A belief in Hell will make you into a demon. Before I can say why, some psychology.
Death is at the top of a long list of scary things. This list doesn’t include spiders or public speaking or showing up late to take your exam in your underwear. I’m not talking about things that give us the heebie-jeebies. I’m talking about the kind of fear that threatens our ability to make meaning. The kind of existential threat which turns lifelong convictions to Jello.
We are all going to die, of course, and I can say that here without you running off screaming into the night because we are all very well psychologically insulated from this existential fear. We have beliefs, even if we’re not conscious of them, that serve as a bulwark against the pain of mortality, borrowing from Ernest Becker let’s call this bulwark your “immortality project”.
An immortality project is a psychological construct that you participate in that gives you the comforting feeling of having some ability to survive death. Your legacy. Your heroic contribution. Your guarantee of being remembered, or making an impact that will endure past your death. Many of us are realistic enough to know that there will be no statues of us in front of important looking Neo-Classical buildings, but we can still have more modest immortality projects.
Heaven is an immortality project. By many people’s understanding all you have to do in order to get into heaven is to believe the right things about Jesus. It isn’t a very demanding immortality project, but it works.
In order for an immortality project to serve its function of keeping us from experiencing existential anguish we need some sort of guarantee; a sign that our immortality is secure. Perversely this means looking around us to compare ourselves with other people and to determine who in our vicinity is doomed. So we draw up lists of criteria for achieving immortality and measure ourselves and others against this mental list. In the case of heaven criteria may include:
- accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior
- believing correct doctrine
- being a good person
- being baptized
- avoiding any unforgivable or mortal sins
- being elect
From looking at this list and seeing examples of people who don’t meet the criteria we believe are necessary we comfort ourselves that we, unlike them, are going to move on to everlasting life. Our immortality assured we can live our lives like normal people without worrying about our own impending death. Of course, most of this process was unconscious. I doubt many of you ever actually said to yourselves – ah, good my immortality is assured.
Immortality has a dark side though. The process of denying death is what we call “repression” and like any repressed thought it tends to surface in situations of anxiety. Lots of things can cause this anxiety – noticing that someone we love doesn’t meet our criteria for immortality, becoming aware that we ourselves have slipped from our position of security, realizing that someone we dislike has a better claim to immortality than we do etc…
When repressed thoughts start to surface we either push harder to keep them down, or we “project”. Projection is taking the repressed fear and externalizing it, placing it onto another person or group in order to remove the anxiety. So when our immortality is threatened we tend to react defensively by projecting our fear onto someone else. I’m going to Heaven. That person over there is going to, you guessed it, Hell.
Mentally assigning other people to Hell becomes a necessary part of our defenses against existential doubt. The more anxiety creeps into our lives the more necessary it is that we are sure other people are burning in Hell so that we can experience the comfort of believing we are going to Heaven. Our immortality requires that others suffer.
Enough amateur psychology.
A guy named Jesus had this to say about the connection between our internal world of thoughts and our external actions, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder,and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sisterwill be subject to judgment… You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
The implication is that our thoughts are not so innocent. Following this logic: if you have wished for anyone to go to Hell, you are guilty of torturing them for an eternity.
Of course we protest that this is too extreme, that Jesus is engaged in a rhetorical tactic here to demonstrate to his audience that there is no position of moral purity and we are all in need of grace. We’re right to make a distinction between thought and action. I would rather you think horrible things of me than that you actually enact them on my person. Action is more determinative of who we are than what we think. Christians should really be called “practitioners” and not “believers”.
So let us do a little thought experiment.
Suppose we develop the ability to digitize the human mind and to create virtual environments where your mind can be stored. Suppose we begin using this technology to create a sort of afterlife for ourselves. After your physical body dies your mind can simply be placed in a virtual environment where your conscious existence can continue. At first these virtual environments are all a variation of heaven. Why not, they’re virtual?
But then… a debate arises. What about a murderer on Death Row? What about a war criminal? A traitor? A terrorist? When they die do we put their mind into a virtual environment and if so would it be fair for it to be heavenly? Or would we be party to actually creating Hell, even a virtual one?
To answer this question consider that there is a high correlation between belief in Hell and support for the Death Penalty. A significant number of people believe that when we execute a human being for their crimes we are sending them to be tortured for eternity. Consider the various ways we’ve already created Hell on earth. Consider war, poverty, and slavery. Consider Auschwitz.
The point here is not merely that we are capable of horrible things: that is established. What is important is why. Protecting our immortality project requires more and more elaborate criteria for determining insider status and more severe projections on those deemed outsiders. The more anxiety in our lives which threatens our Heaven, the more we demand proof that others are bound for Hell. This includes manufacturing Hell if necessary.
Ultimately if you believe in Hell you are betraying the truth about yourself – that if the gavel was in your hands you would condemn certain people to eternal torture. We have a name for the beings that would engage in the torture of souls – demons.