Aren't you afraid of hell?

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Afterdunk from the comic, DeathBulge.

Aren't you afraid of hell? is a question proselytizing Christians often ask atheists. I have been personally asked this question a number of times, so I decided to list out my reasons for why I'm not afraid of the Christian hell.


A just god wouldn't punish people forever

Most Christians believe their god is perfectly just. If this is true, then we have nothing to fear. We can be confident we will be judged fairly and receive an equitable and impartial punishment for any crimes we may may have committed. Sure, we may not want to be punished, but, with perfect justice, we can rest assured that we deserve exactly what we get. For this reason, I don't fear a perfect system of justice, rather, I welcome it.

However, most Christians also believe that hell is an eternal punishment, however, such a belief is incompatible with the notion of perfect justice. A necessary part of any objective system of punitive justice is the principle that the punishment must fit the crime, and how could someone possibly commit enough crimes during a limited lifespan to warrant an eternal punishment? If you steal a car, you should be punished, if you steal two cars, you should be punished twice as much, but nobody can steal an infinite number of cars to justify an infinite punishment.

Some Christians justify eternal punishment by claiming their god is infinitely good, and that any sin against him is infinitely bad, and therefore deserving of an eternal punishment, but this doesn't work. Punishments are based on the amount of injury they cause, and, since most Christians believe their god is all powerful, it means he cannot be injured in any way, shape, or form. You can't give the Christian god a bloody nose or steal his car.

Of course, punishment isn't just about injury, it's also about preventing potential injury. When a parent tells their children not to play in the street, and the child disobeys, even if there is no injury, a parent is still justified in correcting the child's disobedience with punishment. But the parent is only justified in punishing the child if the bad behavior persists, not for an eternity!

In order to further justify eternal punishment, some Christians argue that people who refuse to correct their bad behavior during their life will continue to refuse to correct their bad behavior while being tortured in hell forever. But this flies in the face of punitive justice entirely. The whole reason we punish people is because it does usually work to correct bad behavior, especially when the punishment is fair.

A just god wouldn't punish people for disbelief

I intended to write a more thorough essay about this topic in the future, but, here is a the quick explanation for now:

The common Christian belief that a person who doesn't believe the tenets of Christianity will be sent to hell for eternal punishment is not justice, and is completely immoral. The purpose of punishment is to correct or prevent bad behavior, but hurting someone because they don't believe what you want them to believe isn't punishment, it's brainwashing through torture. I have never heard of a moral justification for the eternal damnation of unbelievers, and I can't even imagine how one might be formulated.

Hell isn't biblical

The word "hell" in an English translation of a bible.
Main article: Hell doesn't exist in the bible

The Christians who wrote the bible would find the modern understanding of hell to be a foreign concept. Although you can find the word "hell" in many modern English translations of the bible, these are mistranslations that do not accurately convey the meaning of the original Hebrew and Greek words. The current Christian concept of hell comes from the merger of various cultures and religions and the later work of many artists and authors.

Hell is a scare tactic

When a Christian asks the question, "aren't you afraid of hell?" they may not realize it, but they're engaging in scare tactics. Scare tactics can be effective at controlling behavior, but they're far from optimal.

We can punish a person for murder, but the damage is done, and the punishment won't bring their victim back to life. A more optimal approach is to educate people about why murder is so bad. Explain to them the intrinsic value of all people. Ask them how they would feel if their loved ones were murdered so they can sympathize with the families of victims. When a person understands why their own life is precious, they can see that same preciousness in everyone else. By doing this, we convince people not to commit murder in the first place, so nobody is killed, and nobody needs to be punished.

Obviously, we can't instill good values in everyone perfectly, so there will continue to be crimes, and punishment will still be needed. But, getting people to take responsibility for their actions and understand their consequences is a much better approach than simply scaring them with eternal torture.

You can't fear what you don't believe

A person can't be afraid of something unless they believe that it might exist, and, since most atheists don't believe hell can exist, they can't be afraid of it.

To help illustrate this point, consider Jahannam, which Muslims believe to be the afterlife where bad people go when they die to be punished for the evils they committed when they were alive. The Quran describes Jahannam in graphic detail as a horrifying place, far worse than any descriptions found in the bible.

Ask yourself these questions: "Am I afraid of being sent to Jahannam when I die?" and, if not, "Why am I not afraid?"

Unless you're a Muslim who already believes in the tenets of Islam, you're probably not going to be afraid of Jahannam. And why not? Most likely because you don't believe it even exists. Atheists and Christians feel the same way about Jahannam. They don't believe it exists, so they're not afraid of it. Now consider how a Muslim feels about the Christian hell. They won't be afraid of it for the same reason Christian's aren't afraid of Jahannam, they don't believe it exists. Most atheists don't believe Jahannam, the Christian hell, or any other after life, so they aren't afraid of them.


Bart Ehrman.

See Also