From An Opinionated Dictionary of Religion:
Hell: noun. A future, and a past, afterlife destination involving excruciating pain.
Hell is a grave subject. Everyone is going there according to the doctrines of one religion or another. No one of us is safe. And for a few religions, every one of us has already been to hell.
Why an Afterlife of Punishment?
Owing to spotty police work in antiquity, the idea of a torturous hell arose to provide a more perfect administration of justice for those who got away with something (and never got caught) during their lifetimes.
Moral rules were made and obligatory religious ideas were tendered, but under the cloak of night, or while no one was looking by day, moral rules were broken, and dissent to obligatory religious ideas became quietly commonplace. Perpetrators got away with murder and mayhem and malice (and slighter delinquencies too), and they sensibly hid their heresy in a well of prudential silence.
And so an afterlife of hideous torments was devised to mete out justice and rein in error.
Hell East and West
Eastern religions present us with a temporary torturous hell that punishes a soul for a season and then sends the soul on its way to a new bodily reincarnation. Reincarnation of a soul may occur tens of thousands of times, and a soul may visit hell any number of times along the way to an assured salvation at the end of nearly countless reincarnated lifetimes.
Western religions offer a torturous hell of eternal duration for a soul that has only one chance at living an earthly life and no other chance at salvation.
How to Go to Hell
Two kinds of violation send people to hell. Moral misbehavior is the first. And the second is lack of belief in a required religious idea.
Consider John, Newly Departed
John was a lifelong axe-murdering pedophile. He was never religious. He never performed religious deeds or entered any religious building. He never believed in God. At age 80, in the last 60 seconds of his life, John had a change of heart and felt deep remorse for having raped and killed 30 children over many decades. He made a genuine last-breath conversion to True Religion X. Then he died.
A certain type of Western religionist will say John won't go to hell because he assented to a requisite belief in True Religion X.
A Western religionist of another stripe will send John head first heels kicking to a permanent torturous hell based on moral misbehavior, giving him no credit for his last-minute assent.
An Eastern religionist will send John to a temporary torturous hell for a very long stay, based on moral misbehavior, granting no value to his last-minute assent. (After his stretch in hell Johnny will be reincarnated as a barnacle or one of the lesser saltwater fishes.)
Shin Buddhists would say John escapes hell if he merely mouths the name 'Amida Buddha' in the last minute of John's life.
Consider Mary, Newly Departed
Mary was always a model person from childhood to old age. She was not perfect but she was close to it: she was a good daughter, sister, cousin, spouse, mother, aunt, and grandmother. She was kind to strangers and tolerant of all people who held different opinions on religion and politics. She was a medical doctor who spent her life practicing among poor people who often could not pay her. She was never religious. She never performed any religious deeds or entered any religious building. She was an atheist. She died at age 80, greatly beloved by many in her community for all her good deeds and kindnesses. She never became a member of, or a believer in, True Religion X, even on her deathbed.
A certain type of Western religionist will overlook Mary's committed secularity and say she cannot go to hell because of her highly moral behavior.
A Western religionist of another sort will send Mary to a permanent torturous hell based on her lack of assent to a requisite belief in True Religion X, giving no credit to Mary's many goodly acts.
An Eastern religionist cannot send Mary to hell based on moral misbehavior, which Mary has no instances of. Mary gets a better reincarnation next go round, and since she's actually really good, some will say she'll be re-born as an upper-caste male in India. (A tasty slice of sexism to be taken up in a future essay).
Shin Buddhists would say Mary escapes hell if she speaks the name 'Amida Buddha' in that last minute of her life.
What the Hell?
It is one thing to imagine the need for an afterlife of punishment. It's quite another to venture into the realm of psychopathic torture. Literatures and paintings from ALL hell-believing religions East and West portray hell's torments thus:
- Burning in unquenchable fire
- Boiling in ooze and filth
- Mauling by animals
- Flaying by demons
- Piercing with red-hot pokers
- Enlarging body parts to feel pain more acutely
- Referencing scatological acts, endlessly
- Torturing male and female genitals in a sadistic 'pious pornography'
Charles Darwin, a man of refined and delicate moral sensibilities, punningly called hell a damnable doctrine. For similar moral reasons, many religious people (and all irreligious people) reject hell as a sub-ethical idea. Some religionists reinterpret hell as a metaphor for risk. Some religionists refashion hell as instant annihilation of the souls of very bad people.
And for many religionists (and for all irreligionists) hell is too clumsy an idea for the promotion of goodness or justice on either side of death.
On this earthly side, the threat of hell deters few people from vice. Many slanderers and backbiters and gossipmongers surely believe in hell. Probably most imprisoned killers believed in hell at the moment they murdered. (There are solid statistics on the high levels of religious belief among our jailed murderers.)
On the other side, in the other world, hell over-punishes the perpetrator and leaves him without instruction for moral betterment (unless you view torture as a kind of high-level pedagogy). It would have been a tad unkind and uninstructive to fling Cro-Magnon Man upon an otherworldly post-mortem bonfire, for instance.
(For some contemporary religionists, Cro-Magnons are still in hell, greeting newcomers with wordless grunts and groans and flailing mimes every half-minute of the clock. There's a story circulating about a séance wherein one articulate Cro-Magnon reports from hell that, among crowds of newcomers to the inferno over the past forty-thousand years, men seem to take it the hardest, although some women are absolutely crushed by damnation.)
The Sweet Hereafter
How about an afterlife of lively remedial education?
Imagine a sweet hereafter that is actually sweet: arhats and prophets and mystics and monks and imams and rabbis and kahunas and lamas and priests and nuns and powahs and yogis and avatars and gurus and rishis and bodhisattvas and secular saints will TEACH all of us--for as long as it takes--the art of moral perfection, the craft and métier of mental improvement.