you say, who judges in this way; he is the persecutor of newborn children; he it is who send tiny babies to eternal flames… It would be right and proper to treat you as beneath argument: you have come so far from religious feeling, from civilized feeling, so far indeed from mere common sense, in that you think that your Lord God is capable of committing a crime against justice such as is hardly conceivable even among the barbarians.

-Julian of Eclanum in response to Augustine. 

If there is a God who will damn his children forever, I would rather go to hell than to go to heaven and keep the society of such an infamous tyrant. I make my choice now. I despise that doctrine. It has covered the cheeks of this world with tears. It has polluted the hearts of children, and poisoned the imaginations of men…. What right have you, sir, Mr. clergyman, you, minister of the gospel to stand at the portals of the tomb, at the vestibule of eternity, and fill the future with horror and with fear? I do not believe this doctrine, neither do you. If you did, you could not sleep one moment. Any man who believes it, and has within his breast a decent, throbbing heart, will go insane. A man who believes that doctrine and does not go insane has the heart of a snake and the conscience of a hyena.

-Robert Green Ingersoll, “The Liberty Of All” (1877)

In my opinion the most atrocious theological belief possible is the idea of a hell of eternal, conscious, physical torment. While it is a common belief, when you stop to imagine 1) how long eternity is (Steven Peck’s A Short Stay in Hell is great for that purpose), and 2) how intense refined torture is (there are a multitude of powerful accounts, but I recommend William Schulz’s The Phenomenon of Torture: Readings and Commentary) it becomes quickly apparent that there is little else imaginable that is as dark and depraved as the classic idea of hell. Ultimately, I’m sympathetic to the new-atheisty idea that, while we rightfully condemn tyrants who use torture on earth, that a God who condemns people to a such a level of punishment for all eternity should be considered even more malicious.

That is not to say that I hold to a model where there is no “bad place.” I Iike the CS Lewis-type version of hell in The Great Divorce, where hell is essentially miserable people sucking the light out of each other as they spiral downwards and downwards into a state of absolute darkness (sounds like some places on Twitter). Also, while in theory I have a problem with the dichotomization of afterlife belief (you missed heaven and eternal glory by two inches, eternal torture for you!) the idea that people are either ascending or declining, so if you keep running the program they’ll either place themselves in supernal glory or outer darkness given enough time kind of makes sense. Still, I’m thankful for the gradations provided by the framework restored by Joseph Smith. 

I get morose when I think about the mother in 6th century Egypt who thinks that her newborn is screaming while roasting over a spit for all eternity (sorry to be graphic, but I think it’s important to not euphemize away what we’re talking about here) because she didn’t get him baptized in time; but then things become more cheerful when I think about her moment when she crosses over the veil and sees her child. I think the people who started challenging the belief in classical physical hell or the “false priests who oppress” who leveraged it for their own power should be considered some of the greatest moral innovators of history. While many rebels risk earthly torture and death, those who knowingly risked eternal torture are in a category of their own.  

I think that I’m on fairly solid ground saying that Latter-day Saints don’t believe in the eternal-physical-torture kind of hell. (However, one verse of restoration scripture that never sat well with me on this point is, when talking about the sons of Mosiah going on their missions, that “even the very thoughts that any soul should endure endless torment did cause them to quake and tremble” [Mosiah 28:3]. I would like to believe that “endless torment” here is a kind of spiritual outer darkness. Still, given the era it is at least likely that they had motivators of the red hot pincer-variety for their missionary work, which seems wrong on a number of different levels). 

Of course, Catholic theology includes concepts such as purgatory and the Vatican II idea that non-Christians can be saved, and many conservative Protestant Christians accept a more nuanced version of hell, so my point shouldn’t be seen as anti-any particular religion, and I don’t want to caricature.  

During my postdoc I became interested in how many people believed in hell as a place of eternal physical torment. I also had some interest in the paradox of some of the authentically nicest people I knew possibly believing that I will be racked for eternity because of my non-trinitarian heresies (Sam Harris pointed out that if a heretic is threatening to cause your children to get a blowtorch in their face for all eternity, again, sorry to be graphic, then torturing heretics makes logical sense). If you took the implications of the belief in classic hell to it’s logical conclusion it’s hard to see why people aren’t wouldn’t be both as religious and intolerant of the wrong beliefs as possible.  

So I interviewed and surveyed various groups of people, and found out that the physical torture hell hadn’t completely faded away with modernity. While previous surveys have asked about belief in “hell,” they did so without defining it, so it was hard to know what to make of those results. (Christianity Today reported on our paper, and my coauthor and I were interviewed about our paper on a liberal Christian podcast).

To share a narrative-breaking anecdote for a moment: my son the other day came to my wife and I and started asking us questions about hell and what kind of things happened there. Worried that he was exhibiting some anxiety about it we asked whether he was afraid that he was going to go to hell. His demeanor immediately changed, “oh no, I’m worried about Levi [his little brother]”. His sweet concern actually mirrors what we found in our study; the more hellfire your belief is, the more sure you are that you aren’t going there. 

While my study was a convenience sample that largely dealt with Christians, if I’m recalling my Islam and Politics class correctly from many years ago, the more nuanced belief in hell is probably more of a rarity in the Islamic world, so between (some) Muslims and (some)  Christians the most atrocious of all beliefs is still held by a significant number of people worldwide. 

However, I suspect that this is because they haven’t quite sat down to think about it. If the implications of this belief were fully appreciated conservative religionists would be constantly wracked with anxiety, and surveys generally find the opposite to be true. I am grateful for the pushback against classic, physical torture hell that has been happening since it was first formulated (see quote above), even if its implications aren’t fully internalized, and it goes without saying that I am quite grateful for the body of Latter-day Saint doctrine and Midrash that emphasizes the relatively “happy hell” of the Telestial Kingdom, the temporary nature of spirit prison, the general emptiness of Outer Darkness, and the (more arguable point) that the Sons of Perdition kind of intentionally chose their own final location. This all sits well with me, and avoids a belief that might intellectually cohere with some scripture, but in the process leads us to a belief that is actually quite “far from religious feeling.”

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