The following is a video I made for my YouTube channel, Jack’s World. It’s a video version of an article I wrote a while back. I added and removed a few details to the video. If necessary, I’ll do a follow-up. Enjoy!
We currently live in a golden age of villains. Between Thanos, Erik Killmonger, the Joker, and Walter White, there has been a veritable surge of complex characters who also happen to be compelling villains. While there’s still a place for the kind of pure evil that Disney villains have relied on for years, this trend in a more refined brand of villainy feels both refreshing and overdue.
I’ve written extensively on villains before. As a lifelong fan of superhero comics and movies, I’ve consumed, contemplated, and scrutinized hero/villain dynamics more than most. In doing so, I’ve noticed plenty of trends. Like most aspects of popular culture, it’s always evolving. Very few themes and details remain constant, especially when it comes to antagonists.
That said, there’s one trend in villains that has remained somewhat constant over the course of my lifetime. It’s also a trend that I see as intensifying, albeit in a subtle way. Some of it coincides with the growing complexity of villains in popular culture, but most of the trend precedes the current era of superhero-dominated media. If anything, superhero media helped accelerate it.
While most villains and heroes rarely identify with a certain political affiliation, it’s usually not hard to discern how most would vote in a contemporary election. I would even argue that it’s easier to surmise what a villain’s political leanings are compared to that of heroes. Take any villain from the past 10 years of movies, be they superhero or otherwise. Chances are a vast majority of them would identify as conservative.
Now, I understand conservatism is an exceedingly broad term. It has a dictionary definition, but as a political philosophy, there are many sub-sets, divisions, and variations. From fiscal conservatives to social conservative to neoconservatives, there are many wildly different ideologies that still identify as conservative. A few actively clash with one another.
Those complexities aside, there are some core tenants associated with conservatism and it’s those very tenants that make it such an effective basis for villains. Chief among conservative values is the idea that traditional norms, institutions, and values be maintained. Change isn’t actively dissuaded, but it is viewed with caution and suspicion. To be conservative is to affirm the status quo, to some extent.
That’s all well and good if the status quo is beneficial to everyone. It’s not so preferable for those who either fail to benefit or are actively screwed over by that same status quo. Since there has never been a society in history that has achieved perfect prosperity for everyone, regardless of their minority status, there’s bound to be people who get left behind.
In our own real-world history, we’ve seen people from those disaffected groups organize and fight the status quo to better their lives. That struggle has played out in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the movement for women’s rights, and the LGBT rights movement that’s still going on today. Those who oppose these movements tend to have, broadly speaking, conservative leanings.
Look at the groups that opposed the Civil Rights movement.
They all espouse rhetoric that would put them at odds with Superman, Captain America, and most other superheroes who value justice, truth, and peace. For some, their talking points sound like ideas that only villains in the mold of Lex Luthor would agree with. While not all of them identify as overtly conservative, the standard principles are there.
Anything too different from the status quo must be wrong or evil.
Anybody too different from the people everyone else in a society must be bad, evil, or devious.
Any idea, trend, or movement that is disruptive or deviant in any way is something to be opposed.
It doesn’t just manifest in superhero movies or underdog stories, either. Look at a movie like “Footloose.” In this story, the people who ban dancing are uptight, dogmatic, religious zealots who likely voted for Ronald Reagan in 1984 when this movie came out. They were the antagonists of that story and the kids, while not overtly liberal, dared to defy them.
It can even manifest subtly in other media. In kids shows like “Recess,” “Hey Arnold,” and “Rocko’s Modern Life,” the most common antagonists are uptight authority figures who have no tolerance for new ideas, big changes, or anything remotely fun. It’s hard to imagine any of these characters voting for someone who builds their slogan around change, reform, and reinvention.
They like things the way they are. Most of them benefit from the current system and will naturally seek to preserve their place in that system. While they won’t always see themselves as villains, it’s difficult for them to come off as heroes. You can only be so heroic when your side is closely aligned with predatory business practices, fun-hating religious zealots, and unabashed war-mongers.
That’s not to say it’s impossible for liberals to be villains too. It does happen and it can be done very well when done right. I would argue that Erik Killmonger in “Black Panther” was more in line with an extreme liberal revolutionary who didn’t just want to pursue change. I would make a similar argument for Ra’s Al Ghul in “Batman Begins.”
These characters didn’t just seek to change society from its current unjust state. They sought to violently destroy it and rebuild it from the ground up. That kind of liberalism exists in the real world and it can make for compelling villains.
However, the number of villains who align with the politics of Killmonger are far fewer than those who would align with the politics of Lex Luthor. In general, it’s easier to resist change rather than embrace it. It’s also necessary to some extent for those to resist change to be uptight authority figures who are okay with coercing others to maintain traditions. Logistically, the villains in many conflicts must be conservative.
Now, that’s not to say that villains will always lean conservative in popular media. What it means to be conservative changes over time. If you were to listen to conservative rhetoric 50 years ago, they would sound very different. They might even sound liberal by today’s standards.
The same goes for liberalism of previous eras. It hasn’t always been closely aligned with the politics surrounding minority rights, income inequality, or political correctness. The liberals of the 1920s would likely clash with the liberals of today. That’s just part of the ever-evolving nature of politics.
For the time being, though, being a villain in popular culture usually means being conservative to a certain extent. Conservatives are more likely to be the rich, greedy business people who would gladly burn down a rain forest or exploit slave labor to raise profits. Conservatives are more likely to be the rule-loving, fun-hating, curfew-enforcing religious zealots who wouldn’t mind electing theocrats with every election.
These types of individuals are far more likely to be villains in a story. At the very least, they’ll side or tolerate the villain. It’s easy to believe that those who side with the religious right and well-connected rich people will generally oppose a selfless, likable protagonist. From a narrative perspective, these kinds of villains are better in that we tend to root for heroes who oppose authoritarian bullies like that.
Again, it’s guaranteed that political and cultural trends will likely change what it means to be conservative, liberal, and everything in between. For the time being, if you were to bet on the political leanings of an antagonist, the odds are mostly in favor of that antagonist being conservative.
Why do we root for people who do awful things?
Why do we root for the crazed killer in a slasher movie?
Why do we celebrate anti-heroes over traditional, upstanding heroes?
Why do we want people who do irredeemable things to be redeemed?
These are questions are similar in that they have a common theme, but they apply to a wide variety of situations. It feels like those questions have become more relevant in recent years as the standards for quality TV, movies, and characters has risen, which I’ve called the Walter White effect. While it can make for compelling stories, the questions themselves have distressing implications.
I’ve found myself contemplating those questions more seriously after the final season of “Bojack Horseman.” While I love this show and have praised its themes in the past, the final season really pushed the envelope on how far a show could go in telling stories about broken characters.
There’s no getting around it. From the first episode to the series finale, it’s abundantly clear that Bojack Horseman is not a respectable person. He’s a self-centered, narcissistic, alcohol, ego-centric asshole who has hurt people, exploited people, and taken full advantage of his celebrity status. If we knew someone like this in real life, we would never root for them. We’d probably root against them.
However, as I watched this show over the years, I still found myself rooting for Bojack. In following his story, learning about who he is, where he comes from, and how he deals with his problems, I genuinely hoped that he would find some semblance of peace in the end. Even as his sordid deeds started to come to light in the final season, a part of me didn’t want to see him fall, especially when he’d made so many strides.
Bojack isn’t the only character with this issue. There are countless other characters in popular culture, such as Don Draper and Wolverine, who do many awful things throughout their story. I’m a fan of those characters, especially Wolverine. At the same time, I can’t ignore the fact that he’s done terrible things that are on par with Bojack’s crimes.
At the same time, I root for Wolverine. I also find it easier to root for him over Bojack because while Wolverine is largely a product of what others have done to him, Bojack is a product of his own awful decisions.
Bojack has no special powers or excuses, outside being a celebrity. He has his share of issues and circumstances, from verbally abusive parents to substance abuse to legitimate mental illness. However, throughout the show, he’s still the one who makes the choices that ultimately hurt him and his loved ones. Moreover, he spends a great deal of time avoiding the consequences or downplaying them.
This is why I think the final season of “Bojack Horseman” was so impactful. While I did often root for Bojack throughout the show, the final season made it a point to remind everyone of the terrible things he’s done. The show is brilliant in how it has everything collapse around Bojack, but not because of circumstance. Once again, his own terrible choices and endless excuses are what do him in.
Seeing him face real, actual consequences for his decisions helped give the show a sense of balance when it ended. Bojack didn’t have a happy ending. Very few characters did. At the same time, he wasn’t killed or endlessly punished. It just left him in an uncertain state where he faced consequences for his past choices. Now, he has to make new choices moving forward.
It’s not satisfying for anyone who’d been rooting for Bojack. At the same time, it’s cathartic for that part of us who wanted him to face consequences for the awful things he’d done. Even so, the fact we rooted for him in the first place is oddly jarring and I think it speaks to a part of our nature that’s difficult to understand.
On some level, I feel like people want to see horrible people redeem themselves. Redemption stories are powerful in both the world of fiction and the real world. I think it’s in our nature to want to see good in everyone, even when they’ve done awful things. The power and desire to forgive is real.
However, does that mean we should let horrible deeds go unpunished? It’s one thing to forgive someone for a lie, but what about someone who abandons his best friend when he gets fired? What about someone who nearly chokes a woman to death in a drug-fueled rage? What about someone who takes advantage of a woman with amnesia?
Those deeds are all things that Bojack did over the course of “Bojack Horseman.” There are many others, some of which he never faced consequences for. Even though he’s an extreme example, even by fictional character standards, we still root for him. We still want him to find redemption. I think that says more about us than it does about him.
Awful people will do awful things, but when we see them trying to make things better, it’s hard not to cheer them on. I believe its in our nature to want to see others be the best they can be. The challenge is balancing that inclination to root for them and the need to punish shitty behavior.
Bojack’s story is over, but there are plenty of other characters like him that we root for. It’s not wrong to root for them, but it’s important to maintain a proper perspective. Redemption can be a powerful story. However, can there be any redemption without consequences?
I don’t know the answer. If you have some insights, please share them in the comments.
I genuinely believe in the inherent goodness of humanity. I know that’s not a popular opinion, these days. I’ve even tried to remind people of it a few times. You need only look at the news, history books, or headlines from Florida to undermine your faith in human nature. I don’t deny that there’s plenty of bad, but there’s also a great deal of good. Sometimes, you find it in unexpected places.
In this case, the place is the epic space opera that is “Mass Effect.” It’s not just one of my favorite video game franchises of all time, which I often go out of my way to reference. It’s a game that dares to give players a choice in how moral or immoral they want to be. There are plenty of games out there that let you play virtuous heroes and deplorable anti-heroes. This game lets the player decide which path they want to follow.
In the original trilogy, it’s called the Paragon/Renegade system. Throughout all three games, you’re given choices on what to say or what to do in various situations. Some are inherently selfless and heroic, such as saving the Rachni from extinction. Others are just pure dick moves, like punching a reporter or shooting Mordin.
The path you choose doesn’t prevent you from completing the game, but it does affect the story. It also effects the endings of certain games and the plots of others. You can basically play the same three games and forge a very different story. You can be a pillar of virtue and nobility or you can be a total dick who still gets the job done. It’s entirely up to you.
I’ve played this game so many times that I’ve done both, but I prefer the path of the paragon. It just feels more rewarding at the end, even though it doing so does come at a price throughout the game. Recently, in an article by Forbes that featured one of BioWare’s developers, I found out that I’m not the only one who shares that sentiment. In fact, that sentiment is revealing in ways that go beyond the game.
The information comes from BioWare’s John Ebenger, who was retweeting a meme on Twitter about how devs give players choices to be evil villains in games, yet people always pick the nice options anyway. And it turns out that’s even more true than the meme suggests, as Ebenger laments that with all the work they put into the Renegade content in Mass Effect, that something close to a whopping 92% of players chose Paragon in any given moment.
Those bold parts are my doing. Regardless of your math skills, 92% is not a slim margin. That’s an overwhelming majority of players. Given the many stereotypes of gamers, it’s somewhat refreshing. When given the choice to be a hero or be a dick, they choose to be a hero.
That’s a profound notion because this is a video game. There are no real stakes outside beating the game. Players have no real incentive to be good or evil, but they still choose good. Even when making the renegade choices comes with legitimate advantages, players still go with the way of the paragon. I think that says more about people in general than it does about those who play games like “Mass Effect.”
Say what you will about the genuinely evil people in this world. They exist. They make the news. They’re the kind of people we can’t overlook, but therein lies the critical context. We’re aware of such evil because it’s so rare. When most of the people are simply making paragon choices, it’s not noteworthy. It’s considered normal.
As someone who has faith in humanity and loves all things “Mass Effect,” I find that genuinely uplifting. It proves to me that most people are inclined to be good and decent. Even if you put them in a galaxy-spanning adventure against rampaging Reapers, they’ll still do the right things for the right reasons.
In a sense, Commander Shepard gave us insight into the nature of humanity and showed us that most of us have the heart of a true paragon. That’s something worth celebrating and cherishing.
How do you make good choices?
How do you know when something is right, just, and ethical?
How do you go about determining the morality and ethics of any given situation?
These are the kinds of questions that lawmakers, philosophers, scientists, religious leaders, and YouTube commenters debate constantly. It’s one of those deep, fundamental issues that everyone contemplates regularly, but few can claim to understand. The world is so chaotic and complicated. It’s incredibly difficult to surmise a simple, concise, consistent standard for making good choices.
However, there are ways of simplifying that daunting process. It may still be impossible to completely resolve such issues for every person in every situation, but we can make it easier. As it just so happens, one of the greatest TV shows of all time, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” provides us with an important tool that also happens to be hilarious.
Using that tool is simple. It goes like this.
If a certain choice, response, or recourse seems like someone that the Gang would do in “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” then chances are it’s not the one you should follow.
To anyone who has watched this show in any capacity, that makes total sense. For those who haven’t had a chance to watch this hilariously obscene middle finger to every sitcom ever made, here’s just a sample of what I’m talking about.
Even if you’re not familiar with the show, this should at least get you familiar with the implications. I’ve written about “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” in the context of its masterful handling of dark comedy. I concede that this is one of those shows that isn’t for everyone. It’s hard to explain to most people the appeal of a show that finds humor in baby funerals, crack binges, and unauthorized Lethal Weapon sequels.
At the same time, it’s because this show dives head-first into dark comedy that it paints a clear picture on what goes into making bad decisions. There’s no getting around it. The characters in this show, also known as the Gang, are not morally upstanding people. In fact, they don’t even try to be moral. Nearly every episode involves them pursuing some elaborate plot based entirely on selfishness, greed, ego, or misguided pettiness.
They’re not stupid on the level of Homer Simpson or Peter Griffin, but they aren’t very smart either. Everything they do, from hoarding gasoline in an oil crisis to stalking a waitress, is incredibly simplistic. It can always be reduced to a basic level of selfish narcissism that never goes beyond basic.
It’s because the Gang’s choices are so basic and self-serving that the show is so funny in the first place. “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” essentially takes the unique setup of a sitcom to amplify all the terrible traits and tropes that frequently go along with other shows that try too hard to be deeper.
At its core, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” doubles down on the simplicity of having characters who don’t even try to be moral. Through 14 seasons, the Gang actively avoids any effort to change or grow in a meaningful way. Charlie, Dee, Dennis, Mac, and Frank are the same selfish narcissists they are in Season 14 as they are in Season 4.
Even as the show has gotten bolder and more absurd with the Gang’s antics, their motivations are the same. They don’t need to be overly complex to be funny. That’s what makes these characters and the entire premise of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” such a great filter.
The next time you’re in a situation where you need to make a decision, try and apply this filter. What would Sweet Dee do? What would Frank Reynolds do? What would Dennis, Mac, and Charlie do? If you can determine that, then you can also determine exactly what not to do.
Even if it’s not specific, the moral filter of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” can act as a reminder. If you’re going to be exceedingly selfish and narcissistic in making decisions, then you’re tempting fate the same way the Gang does with every absurd antic. Doing so will rarely pan out well for you and those around you.
If you need further proof, just look at Rickety Cricket.
There are many aspects of religion that warrant criticism. I’ve certainly levied a few, from how it intensifies inequality to how it fosters a form of morality akin to the mafia. I always try to preface those criticism by acknowledging that most religious people are decent, honorable human beings. I also have close relatives who are religious and that doesn’t detract from their character whatsoever.
Even with that in mind, I believe that religion deserves a special kind of scrutiny. It’s a huge influence on people, society, and also government. Something that influential deserves no immunity, especially when certain tenants have serious implications. I’ve pointed out how the concept of Hell is rendered moot by boredom and undermines pro-life ideology. Now, I’m going to give similar scrutiny to the concept of Heaven.
While the problem of Hell and eternal punishment for finite transgressions have been discussed by people far smarter than I’ll ever be, there are far less criticisms levied against Heaven. That makes sense. Heaven, whatever form it takes, is one of those ideas that’s pleasant to contemplate. Even if you’re an atheist, imaging a blissful afterlife won’t inspire dread or outrage.
However, I would argue that the concept of Heaven is as immoral and unjust as Hell. While I don’t deny infinite torture is more deplorable than infinite bliss, I submit that the implications are just as damning, if that’s not too loaded a term.
Most people know the basics of Heaven. Their particular religion, sect, or denomination might not call it that, but the premise is simple. Those who are righteous, moral, and pious to a particular standard, as determined by a deity or doctrine, are rewarded after death with passage to an eternal paradise.
What makes this place paradise is often vague. Some see it as a place without suffering or sin. Others see it as a place of endless indulgence. Whereas Hell is the ultimate punishment, Heaven is the ultimate reward. Whatever form that reward takes, the attributes that make it unjust are the same.
To illustrate, consider two individuals who lived good lives. One is just a typical, every-day adherent. Most of us know someone like them. They’re kind, decent, and upstanding. They live their lives ethically and responsibly. They go to whatever church, temple, or mosque their religion requires. They play by the rules and do all the right things, but that’s it. They don’t have much impact beyond their community.
Then, consider an individual like Dr. Norman Borlaug. I’ve mentioned him before, but the good this man did for the world is worth belaboring. This isn’t just a man who lived a good, upstanding life. This is a man who saved millions of lives because of the work he did. His contributions to the green revolution are a big reason why countless people don’t go hungry at night.
If ever there was an individual who deserved a reward in the afterlife, it’s Norman Borlaug. Even those of differing faiths wouldn’t argue that a man like him deserves to go to a place like Heaven. That’s where the chief problem of Heaven comes in and, much like Hell, it has to do with its eternal nature.
Whenever eternity enters the equation, absurdities usually follow. In the case of Heaven, the implication is that a man like Norman Borlaug gets the same reward as the other person who didn’t save a billion lives and win a Nobel Prize. There’s nothing extra for someone who really goes the extra mile for humanity. With eternity, that’s just not possible.
It’s not unlike a group project where one person does most of the work, but everyone still gets the same grade. Most reasonable people would call that unfair. Human beings, like other animals, have an innate sense of fairness. When a reward or punishment is exceedingly disproportionate, it tends to cause distress, guilt, and resentment.
With Heaven, however, people make an exception. There’s no uneasiness or distress about someone like Norman Borlaug getting the same reward as some random person who just went to church every Sunday. Some of that might be due to an inability to process concepts like eternity, but I think the problem runs deeper than that.
On top of the reward being disproportionate, there’s also the issue of the standards for determining those who get it. For those who adhere to a dogmatic faith, including those of the Abrahamic traditions, it doesn’t matter how many lives men like Norman Borlaug save. It also doesn’t matter how little the typical adherent does. What matters, ultimately, is whether they believe the tenants of the faith.
It’s an issue that also comes up when discussing problem of Hell. Within the core of these theologies, the works they do in life don’t matter as much as what they believe. If they die believing the right deities for the right reason, then that’s enough. They get to go to Heaven. If they’re wrong, yet still do all sorts of objective good, then they still go to Hell to face eternal torment.
That’s not just unfair. That’s infinitely unjust. It’s infinitely immoral. It completely devalues the action, intentions, and sincerity of those doing their best to live their lives. If the only thing that matters in the end is what deity and doctrine they believe, then where’s the incentive to make life worth living for those alive today and those yet to be born?
It still gets worse than that. What about those who lived in a different time and place in which they only knew the particular theology of their community? There are still places in the world that violently resist any intrusion or visitation from the outside world. These people love their families and friends as much as anyone. Are they still denied eternal bliss and doomed to eternal suffering?
If even one person who lived a good, honorable life is condemned to infinite suffering because of what they believe, then that, by default, is infinitely unjust. By the same token, one person who gains infinite bliss just because of what they believe and nothing more, then that is every bit as unjust.
Heaven may be a pleasant, comforting thought for most people. It offers a tantalizing promise for adherents and their loved ones that death is not the end. There’s a better existence waiting for everyone, but only if they believe a certain set of tenants in accord with a specific deity. Having dealt with the death of close loved ones, I understand why that’s so appealing.
At the same time, it’s difficult to get around the problems that arise when infinite concepts are applied to finite lives. Regardless of what deity you believe, the very concept of eternal rewards alongside eternal punishments ensure that divine justice can only ever be infinitely unjust.
Imagine there’s this big, beautiful house on the top of a hill. It’s opulent, luxurious, and full of every comfort you can imagine. Inside, there are servants and guests that cater to every conceivable whim. There’s no suffering, whatsoever. The people who live there are as happy and content as can be.
In that same house, however, there’s a dungeon in the basement. Within that dungeon, people are being horribly and endlessly tortured. They’re repeatedly beaten, burned, and mutilated without mercy. The suffering is constant and the pain is unbearable. Every day, more and more people are forced into that dungeon and never let out. They constantly cry and scream for mercy, but it never comes.
Everyone in that house knows the dungeon is there. They’re constantly reminded of it. At times, they can even hear the tortured screams of those trapped inside. Some of the people there might even be friends and loved ones. However, they don’t do anything about it. They don’t show an ounce of sorrow or concern. They just continue enjoying the joys and comforts the rest of the house has to offer.
With this scenario in mind, how would you judge the people who weren’t in the dungeon? How would you judge anyone who is perfectly happy when others nearby are suffering horribly? It would be one thing if they didn’t know the torture was happening, but the people in that house have always known, even before they arrived. To still be happy in that house requires more than just an immense lack of empathy.
This is just one of many fundamental disconnects in traditional concepts of Heaven and Hell. While it’s not the first flaw I’ve pointed out, it’s one that I believe is incredibly relevant because it subverts core aspects of our humanity. Regardless of whether you believe humans evolved or were magically created, it’s a biological fact that humans are a very social species. Empathy is a key component of that dynamic.
Empathy doesn’t just allow us to coordinate, cooperate, and relate to one another. It’s at the core of our understanding of right and wrong. You could even argue that empathy is the core ingredient within the Golden Rule that so many religions preach in some form or another, including those that incorporate some form of Hell.
It’s also the foundation on which our innate sense of justice and fairness is built. Both foundations crack once Heaven and Hell enter the picture. However, when eternity enters the picture, which is common in various Judeo-Christian traditions, those foundations shatter.
It’s in that context where simply being callous to the suffering of others, even if you feel they deserve it, becomes unavoidably sadistic. As soon as eternity enters the equation, any sense of proportional justice becomes impossible. Even for the most monstrous individuals who spent every moment of their lives hurting others, a punishment without end eventually becomes unjust.
At that point, the pain and suffering someone endures is no longer about punishment or justice. It becomes part of a sadistic act that only becomes more sadistic the longer it goes on. If Hell is truly eternal, as many devout believers espouse, then its very existence is an act of infinite sadism.
That’s a major problem for any theology that includes an all-knowing, all-loving deity. By definition, a deity cannot be all-loving while exercising infinitely sadistic acts. If that same deity is all-powerful, then that only makes things worse because it means the deity has the power to both stop those acts and prevent them from ever happening. By not doing so, the deity becomes even more sadistic.
Now, there are plenty of traditions that include sadistic gods. The god of the Old Testament certainly qualifies in many respects. If a deity of that power opts to use it for sadistic acts, it doesn’t carry as much weight in terms of how humans approach morality and justice. Granted, it means the people who worship that deity must do so out of fear on some levels, but their approach in that context is understandable.
It’s less understandable when Hell and the concept eternal punishment becomes part of a larger theology because it means adherents must participate in sadistic activities, even if it just means ignoring the torture inflicted by someone else. Everyone in Heaven, no matter how wonderful it is, has to remain numb to the infinite suffering going on below them.
Considering how threats of Hell has been a common tool for proselytizing, the sadism gets compounded even more, both from a human and theological perspective. More than one adherent had used the threat of Hell to warn others about believing in something other than their preferred religion. They likely do so out of genuine compassion and concern for those who don’t believe.
However, once that same person goes to Heaven, they have to become a sadist on some levels. They must now exist in a domain where others they tried to save from eternal damnation are doomed to endless suffering. They know it’s happening at every waking moment. It doesn’t matter if time works differently in the afterlife. Eternity is still eternity.
Even if that same person convinced every person they met to embrace their theology, there’s still the countless others that they never reached. That doesn’t even begin to account for all the other hapless souls that have lived throughout history, practicing other religious traditions with every bit as much devotion and piety. Even if they committed no egregious crimes, they could be damned to Hell.
While many religious traditions offer some recourse for righteous individuals who follow a different faith or lived before those traditions began, the concept is still flawed because it requires some tolerance of injustice. When people are judged by actions or inactions for which they had no opportunity to react, tolerating the results means tolerating injustice.
It doesn’t even work if the deity involved only sends the worst of the worst people to Hell. No matter how bad somebody’s crimes were, they were finite in nature because humans are finite beings. The issues surrounding infinite punishment for finite sins is subject to its own set of theological and moral debates, but the implications are unavoidable.
Think of the most brutally sadistic person who lived 6,000 years ago, a time that even the most conservative Christians agree that humans walked the planet. Over the course of their life, they committed every possible crime and sin. They murdered, raped, tortured, and blasphemed with unrepentant glee. The scars of their crimes lasted years after their death.
However, after a certain amount of time, their deeds cease to have a real impact. The victims and the descendants of those victims move on. The world moves on. Eventually, the memory of the person’s crimes fade. The finite transgression become nothing more than a faded memory. At that point, what’s the purpose of continuing the punishment?
Moreover, what happens to that purpose if and when that monstrous individual seeks to repent? Given enough time and punishment, at least one damned soul would see the light and wish to atone in a way beyond suffering. In most civilized societies, we give those individuals that chance. Hell, if it is truly eternal, offers no such opportunity.
At that point, the punishment is no longer punishment. It’s just sadistic torture. It ceases being a measure of justice and becomes an act of injustice. Even if it takes a trillion years deliver a proportional punishment for a finite person’s egregious behavior, they’ll still be subject to trillions of more years of torment.
All the while, everyone in Heaven has to be okay with this. If part of being a righteous soul means compassion for victims and proportional punishment for transgressors, then nobody in Heaven can remain righteous. Even if the all-powerful deity demands it and they are powerless to change anything, they still have to temper the very empathy that made them righteous in the first place.
Heaven and Hell are difficult, distressing concepts. Whether you’re devoutly religious or a lifelong atheist, it’s never pleasant imaging an afterlife that involves horrendous punishment, even if it’s reserved for the worst of humanity. Not every religious tradition involves an afterlife or traditions of an eternal Hell, but the concept reveals more about our innate sense of humanity than it does any religious doctrine.
Human beings are at their best when they can empathize, appreciate, and understand one another. There will certainly be instances when people commit gross injustices. How we deal with them is critical in terms of how we structure our societies and survive in an ever-changing world. Anything that attempts subverts it or requires that we suspend our humanity will only make every gross injustice infinitely worse.