In Judeo-Christian religions it is usually taught that those who commit sin i.e. evil will suffer some sort of eternal damnation like burning for eternity in hell. My concern is to understand the several underpinnings of morality and ethics presented by this belief. On the surface, god is presented as a just, and loving being. With this in mind, it is probable to assume that such a being would want the best possible good for an individual and the collective. In a community, vices are punished as a means of tagging the person towards deeds that lead to great good for the person and collective. My understanding is that punishment ought only to be used for two reasons:

  1. To reinforce good behavior with gifts and deter one from his bad behavior through punishment.
  2. To cut off the individual from the collective should the first measure not suffice

Now, if punishment serves this purpose then what would be the reason of inflicting suffering on sinners for eternity? What purpose would it serve? To me the only logical conclusion seems that a just and loving god would at worst simply cease the existence of sinners corrupted beyond salvation.

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    Judaïsm doesn't have a concept of eternal punishment for sinners, so what you describe as Judeo Christian is in fact Christian and Islamic (other religions exist with a concept of punishment/reward after death, but AFAIK only Christians and Muslims add in the nonsense that the god who sends his own creations to burn and suffer forever is also perfectly benevolent and merciful)
    – armand
    Commented Jul 2, 2023 at 23:24
  • Link to interesting article about human agency, the loss of souls, and The War in Heaven rsc.byu.edu/vol-11-no-1-2010/…. Jesus said if God gives man his agency then some souls will be lost, but Lucifer argued that if we take away agency we can save them all! Then Lucifer is cast out of heaven and becomes Satan. I think heaven is eternal domain known to all mammals in the womb which transcends the experience of time and concepts of life on earth. I hope it is not eternal torment which is possible in the mammal mind. If not then why imagine hell? Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 1:55
  • Eternity has psychological patterns. One is suspension of time. The awareness in this moment, and from moment to moment, often transcends (experience of) time. Another is never again. It is better to have loved and lost; but the loss is permanent; and in moments hurts like hell. Baruch Spinoza probably gives the best reduction model for our dramatic patterns when he describes an affect (emotion) as a feeling of desire, pleasure, or pain accompanied by an idea of its cause. Emotions (without censorship) can desire forgiveness for my sins and eternal punishment for grave sins of others! Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 20:37

6 Answers 6


Sheol in the Torah is described as the abode of both the righteous and unrighteous dead, and though the practice was forbidden the dead could be summoned to speak from there, like by the Witch King of Endor. It bears close comparison to Hades, as basically 'the grave', and so naturally an eternal abode - although the Sadducee–Pharisee ideological rift was largely about how literal the afterlife was, and how much emphasis should be on it. Gehenna refers to the Valley of Hinnom, a place cursed by a prophet because kings of Judah had sacrificed their children there, it was considered a destination of special torment, although it is not mentioned in this role in the Torah. It bears some comparison to Tartarus, the prison of the Titans below Hades.

The King James Version of the Bible translates both Sheol and Gehenna with the Anglo-Saxon word hell, and it's the only translation to do this. The original New Testament uses Gehenna when describing punishment like for breaking commandments eg with idolatry, calling it a place of destruction of the body and soul, indicating not having a place in 'the world to come', after the Resurrection. It uses Hades, in the context of the result of forgetfulness, not breaking the rules but not keeping to all the practices.

The word 'netzach' in Hebrew which is translated as eternal, is literally used to mean 'everlasting'. But, as the name of the seventh of the ten sephirot in the Kabbalah, it is used to refer to perpetuity, endurance, and to communicate the idea of long-suffering, strength, endurance unto completion or patience, and spiritually as the development of fortitude and patience to follow through on your passions. In the New Testament, it is also translated as 'patience' in the context of the 'fruits of the spirit' (Galatians 5:22).

So I would contend, if Gehenna is a place of destruction in the Bible, destruction cannot go on eternally, or it would never be completed. But in the context of contrast to the promise of eternal life, it means to go to the grave forever. It is eternal in the sense of no return, not in the sense of unlimited punishment.

In this answer I discussed the symbolic and metaphorical role of Heaven, in contrast to the Resurrection and joining the 'world to come': What are some philosophical works that explore constructing meaning in life from an agnostic or atheist view? The TLDR is that the former relates back to practice of naming constellations after heroes, so that their stories must be learned (at least by any navigator) and can become ongoing guides for life - those in the Bible who explicitly go to Heaven are exceptional saintly people, whereas the promise of eternal life meaning of Resurrection goes to those who believe (justificio sola fide). As a metaphor, we can understand that our stories can in a sense keep us alive forever (in theory), by people not only learning them but using the guidance of the stories to ask 'what would x character do here?'

I do think eternal punishment for finite crimes would be immoral. It would also seem like a waste of resources by a deity that clearly didn't want the condemned around. But, even most Christians don't get taught to distinguish Heaven and the Resurrection, and I think there is a similar confusion about going into everlasting destruction in a cursed place, rather than going to a place of eternal torment; and unfortunately Christianity just went with ignoring that. Hell could be thought of metaphorically as a place of being remembered not as a guide and inspiration, but as an example of what not to do.

The only New Testament line that seems to directly asserts Hell as eternal is:

“the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever and they have no rest day and night” -Revelation 14:11

And that can be understood as the consequences of bad actions emanating eternally.

To be clear, my view us not supported by any major Christian denomination as far as I know. But I don't think they read their book properly. In this answer I talk about the issues of different religions having only specific ways they can update their doctrines: The Ethics of Finding Comfort in Religion: Balancing Personal Benefits and Societal Harm I've always thought the Jewish system of rabbis having to argue everything out with references to texts, results in much more coherent theology and interpretations that also get adapted more usefully to the community, versus just having a handful of Ecumenical Councils plus infallibility of the Pope.

There are probably people now who would tell me I'm going to Hell for my views. And until a few hundred years ago I might have got fiery torment in this life, and been burned at the stake (Cathars had what look now pretty minor theological differences and got the Inquisition). But as Socrates showed with the Euthyphro Dilemma, piety must mean using our reason to understand it, not just doing what we are told.

In this answer I discuss how it's better to think about a religions in terms of how a community can be bound together and cohere around values, rather than as speculative cosmologies: Is there such a thing as weak evidence?

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    See also Rev. 20 for the very literal eternal punishment of those who side with Satan at the end of the world ("they will be tormented day and night for ever"); Luke 16 for what very much appears to be a place of torment, but not destruction; and Matthew 25 for "eternal punishment". Good answer, though.
    – g s
    Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 4:33
  • Thank you for the correction on Judaism. It is also my understanding that different factions or denominations of Christianity and Islam have wildly varying views on afterlife and how judgment is metered. However my question only seeks to understand this basic popular belief of eternal punishment purely from an ethical point of view without getting lost in the theology of it all. Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 7:22
  • @OgwenoEmmanuel: Then the answer would just be: Infinite punishments for finite crimes is obviously immoral.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 7:45
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    I have only read a few translations into English, and I have only read one translation of scripture cover to cover twice (New American Bible, print version, circa 1986 - bible.usccb.org/bible). As I recall, in the Gospels, Jesus warns against the consequences of sin using the term Gehenna. Elsewhere he says, "The sins against the Son will be forgiven; the sins against the Father will be forgiven; but the sins against the holy spirit will not be forgiven." I am not impressed by theological interpretations of sins against the holy spirit. I think it is an iron law of psychology. Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 20:57

The threat of eternal punishment after death for a sin committed by a living person is the ultimate expression of the "just wait until your father gets home!" threat. Only in the eternal punishment instance, the threat is empty because no objective evidence exists that there is an afterlife in which you will be subject to eternal torture, or anything else for that matter.

But for those who do believe in that, it is a means of controlling the behavior of easily-fooled people and is in fact a demonstration that the god who wishes to control your behavior is not just, kind, or loving, but insanely vengeful, petty, spiteful, and wildly unjust... in short, not worthy of worship at all (if this makes no sense to you, it's OK! Religious belief, at least old-testament style, is not about ethics, or making sense).

It is also a perfect expression of sado-masochistic abuse: love me before all else, including life itself, or I'll torture you for all of eternity (oh and by the way, prove you love and obey me by slaughtering your own child on my command).

  • Not really in the spirit of the question.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jul 2, 2023 at 22:36
  • @CriglCragl, I invite you to post your own response. -NN Commented Jul 2, 2023 at 23:16

Why is it unethical to warn people of dire consequences? You are not actually perpetrating them, and nobody knows whether souls really do burn in hell forever.

Was Struwwelpeter unethical, for putting the frighteners on children misbehaving?

  • Surely the question is, is it ethical for gid to ordain such eternal punishment?
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jul 2, 2023 at 22:47
  • @CriglCragl when did gid say or even do that? People attribute all kinds of stuff to gid, claiming to speak for them. And does it matter who said it to determine its ethicality? One should look at the intent, which is to encourage people to behave properly; not to inflict lasting pain. Commented Jul 2, 2023 at 22:50
  • It says Judeo-Christian, that means taking the Old Testament/Torah seriously at a minimum
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jul 2, 2023 at 23:12

The mainstream position in Christian apologia to defend an eternal literal hell in the context of a just omnipotent God is this: Hell is voluntary because all people are given sufficient knowledge of Heaven and Hell and sufficient grace to repent. This may at least defer the question of ethics to the question of whether additional constraints on human freedom are ethically obligatory.

This position seems to me to be inconsistent with the real minds of real nonbelievers, and to contradict the behavior of most believers. I'm just reporting, not asserting.

I can't speak well to non-Christian apologetics.


By no means am I a theologian (I can't even read any other language besides English) but it occurs to me that simple logic suggests there is an end to suffering. 1st Timothy 2:1-6 "I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3 This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all people" A little digging finds nothing vague about the Greek word translated "all". All means all. Now if you believe that God, who is omnipotent, wants or wills something, then it necessarily happens. Not only does He want AND will that ALL shall be saved but He took a very specific and dramatic set of actions to ensure that what He wants and wills comes to be. There's like,a whole book about it ...



The best (also the most perverse) argument for it from the human/non-divine perspective is, imho

As a matter of historical fact, in any case, some of the most influential theologians in the Western tradition, including some who are widely admired as heroes of faith, have not only made an eternal torture chamber an important part of their teaching about hell; they seem also to have gloried in the idea that the torments of those writhing in hell forever will increase the joy of those in heaven. Jonathan Edwards thus wrote: “When the saints in glory … shall see how miserable others of their fellow-creatures are, who were naturally in the same circumstances with themselves; when they shall see the smoke of their torment, and the raging of the flames of their burning, and hear their dolorous shrieks and cries, and consider that they [the saints] in the mean time are in the most blissful state and shall surely be in it to all eternity; how will they rejoice!” (Edwards 1834, sec. II [available online]).

I suppose you could say that God cannot trick us into good behaviour, but this isn't about good behaviour anyway, as far as I know, it's about faith in God.

Personally speaking, I certainly don't believe in physically tormented and rent bodies as a precondition of anything but my own unhappiness. I have also suffered mental trauma extreme enough not to feel comfortable with the idea of such a thing existing anywhere ever again, and would not wish it on anyone, permanently or otherwise.

Are you comfortable with the idea of serial rapists experiencing an eternity of joyful bliss in some next life? I'm not sure.

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