On the Nature of Hell (Assuming There Is One)

The concept of hell must be tempting to even atheists. Not necessarily the eternal pitchforks and fire but some kind of justice for things not accounted for here, for example the child molester who lives a life of luxury and is loved by the masses and dies peacefully. Where is the justice there?

So I was intrigued by this article in The Week, “What Christians get wrong about hell“.

He basically starts with:

Jumping off from a handful of Gospel passages in which Jesus Christ speaks about “eternal punishment” for sinners in the afterlife, these believers conjure visions of a cosmic torture chamber in which those who reject God or commit grave sins without repentance are subjected to endless torment as punishment for their transgressions. It is a ghastly analogue to equally crude and comical visions of heaven as a place where the righteous are rewarded with angels’ wings and an eternity of harp lessons.

which he contrasts with:

Which is why the most theologically cogent view of hell found in classical Christianity maintains that it is the state of mind (or soul) of someone who is alienated from God. Living a life that is out of harmony with God is painful, and to die and be confronted so decisively with the error of your ways — to be made to see that you made a wreck of your life by separating yourself from God, and to have to learn to shatter your pride by reforming yourself in his divine presence — is, one imagines, excruciating. But it is intrinsically painful, not externally imposed by torturers in some fire-and-brimstone-filled dungeon.

I certainly agree that it is extremely un-Christian to relish envisioning your enemies or others in eternal torment, which is why I’ve always been gripped by the film Jacob’s Ladder, which (spoiler alert) tells the story of a dead person working through his demons before ascending to heaven. So Hitler may be in heaven now, but he had a rough time getting there and has learned the error of his ways. This type of universalism is tempting, and may be accurate, but portions of scripture seem to indicate otherwise. For example:

“And if your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the eternal fire,” (Matt. 18:8).1

I’ve tried to get around this by defining eternity as a state of mind, commonly known as impatience, which may be correct, but assuming there is unequivocal eternal damnation, how would a Christian view that? In Mere Christianity (PDF), C.S. Lewis tries to address the issue (page 40 in the PDF):

Again, Christianity asserts that every individual human being is going to live for ever, and this must be either true or false. Now there are a good many things which would not be worth bothering about if I were going to live only seventy years, but which I had better bother about very seriously if I am going to live for ever. Perhaps my bad temper or my jealousy are gradually getting worse —so gradually that the increase in seventy years will not be very noticeable. But it might be absolute hell in a million years: in fact, if Christianity is true, Hell is the precisely correct technical term for what it would be. And immortality makes this other difference, which, by the by, has a connection with the
difference between totalitarianism and democracy.

He also addressed it in The Great Divorce (wikipedia):

The narrator inexplicably finds himself in a grim and joyless city, the “grey town”, which is either hell or purgatory depending on how long one stays there. He eventually finds a bus for those who desire an excursion to some other place (and which eventually turns out to be the foothills of heaven). He enters the bus and converses with his fellow passengers as they travel. When the bus reaches its destination, the passengers on the bus — including the narrator — are gradually revealed to be ghosts. Although the country is the most beautiful they have ever seen, every feature of the landscape (including streams of water and blades of grass) is unyieldingly solid compared to themselves: it causes them immense pain to walk on the grass, and even a single leaf is far too heavy for any to lift.

But my favorite quote (page 48 of the PDF) is:

And that leads on to my second point. People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, “If you keep a lot of rules I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.” I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself.

Is there eternal damnation? I think there is to those who choose it. Is there some sort of heaven/hell/purgatory/reincarnation karma beyond this mortal coil? I think so, I think it makes sense.


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