Imagine for a second that society had the means to enact a miniature hell for criminals. Rather than containing wrongdoers in prison, we have the option of perpetually confining them in a small room that simulates ongoing immolation. The room is inescapable, isolated from outside contact, and the flames are a synthetic invention that mimic the exact same sensations of real fire without actually having the potential to kill the prisoner. Once somebody is placed in a room like this, the law dictates that he or she will not be removed from the room until the end of his or her natural lifetime. Meanwhile, there is a system set up so that no innocent people are ever placed into one of these rooms by accident. And so the question is asked: who among us deserves to be burned alive?
In order for a system such as the one detailed above to be necessary, there are certain conditions that need to exist. There must be people who, beyond all doubt, deserve it. In addition, there must be reservations made in case the person sentenced to this treatment shows signs of reforming and a potential for rejoining normal society. After all, we would have made a great folly if we threw a redeemable human being into a locked and burning room. There must also be an indisputable moral line that separates those who deserve it from those who do not. Do we burn all criminals alive? Or just the serial killers? The ensuing debate would make it clear that there is no “one justice fits all” model. Fair judgment takes place according to reason, where crimes are punished respective to their severity. From my atheist perspective, the Christian idea of eternal torture appears to ignore the distinctions that need to be made in order for such extreme retribution to qualify as fair.
Comparing a person’s actions during their mortal lifetime to their existence throughout eternity feels a lot like judging somebody’s entire character based on how they acted when they were one week old. Christian hell appears to be entirely static with its administration of justice, even though people's behaviors, like moral standards, change over the years and depend on the culture. At the very least it seems that people are judged entirely on the actions they took and opinions they held during the first fraction of their existence. For this system to be fair, would we have to assume that people’s characteristics and personality traits become completely static after death as well? Existing in a state like this contradicts what we know of how malleable people are in life.
Individuals are always evolving as a result of changing environments and as they intake new knowledge, and it is not a stretch to assume that this attribute applies to their state in eternity as well. In addition, humans are usually very capable of consciously altering their behavior. Fair punishment would take these traits into consideration. Imagine that two people have committed the exact same crime of breaking and entering. One of the offenders has realized the error of his act and is remorseful, while the other shows no regret and even suggests that he could commit another crime. Should both of these people be sentenced to the same punishment? Perhaps they should, as one who commits a crime must suffer the consequences, regardless of his feelings after the act. But what if the former committed the crime in a moment of desperation because he needed to feed his family? What if before hard times befell him, he was always a kind and productive member of society who organized neighborhood social events? Sending this man to prison would ignore the larger problems which led to his actions. His choice was probably motivated by his unfortunate surroundings. If his circumstances changed, then his actions likely would as well.
As times change, standards on earth reflect and promote an increasingly nuanced understanding of right and wrong. We know that it is grossly unjust to throw all criminals into a giant oven. We know that sometimes people do bad things for a good reason, and that many people can change for the better. A country that immolated its wrongdoers would be accused of crimes against humanity. If we will condemn this kind of punishment to people on earth, then perhaps it is important to reexamine the implications of its application in the afterlife.
Victoria Zhang is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Cognitive Science. Her favorite summer movie was Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.