What’s the point of hell?

The punishment part of the judicial system has several important goals. The heaven & hell system is ridiculously blunt.

A few of the roles of prison:

Locking up violent criminals protects the rest of the population from their potential harmful behaviour. Hell leaves them free to continue harming other people all their life. They are punished after their death when they can no longer harm anyone.

Another goal is to prepare for when you get out, to rehabilitate you. You screwed up, you serve your sentence, maybe learn a thing or two, and you turn a new leaf, become a contributing citizen again.

Going to hell is forever. There is no second chance.

Other types of punishment such as fines or community service aim for the « evil doer » to give back to their victims or at least to society as a whole. Again hell does not make up for the harm done.

Prison and fines are a deterrence. Society attempts to cut future crime by publishing the sanctions people would receive. Of course hell is a deterrence, but a surprisingly weak one. You would think that true believers would be model citizens. Somehow, deterrence seems to work when you have some contact with the people who were punished. We all have friends who have received a speeding ticket. And we read about prison conditions in the press. There is not much feed-back from hell.

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Where is the cutoff line between heaven and hell?

Bob isn’t really a good person. But he hasn’t committed any serious crimes either. At some points in his life, he has tried to turn a new leaf, but has always lapsed back to his old ways.

Joe is generally a good person. He helps his community, gives to charity. He will give to a homeless person and go out of his way to help an old lady cross the street. He has been unfaithful to his wife for years now. She doesn’t suspect.

Bob and Joe die in a tragic car accident. They are judged by god and one is let into heaven, with eternal bliss, while the other is sent to hell to burn for all time.

In the grand scale of things, these two men were very close to the cutoff line. A little will power might have saved one, but an extra slip up might have damned the other.


In our family, in our society, we thrive to find the right punishment for each bad act. How can we accept an all or nothing view of heaven and hell?

Our whole judicial system is based on punishment proportional to the crime. If you speed on the freeway, you get a fine. If you steal for the first time, you could get a suspended sentence. If you premeditate murder, you can spend your life in prison. Even the most horrific crime won’t get you tortured. A lot of thought goes into defining the punishment that fits the crime. We are shocked when a killer gets of with a slap on the wrist, but even more so when the punishment is too severe.


On the other end of the spectrum, maybe surprisingly, good deeds are often their own reward. We might be threatened with punishment to avoid bad actions, but we are not paid for good deeds. It takes the good out it if we get paid.

God’s system is much more simple. One slip up and you will be tortured for all eternity. There is no middle ground, either you are perfect and win the jackpot or else your punishment will be infinitely painful and never end.

What would you think of a friend who only did good, only helped others, for a reward? Would you be as proud of him?

Say, when you were a kid, you stole some candy from the corner store. What would you think if your parents beat you every night for a year? A year isn’t very long compared to eternity…

It seems that the goal is to not do evil, more than to do good. The ten commandments do not include « be nice ». If you live a good life, dedicated to helping others, but slip up and steal, will you go to hell?

With such a binary system, there must be some cutoff line. More good than bad, heaven, more bad than good, hell. Or any bad, hell. Whatever the line, there will be people who are pretty close. Two people who have been equally good all their life. One goes to heaven. The other slips up, once, and burns in hell for all eternity.

How do you rationalize heaven and hell?


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