Why was the idea of hell invented? Wouldn’t the promise of eternal happiness up in heaven be enough to get people to walk the straight and narrow? No, probably not.
As evidence, here’s a scene from Bedazzled, a terrific movie from 1967 that starred the English comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (sorry, couldn’t find a video).
Both temporarily dressed as London traffic cops, Lucifer (Cook) is explaining to Stanley (Moore) why he got thrown out of heaven and is now stuck making trouble on Earth:
It was pride that got me into this. I used to be an angel, up in heaven.
Oh yeah, you used to be God’s favorite, didn’t you?
That’s right. “I Love Lucifer” it was in those days.
What was it like up in heaven?
Very nice, really. We used to sit around all day and adore him. Believe me, he was adorable, just about the most adorable thing you ever did see.
Well, what went wrong then?
I’ll show you. (Approaches mail box.) Here we are. Give me a leg up, would you?
(Sitting on mailbox, legs crossed.) I’m God. This is my throne, see? All around me are the cherubim, seraphim, continually crying “Holy, holy, holy.” The angels, archangels, that sort of thing. Now you be me, Lucifer, the loveliest angel of them all.
What do I do?
Well, sort of dance around praising me really.
What sort of things do I say?
Anything that comes into your head that’s nice. How beautiful I am, how wise, how handsome, that sort of thing. Come on, start dancing!
(Singing and dancing) You’re wise, you’re beautiful, you’re handsome.
Thank you very much.
The universe, what a wonderful idea, take my hat off to you.
Trees, terrific! Water, another good one.
That was a good one. Yes.
Sex, top marks!
Now make it more personal. A bit more fulsome, please. Come on!
Immortal, invisible. You’re handsome, you’re, uh, you’re glorious.
Thank you. More!
You’re the most beautiful person in the world!
(Stops dancing) Here, I’m getting a bit bored with this. Can’t we change places?
That’s exactly how I felt. I only wanted to be like him and have a few angels adoring me. He didn’t see it like that. Pride, he called it. The sin of pride. Flew into a monumental rage, chucked me out of heaven, gave me this miserable job. Just because I wanted to be loved!
I had no idea. It’s a very sad story.
I suppose he had his reasons…. He moves in very mysterious ways, you know.
I mean, apart from the way he moves, what’s God like, really?
He’s all colors of the rainbow — many-hued.
But he is English, isn’t he?
Oh yes, very upper-class.
Peter Cook, who wrote the script, wasn’t the first to suggest that heaven would be boring. It’s hard to even imagine how it could be interesting for more than a while. How could bliss last forever? Would God be so wonderful that being nearby would be eternally pleasurable? It doesn’t seem all that appealing to me. For one thing, we don’t even know what God is supposed to be like, so it’s hard to imagine why being in the divine presence would be so wonderful. It certainly doesn’t seem that singing God’s praises would be a good way to spend eternity.
Maybe it would help if one’s nearness to God fluctuated. That would introduce anticipation and contrast: “Now I’m further away. If only I were closer! Yes, like that. Excellent!” That way, the whole eternal experience would be pleasurable, but not always equally so. Changing one’s perspective like that would seem to cause emotional ups and downs, however, which sounds rather unheavenly. Plus, cycling between higher and lower pleasures for eternity might still be less than blissful (been there, done that, forever).
In addition, some of the greatest pleasures we know presumably wouldn’t have much of a role in heaven. Being reunited with someone you haven’t seen for a long time, for example. How often could you have the pleasure of seeing someone again? Would you miss them in the meantime (negative emotion again)? Or winning a competition. Are there losers in heaven? For that matter, are there really good discussions in heaven? Do you have to watch what you say, the way you do in church? Can you be yourself in heaven? And how about sex? Are there orgasms in heaven?
The more I think about heaven, the less heavenly it sounds. And also the less feasible. Hell, on the other hand, is far easier to imagine. Ever see that Star Trek episode with the two guys who are colored black and white, but on opposite sides? They hate each others guts. To the point that when the show ends, they’re sent out into space to wrestle with each other forever. At least that’s the way I remember it. The ending is unsettling. Trapped forever in a very small space fighting someone who wants to destroy you. It sounds terrible.
So do the various tortures supposedly popular in hell. Sitting in a pool of lava for eternity. Or being eaten alive forever, like Prometheus on his rock.
But maybe if you were tortured forever, you’d get used to it. Eventually get bored with the whole thing. Somehow, that doesn’t seem likely. Serious pain doesn’t lose its unpleasantness as time goes by. You can “learn to live with it”, but it still hurts like hell (my point exactly). And it’s so easier to imagine being in constant pain than being in constant pleasure. In fact, the phrase “being in constant pain” is quite common. Have you ever heard of someone “being in constant pleasure”, or, more grammatically, “enjoying constant pleasure”? Outside of heaven anyway, and we know how implausible that is.
As usual, there is probably some evolutionary reason why pain is more intense than pleasure. In order to stay alive and have children, it’s important to avoid painful injuries. Pain is great at getting our attention. Pleasure isn’t really required in order to survive, although mild pleasure helps in various ways and serious pleasure encourages procreation (which, due to the house rules, probably isn’t on the agenda in heaven anyway).
If you doubt whether physical pain is generally more intense than physical pleasure, consider the greatest pleasure you could have and decide whether you would want that if it required enduring the most intense pain you could have. Most of us would decline the pleasure in order to avoid the pain.
So that’s probably why the idea of hell was invented. Promising heaven is a good way to control behavior, but threatening hell is probably better, since being rewarded with eternal bliss in heaven is less imaginable and less appealing than avoiding eternal agony in hell. Which, when you think about it, is a disheartening commentary on what we actually have to deal with, life itself.
Note: Why some individuals are willing to endure horrible pain in order to achieve some goal or other is one of life’s mysteries. Giordano Bruno, for example, was burned alive by the Catholic Church in 1600 after refusing to disavow his beliefs. When sentenced to death, he is said to have replied: “Perhaps you pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it”. He preferred agony and death over telling a few convincing lies about his beliefs. And, of course, some people (mostly men) march off to war and some people (always women) endure natural childbirth. Pain may be more intense than pleasure, but some things are more important to some people than pain. Go figure.