The Concept of Hell

Hell is HellishImpressing upon the living that an afterlife consumed by pain and suffering awaits those who misbehave is a powerful way to get people to conduct themselves lawfully, and maybe even civilly. More effective than capital punishment as a deterrent, the concept of Hell gives everyone pause, even atheists.

To some, Hell is a real place, a geographically tangible location miles beneath the Earth’s crust. (Dig straight down at the intersection of the 101 and 405 freeways to find the exact spot.) To others, it’s a state-of-mind, a condition of discontentment and unrest, the converse of eternal peace. Those raised on Dante and Catholicism envision fire and unbearable heat. Less literal interpretations might feature pitchforks and satyrs. Boschian or fantastical, everyone agrees Hell isn’t a nice thing.

Without the possibility of this awful fate awaiting us upon death, what’s to stop selfish, venal, cruel human beings from always behaving like the murderous animals we are? These days Hell’s converse, Heaven, doesn’t seem to interest people that much, unless they’re Muslim extremists who’ve never gotten laid. Everlasting joy and all the other stuff good folks are supposed to enjoy “up there” doesn’t seem all that enticing to citizens of a society that celebrates material acquisitiveness above all else. It’s the possibility of Hell, of endless misery, that imbues our moral codes with authority.

Hell, Heaven, an afterlife — these may all be convenient fictions that help us find meaning in an inexplicable universe. But their utilitarian aspects shouldn’t be discounted. Hell is like a Jewish mother: the specter of its ire makes a naughty boy act like a mensch.

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