Why did Plato need Hell?
In the opening pages of the Republic, Cephalus relates that old age lends new terror to the “stories we’re told about Hades, about how people who’ve been unjust here must pay the penalty there.” Many people prefer to act unjustly if they can get away with it, but the prospect of punishment in the afterlife ensures that the guilty pay for their misdeeds. Thus the conventional wisdom of the social utility of Hell: it scares people into being good.
However, in the Republic, Socrates accepts the challenge of showing that a just life is its own reward and an unjust one its own punishment. He argues that the practice of injustice mutilates the soul and prevents happiness, and that it is therefore better to be a just man, even if that means suffering injustice—perhaps being mistreated and killed—than to be an unjust man who enjoys all the pleasures and praise this world can offer. Plato even provides some (dubious) calculations to demonstrate precisely how miserable the tyrant’s life must be compared to that of other men. He concludes that a tyrant is 729 times more wretched than a (philosopher) king.
This would seem to eliminate the need to stoke fear of posthumous retribution awaiting the wicked. Yet Plato nonetheless revisits Hades following his calculation of tyrannical misery. After demonstrating the immortality of the soul, he concludes with the Myth of Er, which tells of a man who bore witness to the afterlife, with its rewards for the just and its tenfold punishments for the wicked. For most evildoers, the punishment eventually ends and they are reincarnated, but the worst are dragged away for further torment. Plato told similar tales elsewhere. In both the Gorgias and the Phaedo, Socrates states that those who have become incurably wicked are punished forever.
If virtue is its own reward, why did Plato repeatedly invoke the prospect of eternal punishment in Hades?
Belief in Hell Leads to . . . Peace?
Something changes over course of the Republic. Plato begins by describing the torments of Hades as a specter used to frighten people into being good. He ends by making us pity the evildoer. As Socrates said in the Gorgias, “to do injustice is a greater evil, and to suffer it a lesser one.” The tyrant is not to be envied for his power to do as he wishes, but instead pitied as a slave to his consuming passions. The wicked man is mutilating his soul and making himself miserable in this life and storing up punishment in the next.
These teachings reveal an unexpected social benefit of belief in posthumous punishment, whether it takes the form of eternal damnation or some temporary recompense and purification such as Purgatory. These seemingly harsh doctrines may make for social peace. It is not just that belief in an afterlife with rewards and punishments motivates citizens to be virtuous. Such belief may also temper the lusts for justice and vengeance. Assurance that justice will be meted out with divine precision after death relieves humans of the burden of administering it themselves.
Belief in retribution after death may be a socially stabilizing force, allowing wrongs to be overlooked, even if they are not forgiven. By contrast, if the administration of justice is not backstopped by God (or karma, or some other similarly powerful force), then it is up to us to ensure that the wicked do not go unpunished in this life. If there is no justice after death, then even Plato’s teaching that the wicked make themselves miserable may not mitigate the determination to ensure that they are properly chastised in the here and now. Otherwise, it seems, they will have gotten away with it.
Outrage Mobs and Original Sin
This perspective has immense cultural implications. From Oscar hosts to high school students to Heisman Trophy winners, today everyone is a potential target for internet outrage mobs. Ben Shapiro recently wrote what many are thinking, declaring that we have become a culture without forgiveness. “Repentance,” he concluded, “is simply not possible in our outrage culture.” The abandonment of religion, especially by educated progressives, is making public repentance and forgiveness more difficult.
This lack of mercy is spurred by a desire for justice, and a belief that we must provide it here and now. The excesses of today’s outrage culture result from a rediscovery of the realities of a sin-drenched existence without a Christian framework to interpret it.
What secular social justice activists are trying to describe (usually through intersectional analysis of the social and power dynamics around race, class, gender, sexuality, and so on) is more adequately explained through the Christian understanding of sin. Everything is problematic because we live in a sin-stained world. There are none righteous but God.
Therefore, Christianity goes beyond Plato’s pity for evildoers: Jesus commands us to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. Christians should see themselves in those who wrong them. We are all sinners who deserve divine wrath and need saving grace. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We ought to desire salvation even for our enemies, for vengeance belongs to God alone. Plato taught us to pity the wicked; Christianity encourages solidarity with them by recognizing that we too are wicked and in need of grace.
Without this Christian framework, but with a strong, inchoate sense of sin, seemingly minor wrongs and slights are seen as representative expressions of the injustices of society as a whole. But there is no one to grant absolution to the repentant, or to redeem the world from its fallen state. Each wrong is indelible, and so there is only sin and punishment. Apologies, often coerced, are plentiful, but forgiveness does not follow. Wrongs against individuals may be forgiven by those who are wronged, but who has the authority to forgive someone who has perpetuated a system of injustice? Forgiveness becomes impossible when every discrete wrong is bundled into a secularized version of original sin.
The Need for Forgiveness
But forgiveness is still a social necessity. Hannah Arendt was one of the few political philosophers to elucidate this point. In The Human Condition, she argued that forgiveness is necessary to liberate people from the irreversible nature of action. Forgiveness ends a chain of reactions, freeing those involved to make a new beginning. Rather than seeking revenge, he who is wronged covers the wrong by taking its ill effects upon himself. Forgiveness allows redemption from the irrevocability of human action, and is a necessary condition for limited, fallible human beings to live with each other.
Unlike revenge, the act of forgiving can never be predicted. It is by nature unexpected. It is unconditioned by the act that provoked it, and it frees both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven. Arendt wrote that “Only through this constant mutual release from what they do can men remain free agents, only by constant willingness to change their minds and start again can they be trusted with so great a power as that to begin something new.” Yet Arendt circumscribed forgiveness, restricting it to the everyday wrongs of human life, where it is an alternative to punishment. She argued that radical evil, which cannot be properly punished, cannot be forgiven either.
Belief in Hell might seem like the opposite of forgiveness. However, divine forgiveness is contingent on the possibility of divine punishment. Temporally, belief in divine retribution may also encourage human forgiveness, as believers recollect that they, too, need mercy. At the very least, they may overlook some wrongs on the basis that God will sort them out.
The prospect of Hell may allow for a moving-on even in cases of radical evil of the sort that Arendt deems unforgivable. Civil peace often demands leniency for horrific crimes. It is sometimes necessary that witnesses and informants be granted immunity for their crimes, that traitors and terrorists be offered amnesty, or that treaties be made with tyrants. In such cases, where reasons of state preclude justice in this life, belief that there will be an accounting after death may help restore and preserve peace, even without forgiveness. Belief in divine justice liberates humanity from the responsibility of administering perfect justice—an impossible effort that, because of human finitude and sin, itself produces injustice.
Recognizing the social utility of religious beliefs is not enough to preserve them. Still, such reflection aids in diagnosing the ills of a culture that abandons them. Declining belief in divine judgment may encourage some to indulge themselves, comforted by the belief that there will be no punishment. However, others will attempt to take the place of the absent divine judge.
Those who believe that the only justice to be had is that which they administer in this life will be neither proportionate nor merciful. And those who do not believe in Hell may attempt to create it themselves.