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Once I realized that I could actually define my own beliefs in this way, it opened a lot of new mental doors for me. It gave me the freedom to approach certain questions that I’d always considered to be off-limits, and to really look at them closely for the first time. I ultimately realized that I couldn’t truly make myself accept the Old Testament as wholly sacred – there were just too many mistakes, contradictions, and immoralities to overlook there. Having finally come to terms with this, then, I was able to enjoy a kind of happy equilibrium for a while as a kind of Red Letter Christian – only paying attention to Jesus and his teachings in the New Testament, and no longer having to concern myself with the flaws of the Old. Still though, even that equilibrium couldn’t last forever – because eventually, I started finding those same kinds of flaws in the New Testament. And that’s where things really started to become challenging for me.

There was one topic in particular that really forced me to take a good hard look at my beliefs: the concept of Hell. A lot of people don’t realize it, but Hell doesn’t even exist in the Old Testament (hence the “Jews don’t believe in Hell” anecdote from a few paragraphs ago); it was only introduced when Jesus came on the scene and started talking about the afterlife. Today, of course, everybody likes to emphasize the more positive part of the afterlife concept – the prospect of eternal happiness in Heaven as a reward for following Jesus – but the other side of that coin is eternal suffering as a punishment for not following him. According to the New Testament (Matthew 5:22, 13:41-42, 18:8-9, 18:34-35, 22:14, 25:41-46; Mark 9:43-48, 16:16; Luke 12:5, 16:22-26; John 5:28-29; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9; James 3:6; Jude 1:7; Revelation 14:10-11, 20:10-15, 21:8), God’s plan for non-Christians is to cast them “into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched,” where they “shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever,” and “there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth;” “the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction.”

We’ve already seen that the Old Testament has its share of brutality and sadism – killing and maiming people for the most trivial of crimes – but not even the Old Testament reaches this level of cruelty. The Old Testament God, if nothing else, at least stops torturing his victims after he kills them. In the New Testament, though, God keeps them alive even after death, solely so that they can continue to suffer for the rest of time.

The concept of infinite suffering can be hard to wrap your head around – but if you want to understand just how unspeakably nightmarish it really is, The Thinking Atheist’s clip below does a good job illustrating the sheer horror of it. I should warn you that the clip is extremely graphic and disturbing – that’s the entire point of it. But if you don’t want to see images of people who’ve had their flesh burned off, there’s also this short comic strip from Dylan Spencer, or Part II of this book chapter from Scott Alexander (both of which are still super-disturbing in their own right, but at least don’t feature quite such graphic visuals).

To me, the thing that really pushes Hell into the realm of unimaginable horror is not just the extreme nature of the agony being inflicted – it’s the fact that this agony never ends. In Hell, the suffering goes on for all eternity. To try and understand the utter scale of this, QualiaSoup gives an analogy:

I can’t imagine eternity – I don’t think the human brain can – but I’ve heard several variations on the following description, which attempts to give a glimpse of what that unimaginable length of time would feel like: Picture a solid bronze planet as big as the Sun. Every century, a bird flies past, brushing its wing once against the planet as it does so. When the bird’s wing has eventually worn the planet down to nothing, that will be the end of just the first day of eternity. Now that first day sounds long enough to spend in torment to me.

The traditional argument in defense of Hell is that justice demands some kind of punishment for wrongdoing – that in the same way that people who do good should be rewarded (by going to Heaven), people who do evil should be punished (by going to Hell). But the idea of imposing infinite punishment for finite crimes – even the most repugnant of finite crimes – makes a complete mockery of justice, because justice is based on the principle of proportionality. The severity of the punishment has to be proportional to the severity of crime in order to be called just – we don’t send people to the electric chair just for jaywalking, for instance – and when that sense of proportionality is violated, it’s a perversion of justice, not a righteous enforcement of it.

(Personally, I would go so far as to argue that any punishment imposed purely for retributive reasons is unjust in itself; the purpose of punishment should be things like restoration, rehabilitation, prevention of future harm, etc. – not retribution for its own sake.)

But this is something of a moot point anyway – because according to the standard Christian doctrine, damnation isn’t actually based on your “crimes” in the first place. Whether you go to Heaven or Hell isn’t a matter of which sins you commit, or how good or evil you are during your lifetime; it’s just a matter of whether you’re a Christian or not. After all, the foundational premise of Christianity isn’t just that particularly wicked people deserve infinite suffering in Hell – it’s that everyone deserves infinite suffering in Hell, because everyone is sinful and unworthy – and that it’s only via the loophole of allowing someone else (namely Jesus) to be punished in their place that God is even willing to spare anyone at all. Someone who lives a life full of kindness and charity, but commits one or two minor sins along the way (e.g. doing a bit of housework on the Sabbath, or lying to their grandmother by telling her that her cooking is delicious), is considered to be just as deserving of Hell as a dictator who tortures and kills millions. And if the dictator happens to convert to Christianity at some point, while the kind person lives in a part of the world where Christianity isn’t widely practiced and therefore never gets the chance to learn about it, then it’s the dictator who gets rewarded with eternal happiness, while the kind person is punished with eternal agony. All that matters is whether someone’s been saved or not; if they have, they go to Heaven, and if not, they go to Hell.

Contrary to the idea that Christianity judges people based on their morality, then, what it actually does is render morality irrelevant. According to Christianity, Mahatma Gandhi – who freed hundreds of millions of people using the power of nonviolence and compassion, and who also happened to be a Hindu – must burn in Hell for all time; whereas Jeffrey Dahmer – the cannibalistic serial killer and child rapist who converted to Christianity after his arrest – will be there to greet his victims’ friends and relatives upon their arrival in Heaven (assuming they’re Christian; if not, they’ll go to Hell themselves).

It’s a twisted kind of game; if your life circumstances are such that you’re able to successfully figure out the correct religion within the short span of time allotted to you on Earth, then you win everything – but if you aren’t able to figure it out in time, then you lose your chance to ever experience anything other than agony for the rest of time. And there’s not even any room for honest mistakes; as Larry Short puts it:

At the moment of death, the curtain drops and your fate is sealed. […] Even if (when confronted with the majestic God who created you, in judgment) you fell to your knees and said, “I’m sorry I didn’t believe in you and receive you earlier! I now understand the error of my ways. I believe in your now. Please forgive me, cover my sins with the blood of Christ!” God would shake His head and say, “Nope. Too late. Your fate is sealed, you will be tormented in hell forever for not taking this position 10 minutes earlier.”

In addition to the flat-out cruelty of this game, it’s shocking just how haphazard its design is. You have to wonder, for instance, about the fate of people whose lifespans on Earth are extremely short. Isn’t it unfair to give them such a short window of time to figure things out, while others are given much more time? And for that matter, what about babies who die before they’re even capable of considering theological questions at all? Do they just go straight to Hell since they haven’t been saved? It obviously seems more humane that they should go to Heaven – but then wouldn’t this only create further problems, since it would mean that the best thing for newborn babies would be to kill them all before they could grow old enough to potentially lose their guaranteed ticket to Heaven?

There are similar issues regarding people with mental disabilities who never reach the level of cognitive capacity required to understand the concept of salvation. Do they go to Hell since they can never be saved? And such issues also arise for people who live in extremely remote parts of the world, like the tribes living deep in the Amazon jungle where they never have any exposure to Christianity and so are never even aware that such a religion exists. Does God still send these people to Hell despite the fact that they never have the opportunity to accept or reject Christianity in the first place? Or if he gives them a pass and allows them into Heaven, then wouldn’t it mean that Christian missionaries, despite being convinced that they’re doing good work by spreading God’s word to cultures that have never heard it before, are actually bringing mortal danger to those cultures by introducing the opportunity for potential damnation where none had previously existed? If we looked back at the history of Christianity’s spread, would we be forced to conclude that European explorers like Christopher Columbus actually doomed the Native American population to mass damnation when they came to America and started spreading Christianity (since most of the Native Americans didn’t convert)? Or was the Native American population already being systematically funneled into Hell long before then?

And speaking of people who would never have been able to know anything about Jesus’s life, what about those who lived before he was even born? They obviously wouldn’t have had any awareness of Jesus’s sacrifice, since it hadn’t happened yet – but then how could any of them have been saved? Did they all just go to Hell? Maybe God could have used a different standard of judgment for these people living before Jesus’s era – like maybe he could have actually judged them based on whether they lived a moral life or not, rather than whether they’d been saved. But if that were the case, then why would he withdraw this virtue-based option after Jesus came to Earth? Why would he suddenly decide that everyone now deserved Hell by default, regardless of their virtue, and that there would no longer be anything non-Christians could do to escape it?

Of course, a lot of modern-day Christians prefer to believe that the virtue-based standard still is the one that God uses for everyone, even today, and that salvation is only based on whether a person lives a good life or not, not on what religion they belong to. (The Bible, naturally, offers contradictory verses here; there are some passages saying people are judged by their works, while others insist that people are saved by their faith alone.) But even if God opted solely for this virtue-based approach to Heaven and Hell, there would still be all kinds of problems with it, as Alexander points out in this fictional dialogue:

“But it makes no sense!” Ana had said to me one night over burgers and fries in a Palo Alto cafeteria. “Suppose that in [normal circumstances], 5% of Canadians would have been dreadful sinners, and gone to Hell. And suppose that thanks to [a] campaign to promote sinfulness [in Canada, waged by a bunch of demons], a full 50% of Canadians ended up that bad. That’s ten million extra damnations. They’re not being punished for their innate virtue or lack thereof – in some sense that’s the same whether the demons took over Canada or not. They’re being punished for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, for being in a land controlled by demons rather than one controlled by good people trying to promote virtue or at least somebody morally neutral. How is that just?”

“I thought we’d already agreed things generally aren’t,” I said.

“Right, they generally aren’t, but this is cosmic justice we’re talking about. The whole question of who goes to Heaven versus to Hell. If there were anything at all that was going to be just, it would be that. And yet we have people being sentenced to eternal punishment for what is obviously a contingent problem that isn’t their fault!”

“In the end, it was their decision to sin, no matter how many incentives [the demons] dangled in front of them.”

“Yes, but – if they wouldn’t have sinned without the incentive, and now they did sin, then it’s the presence or absence of the incentive that determines whether they’re in Hell or not! It doesn’t make sense!”

“Maybe there’s a special clause in Divine Law that says that if you were coaxed into a sin by a demon who’s really good at behavioral economics, then it doesn’t count.”

“But it’s not just the demons! Yes, they open lead factories on purpose in order to turn nearby people into criminals. But we opened lead factories because we wanted products made of lead, and people became criminals by accident. Whether any given person is good or evil depends a lot on factors out of their control, both in terms of things like lead and in terms of things like what values society inculcates in them, and in whether they even need to be evil. You know, rich people are a lot less likely than poor people to steal, just because they’re not tempted to do so.”

“So maybe God grades on a curve. You take a reference human, perform the necessary adjustments, and say ‘if this person were in the same situation as the reference human, how sinful would they be?’”

“But then what’s the point of actually living your life, if God’s going to throw out all the data and judge you by a simulation of how you would perform in a totally different situation instead?”

And these aren’t the only problems. There’s also the fact that even if God were basing his judgments solely on virtue rather than belief, the Heaven-and-Hell system would still be a binary one, with no room for any level of morality in between absolute good and absolute evil. As TheraminTrees describes his own reflections, back when he was transitioning away from his belief in Hell:

Any just system should judge everyone fairly on their individual deeds. But that was incompatible with a binary system like Heaven and Hell. You couldn’t divide people into either good or bad. Human morality was a spectrum, with folks stretching across every part it. I imagined everyone who’d ever existed standing in a row from good to bad, with the person on the right marginally more good, [and] the person on the left fractionally more bad. How could you draw a dividing line – a cut-off point between the two sides, where one side went to Hell, the other to Heaven? It was absurd. Wherever you drew the line, it would be between two people with a virtually identical moral score. The difference between them might be a single deed. And yet one would be destined for eternal torture and the other eternal paradise. The irony was that many of my fellow Christians had spoken of Hell has the ultimate justice for those who escaped it in the earthly life. But Hell was about the most pathetic parody of justice imaginable. Yahweh should’ve been a moral genius. But the dichotomy of Hell and Heaven displayed the black-and-white thinking of an infant.

The idea of Hell also raises another uncomfortable point about God’s moral knowledge. If God really does know all things – past, present, and future – then that would mean that he’s continually creating billions of people whom he already knows full well will live and die without getting saved, and will therefore be destined for Hell. He knows the course of their entire lives in advance – so he knows that by creating them, he’ll be dooming them to infinite torture – and yet he keeps on creating them anyway. Why would an all-loving God do this?

Believers will sometimes act like the mass damnation of billions of people is a tragedy that God would like to avoid, but that he just can’t; his hands are somehow tied. Even though he wants everyone to join him in Heaven, his perfect nature just doesn’t allow for anyone to be in his presence unless their sin has been taken away by Jesus first. But aside from how narcissistic this makes God seem (he supposedly loves his children just as they are, but he also refuses to allow them to even exist near him if they’re flawed in any way), this argument also just doesn’t make sense in purely practical terms. If God is omnipotent, after all, he can do whatever he wants; he wouldn’t need anybody’s permission to take all the damned souls from Hell and instantly teleport them into Heaven. In fact, if he really wanted everyone to be saved, he could just as easily snap his fingers and make Hell disappear altogether. Verses like 1 Timothy 2:3-4 and 2 Peter 3:9 suggest that God does want everyone to be saved; but for an omnipotent being, does it really seem like he’s doing everything in his power to keep people from going to Hell? Just the fact that Hell continues to exist indicates otherwise. If anyone at all is burning in Hell, it can only be because at some ultimate level, God wants them there. His unconditional love, in other words, comes with conditions.

One common response to this is to say that although God does allow people to burn in Hell, that’s only because he has a good reason for it – namely, that he’s respecting their free will. If some humans choose to reject him and live in an afterlife without him, then the only way to respect their dignity is to accept their choice and give them what they want. In that sense, then, it’s not really God who’s sending them to Hell at all – they’re sending themselves there.

But God making it so that the consequence of rejecting him is an eternity of fiery torment is about as far from “respecting people’s free will” and “upholding their dignity” as it’s possible to get. If he really respected people’s freedom of choice, there’s no reason why he couldn’t just allow the people who rejected him to go to some other comfortable afterlife of their choosing after they died (even if their choice could never be as perfect as Heaven). But by making it so that their only alternative to serving him is Hell – a place where, ironically, their freedom will be permanently and irrevocably annihilated – God isn’t really offering them a true “choice” at all. It’s more like an armed robber offering his victim the “choice” of either giving him all their money or getting their head blown off. Sure, in theory the victim would have the “freedom” to choose either option, but would that mean that the robber would bear no moral responsibility for killing them if they tried to resist? If he went to trial and said, “I didn’t send that person to their death, Your Honor – they sent themselves there by rejecting my demands,” would that argument really hold up? In God’s case, it’s actually even worse than that; as commenter Flexo1 points out, “it’s more like a random lunatic walking into a room and killing anyone that didn’t know his name.” Would it make sense in that scenario, then, to argue that the killer was morally blameless, since his victims could have used their free will to learn his name ahead of time but didn’t, so therefore they must have been freely choosing to be killed? Or would it make more sense just to acknowledge that the “choice” was never a truly free or fair one? NonStampCollector once again illustrates the point well:

Even if you buy the argument that the “choice” between obedience and doom is genuinely free, it would be intellectually dishonest to argue that someone’s “choice” to go to Hell could ever be a legitimately informed one. By definition, Hell would be the maximally negative choice for anyone who truly understood what it was and what they were choosing by going there. As QualiaSoup notes, “no one would choose eternal torture. No one would choose the most extreme suffering imaginable.” In reality, the only reason why anyone actually does choose to reject Christianity is because they think it’s false – and because they think Christianity is false, that means that they specifically don’t think they’re choosing Hell by rejecting it. It’s like if someone disobeyed our hypothetical gunman’s demands because they thought his gun was fake. They might have been wrong in their belief, but that’s not the same thing as choosing to be killed; the choice they thought they were making was to keep their money and their life. Here’s Underlings:

It’s a common Christian apologist claim that God doesn’t send people to Hell to be tortured for all eternity, but that we send ourselves there by not choosing to believe in and follow God. But that’s not how religious beliefs work. People are normally raised to believe the religion of the culture in which they are raised, and that is largely determined by geography, not by choice. They almost never choose to reject the God of the Bible – they are simply raised to believe in different religions with different gods (or no religion with no gods at all). Many of these people are only vaguely aware of Christianity and have never read the Bible; and even when they are exposed to Christianity, why should they believe any of it is true, especially when it contradicts what they have always been taught? This should be easy for Christian apologists to understand, just by asking themselves how much they know about Hinduism or Islam or Buddhism or Sikhism or any of the thousands of other religions practiced around the world. Very few Christian apologists have ever read the holy scriptures of other religions, nor are they interested in doing so. They were raised to believe that their particular denomination of Christianity is the only true religion, and that every other religion is simply false. Do they believe in Vishnu or Odin or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but choose to reject them? No. They simply never had any reason to believe those gods exist, and thus they don’t care about what other religions say about any afterlife. Well, that’s exactly the reaction non-Christians have toward Christianity. To them, Christianity is just another false religion in a sea of false religions. Thus a Christian accusing (say) a Muslim of sending himself to Hell by rejecting the Christian version of God is no different than that Muslim accusing the Christian of sending himself to Hell by rejecting the Muslim version of God. So if the Christian God exists, people don’t send themselves to Hell for not believing in him. God sends them to Hell simply for not believing he exists.

As TheoreticalBullshit puts it, most people who get condemned to Hell under the Christian system of judgment are people who “would have been happy to worship God and accept his sacrifice, had they only known that Christianity wasn’t like every other false religion in the world.” The fact that they’re marked for damnation under this system is simply the result of them not realizing that Hell might actually exist and pose a genuine threat.

So all right, maybe people don’t freely choose to send themselves to Hell. But maybe God isn’t really the one to blame here – maybe it’s Satan. Maybe people go to Hell because Satan misleads and manipulates them into it. Again, though, this raises the issue of God’s omnipotence. If God really were all-powerful, then the only way Satan would be able to do anything – for that matter, the only way he would be able to exist in the first place – would be if God permitted it. Everything that happened would, by definition, be happening with God’s consent; so if Satan existed at all, it could only be in the capacity of an agent of God’s will, not as a being that could somehow thwart it.

Interestingly enough, if you look back at the early history of the Bible, it turns out that this was exactly the role that the biblical authors originally described Satan playing. In the earliest books in which the Hebrew word “Satan” appears, it’s not even used as a proper name at all, but as a title – “adversary” – assigned to one of God’s angels whose duty is to test people’s faith, in a kind of prosecutorial role, on God’s behalf – tempting them, subjecting them to difficult trials, and so forth (sort of like how the modern-day military uses ultra-strict drill instructors to test the mettle of its new recruits). In Numbers 22, for instance, God sends a “Satan” (adversary) to obstruct Balaam’s path; similarly, in the Book of Job, he has the adversary bombard Job with as many obstacles as he can in order to test the poor man’s faith.

The important thing to note here is that the Satan of these stories is markedly limited in his powers, and he’s only able to use them after getting God’s permission first. It was only centuries later that the biblical authors and editors, in response to what T.J. Wray and Gregory Mobley describe as “the growing existential frustration of a monotheistic people who [were finding] it difficult to accept a God who [was] the author of both good and evil,” started depicting Satan as the powerful, scheming nemesis of God that we all know him as today. 43alley gives an interesting overview of the whole process here:

Despite believers’ best efforts to get God off the hook for all the world’s evil and suffering by deflecting the blame onto Satan instead, there’s no escaping the fact that (if Christianity is true) the ultimate responsibility for the existence of Hell still has to rest with God. He’s the one who took it upon himself to create a realm of infinite fiery torment, after all, and he certainly wasn’t doing it as a thoughtful favor to those who didn’t worship him; he was doing it for purely punitive reasons. That’s the real reason for Hell – not human choice or satanic deception in defiance of God’s will, but the simple fact that God himself wanted certain people to be mercilessly punished. It’s not a very uplifting thought, to be sure, but it’s the conclusion necessitated by the biblical worldview. And it’s affirmed in several different passages; 2 Thessalonians 2:11-12, for instance, talks about how God deliberately plants false beliefs into people’s minds just so that he can condemn those people to Hell. Proverbs 16:4 asserts that God makes everything to serve his own ends, even wicked people, so that he can ultimately bring them to punishment. Romans 9:18 defiantly reiterates that it’s God’s prerogative to harden the hearts of anyone he doesn’t want to show mercy to. And John 12:39-40 describes how even some of those who witnessed Jesus’s miracles firsthand rejected him anyway because God had “blinded their eyes” and “hardened their hearts” to keep them from being converted.

We have to ask, then – why would an all-loving and all-merciful God be willing to let anyone to slip through the cracks into Hell, much less deliberately arrange things so that billions of people would end up there? The whole point of Christianity, after all, is that people don’t have to be sent to Hell. Christianity’s most celebrated doctrine – the Good News itself – is that God has provided humanity with a way to escape his judgment, in the form of Jesus’s sacrifice. But considering that a person has to be a Christian in order to be covered by this sacrifice, and considering that the vast majority of people who have ever lived are not Christian (usually due simply to being born in a place where Christianity is not widely practiced), that means that the vast majority of humans who have ever lived will still spend eternity in Hell. The fact that Jesus died for your sins might be Good News for you if you do happen to be a Christian, of course. But from the outside, it’s not exactly saying much if, as NonStampCollector puts it, “the best you could say of God’s alleged mercy is that he changed his mind about torturing all of mankind for eternity [and] because of Jesus, he’s now going to only torture most of mankind for eternity.”

Suffice it to say, then, that it’s not exactly easy to reconcile the belief “God is love” with the belief “God deliberately condemns most of his beloved children to an eternity of infinite torture.” In fact, it’s frankly hard to imagine a scheme that could be further from the virtues of love and mercy. Not to put too fine a point on it here, but if you were trying to imagine a hypothetical god that was explicitly malevolent – in other words, if you took some hyper-narcissistic, sadistic psychopath like Ted Bundy or Patrick Bateman from American Psycho and imagined what he’d do if he had divine control over the afterlives of all mortals – it would be genuinely difficult to come up with a more sinister plan than “Everyone must agree to become my servants and spend the rest of eternity worshiping me and telling me how perfect I am, and anyone who doesn’t agree (even if they simply aren’t aware of my existence) must be condemned to an eternity of infinite torment.” I suppose you could make it worse by stipulating that everyone must go to Hell and no one can to Heaven; but if all you can say in defense of God’s plan is that at least it’s not maximally evil, that doesn’t exactly make it good.

It seems like the only way you can make sense of all this, if you’re a biblical literalist, is to believe that humans really are so inherently sinful and vile and worthless that whatever suffering God wants to inflict upon us is perfectly justifiable, because none of us deserves anything less than infinite torture. This belief, in fact, is the cornerstone of a lot of Christian teaching; countless churches across the country make it a central point of practically every sermon, that human beings are wretched, loathsome creatures who deserve nothing but the harshest punishment, and that it’s only because God is so merciful that he’s willing to overlook our depravity and treat us with love rather than wrath (provided, of course, that we first pledge our immortal souls to him). This message is drummed into the heads even of congregants who suffer from anxiety, depression, and dangerously low levels of self-esteem. It’s impressed upon young children without a second thought. The most vulnerable and mentally fragile people are told, week in and week out, that they deserve to be tortured in fire and brimstone for all eternity, because they really are just that bad.

But this kind of teaching is, to put it bluntly, abhorrent. It’s literally the least humane belief that it’s possible to hold towards one’s fellow humans; there’s nothing you could teach a person that would be less benevolent than the belief that everyone is evil and deserves maximum suffering. In any non-religious context, it would be considered psychologically abusive to teach a child that they deserved to be tortured because of how inherently terrible they were. But this is what Christians have to believe in order to believe in Hell.

I realize that terms like “psychologically abusive” shouldn’t be thrown around lightly; and it’s not my intention to do so here. But to return to an earlier analogy, just think about what these teachings would look like in any kind of relationship other than the “relationship with God” that Christians claim as the foundation of their faith. Imagine a relationship between a husband and wife, for instance, that had the same dynamics as the biblical relationship between God and humankind. The husband tells his wife that he loves her even though she’s repulsive and doesn’t deserve his love. What she deserves instead, he says, is merciless, unending abuse, of the most horrific variety imaginable. But because he loves her so much, and because he’s such a wonderful guy, he has decided not to subject her to that abuse – so long as she swears to love him back, treat him with absolute deference, and obey his will for the rest of her life. If she ever does leave him, of course, he makes it clear that he won’t just let her go – he’ll hunt her down and make sure that she receives her punishment – and there’s nothing she’ll be able to do to escape it. But as long as she remains loyal to him, he’ll treat her well, and he’ll withhold her punishment. Well, he won’t withhold it, exactly – after all, he has to abuse someone – but because he’s such a great guy, he won’t abuse her. Instead, he’ll find someone totally blameless and abuse them instead; specifically, he’ll target their young son. He’ll take out his wrath on the innocent boy, and all will be right with the world. All he requires in exchange is that his wife spend the rest of her days praising him for his infinite love and mercy.

Does this sound like a healthy relationship? Does it sound like a relationship based on love and respect? If you knew a couple whose relationship was like this, would you envy the wife’s situation? Would you admire the husband for his compassion? Or would you call the police?

Biblical apologists sometimes argue that God’s perfect nature simply doesn’t allow him to tolerate any imperfection. Because any crime against an infinitely perfect being must be, by definition, an infinitely heinous crime (according to this argument), even the slightest sin must therefore receive infinite punishment. But this is another after-the-fact rationalization that no one would even consider if they weren’t trying to come up with some explanation for why Hell must be moral. (If we lived in an alternate universe in which God punished everyone’s sins in some more reasonable way – like in proportion to the sins’ severity – no one would think to ask, “But wait, wouldn’t it be more just and righteous if God just gave everyone the maximum punishment?” The idea of justifying infinite torture on the basis that God was an infinite being would just seem nonsensical.) If anything, it would make more sense to argue that any crime against an infinite and omnipotent being should actually be infinitely negligible to him, because after all, there’s no way that he could ever suffer any real harm from any crime against him (unless he wanted to). For an omnipotent being, nothing would constitute a “crime against him” at all unless he decided that it should; again, he’s the one making all the rules here, so there’s nothing forcing him to take personal offense at anything.

The fact is, even we lowly human beings are perfectly capable of forgiving each other’s mistakes and accepting each other despite all our flaws. People do this every day. Are we really to believe that an infinitely more powerful and loving deity should somehow be incapable of it, and should have to inflict infinite torture upon anyone who didn’t worship him? Is this really the best possible definition of “perfect justice” that we can come up with?

It’s not hard to argue that even an average, flawed human has more room for compassion in their conscience than the biblical God does. If you took an average person (assuming they had no prior knowledge of Christianity) and told them that they would get to go to Heaven after they died, but that billions of other people – including many of their loved ones – would have to go to Hell, I don’t think their response would be one of total whole-hearted glee; I think they would feel some genuine anguish toward the suffering of their fellow human beings (and rightly so). As TheoreticalBullshit explains in his message to biblical literalists:

If I spend an eternity in Heaven, with the knowledge that there are those I cherish – good people, loving people – who are suffering infinite torment because they failed to believe the propositions that I did, then it will not be an eternity of happiness for me. It will be an eternity of pain.

If the circumstances of Heaven are such that they afford me the ability to forget about my suffering loved ones, or to not care altogether, then it will not be me in Heaven, but someone else. Something else. Something for whom I would have had a great deal of contempt and disgust when I lived on earth. Something without its free will.

And finally, if my natural character is such that I need not be changed or manipulated into being comfortable with the fact that so many loving, ethical people are being unthinkably tortured for all of eternity, then perhaps, my dear Christian, I won’t deserve to be there.

As it happens, a lot of Christians actually feel the same way, despite what their religion requires them to believe. The solution for many of them, then, is to treat the idea of Hell – like so many other uncomfortable biblical ideas – as metaphorical. Instead of believing that Hell is a place of eternal torment, they believe that it just represents eternal severance from God, in the form of death. They still believe that Christians go to Heaven – that part of the Bible, conveniently enough, is not considered metaphorical – but they think that when nonbelievers die, that’s where their story ends; the nonbelievers’ souls are simply extinguished and they cease to exist. And intuitively, the idea of simply annihilating nonbelievers does seem more humane than the idea of keeping them alive to be tortured forever. If you had to choose between permanent death and permanent Hell, it wouldn’t be a hard choice. But even this approach of giving nonbelievers death instead of torture would still be an incredibly cruel thing to do considering that Christians were freely being treated to infinite happiness in Heaven. The disparity between the believers’ reward and the nonbelievers’ punishment would still, by definition, be an infinite one. And even those who did go to Heaven would still have to live with the painful knowledge that many of their loved ones had been permanently erased from existence and that they’d never get the chance to see them again.

Another variation on this approach tries to split the difference between Hell as a place of eternal torture and Hell as a metaphor for death, by saying that although Hell does exist as a real place where nonbelievers go after they die, it’s not a place of actual physical torture – it’s just a realm of the afterlife where God is absent – and the agony of Hell is simply the psychological anguish of being eternally separated from God. But this belief runs into the same problems as before; condemning someone to an eternity of psychological pain and hopelessness may not be as bad as condemning them to an eternity of fire and brimstone, but it’s still really bad, and it’s hard to imagine how anyone with a conscience could feel completely happy in Heaven while knowing that billions of other people were suffering so much. As John W. Loftus writes:

For Christians who believe this, like C.S. Lewis, hell is described as “the absence of God” in the afterlife, although it is still very painful.

As an evangelical, Paul Copan defends this view. What do these images depict according to Copan? Hell is “the ultimate, everlasting separation from the source of life and hope: God.” Therefore, “the pain of hell should not be seen in terms of something physical but rather as pain within a person’s spirit. . . . Hell at its root is the agony and utter hopelessness of separation from God.” However, I must wonder if Copan has done any deep thinking about what it might mean to be separated from the source of life. There are many evangelicals who conclude that this means the damned cease to exist. And while it appears Copan is trying to soften the honors of hell, if correct, such a view of hell is still a horrible fate for a loving God to inflict upon human beings. The punishment still does not fit the crime, period. No thinking person should believe this is what our so-called sins deserve.

No matter how you interpret the meaning of the word “Hell,” then, the broader overarching belief in a binary kind of afterlife – in which Christians are rewarded with infinite happiness in Heaven, while non-Christians are excluded from it – can’t be called good or righteous by any reasonable definition of those words. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Heaven and Hell can’t exist, mind you; it’s perfectly possible that these different afterlives could exist despite being morally unjustifiable. But it does mean that any God who would arrange things in such a way could not reasonably be called all-loving or all-merciful.

Considering those points, though, should we even concern ourselves with the morality of Hell at all when we’re deciding whether or not to believe in it? Shouldn’t we believe what Christianity says simply out of pure self-interest, so that we can avoid Hell just in case it really does exist? The classic form of this argument is known as Pascal’s Wager, which breaks down the potential outcomes of believing or not believing in Christianity into four possibilities: Either (1) you believe in Christianity and turn out to be right (i.e. Heaven and Hell do exist), in which case you receive an infinite reward; (2) you reject Christianity and turn out to be wrong (Heaven and Hell do exist), in which case you receive an infinite punishment; (3) you believe in Christianity and turn out to be wrong (Heaven and Hell don’t exist), in which case you receive neither reward nor punishment; or (4) you reject Christianity and turn out to be right (Heaven and Hell don’t exist), in which case you receive neither reward nor punishment.

Broken down into these four possibilities, it seems like believing in Christianity is a no-lose proposition – either you win everything or you lose nothing – while rejecting Christianity is a no-win proposition – either you win nothing or you lose everything. But the catch here (well, one of the catches) is that these four possibilities aren’t the only four possibilities that exist. There are also a whole slew of other religions, for instance, that could potentially be true and might punish you in their own versions of the afterlife for not believing in them. Plus, even if Christianity really were the one true religion, you’d also have to consider the possibility that God might not take kindly to people basing their belief on calculated self-interest rather than personal conviction. He might even have a policy of specifically condemning anyone who would treat their religious beliefs like a betting game, while accepting anyone whose beliefs were sincere (even if they were wrong). So this seemingly easy bet might not actually be quite as easy as it appears to be once you consider all the alternatives. Loftus adds his own thoughts on the subject:

Pascal’s wager can be said to be a form of the adage that less proof is demanded for a higher risk situation: “The greater the risk, the less proof is required.” When a bomb threat is called in, the authorities don’t need much evidence to justify evacuating the building. In Pascal’s case the risk is hell. There are two things that mitigate the plausibility of a bomb threat. The first one is the number of false bomb threats that are called in. Let’s say a false bomb threat is called in every single day without an explosion for several years. At some point the authorities will simply ignore any additional threats. They cannot let another false bomb threat disrupt the lives of hundreds of people.

Now we know there are many false hell threats since there are many religious people calling them in. And we also know that at best, all but one of them is false, if that. Muslims claim we will go to hell if we don’t convert to Islam, but we cannot be a Muslim and also a Christian. According to both religions, the other group is going to hell. So choose wisely. The risk is the same because a lot is at stake. Both are calling in a proverbial bomb threat.

Let’s say someone claims if you stay in a building you will die when a bomb explodes, whereas someone else claims that if you leave the building and go out into the street you will die, while still someone else says that if you enter a different building you will die, and so forth, until there is no place you can go without risking an exploding bomb. How Pascal’s wager helps us with this quandary is itself a quandary. People have all risked the hells of other religions and even sects within their own. We have never given those other threats of hell a second’s thought. They have never bothered us in the least, but they exist. So if we can risk them then why not risk one more? When it comes to threats of hell, we’ve heard far too many of them from too many religious people.

The second mitigating factor is the lack of evidence for a particular bomb threat. If the police dispatcher records the voice of the same person who has made many previous false bomb threats, then the dispatcher will simply say, “It’s him again,” and ignore it as a prank call. The Christian claim is a very large one and very hard to defend from historical evidence. […] I argue, unlike Pascal, who thought the evidence was a tie, that there is indeed sufficient evidence not to believe. Paul Tobin wrote a massive six-hundred-plus page book titled The Rejection of Pascal’s Wager: A Skeptic’s Guide to the Bible and the Historical Jesus (2009), which shows conclusively that the evidence for the Christian faith is just not there at all. So the amount of risk is mitigated by the meager evidence for the large claim. Skeptics simply believe the historical evidence is below the threshold of proof needed to see any danger or risk in choosing not to believe.

And so there is another more reasonable option, nonbelief, which stands in stark contrast to all of these religious bomb threats. J. L. Mackie proposed that “there might be a god who looked with more favor on honest doubters or atheists who proportioned their belief to the evidence, than on mercenary manipulators of their own understandings.” Regarding this mercenary manipulation, Richard Dawkins wrote, “We are talking about a bet. . . . Would you bet on God’s valuing dishonestly faked belief (or even honest belief) over skepticism? . . . Pascal’s wager could only ever be an argument for feigning belief in God. And the God that you claim to believe in had better not be of the omniscient kind or hell see through that deception.” Nicholas Everitt additionally finds it very strange that Pascal’s God is only concerned with whether a person believes in him rather than in what that person does with his or her life as a whole: “The idea that we get infinitely many merit points just for being theists, no matter what quality the rest of our lives display, or that we get infinitely many minus points just for being atheists, no matter what quality the rest of our lives display, portrays God as a megalomaniac simpleton, a kind of cosmic Joseph Stalin.” So atheist David Mills gets it right, “Our earthly life is the only life we’re ever going to experience. If we sacrifice this one life in doormat subservience to a non-existent god, then we have lost everything.”

That last point brings up another aspect of Pascal’s Wager that’s important not to overlook, which is that believing in Hell isn’t actually the no-lose proposition that the wager suggests it is. Obviously, the downsides aren’t as significant as eternal torment – that should go without saying – but downsides to believing in Hell do exist. If it turns out that there’s no such thing as Hell, it would be a genuine tragedy that so many people subject themselves to so much stress and guilt over the fear that they or their loved ones might end up there. If their lives on Earth really are all they have – if there’s no such thing as an afterlife – then the possibility of wasting a significant portion of their precious time on a nonexistent threat wouldn’t just be a negative outcome; it would be the only negative outcome possible, since their earthly life would be the only thing at stake – the “infinite reward/infinite punishment” possibilities would never have been on the table in the first place. Spending their time trying to avoid Hell would be nothing but a deadweight loss; it would be like, as RationalWiki puts it, “believing in and searching for kryptonite – on the off chance that Superman exists and wants to kill you.” Again, wasted life isn’t as bad as eternal torture (clearly); but if eternal torture isn’t actually real, then wasted life is most definitely a negative outcome.

There are other utilitarian arguments against Pascal’s Wager we could get into here. For instance, Holden Karnofsky makes an interesting case that under a proper Bayesian analysis, anyone’s claim to be able to bestow some reward or punishment necessarily becomes less plausible as the size of that reward or punishment grows – meaning that any religion purporting to be able to dispense infinite rewards and punishments would have to be regarded as having an infinitely small (functionally zero) probability of actually being legitimate. (It might still be worth taking the wager if there were no downside, but given the opportunity costs just mentioned, the infinitely small chance of an upside wouldn’t be worth it.) His argument is a bit on the technical side, so I won’t delve into it here, but I recommend reading his post if you’re interested.

Setting aside the matter of self-interest calculus, though, probably the biggest problem with Pascal’s Wager is the fact that Christianity isn’t something you can just make yourself believe in, simply because you want to believe in it. You might be able to profess belief in Christianity – you might even be able to convince yourself that you truly believe in it – but that’s not the same thing as actually believing its doctrines on an intuitive gut level. Just because you’d prefer to believe something doesn’t mean that you can just choose to believe it – otherwise you could choose to believe that you were the most popular/intelligent/attractive person in the world, that your life was perfect in every way, that you were invincible/immortal/omnipotent, etc. That’s not how belief works. For it to be genuine belief, you have to actually consider the thing you’re believing in to be true. As Greta Christina writes:

This is one of the things that drives me most nuts about Pascal’s Wager. Whenever anyone proposes it, I want to just tear my hair out and yell, “Do you really not care whether the things you believe are true?”

Believers who propose Pascal’s Wager apparently think that you can just choose what to believe, as easily as you choose what pair of shoes to buy. They seem to think that “believing” means “professing an allegiance to an opinion, regardless of whether you think it’s true.” And I am both infuriated and baffled by this notion. I literally have no idea what it means to “believe” something based entirely on what would be most convenient, without any concern for whether it’s actually true. To paraphrase Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word “believe.” I do not think it means what you think it means.

Ultimately, then, the question of Hell isn’t just whether you think it’s strategically worthwhile to believe in it; it’s a question of whether you actually do believe in it. And in my case, after years of communing with what I considered to be a God of infinite love and mercy and compassion, I finally had to conclude that I simply couldn’t believe in Hell. The loving God that I worshiped would never condemn his children to an eternity of suffering; that kind of cruelty just wasn’t compatible with his fundamental character. Even if some people didn’t believe in him, the fact that God was omniscient meant that he would be able to see where they were coming from, and would know that their heart was still in the right place. He would understand that their lack of belief was simply an honest mistake, not some kind of deliberate attempt to be evil; and he would have enough room in his heart to allow for such honest mistakes. If God really was all-knowing and all-loving and all-powerful, there’s no other way it could be.

Of course, having believed in Hell for years, my process of overcoming this belief didn’t just happen overnight; it was more of an incremental thing. At first, I still considered Hell to be a real place, but simply concluded that God must have been able to overcome it through his sacrifice of Jesus – that when he sent Jesus to die for the sins of the world, he really did send him to die for the sins of the whole world, not just for the minority of people who happened to be Christian. In other words, even though Hell existed, it was completely empty; God had forgiven all of humankind, so everyone’s souls returned to Heaven after they died. (There are actually a few Bible verses to support this idea – namely 1 Corinthians 15:22; 1 Timothy 2:6, 4:10; and 1 John 2:2. It’s also the premise of the megachurch pastor Rob Bell’s famously controversial book Love Wins.) And intuitively, this felt a lot more right to me than the traditional view of Hell’s existence, so I was much more satisfied with my beliefs for a while. Eventually though, I started to wonder why I was even still holding onto the idea of Hell at all. I started to feel kind of silly not taking my new beliefs to their logical conclusion – that if no one went to Hell, then there was no reason for God to have created it in the first place – so finally, I just dropped my belief in Hell altogether.

(Just as a quick side note, by the way: You might think that Hell must exist, not necessarily because it’s a place for nonbelievers to be punished, but because it’s where Satan lives – but funny enough, the Bible never actually depicts Satan as ruling over Hell or even dwelling there. It does prophesize in the Book of Revelation that God will cast Satan into the lake of fire at the Last Judgment along with all the other sinners, but that’s as close as it gets. The whole idea of Hell being the realm that Satan rules over is yet another one of those later inventions that came from stories like John Milton’s Paradise Lost.)

By the time I stopped believing in Hell, I could tell that the change was long overdue, simply because of what a relief it was to no longer believe in it. There’s wasn’t any kind of lingering anxiety or fear that Hell might still exist, or that I might be going dangerously astray by no longer accepting it. Rather, it was just liberating that I no longer felt like I had to force myself to defend such an abhorrent idea. Without the idea of Hell, there were no longer any internal tensions in my idea of God’s perfect love; I could simply believe that he embraced all his children back into his heart after they died. In the same way that the atoms of people’s bodies would recirculate back into the material world that formed them, so their souls would return to the God that created them, in a natural cycle. It just made more sense.

Even so, this new way of seeing things still didn’t quite tie up every single loose end in my mind. In fact, for all the questions it resolved, it also ended up raising an even bigger question – one which wasn’t apparent at first, but which gradually began to bubble up to the surface of my awareness until it forced itself into the center of my attention. Put simply, the question was: If there really was no such thing as Hell – if God had never created such a place to punish humankind’s sins – then what was it that Jesus was saving us from, exactly? If Hell didn’t exist, then why did Jesus have to die in order to save us from it? The more I thought about it, the less sense it made. And what’s more, it raised an even more dramatic question: Why, exactly, did Jesus have to die at all? If God was prepared to forgive humanity, why not simply forgive us? Why was the bloody human sacrifice necessary?

To say that these were uncomfortable questions for a lifelong Christian is an understatement. They were probably more jarring to think about than all the other religious beliefs I’d had to wrestle with so far (six-day creation, Noah’s ark, etc.) combined. After all, as important as those other beliefs were, I could still modify them or even shed them entirely without losing the core of my Christian faith (i.e. my belief in Jesus and his sacrifice). Those secondary beliefs may have helped support the central pillar of my faith, but they weren’t load-bearing pillars themselves – they were more like ancillary scaffolding. The belief in Jesus’s sacrifice, though – that’s what being a Christian was. Was I really prepared to subject even that most fundamental belief to the same kind of scrutiny that I’d subjected all my other religious beliefs to? Whether I wanted to or not, I started to feel like I was going to have to, if only to reassure myself that the core pillar of my faith was still capable of holding up.

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