On ‘Hell’ and ‘Evil’ — and the Uselessness of Both Concepts

By Wendy Thomas Russell | February 7, 2013 | 8 comments

Dr.-EvilThere 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.

9780958578349_p0_v1_s260x420When 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.


  1. Gordon Ross says:

    I would revise Anne Frank’s remark to “People want to feel good (happy), so we do things to bring about that feeling. Problems arise, however, when we try to control others, either through force, intimidation, or persuasion, to say or do things that “make” us feel good. Of course, no one actually “makes” another person feel anything. Our feelings arise in us as the result of our perception of the actions of others as filtered through the “maze” of our subconscious beliefs and attitudes that we have acquired through our lifetime. We are thus totally responsible for whatever we feel. And as such, we have the power the change our feelings. Much easier to do that than to blame others for how we feel and then try to change the behavior of others so that we may feel good or happy (Good luck with that!) We change restrictive (“negative”) feelings to expansive (“positive”) ones by first acknowledging the restrictive feeling, e.g., I am feeling anger, or I am feeling unhappy, and then by owning it, that is, not blaming anyone else for it but, instead, taking responsibility for feeling it, and finally, by letting it go, releasing it. Then when we are feeling better, we can turn out attention on thinking, saying, and/or doing something that we enjoy. As we keep doing this, we retrain our patterns of thoughts and beliefs from those that are associated with restrictive emotions to those that are associated with the expansive emotions (“feeling more at ease,” “feeling a greater sense of peace or contentment or happiness”). And after a while, we find that we feel happy for greater lengths of time and are less affected by the “negative” emotions of others. And we even attract people to us who are happy and events in which we feel happy.

    • Yes, yes and yes. Might well be one of the most useful psychological truisms there is, and yet one of the most often ignored. Particularly in parenting, we have these things that “trigger” our anger and we don’t stop to realize that the reaction isn’t objectively warranted, but rather the result of our own unique perceptions. Great reminder. Thanks, Gordon.

  2. Suzanne says:

    I think the problem is these words need to be directed towards actions rather than people. As has already been mentioned, it’s not that evil doesn’t necessarily exist, it’s just that it’s pretty useless to call people evil for the reasons you listed in your post.

    Also, very few, if any, people do good because they worry about going to hell if they do bad things. Once they’re adults, anyway. Instead, most people define good and bad according to what feels right to them and align their religious beliefs to this learned and/or innate sense of right and wrong.

    • “Once they’re adults, anyway.” Yes, I can accept that. The problem is that many children are still told about hell, and the context is almost always: “If you ________, you will go to hell.” It’s a scare tactic, even if parents don’t at all mean it to be.

      I admit I don’t quite understand your first graph, though. Wikipedia defines Evil as “profound immorality, especially when regarded as a supernatural force, for example in religious belief. Evil is usually perceived as the dualistic opposite of good.” I think it’s fair to say that actions are “bad,” as opposed to people being intrinsically “bad,” but the word “evil” — at least in the way it was originally intended — is not synonymous with bad or wrong or harmful of destructive or depraved. It connotes an other-worldly impulse or motive. It’s offered not just as a description but as an explanation.

  3. Another post that needed writing! Well done!

  4. Heather says:

    Yet another article on your blog I strongly agree with. There is ALWAYS a reason why people do what they do. While I disagree that evil does not exist, I do not believe that “people” are evil. It is the curse of the cycle of mistreatment and violence combined with genetic setbacks that make monsters out of human beings. Which is why punishing one person does not fix the problem. Gandhi said the problem with “justice” is that an eye for an eye would make the whole world blind. Violence will always encourage retaliation. Compassion and understanding is what will steer this great ship in the right direction. Its not a task that any one person can accomplish but humanity in unison.

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Due out March 31, Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious offers a well-researched look at a timely subject: secular parenting. With chapters on avoiding indoctrination, talking about death, vaccinating kids against intolerance, dealing with religious baggage, and getting along with religious relatives, the book offers a refreshingly compassionate approach to raising religiously literate, highly tolerant and critically thinking children capable of making up their own minds about what to believe. The book may be pre-ordered by visiting Brown Paper Press.

      Natural Wonderers is my new blog published by the Patheos faith network. An extension of my previous blog — Relax, It's Just God — Natural Wonderers offers stories and advice on raising curious, compassionate children in secular families.
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