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Hell is a grave topic. Everyone is going there according to the doctrines of one religion or another. No one of us is safe. And for Eastern religions, every one of us has already been to hell many times over.

Owing to spotty police work in antiquity, the idea of a torturous afterlife arose to provide a more perfect administration of justice for the lawless who never got caught during their lifetimes.

Moral rules were made, and obligatory religious ideas were pronounced. Then, 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 strategy of prudential silence.

And so an afterlife of hideous torments was devised to mete out justice and rein in error.

Eastern religions proffer 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. In the East, hell is part of a great reformatory.

Western religions proffer 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. In the West, hell is solely punitive.

Two kinds of violation send people to hell: moral misbehavior and lack of belief in required religious doctrines.

Consider John, a lifelong axe-murdering pedophile. He was never religious. He never performed religious deeds or entered any religious building. He never believed in a 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 doesn’t go to hell at all 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. Some Buddhists would say John escapes hell if he merely mouths the name ‘Amida Buddha’ in the last minute of John’s life.

Now consider Mary, 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 rewarded and become re-born as an upper-caste male in India. (A tasty slice of sexism.) Some Buddhists would say Mary escapes hell if she speaks the name “Amida Buddha” in that last minute of her life.

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. The literature and paintings from all hell-believing religions, East and West, portray hell’s torments in vivid detail:

  • 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 rejected hell as a damnable doctrine; he couldn’t imagine any sane person wishing it were true. For similar moral reasons, even many religious people, and all irreligious people, reject hell as a sub-ethical idea. Some religionists reinterpret hell as a metaphor for risk. Other religionists refashion hell as instant annihilation of the souls of very bad people. And for many religionists, and for all ir-religionists, 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 in hell among our jailed murderers.

On the other side, in the other world, hell over-punishes perpetrators and leaves them without instruction for moral betterment (unless we view torture as a kind of high-level pedagogy). Wouldn’t it have been a tad unkind and un-instructive to fling Cro-Magnon peoples upon a post-mortem bonfire?

(By the way, some contemporary religionists say Cro-Magnons are the oldest occupants of hell, and they greet newcomers with grunts and flailing gestures. There’s a story circulating about a séance wherein several articulate Cro-Magnons dictated letters from hell, reporting that, among crowds of newcomers to the inferno over the past thirty-thousand years, men take hell the hardest, although some women are absolutely crushed by damnation.)

Here’s a thought: How about an afterlife of lively remedial education for all of us imperfectly moral mammals?

Imagine a sweet hereafter that’s actually sweet, where virtuous arhats and prophets and mystics and monks and imams and rabbis and lamas and kahunas and priests and nuns and powahs and yogis and avatars and gurus and rishis and bodhisattvas and secular saints teach all of us—for as long as it takes—the art of moral perfection, the craft and métier of mental improvement.

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J. H. McKenna (Ph.D.) has taught the history of religius ideas since 1992 at various colleges and since 1999 at the University of California, where he has won teaching awards. He has published in academic...