Economics of Eternal Damnation

Eternal damnation. Just the sound is intimidating, much less the prospect of unending suffering at the hand of some set of eternal creatures with a penchant for sadism.

My question is this: why would a religion (I’m mostly picking on Christianity here as an ex-Roman Catholic) say “Follow the rules or be eternally damned”?

First, the area of discussion needs to be framed. So a few bound, hypotheses and axioms are in order.

  1. The existence of God is not under discussion beyond, perhaps, its status as a rational belief. Regardless, it is stipulated that belief in God is possible a priori and that the set of believers is non-empty.
  2. Likewise, the existence of an immortal soul is not up for discussion, but it is assumed a priori that there exists a practiced religion whose adherents accept its existence.
  3. There exists a practiced religious system with both a defined ethical philosophy which makes a decent stab at being consistent and comprehensive.
  4. Said religion must require its members to follow its moral teachings which are believed to be inspired/revealed by God or are derived from such inspiration/revelation.
  5. The religion incorporates meaningful notions of reward and punishment for behavior. For simplicity, I’ll label these heaven, hell, purgatory and the lukewarm (the last in the Dantean sense). Of these, only the first two are required.
  6. A requirement is not meaningful unless it can and will be enforced with meaningful sanction for violation at some future time.
  7. God is assumed to be believed to be rational and its behavior consistent with religious teachings of the religion in question.

Under these conditions, why would a religion promise damnation to the sinful and heaven to the (relatively) sinless?

By way of contradiction, suppose without loss of generality that heaven was promised to all after death. By (4), moral laws must be enforced and by (6) a sanction is required. However, by definition and (5) religious law is at the most laid down by God through some revelatory mechanism and at the least based on such revelation. But by (7) God would recognize the establishment of a non-binding standard which by (6) is no standard at all. This contradicts the revelation of a binding morality to the people (3, 4). Therefore there must exist a decision rule based on compliance with revealed ethics which assigns persons to either heaven or hell.

In short, where God doesn’t care about compliance with ethics, no ethics have been imposed. Similar arguments are quite common, especially in the Thomistic ethical framework used in Catholicism.

Having dispensed with that question, we now turn to why is damnation must be eternal. To do so we must introduce the idea of discounting.

Put simply, discounting is where values are reduced through multiplication by a constant strictly between zero and one raised to a power which increases monotonically as a function of time.

Clearly, given enough time the reward or punishment is meaningless. Moreover, humanity being what it is, there are any number of crimes one could commit known only to God. Therefore, for a religious ethical edict to still have punitive force, God must (as noted) impose the punishment. So, let’s assume a person is considering committing a crime that will be known only to God and is asking whether the gains outweigh the punishments. For simplicity, assume this crime would earn them (they believe) a guaranteed trip to hell. For them to not do it, the total sum of hellish torment must be perceived to be more significant than the benefits in this life.

But most people don’t think they’re going to die anytime soon. So the question now turns on discounting. If they don’t die for a number of years, the future torment becomes less and less meaningful to them in their current decision-making. So the only response it to add as much as possible to the total pool of punishment to overcome the discounting.

Nothing is longer than eternity. Any finite amount of punishment could be under some set of benefits after discounting.

Therefore the case for eternal damnation is clear.


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