Humanity gave up on the idea of cruel and unusual punishments in our legal system, while still maintaining that God would hand down cruel and unusual punishments to people in the afterlife. Is this a contradiction? Hypocritical? Ridiculous on the face of it?
Not so fast. The reason why mankind gave up on cruel and unusual punishments isn't because we thought they were a priori wrong, but because we feared that they would be misapplied by people of limited judiciousness. Basically, torture and death are punishments too severe to trust in the hands of any human being, because we aren't equipped to hand down absolute justice to our compatriots. First off, we can't even correctly determine if people really are guilty of the crimes we're convicting them of. A small portion of every prison population is actually innocent people that our jury system and judges got wrong. The idea of giving the death penalty, or torture penalties, to wholly innocent people that we accidentally swept up into our fishing nets is repugnant and totally unacceptable. For the sake of the innocents among the prison population, we have to treat all prisoners as well as possible just to lighten the load of our sins against them.
Even without this consideration, however, there's reason to be merciful in the human world. No human can truly know what was in the hearts and minds of the criminals when they did their crimes, even when we do know with absolute certainty that they did it. Without knowing what those people were really thinking and feeling, it's impossible to determine whether they were really as depraved as we think they were as to merit penalties as harsh as torture or death. Many of the worst killers on Earth were revered as leaders and heroes during their time, like Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, Hitler, Stalin, or Mao Zedong. It's obvious that their motivations were complex and intellectually/morally justifiable from one viewpoint or another, or else so many people wouldn't have gone along with it at the time. If a crime is so justifiable that millions of people agree with it as a perfectly righteous act to do, it's no longer possible to call the thinking of the perpetrator wrongheaded or depraved. Ignorant, misinformed, narrow-minded, or some other term would perhaps fit. But just tossing their reasoning aside as wholly unfounded neglects the fact that entire societies at one point agreed with them wholeheartedly root and branch. It's ridiculous to treat 'evil doers' of this sort as criminals or try them for supposed violations of 'international law.' Obviously, if entire nations disagree with your law, you have no authority to put people on trial for violating it. At that point that's just forcing your one-sided morality onto everyone else against their consent. That isn't law enforcement, it's naked imperialism.
Aside from 'intellectual sinners' like Thomas Jefferson, who today would be incarcerated for holding slaves but in his time was the greatest thinker of his era, there are other ways we should tread lightly before judging criminals harshly. We don't know how the criminal's mind got there originally -- what life experiences led them to being who they currently are -- how it felt when they were doing the crime -- or really anything of pertinence concerning the actual unfolding of the events. Crazy people who go on shooting sprees aren't depraved so much as pitiful. They came into this world with an awkward set of genes, and then became even more isolated, stressed, and frustrated by a society that had no place for them and gave them no way to cope with the genes nature had given them. It's no wonder they snap at the end and run around killing everyone while giving ludicrous explanations for their crimes. These people tend to kill themselves after they've killed everyone else, and it's precisely because they too are the victims, the victims of their entire lived lives so far. Why would you want to add on even more punishment on top of what they were simply born to suffer to begin with?
For every crime that emerges due to sheer selfishness or sadistic malice, things that truly do deserve a torturous reprisal, there are probably a dozen crimes where the criminal is thinking "How did it come to this?" "What am I doing here?" "Is there anyway out but down?" They tend to be low IQ, and don't really understand what's going on in the world in the first place. To make matters worse, their feeble intellects are dimmed yet further due to alcohol and drugs, tools that normally numb the pain of their meager existence (because society hasn't elected to give a minimum standard of living to our most vulnerable members but prefers to just leave them totally hanging until they do a crime out of desperation, and then we pounce on them like swish-tailed jaguars) but sometimes lead to poor judgment, emotional outbursts, and people acting exactly opposite to how they normally would. Almost every crime done is under the influence of some sort of mind-altering drug. Is there any point in torturing people for decisions they didn't even make with their own true souls?
Many criminals are forced by peer pressure to do what the others in their group are doing just to fit in. Can the desire to be loved and accepted truly be judged a crime? A sin? Are you going to torture people for not wanting to be ostracized from the crowd?
Many people have valid reasons behind their crimes, like slugging a guy for insulting their mother, or killing an adulteress, or stealing to make ends meet, or whatever. If you actually reviewed their 'crimes' from a far-off viewpoint, you would find that often society considered their actions perfectly legitimate five hundred years ago or in a different region of the Earth. Human nature doesn't change, so when you criminalize feelings that righteously and naturally argue for certain deeds, you're going to end up scooping up a lot of normal, innocent, fair-minded people who are just operating under their own code of right and wrong.
There are so many ways to end up a criminal, and 99% of them have nothing to do with the warped mind Hell is meant to punish. They're just ordinary people put in bad situations or dealt a bad hand, no different from anyone else had they been put in the same circumstances. The same is true of Nazis, Communists, Muslim terrorists, slavers, or any other 'intellectual sinner' we love to condemn these days. These are just ordinary people with brains no different from anyone else, who happened to be indoctrinated a different way. To single them out as singularly depraved is ridiculous. If they were kind and honest and fair in their daily life with other people, if they treated the people they were taught to treat with respect, there's absolutely nothing worse about their souls than the coffee sipping politically correct New Yorker who never met a minority they didn't love. The only difference is which group the mindless zombie conformed to. To call one a sinner and the other a saint is a joke.
There's just too much we don't know about people to not treat them with the benefit of the doubt. Even if we know they're guilty of the crime, if we can't prove their motivation to be depraved, we can't really convict them of a punishment suited to their evil deeds. It's impossible to understand someone else fully without living their entire life first as a simulation, so handing down harsh punishments is an act of unwarranted arrogance more susceptible to abuse than righteousness. This is why religious people claim we should leave all judgment up to God. It's because only God could possibly get the judgments right. Humans should content themselves with jail or exile, with as good treatment as economically possible, for criminals, simply as a way to safeguard ourselves from any further harm. If criminals do not pose a risk to society, they shouldn't be punished at all. If they do pose a risk to others, the punishment should simply be keeping them away from others so that no further people can be harmed. Anything added on for revenge's sake is more likely to be the truly depraved act than the criminal's crimes themselves.
However, it's another story when it comes to God. God is all-knowing. He can see right through people's motivations, how they became who they were, what they were thinking all along. If He identifies your soul to be black and corrupted, then He would know what He's talking about. I think one of the easiest ways to identify a truly depraved person is if they're hypocrites. If they apply their own moral code in one way when it favors them, and another when it disfavors them, you have caught red-handed a truly selfish individual. This is why hypocrites are surefire targets for God's wrath, ie, God's punishment, ie, Hell. Naked selfishness, where you treat yourself and your own desires to be infinitely more important than everyone else's pain, where you're willing to rape, kill, betray and destroy lifetimes worth of trust and effort for a momentary passing thrill, is the kind of evil meriting a torturous response. Hell is for the sort of people who hurt and humiliate others for the slightest of gains, whether it's pure sadism or some stupid goal like a free hamburger, a slightly higher relative status in the pecking order, or whatever. They know full well what they're doing but they just don't care. No one else's feelings even enter into the equation. The world revolves around them and they're free to do whatever they please to move ahead. The absolute worst thing about these people is that they don't feel guilty for what they've done. They never regret it even once in their lives. They aren't ashamed, they actually delight, in the pain they've caused others across the years. They reminisce fondly about their crimes in their own head and brag about them to their friends expecting praise instead of condemnation. When people do truly horrid deeds, are made aware of how they've hurt someone else as a result of their actions, but go on to bluster their way through and refuse to show any contrition for it, that's precisely when Hell is not only morally acceptable, it actually becomes a moral necessity before the universe can cycle one step forward.
A truly unrepentant soul, which delights in evil its whole life and never gets punished for it, or, even if they are punished for it, defiantly refuse to accept the punishment or admit they deserved it for what they've done, is on its own sufficiently depraved to nullify the worth of the whole universe. It's like a black hole of evil that sucks in all the light, all on its own, a negation, a giant NO that defiles everything that ever was or ever will be. If such a soul is allowed to stand, it contradicts everything we on Earth stand for and live for, and tears down everything we've built over thousands of years of coordinated effort and sacrifice. It makes a mockery of our lives and everything sacred we've ever lived for. If they're allowed to simply escape into the void untouched, it annihilates all our values because there's no further reason to treat our own path as any more valid than theirs. Without Hell waiting on the other side for these depraved souls, nihilism is waiting on the other end for all of ours.
This is why Hell Girl is such a great work of art. It specifically targets unrepentant evil doers, who justify everything they did as somehow acceptable since it furthered their own selfish goals, and refuse to admit they did anything wrong even when confronted physically with their crimes in a way even they can easily understand. Only then (for the most part in the series) are these villains finally carted away to Hell. If they went anywhere else but Hell this whole world would become a den of injustice and a stain that should just be rubbed out rather than sanctioned a minute longer. If we allow these sinners to get away scot free, then it's no longer just their sin but ours as well. And once we're all as evil as those people, once we all share in that same black hole of darkness mentality to the point that we'd actually be willing to forgive them, then there's nothing left in the universe but vileness through and through.
Some crimes, some attitudes, some people are unforgivable. We aren't smart enough or wise enough to identify these people on Earth. But God is smart enough. God is all seeing. And therefore, in order to not forgive the unforgivable, it's up to God to punish the people we cannot. Through Hell, God is doing mankind an infinitely loving and valuable service, by preserving the balance of justice and virtue in the living world, such that we can go on living with a sense of sacredness, of purity, of purpose with our chests held high.
Now, obviously, eternal Hell is a dumb idea, because in that case the punishment would no longer fit the crime. Hell should not be eternal, and any interpretation of religion that would allow for Hell to be eternal must be wrong, from sheer philosophical necessity. Hell is not an eternal resting place for the damned, it's just an indeterminate resting place for the damned. Hell is the place God confronts people with their crimes, and by punishing them with punishments that match what they did to other people in the real world, allows people to slowly understand, no matter how selfish they originally were, why what they did was wrong. Once they understand this fact, through the physical and mental tortures inflicted upon them which perfectly match the tortures they had inflicted upon others in the real world, and regret the deeds they did by realizing they should not have chosen to cause so much pain, then the sin is finally obliterated and the universe is set right. We cannot allow even a single person to die while still thinking it's okay to be evil and do evil deeds. Just one person defiantly thinking this to the end would make our universe a net negative, a symphony of discord, a love poem to depravity, an edifice of evil. If it takes a hundred years, a million years, or just a few seconds to finally convince people what they did was wrong, that's of no matter. Hell lasts just so long as it has to last and no longer. Once their souls have been purified, they can be reincarnated back into the world good as new, hopefully this time having learned their lesson so they won't do it again. Hell is a correctional institute, just as prison is merely a method to safeguard society. Once its purpose is served, the prisoner is freed. I can imagine some very sick people requiring a long time in Hell before they finally 'get it,' but once they have gotten it, they're no longer our enemies, but more allies on the side of good, and harming an ally would just be madness.
Hell is not a flaw in religion, its actually a pivotal foundation and a logical necessity given that God is Good like everyone keeps saying He is. The same is true of Heaven. God cannot be Good unless he revives the dead and allows them to rejoin with their lost loved ones. It's just impossible to allow such an obvious defect, such a glaring flaw, to exist in the universe as death so obviously is. To simply snuff out someone's possibilities and other people's bonds so arbitrarily, so randomly, to people who have never done anything to merit such a horrendous penalty, is so evil that, if allowed to stand, would blot out the entire worth of the universe and return us right back to the nihilism that Hell so recently allowed us to escape from.
Does this mean that Heaven and Hell really exist? Of course not. They're clearly fairy tales with no observational basis. But that doesn't matter in the world of ideas. What matters isn't whether something is or is not, but whether something ought to be or ought not to be. The purpose of philosophy is to identify what ought to be, and to embrace it from an intellectual point of view, even if the body has no chance to follow through on the conclusions. Stoicism spent about 9/10's of all its words explaining to people that philosophy was the practice of accepting that the material world would never match our visions of the spiritual world, but that nonetheless we still had to cleave to the spiritual world and ignore the results in the material world if we were to maintain the dignity of our souls. Simply holding to what is right is a spiritual triumph even if it never once wins in actuality.
For this reason, simply not accepting death as okay is the purpose of heaven, just as not accepting selfishness and hypocrisy as okay is the purpose of hell. So long as we hold to our spiritual values, being defeated by the fact that people really do die and the unjust really do prosper is besides the point. If they don't corrupt your judgment of these facts, if they don't make you nihilistically accept these results in your own heart, then these defects are just like rain pelting on the roof of a well-built home. Sure, you're aware of the injustice, but you're still warm and cozy inside your spiritual hearth all the same. It never invades your own existence, it's just an outward force that stays on the outside from beginning to end. Wishing for Hell to exist is an end in and of itself. Just as wishing for Heaven to exist has its own virtue. Sanctioning the right things is what we're here for. Once the right things have all been properly sanctioned and embraced, it doesn't really matter how reality actually goes. Just imagine it as a game of chance. If, during a game of bridge, you work out the perfect way to play your hand, such that 80% of the time you win, and you play your hand perfectly in order to get this 80% win rate -- supposing you still lose because the cards went in an awkward way, do you really feel troubled at the result? It's laughable. You just shrug it off and say oh well. You played the probabilities correctly, and in your own heart you know you really won -- 80% of the time. The game of life is the same. Once you've identified the winning hand, the winning plays, if you play the winning play and lose anyway, all you can do is laugh at the world. It does nothing to prove you wrong. It's just a meaningless quibble to your already completed spiritual journey. You could really care less what happens to you. Stoics never intended to keep score from the beginning.
Heaven and hell are logically necessary in order for Good to prevail. Whether they exist or not is trivial. But if someone says they ought not exist at all, that is an issue of utmost importance. The whole universe is at stake when it comes to questions like those. So religious people need to stand up and make their case for their God's extra worlds. They are in the right. The atheists could not be more wrong. Through heaven and hell, religious people are providing a valuable service to the intellectual and moral universe every day. This time, they're the ones in the right. This is one case they absolutely shouldn't show any flexibility upon. Without Hell, life loses all meaning. Let the sinners burn. Their burning, tortured screams are the foundation of our very existence. Without them, where would we be?