Mar 2, 2011

Adolf Hitler, Rob Bell, and Little Billy

It seems that, when Hell is being discussed, one's thoughts turn naturally towards that one person whom everyone is sure is there, Adolf Hitler.  So let's talk about Hitler, but not in the usual way*.  Instead, let's ask: what is a suitable punishment for Adolf Hitler?

We could start by ordaining that he suffer, in every detail and in exquisite consciousness, everything that his victims suffered.  The pain, the cold, the hunger, the deprivation, the fear--all of it.  And not just from the victims of the Holocaust, but all those who suffered and died in the war that he started, as well.

That's an awful lot of pain.  Millions of people suffered for years in the Holocaust and in WWII--granted, it wasn't nonstop suffering for some, but granted the numbers and the timescale involved, you're still looking at a couple hundred million years of hunger, pain, fear, and death.

Seems pretty fair, though--an eye for an eye, after all.  But there is also the matter of the deaths.  No one truly knows how many people died in the Second World War, but 60,000,000 seems a conservative estimate.  How do you punish someone for that many deaths?

Well, one obvious tactic, used by human judges, is to sentence the perpetrator to one year for every year that his victims would have otherwise lived, so let's take that approach.  In this case, however, we're feeling vindictive, so instead of one year of incarceration, it would be one year of unendurable torment.

Now, some victims were soldiers--young men, by definition--but civilian casualties run the gamut of ages from children to the old.  So, we generously guesstimate that the average victim would have otherwise lived for forty additional years; adding in the time already guesstimated and rounding up for good measure, we come up with a figure of three billion, give or take a few.

Three billion years of unendurable torment, and we will have reached something like a limit of retributive justice for Adolf Hitler, surely one of the most evil men to ever walk the planet.  And yet, this estimate may even be rather high: though Hitler was responsible for all that suffering, he was not solely responsible for it--he had his lieutenants, his henchmen, his willing servants at every level without whom his crimes would not have occurred.

Thus armed with our estimate of the limits of justice against Adolf Hitler**, let's ask another question: what is a suitable punishment for Little Billy?  Little Billy, if you recall, was the boy in the revival meeting who did NOT go forward to be saved, and instead walked out of the tent and was run over by the Hypothetical Bus.  You see, Little Billy's mother divorced his father for hitting them both, and Little Billy was presently unable to reconcile the horror of domestic abuse with the preacher's words about God the Father.

So, what's a fitting punishment for Little Billy?  Less than Adolf Hitler, or more than Adolf Hitler?

If you said 'Less than Adolf Hitler', then congratulations: you're a sane human being.

But suppose you said 'more'.  The question then becomes: how MUCH more?  Ten time as much?  A hundred?  Or, in a childish game of mathematical one-upmanship, infinity times as much?  Suppose then that you believed that a suitable punishment for Little Billy would be to suffer in unendurable torment, not for three billion years, not for thirty billion, not even three hundred billion, but for all eternity--what would that make you?

A Bible-believing Christian, if the blogs are to be believed:
[T]eaching that hell is empty and that you can reject Jesus and still be saved, [is] opposing the gospel and the biblical teaching of Jesus Christ. You may think that’s judgmental to say that; I think it’s being faithful.
The quotation would make more sense if we replaced 'faithful' with 'psychopathic'.  But there it is: the "Bible" "believing" "Christians"*** are having a collective swooning fit over the notion that a still-unpublished book will probably suggest that maybe, just maybe, an abused six year old who hears the story and doesn't believe it does not deserve to be punished infinity times worse than the limits that retributive justice would set for Hitler.

*The usual way to talk about Hitler is as a means of criticizing the universalists: if everyone gets into Heaven, one asks, then will Hitler be in Heaven as well?  Which is a fair question, and the main reason why though I tend towards universalism I never quite going the rainbow-and-bunnies route of everything-will-be-hunky-dory-when-we-die.  But my goal here is not to elucidate my own beliefs about the afterlife, which are tentative at best.  My goal is to follow certain other beliefs through to their conclusions and then to present the choice of abandoning the belief or embracing the insanity of its consequences.

**Or armed, at the very least, with the notion that just punishment has limits no matter how heinous the crime, or how high those limits are.  The amount of punishment that can be justly inflicted for a finite crime is always finite--so long as that point is remembered, the actual number that we pick is irrelevant.

***Biblical teachings of Jesus my arse.  Jesus' most prominent mentions of Hell, consist in the first place of telling a story in which a beggar goes to Heaven and the one who didn't care about him goes to hell, and in the second stating that those who do good deeds for the least of these go to heaven while those who don't go to hell, regardless of whether or not they knew Him.


  1. The mere thought that someone has to say some specific words or believe some prescribed theology to be "saved" is so patently ridiculous as to be laughable. The "Christian" belief that only followers of Jesus are the "chosen" is arrogant and triumphal and not deserving of any serious consideration.

    This belief would condemn the vast majority of people on earth to torment in hell. The loving God that I believe in is full of grace and beauty and love and, to use the words of Billy Graham, "the spirit of Christ is working in many people in the world who have never heard of Jesus or the Bible, who call themselves Muslim, atheist (etc.) but who are 'saved' and will be with us in Heaven".

    I'll let his words speak for me.

  2. I always thought that there was something unspeakably cruel in the belief that all sins are equal before God, and therefore all unrepentant sinners are deserving of hell. This line of thought fails to weigh the ethical content of actions (war and genocide for Hitler versus not believing for Little Billy). I agree -- Little Billy is NOT deserving of the same fate as Hitler.

  3. Personally I've always found the doctrine of hell almost a reductio ad absurdem for conservative Christianity. Generally there are four positions on what makes punishment just; retributivism, deterrence (both general and specific), incapcitationism, and and rehabilitaionism.

    The funny thing about hell is that it fails all four. As noted eternal punishment is completely out of whack with any possible crime that could have been committed by a human (especially the 'crime' of disbelief), obviously you can't rehabilitate dead people, nor can you deter them.

    General deterrence and incapacitation come closest to working, but in order to deter the general population it is helpful to give them reliable data showing that the wrongdoer is in fact being punished, which we don't have WRT to hell. As for incapacitation, you can do that to bad people without torturing them for eternity, which makes all that extra suffering pointless.

    Frankly I haven't the faintest idea how you could call a being who would sentence sentients to eternal torture 'good' in any recognizable sense of the word.

  4. I find that hell does deter people. My Mom told me she got saved because she didn't want to go to hell. Well then, suppose she were told hell couldn't really exist. She may have turned away from Jesus and continued living a very destructive lifestyle. Hell is a stark reality that we don't want to admit is there. But this is what I know, My God is just and loving and He will do what is right. If a world full of people are being dragged to hell by there sins we should be thankful that God himself liked us enough to make a way out of our sorry state.

  5. deterrence ignores truth. you can get kids to eat their vegetables by telling them that the boogeyman will get them if they don't, but it doesn't make the boogeyman real.

    "Hell is a stark reality that we don't want to admit is there. But this is what I know, My God is just and loving and He will do what is right. If a world full of people are being dragged to hell by there sins"

    but that's just what i'm questioning. infinite punishment for finite misdeeds isn't just ...