John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) on Hell Belief and Critical Thinking

In John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography  is a brilliant reflection on hell belief: he argues that belief in hell is made paradoxically both strong and weak by an across the board system failure in critical thinking. Here are the two critical thinking errors that Mill associates with hell belief:

  • logical contradiction
  • reductio ad absurdum

Beginning with logical contradiction, Mill argues that hell belief is incompatible with God being good. To make this argument, he recalls his father (who was also a philosopher):

Think (he used to say) of a being who would make a Hell—who would create the human race with the infallible foreknowledge, and therefore with the intention, that the great majority of them were to be consigned to horrible and everlasting torment. The time, I believe, is drawing near when this dreadful conception of an object of worship will be no longer identified with Christianity; and when all persons, with any sense of moral good and evil, will look upon it with the same indignation with which my father regarded it.  

This is the contradiction at the heart of hell belief: that God would torture people for all of eternity and still be called good. But what a lack of critical thinking takes with one hand it gives with the other, for though people come to believe in hell without properly thinking it through, they also—again for a lack of consistent critical thinking—fail (thankfully) to absorb hell belief’s most malignant reductio ad absurda :

My father was as well aware as any one that Christians do not, in general, undergo the demoralizing consequences which seem inherent in such a creed, in the manner or to the extent which might have been expected from it. The same slovenliness of thought, and subjection of the reason to fears, wishes, affections, which enable them to accept a theory involving a contradiction in terms, prevents them from perceiving the logical consequences of the theory. Such is the facility with which mankind believe at one and the same time things inconsistent with one another, and so few are those who draw from what they receive as truths, any consequences but those recommended to them by their feelings, that multitudes have held the undoubting belief in an Omnipotent Author of Hell, and have nevertheless identified that being with the best conception they were able to form of perfect goodness. Their worship was not paid to the demon which such a Being as they imagined would really be, but to their own excellence.

So this was John Stuart Mill’s take on hell: people come to believe in it and manage to stay sane about it for the same reason: a lack of critical thinking.


The above Mill quotes come from pages 58 and 59 of The Portable Atheist  (edited by Christopher Hitchens, 2007)

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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