One justification of Hell is that the Christian god is just and therefore must punish humans for our crimes. I take issue with this argument for a number of reasons.
First, and most obvious, is the idea of “salvation.” Despite being told that humans are sinful and that the Christian god, in its infinite justice, must send us there to pay for our crimes, we are told that there’s a loophole we can exploit. By simply accepting Jesus as our personal savior (and/or by doing penance, commissioning chantries, purchasing indulgences, etc., in other traditions), humans can apparently escape this punishment. The Christian god, it seems, doesn’t much care who suffers, so long as someone does. Setting aside that three days hardly seems to be the equivalent of an eternity, the concept still undermines the entire idea of the Christian god as being “just” for sending people to Hell, if it will accept the punishment of an innocent in the place of a guilty person.
Even without the “salvation” loophole, Hell still doesn’t really hold up as the work of a just god. Quite frankly, it is pointless. Punishment can serve a variety of different functions, but none of them are performed by the Hell construct in the Christian faith.
In one theory of justice, punishment is restorative. Under this model, the guilty party is served a punishment that is meant to somehow fix the damage done by their crime. Sometimes, this is a fine, paid to the state or the wounded party (as in the case of wergild in Danelaw), the idea being that the money will be enough to remedy the situation. Other times, the culprit is assigned community service, as a means of doing a certain amount of good things to balance out the bad things they’ve done. Hell, on the other hand, does not fix anything. No one that a person hurt during their life is helped by that person’s damnation.
Another punishment model is meant to be reformative. In this theory of justice, efforts are made to show the guilty party the error of their ways, in the hopes that they won’t offend again. Sometimes, this takes the form of the offender being made to have a conversation with the injured party, or see the damage they have caused. Other times, reform is imposed through job training, sobriety programs, and other means during incarceration. Regardless of the means by which reform is achieved, the end result is that the offender is released back into society once it is determined that they will not offend again because they understand why their crimes were wrong. Hell doesn’t work for this, either, since the souls allegedly trapped in Hell are never released back into society. Even if they were to learn the error of their ways, it would have been pointless.
One of the oldest models of punishment is, well, punitive. Serving as the proverbial stick, this method of punishment is a blunt instrument, causing pain, discomfort, or unhappiness to the offender in the hopes that they will not commit crime again for fear of suffering punishment again. Hell comes closer to this model than to the others, but the fact remains that in the Christian model of Hell, it is an eternal punishment. No person is released from Hell, we’re told. If they are never released to have a second chance, then the entire exercise has no purpose. They’re already dead, they’ve already run out of potential opportunities to commit crimes (or “sins”), and so Hell doesn’t work as a punishment.
There is, of course, the notion of termination. This model of punishment isn’t especially popular in today’s society, and is often used in literature to establish the dystopian nature of the setting. That said, the theory of it is that the offender is deemed too dangerous to be in society any longer. Therefore, they are put to death, effectively removing them from the society and preventing them from harming anyone else in the future. Hell fails miserably in this regard. By the time a person is in Hell, they have already been removed from society, and they can’t harm anyone further. Certain Christians say that this is in fact what Hell actually refers to. They, however, are a minority. Hell, as it exists in common Christian dogma, does not function as a practical termination of a criminal, since they are already incapable of harming anyone else.
It is for these reasons that Hell, as commonly understood by Christians, is not the work of a just and righteous god. It rights no wrongs and it prevents no repeat offenses. As if that weren’t enough, the entire mechanism is assigned to all offenders, regardless of the severity of their offenses, but can be escaped by claiming to be in a special Jesus in-crowd.