I think the issue of what happens to ethics if we don’t believe in Hell, raised in this week’s Time magazine, is an important one for religious and secular people alike. That’s because the basic Christian ethical system is an important part of the background culture of the entire west, even for people who don’t personally practice a religion or who come from Jewish families or whatnot.
Folk hell has two relevant features. One is that it’s really awful. The other is that being sent there is the act of a just and moral God not an arbitrary and capricious one.
One important consequence of this that I think has tended to carry over into secular ethical thought via Immanuel Kant — a serious Pietist Christian who nevertheless devised an ostensibly secular ethical system — is that the rules of morality ought to be realistic and achievable. It can’t be that a just and moral God is sending 99.9 percent of the population to a fate of endless suffering in Hell. God is good, so he wants to punish the wicked. But by the same token, God is good so his definition of “wicked” must be something that most of us are able to steer clear of. If we recognize that some people appear to go “above and beyond the call of (ethical) duty” we can recognize their supererogatory goodness by deeming them “saints.” But your average, everyday non-saint has to be a realistic candidate for avoiding the fiery pits of hell.
This tends to rule out the kind of ethical principles that say really middle class Americans ought to be giving 65 percent of their incomes over to charity. After all, nobody does that, it goes against human nature to do that, so it can’t be that we’re all sentenced to hell for being bad people. And I think that a lot of secular people who’ve dropped the entire God/Hell scheme from their worldview still hold on to a ghost version of that line of thinking. But without hell there’s no reason to think of good and bad, right and wrong as a question of getting over some hurdle of minimum standard of conduct.