Some Thoughts on Hell

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today – John Lennon (1)

John Lennon asked us to imagine there’s no heaven. I’ve tried, but all I come up with is hell.

Many things occur on this planet that demand judgment and punishment, but many go unpunished. If there is no certainty of punishment, there is no reason not to play the system to get as much an advantage as you can. That is not to say that you can get away with everything but rather that not everything will be punished. So, if you can get away with it, go ahead. You might respond that our moral standards will keep us in line, and while I certainly hold to the reality of objective moral standards, the problem is that if detours from these moral rules are not punished, there is no justice.

Moreover, experience and history tells us that humanity doesn’t keep to an honor code. We may know that certain acts are wrong but we are also plagued by the thought that some people get away with it. If everyone else is doing it why can’t we?

Lennon was right that everyone would be living “just for the day” if there is no heaven or hell, but I think it would be rather more grim than he suggested.

Lennon’s rejection of hell is widely held (probably more than his rejection of heaven), but increasingly, the idea that bad behavior should be punished is prevalent in the form of the universe will punish bad deeds or karma is going to sort you out. In fact, Lennon also believed in karma. So, we don’t reject the idea of hell because we don’t think we need punishment, or because we don’t believe that this present physical world provides perfect justice. An appeal to the karma or the universe is an appeal to the transcendent.

If we don’t object to the idea that bad moral actions deserve punishment and recognize that this world doesn’t provide adequate judgment and punishment, and appeal to a transcendent source of judgment and punishment, why do we object to the concept of hell?

A final judgment for all by an impartial, all-knowing, all-wise judge would ensure justice. It won’t matter how good your attorney is, or how wealthy you are, or how long ago it happened, or whether witnesses can be found or whether they can clearly remember. All deserving punishment will receive it.

However, Christianity doesn’t end with punishment. There is a way to escape hell, even deserved punishment. We just have to submit to the ultimate authority, but there’s the rub. That’s why if we’re stuck with a hell, we’d rather have this one with its greed and genocide, reality T.V. and inequality. At least we have some element of control over this one – right? But after all isn’t hubris our greatest failing?

If we reject the hell presented in orthodox Christianity, we are doomed to one of our own making – a world without justice or any hope of it. As C.S. Lewis pointed out – “the doors to hell are locked from the inside”. (2)

(1) John Lennon, Imagine.

(2) C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Harper Collins, New York (2001); 130.

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DISCLAIMER: Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the view of other CAA authors, or the official position of the group at large.
About Stephen McAndrew

Stephen McAndrew was born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, and now lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children, where he runs his law practice. A graduate of Trinity College Dublin and the Law School at the University of Buffalo (SUNY), Stephen is starting a Ph.D. in Philosophy in Fall 2013. Stephen is also the author of Why It Doesn't Matter What You Believe If It's Not True, a book that examines the tensions between post-modernism and international human rights law. Stephen blogs at Songs of a Semi-Free Man or you can follow him on twitter @StephenMcAndrew.