There is no stronger theme in story-telling than the struggle between good and evil. And there are few better ways to drive home a point than to invoke hell as a benchmark. Think, for example, of the power behind Huckleberry Finn's words when he said, "All right, then, I'll go to hell." Mark Twain may have been an atheist, but he was a writer first. All things devil-related make exceptional literary, cinematic and poetic devices.
But out here in the real world? Oh, hell no.
When I was a news reporter, I covered hundreds of court cases, many of them criminal felony cases involving some highly depraved human beings. I've seen serial rapists, child molesters and murderers up close. I've looked many of them in the eyes.
And one of the things I've taken from that experience is how utterly goofy and useless these notions of "evil" and "hell" can be.
It's easy to see why these terms originally came about. Thousands of years before mental illness became widely understood as something separate and distinct from the soul or morality, humans needed a way to compartmentalize deeply disturbed people — to explain their behavior and to set them apart from everyone else. Not just for a while, but forever. Calling these individuals "evil" and damning them to "hell" was simply de rigueur.
But we live in a different day. Thanks largely to Sigmund Freud, we know better.
Evil is no explanation, and hell is no punishment. Most people do disgusting, terrible things for one of two reasons. Either they have mental disturbances in their brains, or because they were taught to do disgusting, terrible things as children. Sometimes, it's both.
[Now, I'm not saying these two explanations account for every "bad" thing people do. Cheating, stealing or lying about whether you took performance-enhancing drugs can come about through any number of channels. I'm talking here about the kinds of crimes for which the death penalty was invented.]
Research shows us that, as adults, we tend to recreate for ourselves what felt familiar to us as small children. If we felt loved, valued, safe, calm, accepted, happy and confident as kids, we are very likely to have those feelings as adults. If we experienced stress, worry, criticism, dissatisfaction, instability, crime, anger, hatred, pain, violence, drug use, alcoholism or sexual abuse as children, we are likely to somehow incorporate these things into our adult lives.
So, you see, the nature of "evil" isn't some scary devil guy. That you were constantly neglected, insulted and abused when you were a child and then went to prison for rape as an adult is not some mysterious, extreme aberration in humanity; it's a natural consequence of terrible modeling.
To me, hell is a necessary threat only when parents fail to meet their obligations as parents.
When children are brought up in households that make them feel unconditionally loved, valued, important and powerful, then — short of mental problems — they won't need the threat of some scary, awful place to keep them from doing "bad" things. They will do "good" because that's what feels normal to them.
I believe, as cheesy at it sounds, that Anne Frank was right: People really are good at heart. We want to do the "right thing." It's just that we're human beings with different brains and experiences and temperaments. We're never, ever going to agree about what that "right thing" entails.
The best we can do is to show others, and ourselves, a great amount of compassion. Being a human is hard. And it's harder for some than for others.
In a way, the threat of hell — when leveled on anyone in any situation — is the opposite of compassion. It allows us to distance ourselves from those who act in unacceptable ways. It lets us see people as one-dimensional creatures. It simplifies what is too complicated to simplify. It's an easy out, and in the worst possible way.
If other people choose to believe in hell and evil and mortal sin, and to teach their kids these things, I will be compassionate toward them. They are, after all, recreating the familiar. But I strongly disagree with it. Teaching these things isn't necessary to make children "good." And it carries the potential to hurt and scare them. And remember what happens when we make fear a part of a child's life, right? Fear becomes familiar and natural to them, and they, subconsciously, look for ways to invite that emotion into their adult lives.
I know it will be a long way off, but I look forward to a day when "evil" and "hell" are only used as hyperbole, and any notions of their true existence are left to the fiction writers.