Ah, Hell. If the Christians have done their homework, about five billion of us are ending up there; if the Muslims are right, it's also about five billion.
If we atheists are correct, none of us faces such a ludicrous and disproportionate punishment.
What is immediately obvious about the threat of Hell is that it is borne of insecurity. If one needs to terrify infants into believing that thinking contrary to certain doctrines and dogmas will lead to an eternity of fiery torment, a) one ought to look first of all at how one is spending one's time on this planet, and b) the doctrines and dogmas are likely to be too stupid to be believed without recourse to blackmail.
Can you imagine if science, or indeed any other discourse, were to employ a tactic even remotely similar? "You must believe that the Earth rotates around the Sun otherwise you're going to roast for rather a long time". The proposition is absurd. The claim is either true or it isn't. One's belief in it has no bearing whatever either on its validity or on the consequences for oneself after death.
Where Christianity is concerned, what believers rarely acknowledge - or perhaps even realise - is that it is not until "gentle Jesus meek and mild", in Christopher Hitchens' sarcastic phraseology, that the doctrine of Hell is even introduced. It is perfectly clear that, as conveyed in the Old Testament, an all-powerful God could exist without the need for the invocation of any Hell. It is to Jesus - or, more accurately, those upon whom we rely in ascertaining his words - we must look if we need an instigant of the terror and misery inflicted upon countless millions of gullible individuals. The argument could be made at this juncture that Jesus did not invent Hell and was thus doing mankind a kindness by alerting it to the danger that lay ahead as a consequence of unbelief (or the wrong sort of belief). Even if this ludicrous proposition were true, what does this imply about those who lived prior to Jesus' arrival? Was Hell a real threat for them and, if so, oughtn't God have alerted everyone to it? Or did they all automatically enter Heaven? If this is expected to be believed, and Hell was therefore not a real threat before Jesus, the blame really does rest squarely on the Nazarean's shoulders.
The continued (though fading) belief in Hell is easy to understand. If a religion were not to offer an afterlife reward or punishment, then its truths and dogmas would need be examined in the cold light of day and argued to be truly transformative independent of post-mortem consequences. Because this claim can be so easily refuted, the teaching of hell (and of course heaven) persists to this day, however cloaked in euphemism it may be.
As is the case on a number of issues pertaining to religion, I have a great deal more empathy here with the fundamentalists than with the more moderate believers. If I did genuinely believe what I cannot possibly imagine believing - that a friend of mine were due an eternity of punishment after death - I would do all in my power to prevent this awful fate. The number of believers recruited specifically to proselytise and to conscript more members is, admittedly, absolutely vast; but what is going on in the minds of those who do believe in a Hell state but do not attempt to rescue those they believe to be doomed to it? Do they in fact struggle to believe in such a mercilessly cruel God but fear saying so?
Many contemporary Christians might assert that they themselves do not recognise the existence of any Hell in the afterlife. They are perfectly entitled to adopt this position but they ought to remember that the person they are thereby directly contradicting is the founder of their religion and the man they believe to be the son of God. As Diarmaid MacCulloch writes about the Sermon on the Mount in A History of Christianity, "There is much punishing fire flickering round the preacher's words. There is nothing gentle, meek or mild about the driving force behind these stabbing inversions of normal expectations".
One ought always to be on one's guard about those who assert that to think in a certain way is to commit a sin. This is the immoral and bullying trick that religion plays. Couched in cosy rhetoric and increasingly vague threats is the assumption that, in dissenting, you are subjecting yourself to an eternity of howling pain and misery. Quite apart from spectacularly lacking in evidence of any conceivable kind, this is a direct and patronising threat that cannot go unchallenged. Never forget that Heaven only exists and is made so appealing because it has to contend with Hell. And never forget that there are millions of people around the world who believe that you, in deeming the evidence for any God - or even one specific God - to be insufficient, have an appointment with the devil. Thank your lucky stars that they have absolutely no idea what they're talking about.
One thing about any afterlife remains absolutely clear: religious convictions set aside, I would not want to spend an eternity with the people self-righteous enough to claim themselves most deserving of reward in a sickly Heaven state. The people I'd like to run into after my death are some of the very people most likely in religious terms to be damned in Hell. Torture though the fires may be, the conversation would no doubt be of a higher calibre.
An Inuit hunter asked the local missionary priest: If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to Hell? No, said the priest, not if you did not know. Then why, asked the Inuit earnestly, did you tell me? - Annie Dillard