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Belief in Hell Causes Selfishness

Posted: Mon, December 24, 2012 | By: Special Guest

by Sam Keene


This essay is aimed at a specific type of person. Someone who believes that Hell is not only a real place sinners/non-believers go to, but a place of eternal torture. There are various ways this torture can manifest itself such as actual physical pain, or separation from God. I argue that these people, if they do not dedicate their entire lives attempting to save and convert sinners and atheists, are either:

1) Immensely selfish, and possibly a sadist.

2) Someone who does not actually have sincere convictions, only pretends to.

Why? Originally this idea was aimed at the Catholic Church, as it is part of their doctrine that hell is a real place of fire and suffering, where your body and soul can be destroyed, where there is eternal separation from God. I have quoted the relevant bits below.

Jesus often speaks of “Gehenna” of “the unquenchable fire” reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe and be converted, where both soul and body can be lost. Jesus solemnly proclaims that he “will send his angels, and they will gather . . . all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire,“ and that he will pronounce the condemnation: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!”

The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.

There is a problem with aiming at Catholics so broadly – there are Catholics who are raised to believe otherwise. There are entire churches which teach otherwise. I have spoken to those who tell me while they don’t hold such believes, X denomination does. All in all  this must be seen as being directed at fundamentalists, especially those who believe in hell as a literal place of suffering for eternity. There are exceptions where I will argue that this argument still applies even if hell is of finite suffering – however I shall come onto those later.

When you see those ‘bible-thumping’ preachers yelling in the street – you have to compliment them on achieving what the vast majority of Christians and other religious people have not: Their beliefs are sincere. These people, however intellectually dishonest or limited you may describe them as, do one thing, and one thing well – they follow the teaching of their doctrine accurately and with conviction.

I want to use an analogy to help the reader understand how elaborate this selfishness is, and how one would actually act if they honestly believed.

The Analogy

Imagine you are strolling through the woods on a well traveled path, and you come across two paths. If you take the right path, you leave the forest and enter a perfect place. However if you take the left path, you will be brutally tortured and kept alive in this state for years until your body finally gives out. You have no doubt of this belief, you are 100% certain of it. Note we are not dealing with eternity here, only several years. Also, as with many ethical questions – we must not try find loopholes in the question. You cannot call authorities to contain the area, nor can you ‘cover up’ the left path or clear the evil in anyway. Perhaps victims of this path are punished somewhere metaphysical, which cannot be prevented directly in this reality.

You have two options, you can put effort into preventing people strolling down the left path, or you can not put effort into such an endeavour.

Walking away would no doubt be one of the highest acts of selfishness one could perform. It might even fall into the realm of sadism. The majority of people would want to extend effort to prevent people from experiencing this life-long, brutal torture. So what do you do? There are a few options.

One could erect a sign – describing the dangers and begging others to turn around or take the right path (the sign cannot block/ limit access to the left path. The only way to save someone is if they take the correct path while aware of the left one.) This is better than doing nothing, but even if you spent a sufficient amount of money on posters and billboards the use is almost worthless. By nature some people would rebel and go down the left path as if to say ‘screw you sign, don’t tell me what to do’. And since you don’t have any actual evidence that the left path will bring about the torture, you cannot appeal to the rational, empirical side of people. (Remember, you are completely convinced of this belief, your faith is unwavering).

Doing so little is again a symptom of extreme selfishness and the human ability to do very little and think very much of themselves. However, this is also an indication of someone’s lack of conviction in their belief, assuming they are not a sadistic person who likes the thought of people suffering for years in immense pain.

I hope it is obvious, that the only way to have this truly sincere belief, and be someone who isn’t sadistic / evil – is to dedicate one’s life to preventing people from going down the left path. Initially a good way to do this is to live at the path’s location, always ready to convince people to take the right path (you cannot physically force them to take the right path – much like Catholics cannot physically force someone to believe in a metaphysical realm). One then can work on recruiting others who can be convinced of the belief that the left path leads to death. These others might stay at the path’s location, or be used to spread the doctrine in other areas.

When you have an established base at the path, it seems what is left to do is to continue every effort to prevent people from going down the left path. This could take various forms: you could dedicate your life to philosophical study in an attempt to create arguments convincing people of the suffering down the left path; you could go down the route of certain cults, and manipulate people in a number of psychological ways (remember, your ultimate goal is saving the untold number of people who would otherwise spend the rest of their life in unbearable agony); you could try to gain as much publicity as possible, dedicating every day to contributing to the ultimate goal. If someone is trying to argue against you, it may be beneficial to have that person scared off, or even worse, injured or killed. After all, that person’s suffering is for the greater good. What is a single human’s suffering compared to an eternity of painful torture?


Again, if you think this analogy seems silly – remember there is no doubt in your belief, your knowledge could perhaps be said to be… ‘God-given’. If you haven’t noticed, the analogy is a replacement for hell (left path) – with the right path (pun!) being heaven. Again, think about how much less suffering there is in the analogy than there is in the idea of hell. Here we only deal with several years of suffering – but just imagine if that was 100 years. Or even 1000. Imagine 10 000 years – having to suffer for most of our current history. Once our star burns out, and our galaxy is impacted by the Andromeda galaxy - you are still there. Suffering. Forever.

I would do everything I mentioned above if I honestly thought I was saving fathers, mothers, babies, children, school kids and so on from years upon years of the must unbearable, agonizing torture. Who wouldn’t? If I didn’t I must face two possibilities. Either (most likely) I don’t really believe in my doctrine (and I only pretend to do so for certain psychological and sociological reasons) - or (less likely) I am a real contender for the most selfish person on this planet. Not only that, but I may be sadistic.

I think even the ‘bible-thumping’ preachers who we earlier complimented on the sincerity of their beliefs show symptoms of the same selfishness, or at the very least, a lack of ability to communicate effectively. Why would they just stand on a campus preaching, almost always being ignored, when they could write convincing rehashes of the ontological argument to convert others through logic and philosophy?

Several people have told me: ‘Well then surely you are selfish in the same sense for not going to Africa right now to help save lives’. This is completely true. In fact – this essay was a branch of a larger piece of work I am writing about such selfishness in all of us. By recognizing such selfishness in us – we can, if nothing else, be humble and show appreciation of our lives which are so much better than other’s. Nevertheless – there is certainly a difference in an eternity of suffering and the finite suffering of people in Africa. This is why it is so important to raise this specific point about the metaphysical hell.

Another objection is that this can be explained by the bystander effect. And while I can accept this comes into play – it does not come close to ‘explaining away’ the argument. Many of these believers have atheist friends and family, and go about their own lives knowing their friends or family are destined to an eternity of suffering. There have been people who note that some religious people believe that it is God’s job to do such saving. If they hold this belief sincerely (and I doubt the vast majority do) then I can do nothing to apply this argument to them. I can only highlight the problems with faith and so on.

This idea of being selfish has caused some very emotional replies – there are people who have told me that their mother is a Catholic and isn’t selfish. All I can say to this is that if she fits the original criteria for believing in hell, she remains selfish. I can only raise the point here of how valuable it is for us to detach ourselves and remain objective.

As I mentioned earlier, even other concepts of hell – such as eternal separation from God, or finite suffering exist. Even if someone believes in one of these more moderate concepts, I still argue that the base concept of my argument applies, only with less extremity. The finite suffering – or separation – is still so monumental, that to not put significant (or all) efforts into stopping people from becoming victims raises similar selfishness we find in the most radical fundamentalists.  I hear only too often of moderate people saying ‘What could be worse than separation from God?’. As the 20th century American saying goes: while these people talk the talk – they don’t seem to walk the walk.

This basic concept, of not ‘walking the walk’ with regards to various concepts of hell, is what highlights the immense selfishness we find here. It is the key point we have examined in this essay. By choosing to be content in your own metaphysical and moral high-ground with a lack of action to bring others with you – you maintain a level of selfishness that is almost impossible to fully understand.

So, if you are a believer in such a concept of hell – which is it? Do you really believe in your doctrine? Or do you prefer to think of it as a fairytale? Can you admit you are incredibly selfish? Or sadistic? Do you only identify with your doctrine but not actually hold faith in it – perhaps for other, non-religious reasons?

Observing the lack of effort from all religious people in this area I have become more and more convinced that inside they know – they don’t want to -but they know it’s all bullshit. But there is a problem.

They don’t want to know.


Fantastic article. Thanks for sharing.

By Izlude on Dec 27, 2012 at 1:33pm

I have heard variations of this argument before and I think it is a valid argument. I would extend it to argue that any God who creates Hell for any reason must be a sadist. What a lot of people don’t realize is that the Bible doesn’t talk about Hell much. In fact it only makes an appearance in the Gospel of Matthew and to a certain extent in Revelation. The other three Gospels don’t have a concept of Hell. No gnashing of teeth, no eternal fire; it just isn’t there.

The sad thing is that Hell is a nice way of controlling the populace. “Do what I say or you’ll burn!” was a threat for centuries. Not just by priests in the church, but by Kings who stated that they ruled by divine right. As you said. B.S. all of it.

Motivation experts will tell you that positive reinforcement is much more effective than punishment. Ten positive statements for every corrective statement is a conservative estimate of the appropriate balance. People of faith should be extolling the positive.

Turn your analogy around. Why is it unethical to not try to convince people by any means to avoid the path to torture, and not unethical to not convince people by any reasonable means to take the path to good? We all like to refer folks to good restaurants and great bargains, why not talk about what makes us better people? Hell doesn’t enter that picture.

By Alex McGilvery on Dec 27, 2012 at 5:41pm

As a “demoness” it should be obvious I have no beliefs in metaphysical realms outside of those we create inside our own heads.

Hell exists as a concept not merely for control. It exists because we humans are driven by such concepts as “revenge” and “payback.” Most people relish the concept of hell as a place where everyone they don’t like will get their “comeuppance”. They refuse to acknowledge the reality that by their own belief systems, no-one would ever make it to heaven. As a member of any sect or denomination, it is assumed that all other sects or denominations are “heretics” and doomed to hell. By this reasoning, no person on the planet is worthy of heaven.

However, digging even deeper in to the Judeo-Christian religions dogma, you also find that in addition to imposing “hell” on everyone, most religions also worship slavery, death, and xenophobia. In a very real sense, “Western Religion” is one of the greatest dangers to continued human existence, and the sooner it is eliminated as a parasitic memeplex from the communal human mindspace, the fewer people it will kill as we progress into a better future.

By Valkyrie Ice on Dec 31, 2012 at 8:46am

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