The December issue of Harper's magazine contains an article by David Lewis and Philip Kitcher that ponders whether belief in hell makes one evil.
The authors argue (and I agree) that hell is more evil than the worst evil that any human has ever perpetrated.
For God has prescribed torment for insubordination. The punishment is to go on forever, and the agonies to be endured by the damned intensify, in unimaginable ways, the sufferings we undergo in our earthly lives. In both dimensions, time and intensity, the torment is infinitely worse than all the suffering and sin that will have occurred during the history of life in the universe. What God does is thus infinitely worse than what the worst tyrants have done.Given that hell is evil, the authors then pose this question. Supposing that certain Christians "accept a God who inflicts infinite torment on those who do not accept Him...are those who worship the perpetrator of divine evil themselves evil?"
The authors suggest that, no matter how loving individual hell-believing Christians are in their ordinary lives, their goodness is tainted by their approval of divine evil. The authors make an analogy with hypothetical neo-Nazi named Fritz, who approves of Hitler even if Fritz himself would himself never persecute a single Jew:
Yet Fritz would approve of the persecution being carried out by the proper authorities. So too with the Christians. Perhaps they would grieve that the punishment was prescribed for us; perhaps they would blame themselves for not having done more. But, in the end, they would worship the perpetrator.The authors claim that even those religious figures we admire as saints, such as Mother Theresa, "admire evil and are tainted by it."
But does approval of an abstract theological fantasy equate to complicity with evil? People often, in their own minds, approve of certain evils in the abstract that they would never approve of when faced with the concrete reality of their beliefs. For example, many are able to support the evil of capital punishment to some extent because the act of judicially sponsored killing is outsourced to professional executioners whose deeds are hidden from public view. But many of those same people who support the death penalty in the abstract would react differently if they were the ones who had to do the killing. Perhaps, then, the problem isn't so much that people are "tainted" by evil as that they are engaging in the time honored human tactic of compartmentalization.
There are other examples of this sort of compartmentalization. Religious conservatives who oppose abortion because they define it as child murder nevertheless have no problem accepting that God ordered the people of Israel to commit genocide against children (as well as adults) in cities like Ai and Jericho, as described in the book of Joshua. Compartmentalization is a powerful thing.
If hell existed, I completely agree with Lewis and Kitcher that it would indeed be evil. It is certainly unfathomable to me that anyone could believe in such a concept. When I was a teenager with serious doubts about my religion, I asked my mother and one of my brothers how they could accept that my other brother, who at the time was an atheist, would be sent to hell for eternity; their rationalizations were, and remain to this day, abhorrent to me.
A big reason people are able to divorce themselves from the consequences of believing in hell is that hell as a theological concept is so divorced from everyday reality that it makes it easy for people to compartmentalize their beliefs. No one who professes to believe in hell has ever had to listen to screams of a non-Christian loved one as they suffered eternal torment in the lake of fire. It's like the capital punishment proponent who lets others do the actual killing. Hell has been outsourced. Hell as a concept is just useful enough to serve as a proselytizing tool for evangelical Christians, but just divorced enough from reality to allow its adherents not to think about the full consequences of their beliefs. And because hell is built in to some people's neat, tidy belief system, the need to hold onto that belief in this world is stronger than their compassion for people in some remote realm beyond the everyday world.
Biblical literalists are particularly guilty of this process. The need to maintain the house of cards that is their belief system is so strong that they are forced to be in denial about a lot of things. Thus compassion for sexual minorities is trumped by biblical literalism and homophobia, and compassion and understanding for people of other faiths is trumped by a belief that one's own religion is the only true one. In both cases, a virtue like compassion becomes subjugated by a psychological need to hold on to a belief system. (Similarly, this phenomenon plays itself out when rationality and reason are trumped by a belief that the Genesis stories are literally true. )
None of this makes any of these people evil; it just makes them human. As long as abstract beliefs are not challenged by concrete realities, it is easy to hold onto that which makes one comfortable. It gets harder when you actually have to come face to face with the consequences of your beliefs. If you think that yours is the only true religion, but you live in a multicultural community where you see people of other faiths who have found deep and transformational spiritual sustenance from their religious lives, it becomes harder to be so intolerant and arrogant. You then have two choices: you either cling tighter to your intolerant views out of fear, or else the stress on your dogma is so great that you are forced to reorganize your belief system--rarely a pleasant process.