Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are religions that follow a belief where if you commit certain sins, you'll end up being eternally punished unless you're forgiven by a higher power.

Although the visualization of Hell was made popular by Dante's Inferno, there are various references in each of the major holy books of each faith that indicates a similar theme. From the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), Isaiah 33:14:

"The sinners in Zion are terrified; trembling grips the godless: 'Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?'"

From the New Testament, Matthew 25:41:

"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.'"

Lastly, from the Quran, Surah Al-Ma'ida 5:37, there is a quote, which I will not directly translate out of respect, that references an enduring punishment in fire.

Sins that result in going to Hell include unbelief, idolatry, dishonoring your parents, coveting others, blasphemy against God, not preying, and then of course the more egregious action of murder.

But I argue that this idea clashes with our human sense of forgiveness and mercy.

Imagine a loving parent forgiving their child for something that, in religious terms, could lead to eternal punishment. This makes us wonder if there's a mismatch between how humans forgive and how divine justice is supposed to work.

And when we think about the types of sins that supposedly deserve eternal punishment, including not believing in a certain way, mustn’t we question if the punishment fits the crime? I, as a human, feel it's rather unjust and petty for a soul to be tormented for eternity due to such benign acts. If humans, who aren't perfect, can forgive and understand, does the harshness of divine justice not suggest that humans have a greater capacity for forgiveness and are more merciful than our understanding of God’s?


4 Answers 4


The Problem of Hell has been tortured for thousands of years already, producing abundant resources for any perspective you might care to investigate, and also making it impossible for this question to be adequately responded to in a Stack Exchange answer. Here are some brief summaries.




Note that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have different concepts of Hell, different concepts of salvation therefrom, different concepts of Heaven, major differences even within those same religions of the same concepts, and correspondingly different theodicies.

Theodicies of Hell generally approach the definition of Hell (is it really a place of perpetual torment from which escape is difficult or impossible?); the question of who is in Hell and why (is it compulsory or freely and knowingly chosen?); or the definition of justice and mercy on a cosmic scale (must God punish sin to be good?).

  • Yes, if Hell is not a place of perpetual torment, if escape is not difficult, and if it is freely and knowingly chosen, then there is no problem of Hell. But this does not accord with usual beliefs about Hell.
    – causative
    Commented Apr 1 at 14:52
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    @causative, this is why the question is not philosophy. It will inevitably sink into bickering about what different religions believe. Commented Apr 1 at 16:20
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    @DavidGudeman Beliefs that hell is not perpetual, that it is not torment, that escape is not difficult, and that it is freely and knowingly chosen, are at best very fringe. The original question asks about the three "major monotheistic faiths" which indeed agree that hell is a place of eternal torment where sinners go.
    – causative
    Commented Apr 1 at 17:02
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    @causative, no, the alternatives are not fringe. This is why people who are interested in philosophy but not religions should avoid religious discussions, because they have mistaken ideas about religions based on their own peculiar experiences. Commented Apr 1 at 17:46
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    @SystemTheory, no, philosophers do not spend a lot of time bickering about what is good and how we should act to cause the good. They spend time in rational discussion about what it means for an act to be good, whether and how we can know that it is good, and similar abstract questions. Concrete question, such as whether a particular type of action such as forgiveness is good or not is not generally considered a philosophical issue. And what various religions happen to teach is also not a philosophical issue. Commented Apr 1 at 17:50
  1. OP’s question does not have a distinct answer.

    There do not exist distinct and concordant sources. Neither in the holy scripts of Jews, Christians and Muslims about god’s mercy, nor in psychology about the mercy of human parents. The question is a field for opinion based answers, according to each person’s religious stance.

  2. Focussing on Christian theologians from the Roman Catholic Church: The official catechism names exactly one distinguished sin which implies eternal punishment in the hell. That grave sin is the intentional refuse of Jahwe, the god of this religion.

    While on the other hand, there are no psychology investigations of human parents, which tell us how often parents forgive their children if they definitely divorce from them.

  3. In addition, the whole question has the handicap that there is no general agreement about the existence of the god of the three named religions.

    Hence atheists consider the whole subject a pseudo-problem. They consider all statements about gods as a human fiction. Atheists could interpret the above “primordial sin” as a trick to bind the religious followers irresolvably to their religious institution.

  • To your first point, I provide multiple examples indicating that there is quite clearly evidence in all three Holy scriptures pointing to God's mercy. Furthermore, the Interpersonal Forgiveness Theory by Robert Enright and colleagues does exactly address the concept of parental forgiveness. To your second point, all three doctrines address the idea of Hell, which I point to in my own response. Again, Robert Enright as well as Everett Worthington, and Michael McCullough have all provided research on parental apology and forgiveness. And 3, my question presumes God's existence.
    – mkinson
    Commented Apr 2 at 1:58

The War in Heaven and Satan's Continuing Battle for Power:


Elder Bruce R. McConkie wrote:

When the Eternal Father announced his plan of salvation—a plan that called for a mortal probation for all his spirit children; a plan that required a Redeemer to ransom men from the coming fall; a plan that could only operate if mortal men had agency—when the Father announced his plan, when he chose Christ as the Redeemer and rejected Lucifer, then there was war in heaven. That war was a war of words; it was a conflict of ideologies; it was a rebellion against God and his laws. Lucifer sought to dethrone God, to sit himself on the divine throne, and to save all men without reference to their works. He sought to deny men their agency so they could not sin. He offered a mortal life of carnality and sensuality, of evil and crime and murder, following which all men would be saved. His offer was a philosophical impossibility. There must needs be an opposition in all things. Unless there are opposites, there is nothing. There can be no light without darkness, no heat without cold, no virtue without vice, no good without evil, no salvation without damnation.

According to the article God gave man his agency. This is the doctrine of Free Will where Man is guilty for his sins. Then in heaven God and Jesus argue that some souls will suffer for eternity and cannot be saved! Lucifer says he can save them all but must take away man's agency! So in the context of atheist philosophy the story under the link is about social psychology, human agency, our sense of authority, our sense of sin, and our desire for eternal pleasure and an end to suffering.

In ethics we define the good (using moral judgment) and how one should act (using agency) to cause the good. Therefore there is no ethical judgment without moral judgment. I would join Lucifer and save all the souls, which is the good! But I would not take away their agency as the means to cause the good! Humans are always arguing over two questions. 1. What is good? 2. What is the best or proper means to cause the good? We call these the means and the ends.

In the gospels Jesus says the sins of against the Father will be forgiven; the sins against the Son will be forgiven; but the sins against the holy spirit will never be forgiven! No one has a clue how to decode the meaning of the sin against the holy spirit! I think this sin can be forgiven too but the person who sins against the holy spirit must only join with and become one with the holy spirit to stop the sin! How can a person who is one with the holy spirit suffer for eternity?

Jesus tells the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. I think the Rich Man lacks empathy in life and after death and this is a clue to the meaning of the sin against the holy spirit. In life the Rich Man cares more about feeding his dogs than the human suffering at the gate of his house. In death the Rich Man only feels sorry for himself and has no joy for Lazarus who finds comfort. In this context the story is a lesson in ethical and moral judgment.

But the problem of eternal suffering is further complicated if one assumes that an innocent soul can fall into hell through no fault of one's own. I suffered all my life in part because my grandfather suffered and died from a brain tumor when I was 2 1/2 - 4 1/2 years old. My empathy at that age and inability to reason about the cause were the primary source of the wound so I blamed myself and felt not good enough (guilt and shame) and did so automatically (lack of agency). Some people and perhaps mammals and other animals must have a sense of eternity in the present moment so emotions map not only to time but to eternity. Salvation is the idea that suffering ends in time and does not return in time so it is a joyful or peaceful eternity.

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, maps these questions of moral authority to a domain of the human ego called the superego. Freud describes himself as a godless Jew. I regard Freud as an atheist philosopher. I regard psychoanalysis as a branch of ethical philosophy. In psychoanalysis the human ego, the effort to govern action in the social world, is not to blame for its actions, anymore than we blame animals for their efforts to govern action. But humans always smuggle moral and ethical judgments into our social relations because we either approve or do not approve of human patterns of behavior. Freud thought the ego only needs to become good enough to become happy in the world of human affairs and to put off and defend against the anxiety of suffering or death into the future. Atheists are not concerned with eternal suffering or supernatural moral authority figures they are only concerned with the modes of happiness or suffering inherent in social life.


After some consideration, I've decided to take a hand at providing an answer to my own question and let the greater consensus judge. Philosophically speaking, this entire discussion is an inquiry into the attributes of God, particularly focusing on mercy and forgiveness.

To begin, let me break apart my own conjecture into parts so that I may address them separately:

  1. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all have several references so the continuation of life after death. Whereas if humans obey the laws set forth by their faith they will be met with everlasting happiness in some say, if humans do NOT obey the laws, and are unrepentant, they will be doomed to eternal damnation.
  2. Once humans have been sentenced to “hell” there is no return.
  3. An unbiased reasonable human would consider the punishment of eternal torment to be egregious for many of the actions that would cause damnation; AND, some humans would prefer forgiveness and mercy to those punished individuals that God presumably does not rescue from eternal torment.

There was some discussion from at least one critic of the question that refuted my depiction of the three monotheistic faiths: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. To support my claim, there are multiple references to that damnation being in torment and fire in each of the three texts: Bible, Quran, and Tanakh. These are quotes in addition to the ones already in the OP.

Bible, Revelation 20:14-15: “Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.”

Bible, Mark 9:43: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out.”

Tanakh, Psalms 9:17: “The wicked go down to the realm of the dead, all the nations that forget God.”

Tanakh, Isaiah 33:14: “The sinners in Zion are terrified; trembling grips the godless: 'Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?'”

Quran, Surah An-Nisa 4:56: This section is about those who do not believe in Islam being driven into fire, their skins roasting and being replaced over and over again so that they will forever be punished.

As these sections clearly indicate, the concept of Hell is well established as an eternal fire. Whether those who are cast into hell are ever able to escape, we have to look to other verses.

Bible, 25:46: "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

This verse is suggestive that the punishment of eternal damnation has no escape once someone is sent there.

Tanakh, Isaiah 66:24: "And they shall go out and look upon the carcasses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm does not die, and their fire is not quenched. They shall be an abhorrence to all flesh."

Although these verse doesn't reference hell, it does suggest that the punishment lasts forever.

Quran, Surah Al-Baqarah 2:81: This verse confirms that those sent to the Fire will live there for eternity.

Quran, Surah Al-Ma'idah 5:37: This is another verse that states that those sent to the Fire will wish to escape, but will never be able to do so and calling it an enduring punishment.

Based on these scriptures, I think that it is pretty clear that the three faiths have very similar views of hell, how to get there, and that once you're there you can't escape.

Before going into the final point I would be amiss if I ignored the quotations within the texts that would suggest that God is indeed merciful and forgiving, so let me include the most relevant I can identify.

Bible, Ephesians 1:7-8: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us.”

Bible, First book of John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

Bible, Matthew 6:14-15: “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

The most powerful argument given these three quotes from the bible would suggest that humans have every opportunity to seek redemption, and therefore avoid the risk of damnation. If that is true, then one could argue that damnation is not imposed by God but rather the result of the individual's own choices and actions and is avoided quite simply. That would perhaps demonstrate an unparalleled capacity for forgiveness and mercy.

Tanakh, Micah 7:18-19: “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.”

Tanakh, Isaiah 1:18: “Come now, let us settle the matter," says the Lord. "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.”

Although these are not strong quotes to demonstrate gods direct forgiveness or mercy, they could be supporting the idea that God honors the freedom of individuals to choose their own destiny, even if it leads to separation from Him. We are given free will and the choice to follow what is considered the righteous path. It is our own fault if we choose not to follow it.

More directly related is the Tanakh story of Jonah and the city of Nineveh, which was known for its wickedness. God was going to smote the entire city, but Jonah went and convinced the city to repent. Once they did, sincerely, God spared them destruction. This story is a bit of a double-edged sword in that it suggests God would have otherwise had no issue killing every last person in the city had they NOT repented, so although God had mercy in this story, the story itself would require an entirely different discussion on the morality of committing the act of smiting an entire city.

Quran, Surah Al-Baqarah 39:53 indicates that Allah forgives all sins, and refers to him as the Forgiving and the Merciful.

Quran, Surah Al-Ghafir 40:3 refers to Alah as the Forgiver of sin and the Acceptor of repentance.

Just like in the Tanakh, these are not direct demonstrations of forgiveness but of the proclamation of His mercy. However, in Surah Al-A'raf 7:153, Israelites beg forgiveness after worshiping the golden calf, and Allah did indeed forgive them for their “grave sin”. This same story occurs in Exodus 32:1-6 of the Old Testament.

In Surah Al-Ma'idah 5:39, another individual committed a sin but repented, and the story indicates that if a person repents and amends their ways Allah will forgive them.

All three holy texts have stories and/or parables that in some way claim the mercy and forgiveness of God, but in the majority of all three it is proclamation by Gods followers that claim these traits whereas there are very few actions committed by God directly other than what I've listed already, with the exception of Christianity where God gave up his only Son, which of course was also God, in order to provide mass forgiveness to all people of the earth and provide a path for all future generations to find their way to heaven.

Personally, I find it quite contradictory that an all powerful entity would forgive us our sins by having a part of Himself brutally murdered, and then call that mercy... but perhaps it was for dramatic effect as a wake-up call.

And thus, I move onto the third point.

Even considering the argument that God gives humans free will and the ability to choose between good and evil, and that eternal damnation is the consequence of rejecting God's forgiveness and choosing to live in opposition to His will, if a person is good in every way but rejects that there is a God, according to all three faiths that person is condemned to Hell or the Fire.

So, in my limited understanding, here are some major questions to consider:

  1. Should the countless humans who are not raised in a Christian, Jewish, or Islamic background be cast into Hell for not believing in God?
  2. If a human lives their entire life being generous to others, being friendly and kind, supporting their community, etc. and never commits a crime as established by their government, but rejects the idea of God, should they be condemned to hell?

I could list many similar examples, but these two are enough to illustrate the quandary. According to scripture the answer to both of those questions is yes, God as we've depicted Him would commit these people to the eternal Fire.

I maintain that a non-biased reasonable human would be capable of forgiving those actions, which the Holy Texts indicate are punishable by eternal damnation. I also maintain that IF our depiction of God is accurate to the teachings supported within those texts, then YES, humans are capable of greater mercy and forgiveness than God.

I would additionally suggest that humans are, in every way, capable of providing the exact same capacity for forgiveness and mercy as depicted in any and all of the religious texts written, and that the use of eternal damnation as a form of divine justice, ensuring that those who persistently reject God's mercy and forgiveness face such cruel consequences, is indicative that in fact God is NOT merciful or forgiving in the least.

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