Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Hell: A Helluva Concept

Originally posted on January 16, 2008

Speaking from the role of child psychiatrist, I think the concept of hell is a form of emotional abuse no less than beating a child with the buckle of a belt or a stick is physical abuse. It is a nasty, unnecessary idea that is part of a culture that reared children primarily through the medium of fear and coercion rather than love and encouragement. This culture is still very pervasive in the world. Remember the happy-sounding “School Days” song from the early 20th century?
“School, days, school days, good old golden-rule days….”
(Okay, that seems like a nice, good-old-days feel-good image… people treating each other with the Golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.) But then the lyric goes on:
“Readin’ and (w)ritin’ and ‘rithmetic, taught to the tune of a hick’ry stick…”

Teaching to the tune of a stick? What does that mean? It means the teacher makes the “music” of a whizzing sound as she swings the stick through the air and strikes a child’s body with it! Now, consider how much that would hurt! Whoa! Within this sweet, bouncing melody there is a nasty subliminal message: That hickory stick was used to hit kids if they didn’t answer correctly! (And dyslexic kids got hit a lot because they obviously “weren’t trying hard enough.”)

Now picture the scene: It wasn’t just one strike, but several! We’re talking about a degree of physical abuse that would get teachers fired today, if not criminally prosecuted. But it was standard experience for great-great-grandparents.

So was being told that if they weren’t “good” they’d be “punished.” A “good whupping.” Aw, it’s just a spanking. Oh, yeah? Ask about it, read up a bit on what corporal punishment was like, and what behaviors were judged to merit it. It isn’t a pretty picture, and there’s still a fair amount of paddling and hitting allowed today, especially in religious schools that believe in “spare the rod and spoil the child.” Ask around.

Beating a child is really pretty bad, generates trauma and resentment, humiliation, and other negative emotions, far more than a resolve to “be good.” I’m talking about ever-lasting punishment—and not just sitting in time-out. I’m talking about torture. Now, let’s remember what inflicting intentional repeated pain is, and that what Hell is about is being tortured.

In addition to the pain, there’s the mind-twisting. You’re supposed to love the one who is torturing you. Okay, Satan is torturing you, or his demons. But God sent you here, and God permits the existence of Hell. It doesn’t take a lot of figuring out to get that clear.

You’re supposed to love your God with your whole heart, and if you don’t, then God knows all and can tell, and God will be angry and punish you and send you to hell. Now how can you get yourself to love a God who is likely as not going to ensure that you are tortured eternally?  In psychology, this is called a double bind: Not only is it an impossible dilemma, but it is compounded again by your being unable to leave the scene—go live in another universe with a more sensible God, for example—and you can’t effectively protest that this whole thing is crazy as hell, because you’ll be thought of as a sinner and there you are back in trouble—BIG trouble.

What is Torture

Now torture—let’s do just a little teeny tiny torture here in a thought experiment: You sit there and watch someone you don’t even like very much be tortured. That person sits there and gets pinched hard enough to really get him yelping. Then it happens again in 30 seconds. Ooowwww! And again! Hey! No kidding! Stop it! And again. And again. And again. Every 30 seconds. Now he or she is starting to cry! Helpless, straining against his bonds: Yow! Please!  After a couple of minutes, she’s begging for mercy. You just sit there. You’re not doing anything, just watching, and hearing the cries. And it continues. Ow! Yikes! Ooooh! Every thirty seconds.

You could stop it if you only stand up and shout, “Enough.” But you figure, hey, the victim deserves it, he must, or he wouldn’t be being punished. Authorities must know better, they must have a good reason. Okay, let him be punished. A hundred lashes or something. And let’s make this even more vivid: It turns out that the victim is someone you don’t like very much. Think of the worst people you can imagine and that this guy is one of those.

Let’s make it even worse: The victim is someone you hate. A terrorist criminal psychopathic nasty, nasty man. H killed your mom or brother. So you let ‘im get what’s coming to him! Nyah nyah nyah!

Now the problem in this thought experiment is that you can get up and go eat and go to the bathroom, but part of your eyes and ears keep seeing this scene—every thirty seconds, pain, real pain, deep pain, and… get this, slowly, the person is getting the idea that this pain is going to keep happening, will never stop: So you get to see that person’s despair, too. You can go to heaven and be in bliss but… part of you is vividly aware that this enemy, this nastiest of people, is getting his, is getting what he deserves, and you can see every expression on his face and hear his cries. (Thankfully, you don’t feel his pain, unless you’re sensitive and empathic, but those categories are too troublesome to think about.) Point is, you can’t forget—the old out of sight out of mind business.  You are vividly aware this guy is getting tortured.

And you begin to wonder yourself, how long is this going to go on?  Okay, how about constant repeated pain for a month? (You have to remain aware of each stab of pain even if you busy yourself elsewhere.). Two months? Could you stand it?  How about two weeks? Some of you out there are saying three months!  Don’t be too quick about the easy phrase “forever” now. At what point would you be moved to stop and scream, “Enough!”  (Now imagine that the pain being created is from an even more painful instrument or device, it creates excruciating pain, and it happens every five seconds! Imagine the screams, the pleas for mercy, the crying.)

Remember, this is what the Bill of Rights speaks about—in the 18th century, reasonable people were beginning to question the previous century’s barbaric practices of torture. Apparently it became more civilized to abandon this procedure either for extracting confessions or imposing punishment. (Of course, the Bush administration’s support of torture shows how excessively self-righteous people can rationalize cruelty and blind themselves to its reality.)

Okay, well, kings shouldn’t do this. Torture is nasty. And it would be harder to bear if you imagined that it was a kid getting tortured. But according to some religious beliefs, an all-Loving God can—and does—rightfully impose an eternity of torture on those who disobey certain rules. The problem is made worse because each of a thousand religions and sects disagree on which rules should be followed, which deserve the big punishment, and which maybe lesser punishments that remain unspecified—so you better be sure to find the right combination!

Now kids are taught that Hell is real, and that it happens, and some religions even teach that it happens to most people. Pretty scarey. I think sensitive kids who think about what is said to them get more upset, frightened, and traumatized than most people think. Kids sense what can’t be challenged, what the parents seem unwilling to hear. They learn that simply saying, “I don’t like that!” or “That’s not fair!” will be brushed aside.

Indeed, dare we say that some types of child rearing are evil? Can we say that torturing a child mentally is even half as evil as torturing a child physically? Kids believe this stuff—they don’t have a category of allegory or metaphor or something that cushions the imagery. And it generates a more problematic state of what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance”— mixed-up thinking—than folks want to recognize. To cope, the kids turn off. (It might make for an interesting research project to find out how well kids who believe in hell can engage in any level of critical thinking.)

There have been a number of books more recently challenging the wisdom of associating the concept of Hell with any concept of a Loving rather than a harshly punitive God. Suggested reading from a retired Presbyterian minister:
Wright, Keith. (200). The Hell Jesus never intended. Kelona, BC, Canada: Northstone / Wood Lake Books ( .)

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