This is a deeper question, but one which victims of psychopaths do still sometimes want to know. If some of them escape punishment and justice during their lives, then what happens to these poisonous people after they die?
No one can obviously answer this question with certaintly, since it revolves around so many issues which are down to personal, subjective experiences and opinions. For those of us who belive in an afterlife, karma, and other such concepts, we have to assume that psychopaths will encounter some kind of justice in whatever afterlife we believe exists.
But there are so many questions and objections someone could have to this. What is the cutoff point between someone who is merely deeply troubled but well intentioned and someone who is an outright psychopath beyond redemption?
This is why we want to break down the behavior of psychopaths, more specifically on the issue of awareness and intent as well as the consequences of their behavior, to show that there is a identifiable aspect of evil and malevolence prevalent in these character types, which sets them apart from even other severely disturbed personality types.
If what is commonly referred to as “hell” does exist, it is safe to say it is reserved precisely for people like psychopaths, and the Buddhist perspective on the psychological corruption and trauma that happens within the abuser themselves when they traumatize someone else is especially useful in helping us understand why psychopaths set themselves up for a ferocious dose of karma down the line by the way they treat others.
Here is the way we look at the issue, broken down into logical steps, to see how the psychopath is a fundamentally worse personality type than any of the others:
1. Psychopaths, commit evil against others, causing them an enormous amount of internal subjective distress and emotional and psychological damage which can take years to recover from.
2. They do so in full, conscious awareness of what they are doing. Their behaviour towards others is deliberate, planned and predetermined and they show no remorse or guilt for their actions.
3. Psychopathy and evil in general is largely (arguably totally) an issue of free will and choice, not genetics or other biological factors.
4. There is a clear distinct difference between those who hurt others unintentionally, and those who do so with purpose and intent.
5. Therefore, assuming hell exists, it is safe to say that it is reserved for those who knowingly commit systematic physical, sexual and psychological abuse towards others, and show no guilt or remorse for doing so.
6. Psychopaths do commit these acts, and therefore are likely to end up in hell if it exists.
Let’s run through some of these points in turn to more clearly lay out the argument of where psychopaths end up when they die.
Psychopaths Are Fully Aware of What They Are Doing
“(Psychopaths) are individuals who are extremely egotistical, self centered, lacking remorse for what they have done, knowing exactly what they are doing. And what they’re doing is manipulating and deceiving other people for their own ends”
Dr Robert Hare – see here
This is another issue which needs emphasizing in answer to this question. We need to bust the myth that psychopaths are somehow troubled people, who do wrong but don’t realize it, and are just lost and need help to become better.
The reality is that psychopaths commit the evil they do against others in full awareness that that’s what they’re doing. This is not a case of a normal relationship between two human beings, however flawed and dysfunctional, who have a clash of values, are “on different wavelengths” or some other relationship cliche.
Psychopaths know what they are doing to others and are doing it on purpose. They know that the games they play hurt others, cause them a great deal of subjective distress. And they are very happy about that and make no apologies about it. It’s entertainment to them. Psychopaths are completely without guilt and remorse. They see nothing wrong with the way they behave.
This point needs emphasizing in building up to our conclusion, since psychopaths are always trying to gas-light their victims and rationalize and excuse their behavior away. They will protest to the very end that they have good intentions, but the reality is that to the psychopath other people are just objects to be used and manipulated for their own ends, and they do this in fully conscious awareness.
Free Will, Choice & Evil
This leads nicely into the related issue of free will and choice. There is a lot of discussion on whether psychopathy is genetic, or environmental, or a combination of both. Are psychopaths born or made? It is an interesting question, but we cannot leave out of the debate the issue of free will and choice.
Michael from the excellent Unslaved Podcast on psychopathy brilliantly sums up this issue as it relates to the evil psychopaths commit.
“I’m not ruling out there may be a category of person who’s so indelibly sociopathic that it’s impossible for them to change even with great punishment and imprisonment…..but that’s such a miniscule proportion of people that it doesn’t matter to what I’m saying.
People who have any kind of malignancy – it’s not brain disease, it’s not mental impairment, it’s deviancy, moral deviancy. And as soon as you understand that when you look at all pathology, you’re coming at it from what I believe to be the sane, rational approach, and you’re acknowledging that there’s choice underneath it”
The point being made here is that even with potential genetic influences to psychopathy, a person still has free will and choice to determine how he behaves in the world and treats others.
Everyone is responsible for what they do to others, including evil – they can’t excuse it away as having a “vulnerable brain” or a “bad upbringing”. Any grown, sane adult is 100% responsible for their behavior and actions in the world (psychopaths are legally and clinically sane). Plenty of people with tough upbringings don’t go on to become psychopaths.
The psychiatrist M Scott Peck basically reiterated this position in his book The People of the Lie – see our Books section for a link. He argues evil to simply result from a series of progressively darker and more corrupt choices a person makes inside themselves, that leads to a more and more toxic mindset.
In his practice, he met people who were in the process of becoming evil, and those who had already crossed the line and become evil. From these different cases he could see that the onset of evil was not a one time event but a process whereby a person continues to make evil choices out of their own free will, at some point crossing the line from being a corrupted person to being a full blown psychopath.
Where the line is of course is unclear, but again we are building up the case that any evil that is done in the world (not accidental killings or other freak incidents, but conscious deliberate evil) is done out of free will and choice.
Psychopaths can spend their entire lives lying and deceiving others, sometimes getting way with it, but they cannot play any more “get out of jail” cards once they die. For those of us who believe in an afterlife, this is when they are confronted with everything they have done, and there are no escape tactics, and no gas-lighting or blame shifting that will get them off the hook.
Intent And Remorse as Other Factors
“Those who have done horrible things to others have a corruption inside them – they’ve been hurt deeply by their own actions”
A fantastic resource which offers a Buddhist perspective on this can be found in the second half of the embedded video above. It takes us out of the moral “right” and “wrong” debate for a moment and instead looks at what happens internally on a psychological level to someone who knowingly commits physical and psychological violence towards others.
The takes us out of the “one point of view versus another” debate on this, which can go on forever, and brings us into something which can actually be observed, and is indeed observed, by meditation practitioners who deal with people who have done horrible things to others.
The teachers mentions that the issue needs to broken up into a couple of sub categories:
- Those who have suffered horrible things versus those who have actively done horrible things to others.
- The issue of intent and remorse. Does someone make a mistake and realize they have made a mistake, or has someone actively, wilfully and repeatedly committed physical or psychological warfare against others without any guilt or remorse?
Put simply, those who actually deal with people in meditation who have committed atrocities against others can see there is a deep corruption inside them from what they have done to others, and this corruption is far harder to heal than with someone who has merely had horrible things done to them.
The issue of intent and wilfulness is a crucial dividing factor here. Observing people in meditation for PTSD can confirm that to traumatize another is to traumatize oneself. Psychopaths are shut off from this reality, since they have no empathy for themselves as well as for anyone else, but the rules still apply to them as anyone else.
Of course most psychopaths never even subject themselves to such scrutiny by going to therapy or meditation retreats, so this corruption that lies inside them is almost never exposed. The majority of psychopaths never seek help because they don’t think there is anything wrong with them.
Nevertheless, there are people who do horrible things in their life and eventually reach a point where they want to face it and atone for it, which again emphasizes the issue of free will and choice. Most psychopaths actively choose to never confront this part of themself, and continually run away from any kind of legitimate self examination or suffering.
For those that do though, teachers confirm it is much harder to work through if you have intentionally committed violence and evil against others. There is a deep corruption that needs to be picked through, and meditation teachers often report such people psychologically exploding, committing suicide or having other extreme reactions once they start confronting these toxic layers inside themselves.
Pay very close attention to the second half of the embedded video above – without even intending to, the speaker is perfectly describing precisely why psychopaths are so corrupted psychologically, and how their continued mistreatment of others only adds to the toxicity that sits inside them.
The Issue of The Afterlife and Hell
This issue of the afterlife and hell has been complicated by some more extreme and fundamentalist forms of religion, which have used the concept of hell as a dogmatic tool to frighten anyone who disagrees with them – the “Anyone who doesn’t follow our rules to the letter is going to burn in eternal damnation” kind of rhetoric.
This kind of dogmatic silliness has put people off religion and the associated ideas of heaven and hell; however all the major religions do describe hell as a real place. Just as it is true that you don’t have to follow religion to believe in some of kind of “higher power” or “universal intelligence”, you also don’t have to be religious to believe in an afterlife, or that the places commonly referred to as heaven and hell still exist.
Here are just some of the questions that the whole issue of the afterlife, sin, forgiveness, heaven and hell brings up:
- Do we have just one life on earth, or do we have multiple lives on earth?
- Once we die, does anything even happen? Do we come from nothing and go to nothing, or is there some kind of afterlife?
- Combining these above two points, when we die, do we go to heaven or hell permanently, or just temporarily, until we reincarnate in a new life?
- Assuming there is an afterlife, is it even separated into heaven and hell? Or is everyone forgiven regardless of what they have done? Who decides? Who does the judging? Do a “decider” even exist? What about some middle zone like purgatory?
- What is the dividing line between someone who goes to heaven or hell? Who decides? What is the cut off? Committing evil with deliberate intent seems like a reasonable standard, but it still can’t be definitively proven.
Each person will differ in their views on all these questions, and will therefore reach totally different conclusions as to what happens when we die, as well as how we are judged on our lives once we do die, for those who do believe in some kind of afterlife. There are lots of unanswered questions here and people will always disagree on “big ticket” questions like this.
This is why we focus a little less on this and simply go back to the psychological issues of 1) The intent and motive behind actions; 2) Free will and choice 3) The issue of what happens to a person internally psychologically when they knowingly commit evil against others and 4) What happens to this internal corruption when they die – does it manifest and come to the surface in the afterlife?
The Buddhist perspective on this last point is especially interesting, since from one point of view, their concept of hell can simply be seen as all the internal psychological poison that resides inside someone all coming up to the surface in the afterlife.
All the psychological corruption and toxicity from the constant lying, abuse and mistreatment of others, all the pain that they have caused not just others but also themselves by behaving the way they have, all comes to the forefront of their mind, having been deeply repressed, pushed away, and projected onto others throughout their physical life.
From this karmic perspective, hell can be seen not so much as a punishment dished out by a divine being, but simply a “what goes around comes around” dynamic of all the poison they have accumulated in themselves over a lifetime of evil behavior coming back to the surface in what we would call an afterlife, in a way which they can no longer manipulate their way out of.
To repeat, from the Buddhist perspective, to harm another is to harm oneself, and perhaps what is commonly known as “hell” is simply a payback for people who failed to realize this and treated others with the assumption there are no ultimate consequences for harming others in life.
Views on this will always differ – we welcome any comments and suggestions as this is quite a deep question