When asking such a question, it might be prudent to be more specific. “Cease to exist” is pretty well understood1, but “Hell” means different things to different religions. Even within a religion like Christianity, various factions disagree about what Hell is.
So, let me be specific. I’m talking about Evangelical-Christian-Bible-Thumping-Fire-and-Brimstone-Hell. The Hell that a red-faced man with high cholesterol bellows from behind a pew, “HELL FIIIRE!” in his Georgian drawl, as he uses his handkerchief to wipe the beads of sweat dripping down his glistening head.
Hell on Earth
So… everything people say is supposed to happen to you in Hell, already happens regularly on Earth. Just look up “smallpox” on Wikipedia, and be somewhat knowledgeable about human history.
Ok, don’t look up smallpox on Wikipedia. You’ll regret it.
Are you worried about being burned alive? Happens every day. Worried about parasites? Billions of people have parasites, and millions die from them. Torture? Every day occurrence. Disease? You did look up smallpox didn’t you?
The traditional and most popular interpretation of the Christian Bible – that Hell is supposed to be a firey pit2 where demons torture you for eternity – seems more pagan than Christian. After all, aren’t the demons supposed to be tortured too? Or is it just one big torture orgy?
Forgive the lightness with which I treat it, but it’s to make a point. If you just read what the bible says about hell, and ignore the scare-mongering of zealots, and the medieval art pieces, and Dante’s Inferno, you get this very opaque image of a place where God’s presence doesn’t exist. It may or may not have fire, it may or may not be forever, and it may or may not mean you cease to exist.
You see, when I think about it like a businessman, I don’t think a special place called Hell is actually necessary3. Earth would do.
The Medieval concept of Hell seems…inefficient
It seems more efficient to resurrect everyone that has ever lived, make it impossible for men to die4, and force them all to live in this fallen universe together. You’d still have iPhones, and nukes, and ice cream. You just couldn’t kill anyone. Everyone would live forever. The inability to die has some serious implications.
“Imagine what type of creature you’d turn into if cancer didn’t kill you? You’d look like Jabba the Hutt.”
Imagine what a Genghis Khan or an Alexander the Great could do if they lived forever, and had access to today’s technology. Death would be better. Life would just be constant slavery, with the slave masters rotating every so often.
Hell would just be H.P. Lovecraft’s earth, except you wouldn’t die from smallpox or cancer, you wouldn’t die from anything. You’d just exist with it. Imagine what type of creature you’d turn into if cancer didn’t kill you? You’d look like Jabba the Hutt.
Imagine if you didn’t die from smallpox, and it just lingered forever. Eventually due to evolution, your diseases might get diseases. Your smallpox would have smallpox. You’d just be one giant Pox, and by then you’d be insane. Death would be better.
And the LORD God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” Genesis 3:22, NIV
What would happen to you if you were beheaded, and then they tossed your head into a cave? What if people forgot about the cave, and you were in there alone, for thousands of years, a home for cockroaches and worms? You’d just be this bodiless head in a cave, in pain, bored as hell, and going insane.
Another more efficient solution could be to resurrect everyone that has ever lived, make them eternal, not immortal 5, and then let hijinks ensue. You’d have the same issue with super-intelligent sociopaths running around trying to take over the world, but you could at least kill them. Whoever is the most proficient at killing has both an advantage and disadvantage here. If you kill everyone, you’re all alone, so you don’t want to kill everyone. You need to keep enough people alive to apportion some as friends, and others as slaves.6 In this variation, if you die, Hell is over for you. You cease to exist. Speaking of…
For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun. Ecclesiastes 9:5-6
To be, or not to be, that is the question, no? I can remember as far back to my earliest memory, and then nothing. The invention of the wheel, the Black Plague, and the Cuban Missile Crisis all took place without anyone asking my input. Not existing wasn’t so bad I guess, I wasn’t happy or sad, or anything, really. But “never having existed” isn’t quite the same thing as “non-existence”. The former has no tradeoffs, no goodbyes, no jet plane to leave on.
Hell is in effect…doable. If it wasn’t doable, why create it?
I’m not bothered by the 13 billion years of the history of the universe I missed. It’s going from existence back to nothingness that becomes a terrifying thought for me. In my mind, Hell is the lesser punishment than annihilation. As long as I exist, there is a chance of reprieve. As long as I exist, there is a chance pain is temporary, even if it’s repetitive. As long as I exist, there is hope.
If Hell’s pain endures forever and ever, then it means it’s endurable. If Hell was to be feared over annihilation, then the pain of Hell would have to be so great that you couldn’t bear it, and it would literally destroy you…ending in your non-existence.
Put presuppositions aside, and imagine that Hell exists right now this very second, somewhere in the universe, and that one of your great great ancestors is there (God forbid). Say he died 200 years ago. Technically, if you were to go to hell and stand right next to him, he’d be screaming in agony or whatever it were, and he could say, “I’ve been doing this – aaaargh, the pain – day in and day out for 200 years.” So you’d in effect have an example of someone able to endure the pain of hell for 200 years. Hell is in effect…doable. If it wasn’t doable, why create it?
The pain of annihilation isn’t endurable, that’s why everyone who is annihilated, ceases to exist. The fact that you can “live forever in hell” puts an upper limit on the pain. The classic evangelical line being, “You will live forever. The question is where.”
Answering the question
The threat of non-existence is the finality of it. That you will never feel again, never love again, never cry again…never be again. The pain of non-existence isn’t in non-existence. It’s only in judgement, the waking up into the afterlife to be face to face with a God, who explains to you why there is a future, but you have no part in it. It’s a very different situation than never having existed.
If the universe was such that we all come from nothing and return to nothing, or the universe goes through cycles of expansion and contraction for eternity, with the sum of all energy being 0, then you could reap some catharsis before annihilation with your last memories that your life did mean something even for a little bit. But if the universe is such that you exist as the figment of the imagination of a God-mind, and the future will go on forever without you, and that your life meant nothing, though it could have meant something… That’s when it gets painful.
If I’m in hell, at least I remember the people that I loved while I was alive. At least I’m still me. Self identity is a gift in itself. Existence is it’s own pleasure.7 If I cease to exist, I don’t even get that.
With reincarnation, you still forget those that you once loved, but you will fall in love again, you will feel again, forever and ever. Life becomes a series of moments that are forgotten, but with the eternal chance of more moments, good and bad.
I associate non-existence with the darkness and the cold. For me the idea of destruction – complete and utter annihilation – isn’t an explosion. It’s being in a place with no light, and slowly getting colder and colder, until you are no more. I associate life with light and heat.
In hell, at least somebody’s mad at you, so in some sense you still matter, and there’s a chance at forgiveness.
I’d still prefer my efficient version of hell, where you’re immortal living on Earth, with cancer and smallpox. I might rather drink gasoline than contract smallpox, but I’d rather have smallpox than forget the love I have for my daughter: to forget her little smile, or her smell. Even as a bodiless head in the cave for a thousand years, I’d still be me. In Hell, I could still call out to God in my mind. Even if he refused to answer, I’d know he could hear me 8. That alone would provide comfort.
So my answer is Hell. If forced to choose, I’d stick it out in Hell, even if it was forever. For me, annihilation is the more terrifying judgement. In annihilation, there is no hope. It’s the ultimate abandonment. If you do not exist, you cannot cry out to God. Existence in itself is partaking of the presence of God.
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.Psalm 139:8
Addendum: Making what you can’t find
Every once in a while, I’ll enter a google search, only to find that the thing I’m looking for, doesn’t exist in any meaningful form. By meaningful, in this case, I mean in essay form. I found only scattered forum posts dealing with this question.
It’s interesting that in searching for this topic, I’ve found a pattern, that most of the people who ask this question, actually would rather go to hell than cease to exist, but most people polled would rather cease to exist. It seems that people who conjure up this question on their own, are more terrified about losing the conscious sense of self, than they are afraid of pain and torture.
I wonder what my answer says about me as a person. Am I inherently optimistic? Am I a narcissist? Am I less prone to suicidal thoughts? A psychologist could have a field day with this.
To save you some time, I’ve compiled some quotes about this question that really stood out to me. To find their source, simply copy and paste the entire quote into Google. The names credited are just online pseudonyms.
|Voted for Hell||Voted for Non-Existence|
|Perhaps it is recognizing that your entire life will be erased, voiding it of any meaning whatsoever. It will be as though you never existed at all. Obviously, once you’re there, you won’t have to bother thinking about it. But, thinking about it now is what’s so disturbing…realizing that you won’t remember this “now.”9 – Lucretius||The problem with non-existence (which is what I believe actually happens) is that it would end all hope for the possibility of resolution and fulfillment. There would be no self to have any feelings at all, which is the second most horrible thing I can imagine next to existing in perpetuity feeling only the most intense possible form of pure terror. – Snail|
|I would rather exist in some kind of way even if I’m suffering rather than cease to exist completely. – SycoNautix||I’d much rather cease to exist than be tortured for all eternity without chance of parole. After all, there’s nothing to be afraid of there – it’d be just like not being born10. You don’t mourn for the years that passed before you were born, do you? – Ivan|
|I’d rather burn in Hell for all eternity, hypothetically, because then at least the eternal pain would reassure me that at least I am still… me, that I can feel and think and exist. – Alexis||Cease to exist hands down. Jesus said it would have been better that Judas Iscariot had never been born.1112 – Nice Guy|
|Personally nothing seems far worse to me than anything could ever be. In other words I would pick hell hands down every time. – DaEaterOfCake||I would rather cease to exist. Burning is much too painful. – R.Peterson|
|For most believers, the idea of never coming back, is hell. Maybe knowing you were bad enough not to be woke up13 is all the punishment God really needs to impose on a person. I know some really just want to believe people burn in eternal agony, like it brings a sick pleasure to them to think of it happening to other people. – Heretic||Cease to exist of course. I don’t see any problem with that . I didn’t exist for BILLIONS of years and I felt no kind of pain. – Arctic Fox|
Featured Image Credit: Alex Alexandrov
In the off chance it’s not understood, I mean the ceasing to exist of your consciousness, your soul, your spirit, your mind, your ego, your personality, your brain, or your self. Many ideologies use those words to describe the same thing. And yes, I know how bad you want to argue that they’re not the same thing. For the purposes of this discussion, we’re talking about all of those things that make you: you, ceasing to exist.↩
Many theologians believe Hell is actually a staging area for souls awaiting judgement day and the “Lake of Fire” is actually the “second death” which is destruction or annihilation. It’s one of those things not taught very often in churches, so most Christian lay people have no clue what to believe regarding this.↩
I know, I know. Why create a hundred billion stars per galaxy, and a hundred billion galaxies? Cuz you’re just that awesome and you can. Just work with me here, what I’m saying will eventually make sense.↩
And impossible for them to reproduce.↩
Meaning the only way you could die was from violence. Like a Greek god.↩
This isn’t all that different from North Korea.↩
This means that even if the Evangelical-Christian-Bible-Thumping-Fire-and-Brimstone-Hell exists, that it’s not devoid of pleasure.↩
God’s ability to hear my thoughts, even in Hell, is a consequence of his omniscience↩
Actually, he didn’t vote for Hell, he was just explaining why someone might.↩
Actually, not really. As I touched on earlier in the article.↩
True, Jesus does say this in Matthew 26:24 and Mark 14:21, but here the context is the same as what I’m advocating. It’s “never having existed” is better than “annihilation”. ↩
Solomon says something similar:
Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed– and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors– and they have no comforter. And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is the one who has never been born, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 4:1-3↩