The Economist has a very worthwhile exploration of the enduring concept of Hell, but concludes in such a way as to baffle me.
[Hell] should have been sunk long ago by the weight of its contradictions. But the key to its survival lies in the writings of St Augustine, who, of all people, ought to have been tolerant of sinners: to paraphrase, “Knowledge of the torments of the damned is part of heavenly bliss.” St Bernardino of Siena took it even further: there could be no perfect sweetness of song in Heaven, he wrote, “if there were no infernal descant from God’s justice.” Just as there can be no light without dark, and no sound without silence, so everlasting celestial joys depend on a contrast of everlasting horror. Without Hell, you can’t have Heaven.
What nonsense. What this line of thinking (not necessarily this writer's) says is that, in effect, in order to fully appreciate or enjoy something, one must be threatened with (not actually experience, but be threatened with) its most excruciating and horrifying opposite. One can't be fulfilled and inspired by great music unless one is taunted with the possibility of having to experience sonic garbage. I can't really know a deep and true love for my children unless I have the possibility of their deaths dangled in front of me day after day.
Why must it be so? It takes religion to think this way. I prefer a little Shakespeare to temper this notion:
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wish'd for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
We are reminded of the wonderful, the beautiful, and the numinous by their scarcity, though that is not their prime requisite. Beautiful music is considered so in part because it is so rare that it is produced. My children are utterly precious to me in part because they are literally precious, they are uniquely, exclusively mine and my wife's.
Maybe Christianity falls apart without the ever-present threat of eternal torture. But Hell's non-existence has nothing to do one way or the other as to the presence of “God's justice,” or God itself.
Side note, also to be filed under “It takes religion to think this way”:
Sinhalese Buddhism has 136 and Burmese Buddhism 40,040, one for each particular sin—including nosiness, chicken-selling and eating sweets with rice.
I'm guilty of at least two of those.