I came across an intriguing article today which makes a very salient point about hell and the potential evil inherent in it's application---at least the Christian description. I've actually thought about this particular issue for quite awhile, but first an extract from the article. The full article can be accessed here: http://www.machineslikeus.com/cms/news/was-mother-theresa-evil The website is scientific and atheistic in it's outlook, but sometimes it makes great sense to look at the arguments of other points of view.
"Since the eternal torment (which is undoubtedly torture on the worst possible scale) that god supposedly prescribes for those who do not worship him is worse than any evil ever carried out by any human, Christians (and other believers in god) should reject the entire concept of eternal torment in the afterlife. Otherwise they forfeit any respect from others because they have become evil simply by virtue of admiring and worshipping a god who is committing a massive evil. In other words, if religious people do not reject the idea of an awful divine retribution, then they are declaring themselves to be evil too. In fact, the more devout and religious such people are, the more evil they should be considered.
As Lewis and Kitcher point out, it is no use trying to evade the issue by arguing that the hell to which sinners are sent is a form of divine justice and is not an evil act by god. That argument should be rejected in the same way that we reject the actions of tyrants even they too can claim they are acting lawfully, according to the laws and procedures they themselves created. In other words, there is no essential difference between a tyrant who tortures and kills people who cross his path and a god who sends people to eternal torment in hell because they have gone against his will.
Evangelicals often urge their fellows to step up their efforts to 'save' the people they know by telling them how sad they will be if their loved ones end up in hell. As a result of my atheist writings, I occasionally get dark warnings from some people that I can expect a rather unpleasant afterlife. I have always found such warnings to be amusing. It had not occurred to me, though, that the people making such statements are the equivalent of admirers of Hitler. Next time I get such a comment, I will refer them to this post."
It's not just Evangelicals who feel the need to save people from the eternal damnation of a flaming and torturous hell, it's true believing Catholics as well. Hell is the foundational pillar on which the entirety of atonement theology rests. If there is no hell to be saved from, then there is no need for Sacrificial Jesus. If there's no need for Sacrificial Jesus than there is no need for the Institutional Church as we know it because there is no real need for an 'in persona christi' to intercede between God and us sinners.
Rejecting this notion of hell is not just rejecting hell, it's rejecting a lot of Catholic dogma and a lot of the traditional historical reasons for practicing Catholicism. To be honest, I see the turn away from Vatican II as a return to this most basic of fear based dogmas. Hell is the ultimate control card and the Church has played this card in very evil ways.
I once heard a story from a theologian who was on the Pontifical Theological Commission with Joseph Ratzinger. This was back in the early 70's when the Church had reduced the no meat on Fridays from a mandatory discipline to a suggested but non binding penitential act. He asked Bishop Ratzinger what the Church would tell the laity about all those people the Church had sent to hell for eating meat on Friday in all those past centuries. He meant it as a joke, but Ratzinger did not think he was the least bit funny and didn't answer the question.
When you really think about it, the question isn't funny. The Church has by doctrine and decree sent more people to hell over the centuries than one could care to count. The very same argument came up in the discussion over Humanae Vitae. What was the Church to do with all the people they had sent to hell over contraception?
Think about the power trip this implies. Clerics really do believe that the Church has the right to formulate dogma for which the disobedient will be sent to hell, a torturous flaming hell, for all eternity. The rush can't get better than this and the rational is scriptural. Jesus gave Peter the keys to the Kingdom and said what they bind and loose shall be made so in heaven. Apparently, God Himself gave the hierarchy permission to send billions to hell.
What kind of loving God is this? What kind of Church is a church which thinks nothing of making up hundreds of binding rules, the violation of which sends one to hell. Some of those rules like missing Mass on Sunday and eating meat on Friday seem pretty petty given the punishment was eternal hell. There was always confession, but one had to live to make it to confession. This is all a recipe for fear driven neurosis. But by gosh, it does seem that's back where we're headed.
But the above article asks a different kind of question. Is this not just neurotic, but is it also evil? I'm beginning to think it's evil. I can't begin to tell you how many mental clients I have dealt with whose emotional misery is locked up with fundamentalist views of God and the overwhelming fear of hell. I actually got so sick of this that I quit doing therapy. No matter which tactic I would take, people were so ingrained in their fears that it often became an issue of destroying their faith in order to cure their misery. Destroying their faith in too many cases meant that they would be cut off from their families and their church community. That was a line I couldn't cross. Most other therapists I've talked with just don't go into the religious or spiritual realms. It makes them nervous. Unfortunately, the religious and spiritual realms are often times the foundation from which neurosis stems. It's a set of behaviors learned in childhood and is therefor a very powerful influence in adult life.
There is a hell. I have seen it on Shamanic journeys. It is a miserable place. A void in which people are turned in on themselves in a sort of terminal feedback loop. There is nothing there but people in self turmoil. It is self chosen based on despair or a total lack of identification with one's humanity, the humanity of others and the refusal to see the Divine. It doesn't seem to be an eternal sentence because there are Light beings trying to get the attention of the spirits with in this hell. Except these spirits are so locked into their lack of hope or isolation they don't see their would be rescuers. It's the worst thing I have ever experienced in my life.
Any spiritual system which fosters this sense of despair and isolation is evil or that dares to teach this is what God created for man. It is not of God, it is strictly of man. I have great gratitude that God seems to be ignoring the mandates of His Church. There weren't near enough souls in this hell to indicate that God pays the slightest bit of attention to all the ways the Church says we can go to hell. Contrary to what they would like us to believe, going to hell is a very difficult thing to accomplish because one has to choose against one's core attributes of what it means to be human and divinely connected.
At it's core, the traditional Christian concept of hell, is a man made power trip, and it's evil. I'll close this with the words of Pope Benedict spoken to a parish in Rome in March of 2007. It's a sure indicator where this man stands on this question, and who this teaching is aimed at.
Richard Owen in Rome
Hell is a place where sinners really do burn in an everlasting fire, and not just a religious symbol designed to galvanise the faithful, the Pope has said.
Addressing a parish gathering in a northern suburb of Rome, Benedict XVI said that in the modern world many people, including some believers, had forgotten that if they failed to “admit blame and promise to sin no more”, they risked “eternal damnation — the Inferno”.
Hell “really exists and is eternal, even if nobody talks about it much any more”, he said.
The Pope, who as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was head of Catholic doctrine, noted that “forgiveness of sins” for those who repent was a cornerstone of Christian belief. He recalled that Jesus had forgiven the “woman taken in adultery” and prevented her from being stoned to death, observing: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”
God had given men and women free will to choose whether “spontaneously to accept salvation . . . the Christian faith is not imposed on anyone, it is a gift, an offer to mankind”.
Vatican officials said that the Pope — who is also the Bishop of Rome — had been speaking in “straightfoward” language “like a parish priest”. He had wanted to reinforce the new Catholic catechism, which holds that Hell is a “state of eternal separation from God”, to be understood “symbolically rather than physically”.
(Notice the Vatican spin. There was nothing in Benedict's words to the 'simple parish faithful' that hell is anything other than an eternal sentence to an inferno of suffering, the result of failing to take blame and repent of sin. This is entirely different than JPII's concept of hell as a place freely and definitely chosen by people to separate themselves from God. JPII's definition is much closer to the reality I saw. Benedict is most certainly playing the old hell card when it comes to the simple faithful. It's about coerced obedience, and it's evil.