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I’ve lately been finding myself increasingly horrified by the concept of hell, and its implications for a certain kind of Christian belief in God. I’m familiar with several theological ways in which Christians handle this concept; there’s the pre-New Testament view in which the unsaved simply disappear after death, or the view in which hell is simply an allegory for what we do to ourselves psychologically in life. (I think Dante, who did a great deal to create our conception of hell, is often interpreted this latter way.) I don’t have serious problems with hell interpreted in either of these ways, or with a God who created it.

My problem is with the literal concept of hell, the one you see preached in evangelical sermons. I’ve been tempted to think of it as just a superstition for those who haven’t thought their Christianity through very well. But it isn’t that. Even Augustine, a profound thinker I have a deep respect for, seems to say fairly clearly that the damned suffer physical and psychological torment for eternity. This, to me, raises huge problems.

I can’t figure any way around the view that a God who damns people to hell for all eternity is evil. Such a God would deliberately inflict far more suffering than Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot put together (and added to every other vicious tyrant you might care to name). Moreover, such a punishment seems completely gratuitous, far more than anything the sufferers could reasonably be said to deserve. Augustine argues the point merely by reference to Cicero and the Roman customs of the time: “we have punishments more severe than the crime all the time!” Such a point convinces me only of the barbarism of Rome, not of God’s justice. Nietzsche notes with some satisfaction that Aquinas and Tertullian go even further than this: among the pleasures granted to the elect in heaven comes the ability to see the ways the damned are punished. What kind of God would encourage such a thing?

Buddhist hells, by contrast, give us two ways out of the dilemma. First, they’re not permanent; everybody gets a second chance, as one should expect from a merciful god. Second, and more fundamentally, nobody put them there. Like all the other suffering in the world, they’re just an unpleasant fact of nature, one we need to find a way to deal with. If the Buddhas could eliminate the hells, they would; they’re omniscient and omnibenevolent, but not omnipotent. Śāntideva, in redirecting his good karma, hopes that the hells will become glades of lotuses – he just doesn’t succeed in effecting this transformation, at least not for the majority of the hells.

Am I missing something here? With respect to the God of the medieval theologians, if he existed, it’s not just that I would find it hard to believe him omnibenevolent. Rather, I would find it hard to believe him benevolent at all.