Hell Versus Jail: Which is the Better Stimulus for Good Behaviour?

In January 1971, the New York Police Department went on a strike for five days. It wasn’t a total strike. They were still ready to intervene in major crime situations and respond to crime emergencies. They just didn’t carry out regular street policing and patrols. Curiously, the number of crimes that happened in those five days was equal to the number of crimes that were usually recorded in any given three-month period. You heard that right. In just five days, Americans committed the same number of crimes it would’ve taken them three months to commit.

That brings us to the question. Why are people afraid of doing bad things: is it the fear of hell or the fear of jail? Note that most New Yorkers were strong believers in the concept of hell. Yet believing that hell is real and that you can burn in the fire eternally wasn’t as potent as the fear of the police in preventing people’s bad behaviour. Hell is a useless concept.

Why should we treat our neighbours right? Why should we not steal or kill? Why should we avoid evil and immoral vices? Most people will answer ‘It’s to make God happy.’ Well, why should we make God happy? Because if you don’t, you will end up in hell. Some people won’t agree with this rather straightforward view. In a typically theoditical manner, they’ll go something like ‘God is love: he didn’t plan for you to end up in hell’, blah blah blah. But if you ask them why they think hell exists, they’ll still come back to the same point.

While there are some cultures that don’t believe in hell, most people on Earth as we speak do believe that hell exists. The Abrahamic monotheisms — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — believe in some sort of hell. It’s a little complicated for Judaism but for Christianity and Islam, if God is angry with you, you’re burning in the everlasting fire. So many other cultures also believe in this concept of an eternal punishment that is to be meted out to sinners in the hereafter. And when you discuss with so many people, they will push the idea that the fear of roasting in God’s eternal oven is a very strong stimulus for morality.

I don’t disagree totally. I know many a people who would’ve cheated me in a business transaction if not for the fear of this eternal oven that has been engraved upon their minds since they were toddlers. They’re a tiny minority though as exemplified by the New York story I narrated above. And that’s where the problem lies. As a moral stimulus, hell is overrated. So is it alright since it pushes some people to be good? No, I don’t think so. I feel that beneath the surface of the ‘moral stimulus’ hide some very serious flaws.

One, the storyline insults reasoning. God created an angel, then created humans. His initial intention was to see humans do his commandments but his angel became a bad boy and started a bad gang. Then the humans that were originally meant to do good things have been lured to join this bad gang. And because God was powerless to arrest the situation, he created hell for this bad angel and those humans that joined the bad gang. Was the All-powerful powerless?

What about preventing the angel from becoming a bad boy in the fist instance? Humans were supposed to be the only creatures with a free will but somehow, angels too had enough free will to join a bad gang against their Maker and once humans too join this bad gang, they go to the everlasting oven. This story obviously doesn’t cut it when you think about it for a minute provided you’re sincere with yourself.

Hell is generally defined as the place of infernal punishment for the wicked. But beyond this, nothing else is known about hell.

Hell is generally defined as the place of infernal punishment for the wicked. But beyond this, nothing else is known about hell.


Two, there’s no consensus on the specifics. Hell can be defined as a place of eternal torment reserved for the wicked in the afterlife. Simple, isn’t it? Not so fast! So where is hell? Some people believe hell is in the earth core. Some others believe it’s somewhere in the skies. Yet others believe it’s not a physical place but rather, a form of spiritual separation from God. Nope. We don’t know where it is in particular. We can’t agree on the location.

Hell is a place of fire and pain. We all know that humans feel pain because we have pain sensors in our bodies. These pain sensors include nociceptive receptors and the different components of the pain pathway. These are all physical structures which if damaged in any part of the body (anesthesia), one’s ability to feel pain in that part of the body is lost. No matter the intensity of the pain stimulus applied to the anesthetic part of the body, one won’t feel a thing. It is said that we will be spirits in the afterlife and spirits are said to be devoid of this physical human nature (including the neuronal pain pathway). So how will the inhabitants of hell who are spirits feel the torment of the fire?

And just so that you know that it’s a physical fire, the Bible speaks of ‘…fire that burns with sulfur…’ And no, even though we will be spirits, we will still have teeth to gnash and all. Like spirits still have incisors and molars? Don’t mind me. I shouldn’t be taking the Christian version of the hell story seriously as there is ample evidence that hell was a later interpolation and not an original Christian doctrine. That’s why a couple of Christian denominations don’t believe in hell. That’s another story for another day.

Some people have claimed to have gone to hell and returned. Usually, they claim to have been taken by an angel, Jesus, or even God himself on a tour of hell. They’re taken round but if they’re Africans they only see Africans in hell while European tourists only see Europeans. And no, you can’t harmonize all these numerous accounts into a single coherent version.

It shouldn’t be surprising that such near-death accounts aren’t reliable. The supposed eyewitnesses didn’t die. So they didn’t go to any hell. Accounts that originate from trances, hallucinations, and dreams can’t but be unreliable. It’s safe to conclude that no one has ever gone to hell and returned. I’d believe such stories if the narrator is someone who was confirmed dead in a tertiary health facility and returned to life after spending two weeks in the chilly, formalin-soaked mortuary refrigerator.

Perhaps most people who believe in the concept of hell but don’t rate it highly as a moral stimulus don’t take hell seriously because of what I’ve said so far. No one is sure of the location of hell whereas everybody can easily locate a prison. No one is sure of the specifics of hell but the specifics of a prison are available to anybody who desires. No one has gone to hell and returned whereas so many people have gone to jail and returned. Video footages of prisons are available to anyone who has never even visited a prison whereas nothing of such exists for hell. You can even schedule a visit to a prison and confirm for yourself: you can’t do the same for hell. Thus a prison is more real than hell. Thus people, irrespective of their beliefs, tend to respect a prison more than hell.

The question is even an unnecessary one. Which is better between hell and a prison? A somehow unnecessary question! No society has run solely on the fear of hell whereas prisons (and other means of physical punishment) have been part of human civilization since the beginning. In fact, the concept of hell was invented as a copycat of the earthly prison system. If there’s a human judge that will judge your action and send you to prison, then there must be a spirit (God) that will judge you and send you to his own prison (hell). In other words, the hell idea is a shabby attempt at transferring the earthly prison idea into the afterlife.

That’s why since the beginning of human civilization, even in the societies where everybody vehemently believed the idea of hell, the physical prisons were still needed. It’s because we’ve always known that getting people to believe that hell is real is irrelevant to maintaining orderliness in the society. That’s why even though Muslims believe that adultery will qualify anyone for hell, Muslim-dominant societies will still stone an adulterer to death. It’s logical to say that believing in the concept of hell is some sort of double-speaking.

The case against hell but in favour of a prison is that we can all agree on what offence will take someone to prison but we can’t agree on what will take someone to hell. There are as many versions of hell each with its specific ‘admission criteria’ as there are belief and cultural systems on earth. In Christianity, not accepting Jesus as Lord and Saviour is enough to send anyone to hell whereas in Islam, believing that Jesus is Saviour and Lord is the exact sin that will send anyone to hell. And before you think that all Christians agree on what will qualify someone for hell, hear an Evangelical condemn a Catholic to hell for praying to a statue while a Jehovah’s Witness condemns everybody else to hell for allegedly twisting the whole Scriptures. The more conservative a hell-believing group is, the longer their list of the things that can send you to hell. In a society where all these groups exist, how do we efficiently use the hell idea to scare people from bad behaviour when we can’t even agree on a single list of bad things? On the other hand, the common law that sends people to prisons and other physical punishments has never suffered this inconsistency. It’s because the common law is a product of everybody’s agreement. The offshoot of this is that it’s easier for people to avoid bad behaviour for fear of prison than for fear of hell.

Moreover people have suggested that belief in hell is some sort of self-torture. Hadeophobia is defined as debilitating fear of hell. Unlike human prisons where punishment is commensurate to the offence committed, in hell, there’s no smaller or greater sin. And because there’s an eye that you can’t see but that’s busy watching everything you do, you don’t know per time if you’ve done something worthy of eternal fire. This constant consciousness can lead to depression and psychological imbalance. Even worse for kids is the realization that just by being born, they had been condemned to the fire (‘Adamic sin’) except they do something to bail themselves out. Children have been reported to have nightmares just by hearing graphic accounts of hell. And you can even be condemned for the fire just by being born in the wrong country — say India — or the wrong family!

There’s a problem with prisons. It’s a post-hoc attempt, i.e., the punishment can’t right the wrong already committed. For instance, you catch a rapist and sentence him to a life jail term. The jail term can’t ‘unrape’ the teenage girl that was raped. Regardless of how long the rapist remains in prison, the girl remains raped. It can’t be undone. Same thing goes for a murder. Regardless of the punishment meted out to the murderer, the murdered victim can’t be restored back to life. Therefore we would love that the girl wasn’t raped or that the victim wasn’t murdered to start with but our limitations as humans prevent us from achieving just that. So we’ve instituted the punishment as some sort of consolation. When the desirable is not available, the available becomes the desirable.

And no, we’ve not given up. Everyday, we keep evolving new ways of preventing crime from being committed in the first place. It’s because we know that preventing crime from being committed is always better than punishing the offender after the crime has been committed. Now we have CCTV cameras. Now anti-crime agencies have toll-free numbers that people can call. Combine that with different rapid anti-crime response squads. Personal and residential crime prevention strategies are getting upgraded daily. Even internet service providers are working hard to improve on online safety.

However God won’t prevent a crime from being committed. He allows the victim to be murdered so that he will sentence the murderer to hell on the judgement day. He lets the girl be raped so that the rapist can be roasted eternally in the oven called hell. But will roasting the rapist forever undo the rape? Therefore what about preventing the murder and the rape in the first instance? Hell isn’t better than prisons in this regard. They’re both post-hoc endeavours. They both can’t right the wrong already committed. That’s why we, the custodians of prisons, are working on preventing crime to start with. Unfortunately, God, the alleged custodian of hell, can’t be seen to be putting in so much effort in preventing crimes.

That’s why lawlessness and impunity overwhelm societies like Nigeria where people seriously believe that God’s judgement is better than man’s judgement. Phraseologies like ‘Diarris godu oooo’ (©2015 Patience Jonathan), ‘leave them for God to judge’, etc are statements of hopelessness muttered by folks who can’t punish their oppressors. Such phraseologies are rife in my country because we’re powerless against our oppressors.

Don’t get me wrong. I would love that hell was real too. Who wouldn’t? People have treated me unjustly in the past and my powerlessness to force a retribution made me wish there was somewhere in the hereafter where they would be made to pay dearly for what they did to me. But since I know there’s most likely nothing like that, I try as much as possible to make anyone pay for what they do to me and if I can’t achieve that, I let it go completely and move on. But did you see the operational word in that penultimate sentence? The word is powerlessness. Powerful people don’t need hell: just like most things in religious belief, hell is for the consolation of the weak.

And talking about powerlessness, does this extend to God too? Let’s assume that the all-good God wouldn’t want his good angel to become a bad boy neither would he want a teenager to be raped. Can we then say that God allegedly created hell because he was powerless in preventing the good angel from becoming bad? And will he send the rapist to hell because he is powerless in preventing the rape from happening in the first instance? It seems that from both God’s and human dimensions, hell connotes powerlessness.

Hell was invented as a tool for the powerful to control the powerless. Industrialized nations are progressing not because the citizens hope that corrupt leaders will roast in hell but because they decide to make them pay for their sins here and now. Any politician that siphons public funds and escapes punishment has escaped for good. There’s nothing like hell. We need to make them pay now! Not later, not in the Eternity, not in the Afterlife but now! Now is the only time. If people go to jail everytime they deserve to go to jail, everybody will sit tight. Jail is the proper stimulus for good behavior while hell is nothing but self-deception.

P. S.
This article has discussed the situation of those who need a deterrent to stay straight. That’s one level of living. However there’s a higher level. And that’s the situation where you do good things and avoid bad things not because you want to avoid any kind of punishment (prison or hell) or receive any kind of reward (human recognition or heaven) but because you just love doing good things and hate doing bad things.

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  1. Olusola March 5, 2017

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