Has Hell Bent Your Moral Compass?

I’ve been following the stories about ICE lately, separating parents from children, and recently in the city where I live, an unarmed Black teenager was shot by a police officer.

There have been the usual displays of awfulness from Christians trying to put the teenager on trial after the fact, and of course the general remarks that “If they didn’t want to be separated from their children, they shouldn’t have crossed the border illegally.”

Pause for a minute.

Since when was failure to follow instructions from a police officer a capital crime, punishable by death?

Since when was having your children ripped from your arms a reasonable consequence for crossing a national border illegally?

As I thought about this, it occurred to me that these defenses sounded familiar. They were essentially,

You didn’t obey, therefore you deserve whatever punishment you get.

I think this idea comes straight from hell.

Literally. For two reasons:

  1. Getting used to hell has made us comfortable with draconian punishments, like eternal torment for finite sins.
  2. Defending the doctrine has trained us to justify draconian punishments as appropriate.

Following are a few examples of ways people try to defend hell, and their parallels as defenses of the US’s evil actions against people who are either caught here illegally or caught trying to enter illegally.

“They chose it.”

This is popular. Hell isn’t so bad, and also the people who are there, are there because they didn’t want to be with God.

In the same way, being separated from your kids isn’t so bad – after all, we do it to other kinds of criminals (as if this was a defense!), and the people who are there, are there because they tried to cross the border illegally.

“They’re really bad.”

In The Way of the Master, trickster extraordinaire Ray Comfort explains that hell is appropriate because God has to punish sin, right? It wouldn’t make sense for Hitler not to go to hell. Therefore God has to punish everyone who does anything wrong with eternal damnation, somehow.

Similarly, every time our president talks about the border, he brings up MS-13. He says of people who cross the border illegally, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Also some people are sneaking across pretending to be families when they’re not. Therefore we have to punish everyone who crosses the border illegally with the toughest measures possible.

“If we let anyone in we could be in danger.”

Tangentially, I’ve seen claims that God commanded Canaanite genocide defended by saying they were really really bad and had to be eliminated. Israel’s failure to murder the infants of their enemies caused them to be in constant conflict, which was not God’s will for them. Bad consequences for failure to engage in wicked actions therefore prove those wicked actions would have been right.

Similarly, every time the president talks about people who are here illegally to defend his evil actions, there are stories about “family separations” in which some person gets murdered by someone who is here illegally. Bad consequences for failure to engage in wicked actions therefore prove those wicked actions would have been right.

“If we do nothing about rule-breaking, people will think they can do whatever they want.”

If God doesn’t torment people eternally for not obeying God’s laws, they will get the idea that they can do whatever they want. This fails to account for other options, like restorative justice, and it also doesn’t account for the possibility of deterrents that are less, well, hellish. It’s a silly idea that the only options for consequences are “literally the worst thing we can imagine” and “nothing at all.”

Similarly, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard  that anyone who thinks we shouldn’t separate children from their parents at the border should just leave their front door unlocked, as though the only choices for border security are “do nothing” and “traumatize children.”


I’m sure there are more examples of justifications for hell that have been nicely adapted to justify other horrors, but these are a few examples. (I would be interested to hear what others you can think of).

I’m not saying that these defenses necessarily were adapted from defenses of hell.

I’m just saying they look awfully familiar.


Comment notes: Yes, I realize that some of these portrayals of defenses of hell are slightly caricatured, but they are close enough for my purposes.

David M Schell About David M Schell
I am a doubter and a believer. I have a Master's in Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, but because faith grows and changes, I don't necessarily stand by everything I've ever written, so if you see something troubling further back, please ask! Read More.

2 thoughts on “Has Hell Bent Your Moral Compass?

  1. So, what about God being just and holy are these not his characteristics? Because if so, the concept of hell doesn’t seem contradictory to me at all. After all, if we all don’t deserve to go to hell what is the point of Jesus and what did He die for? And if Jesus specifically said he is the way the truth and the life and there’s no way to the father but through Him, that means we make the decision to reject Christ, then we have consequently made the decision for our eternity.

  2. Yes, God is just and holy. The idea of eternal damnation is incoherent from a justice perspective, and also from a holiness perspective. If God’s ways are higher than our ways, and we would not sentence someone to eternal torment for offending us (or whatever the excuse is), for God to do the same would make God’s ways *lower* than our ways.

    “If we all don’t deserve to go to hell what is the point of Jesus and what did He die for?” There are lots of ideas about that within Christianity. Here’s one: Christus Victor.

    To your last point, I’d like to note that “they chose it” is in my post. If it’s not immediately clear why “they chose it,” when “it” is a draconian punishment, is a horrific defense, I wrote a little story called

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