I have always thought the idea of infinite punishment for finite sin felt wrong; it's vindictive in a way only petty humans can be. Additionally, it seems the best rehabilitation would be an induced perfect empathy. Finally, people often report seeing their life flash before their eyes in near death experiences, what if that's not the end of the show? Given those three ideas, which I'm not asking about, in a moment of terrifying insight I realized what hell might actually be:

You are sentenced to live through the entire life of every thing you have ever harmed.

Anything that feels pain or has emotions which you directly affected, you're locked in and must experience their life in real time.

With an infinite afterlife, living through a few thousand lives is no time at all; it's significantly less than infinite time. But how long will it really be? For an average person, how many lives and years will they have to live through? I'm looking for an approximate but well reasoned answer, ideally within one or two orders of magnitude. Note that there is an exact value for the average, so "it's different for everyone" is not a helpful answer.

To restate, the sentence is to live through the entire life of every thing you have ever harmed. To simplify things slightly, we'll define things as follows:

  • This "average person" is from the people living in modern day western culture.
  • To "live through" a life means you experience it fully as if in real time. No skipping forward, no interaction, no going comatose. You're there and fully present.
  • The "entire life" is from birth to death of the creature in question (shorter time for things you kill, obviously). You live through the life only once, no matter how much harm you did to it.
  • For applicable lives, "every thing" is defined as anything with eyes. This conveniently excludes bacteria (they have very short lives, but using antibacterial soap would significantly increase the sentence).
  • To have "harmed" something, the act whether meant to harm or not, must have been done with intention.
  • Physical harm usually has clear intention and is usually direct. Pushing someone down counts, while forgetting to pick up your backpack causing someone to trip and get hurt does not.
  • Emotional harm is a little harder to define, but we'll say if someone feels hurt by either a direct action or willful inaction on your part, it counts.

I realize despite the clarification, people will still have questions as to what counts and what doesn't. Just go with your instincts, if the affected thing can fairly state that you harmed it, then state your reasoning and include that life in the sentence.

So, how long does hell last?

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ Jun 18, 2015 at 21:40
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    $\begingroup$ So there is no difference between hurting someone once or repeatedly. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Jun 19, 2015 at 1:29
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    $\begingroup$ Clarification - by the parameters of this question, we'd also feel the elation that everyone else feels. What if we "harmed" someone who lived a life better in every way to our own? experiencing that would be a reward, not a punishment... $\endgroup$ Jun 19, 2015 at 11:13
  • $\begingroup$ @IsaacKotlicky Read the comments moved to chat, people already asked that. It's not punishment, it's induced empathy. How does that clarification help answer the question of the duration? $\endgroup$
    – Samuel
    Jun 19, 2015 at 13:38
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    $\begingroup$ Is this recursive? In your first life you are mean to person B. Punishment is you relive B's life. But Person B was not a saint and hurt person C. Much you also live person C's life? $\endgroup$
    – Rob P.
    Feb 8, 2016 at 14:53

2 Answers 2


Yay Fermi.

Note: I'm not going to count harmful acts that are "built-in". So if you play football and tackle a guy, it doesn't count as long as it's within the rules of the game.


The average US family is 2.58 people. Now, at some point in your life, you'll probably end up hurting your family members in some way. So that's 1.58 lifetimes. In addition, you'll likely have a family of your own once you grow up, so that's another 1.58 for 3.16. But that's just direct family - we also need to consider extended (cousins, aunts, etc). I think it's likely if you have contact with them, you'll end up causing some sort of harm to them, enough to trigger this. Let's call this another 1.58 bucket.

However, we also have divorce, and multiple families. The standard statistic is half of all marriages end in divorce, but not all of those will have children. Plus, not everyone will re-marry after. So let's just go ahead and round up our family number to 5.


I wasn't able to get good data on this, but some googling showed a decent number as ~5 boyfriends/girlfriends during a lifetime. In addition, I'm going to guess at another ~5 hookups/one-time sex partners.

My guess is that most relationships/breakups, at some point, will cause some sort of harm. And let's say that half of one-time sex ends up causing harm beyond the normal. So another 2.5, for 7.5 total.


This is another situation where most friends you have, you'll probably end up hurting emotionally at some point. Hard to find an average on this, but I'm pretty introverted and I still had ~10 so far. So I'm going to guess at ~30 for this number, which may be high but I also want it to cover acquaintances that you end up hurting.

Total Friends and Family: 30 + 7.5 + 5 = 42.5 lifetimes, or 3,315 years.


This is tricky because I think it will vary with regional - people in the south will probably spend a lot longer in hell for killing insects than people living in northern, colder areas. But I'll try to average it out. I'm ignoring flies here because they don't live very long and I don't think you end up killing or harming that many of them.

Spiders: Let's kill a spider once every 4 weeks, living an average of 6 months. So this will be 500 years.

Mosquitos: Depends on how long you spend outside. Most mosquito killed will be female, which live ~1 month. I'm going to call this 1 per 4 weeks, so 1,000 over your lifetime = 85 years as a mosquito.

Nests/Hives: This is trickier. Let's say that the average human will kill/harm two of these during their lifetime (WAG here). A wasp nest has 5,000 individuals that live about 6 months. A bee hive has ~70,000 individuals that live ~6 weeks. Ants vary widely, but let's call a nest 10,000 individuals that live ~8 weeks.

Average all that out and we end up at ~4,000 years per nest, so 8,000 years. Once we account for other insects and variations, let's go ahead and round this to ~10,000 years as an insect.

Food Animals

I don't know if this is accurate, but I'll assume all food animals are harmed at some point, even if it's just when they're killed (although I'm sure some of it is automated). As of 2014, in thousands:

  • Cattle: 12,605 @ 2 years per
  • Chickens: 3,542,950 @ 2 years per
  • Ducks: 10,679 @ 8 weeks
  • Pigs: 44,608 @ 6 months per
  • Turkeys: 92,095 @ 6 months

I assume a US population of 320 million on average. Plugging that all into an excel spreadsheet and multiplying by 78 (since that's per year) we get 1,750 years total per person.


Let's say the average person has four pets in their lifespan, and nearly all of those will fit somewhere under the "harm" category (smacking a dog's nose, for example...). If the average pet lives 15 years (cats and dogs), that will be another 60 years.


US violent crime rate in 2010 was about 15 per 1,000 people. We can use this in our estimate since we're just looking for the average time spent in hell as a victim (Note: it's estimated that this is under-reported, but that's largely because of friends and family crime, which is already covered earlier).

Over 78 years, that will turn into 1170 / 1000. Which means that on average, violent crime will only add 1.17 lifespans, or 91 years to your hell.


  • 3,315 friends and family
  • 10,000 insects/spiders/icky
  • 91 from crime
  • 1,750 from food animals
  • 60 pets

For a grand sum of 15,216 average years of hell, most of which is spent as a nearly mindless insect.

Additional notes/addendum:

It might be interesting to consider the mode or median of the reincarnation hell, rather than the average/mean. For example, I suspect that even if the 2 nest/hives in a lifetime is accurate, probably the majority of humans will never destroy even one. This means that the most common length will probably be somewhere in the 4,000 - 5,000 year range. Then you'll have people with more and more years, largely depending on the number of insects they killed, with exterminators being hit the worst - one year of extermination work will probably net someone a million years of hell. It's also likely that people working with large scale farm animal operations are in for a rough time.

I also like that, in general, this means young children won't experience much. They don't have as much opportunity to hurt others, or as long of a period where they can have intent to hurt.

On the other hand, it's kind of weird that crimes we'd consider heinous - like a child killer - aren't punished as severely. If you kill a small child you might not experience much at all - just a few years - where the person who gave you a lethal injection gets your entire life, plus they have to experience killing a child as part of that.

Finally, one thing I considered here is that for the most part, when you kill/hurt things you cut their lifespan shorter. Take bees, for example - on average they live 6 weeks. But the average lifespan of a worker bee who lives in a hive that's attacked is probably shorter, because they naturally fall into the lower half of the sample size. So I think it's possible that some of these estimates are high, and maybe the insect numbers should be lower. But I don't have a great estimate for how much that should be reduced.

  • $\begingroup$ Excellent work, this is very well reasoned. I especially like "icky" as a category. $\endgroup$
    – Samuel
    Jun 18, 2015 at 15:56
  • $\begingroup$ I think you mean "mean/median" rather than "average/mean" (mean and average are the same). $\endgroup$ Jun 18, 2015 at 17:45
  • $\begingroup$ @2012rcampion: I think I actually meant mode, thanks for calling that out. Been a long time since I've worked with stats. $\endgroup$ Jun 18, 2015 at 18:13
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    $\begingroup$ Arguably taking honey is not harm: it's a symbiotic relationshiop where humans provide premade shelters (and reused wax!) and defense against preditors and access to enormous quanities of high-quality food. The bees easily produce more honey then they need and the bee keeper knows not to take too much. Keeping the hives from getting too cold in the winter also greatly benefits them and saves stored-honey usage. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Jun 19, 2015 at 1:36
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    $\begingroup$ @NPSF3000 Imo, I wouldn't say you are harming something by eating it after it is already dead. I don't think how many cheeseburgers you've had through your lifetime affects your hell. But - it does suck for people like my grandfather, who worked at a stockyards killing cows... those people accumulate the debts for every person who eats meat. $\endgroup$ Jun 22, 2015 at 17:25


There is a potential problem with the solution of living out someone else's life in order to pay for your mistakes. Alice caused Bob to feel pain and so she now has to live Bob's life from that moment and experience the consequences of her actions. What if the pain she inflicted on Bob caused Bob to inflict pain and hurt on Charles and Dave? If Alice had not hurt Bob, he would not have in turn hurt Charles and Dave. Therefore one can conclude that Alice must also live Charles and Dave's lives too. Problem with hate and pain is it has a tendency to keep propagating out affecting more people than one realizes. If the damage is significant enough it could go exponential and thus a person could never escape the punishment.

Other way of seeing it is since Alice had perfect empathy with Bob's pain and experienced his exact thoughts she would come to the same conclusions and perform the same actions as Bob did including all the times he hurt someone else. Thus Alice in thought would end up committing the same sins as Bob and thus would now have to atone for those in addition to her pile.

This is similar logic that people use to explain why Hell is infinitely long: it is not that the punishment is infinite... it is that people in Hell don't stop sinning and so their punishment keeps growing faster than they can atone for it.


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