I’ve been told to go there a few times; I’m sure almost everyone has. I’ve heard a lot of preaching about it in the course of my life and that’s probably a common experience. It may be why some people have left their churches after hearing it preached relentlessly, other than endless pleas for money. By all accounts, it’s a place we wouldn’t want to spend an instant, wouldn’t even want a glance at it (well, maybe a glance out of curiosity), and I accept that. Kevin Miller, the director of the movie Hellbound? has done some interesting stories on Patheos, and Halloween is at the end of the month. Our beliefs about Hell can tell us a lot about what we believe, so here goes.
We like to imagine Hell as something we hate, stretched out forever. I hate standing in line for anything, so I can imagine Hell standing in one long line that barely moves for all eternity. The voices of the other damned are easy to imagine: “Gosh, this is awful, having to stand in line to get into Hell. How dare they?” There are so many ways to picture Hell I won’t try to summarize them all. Many Christian traditions and Islam say it’s hot; Jake Anderson of Deadliest Catch and artists of the Middle Ages say it’s cold; Dante says both in his Inferno. Jean Paul Sarte said: “Hell is other people (L’enfer, c’est les autres).” Libraries of books and museums of art give us more material than we can digest, so I avoid physical descriptions as much as I can. I think we can all accept it’s a state of being, regardless of the topography.
Christopher Marlowe had Mephistopheles say this in Doctor Faustus:
“Why this is hell, nor am I out of it. Think’st thou that I, who saw the face of God and tasted the eternal joy of heaven, am not tormented with ten thousand hells in being deprived of everlasting bliss?”
I don’t agree this world is Hell: even accepting the world as a battleground, the battle is already decided and Satan loses. Hell is perceived as eternal, this world isn’t. As bad as life can be here, it can always be worse; Hell has to be the worst things can ever get. God is everywhere, including everywhere we can go in this life, and that’s what matters.
I can believe Hell exists apart from Christian doctrine because I believe we are free to refuse Good, so permanent refusal must be possible. St. Augustine spoke of Good as light and Evil is an absence of Good just as darkness is an absence of light, so Hell could be ultimate darkness. Perhaps it’s where people intentionally close their eyes to Light. Communion with God is our desire on Earth and eternal Communion with God and the Blessed is a reasonable expectation of Heaven, so Hell would probably be ultimate isolation, ultimate self-absorption, an absence of everything else but ourselves. Separation from God is the only general agreement about the nature of Hell, and I will go with that. Pain is always pictured as being essential to the nature of Hell, so I’ll accept that: if nothing else, the pain of being out of heaven would be bad enough. As far as a physical place, I won’t say: Heaven and Hell could occupy the same space and be a difference of perception, a state where the damned refuse to see the Paradise that’s all around them.
There have been enough strange experiences in my life and stories about malicious spirits in Scripture to lead me to believe the existence of Satan and demons is credible. Exorcisms are real enough all of them can’t be cases of delusion or mental illness, and the Catholic Church has a process to check things out carefully. Satan isn’t more powerful than God, so there’s no reason to give him anything more than the same respect you’d give a poisonous snake or other hazard, and certainly he isn’t worth fearing. If you think he’s talking to you, it’s simple: don’t listen, don’t believe, don’t follow. God is more powerful, Christ is more powerful, Satan can’t really offer us anything and doesn’t follow through on promises. Faith offers us perfect peace and blessing, the greatest fulfillment of our real desires in this life and the next. Case closed: we can’t do better.
Ezekiel 18:23 says: “Do I find pleasure in the death of the wicked—oracle of the Lord GOD? Do I not rejoice when they turn from their evil way and live?” We believe God is infinitely merciful; the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that no one is predestined to Hell (CCC 1037). God isn’t looking for ways to keep us out of Heaven, He’s looking for ways to bring us in. It’s not my job or anyone else’s to second guess God’s judgement or celebrate what I perceive is God’s justice. If God doesn’t rejoice in the death of the wicked, why should I? Piling on to God’s judgement, rejoicing in His condemnation of the wicked can lead me to Pride, which is bad for me and puts my immortal soul in danger. The Catholic church has said the Saints are definitely in Heaven, but it has never said a particular person is definitely in Hell. I would not be surprised if the place in Heaven prepared for Judas or Adolf Hitler is empty, but if they aren’t, that’s God’s business and I’m sure He’ll explain it to my satisfaction. And of course, I’d be happy with that since I would be in Heaven to see and hear it.
Of course, I’m glad judgement is up to God. I know I’d be tempted to send someone to Hell for the moral equivalent of a parking ticket, and I’m sure a lot of people would do likewise. God is not a lawyer, and I’m happy to rely on His mercy and love.
There are beliefs that Hell is eternal, but permanent residency is not. Islam says very few are eternally condemned, others are released after their sins are remitted; Buddhism has several hells for various evil lifestyles. The apocryphal Apocalypse of Peter has a scene where Jesus and Peter are looking at the Damned in Hell, and Jesus seems to say they can be redeemed as well. If Satan and his angels could return to Heaven on God’s terms, that wouldn’t have to change anything important about the nature of Hell or Christianity: I’ve heard the Russian Orthodox believe that someday even the residents of Hell will be saved. Like I said, Hell isn’t a place anyone would want to spend any time, even Satan and his angels (apologies to John Milton), so to speculate about lost souls being redeemed in the end doesn’t diminish what it is in my eyes. I’ll leave the definitive answer of Final Judgement to God in the end.
I absolutely reject the Evangelization of Fear that has dominated much of Christian history. God knows us better than we know ourselves and loves us completely, gives us everything, including Christ. God is infinite Mercy, Love, Compassion. Would a God like this want us to come to Him, love Him as He has loved us, primarily out of fear of Hell? What sane person wants to scare us into loving them? Would God want us to commit ourselves to him through Baptism, take up a commitment to live a life of discipleship as a kind of Fire Insurance? Baptism is no guarantee of eternal life: Hitler and Stalin were baptized, however I think the vast majority of the world’s Christians (not to mention Theists in general) would believe they aren’t Saved. Disciple by fear is something that’s usually effective only on small children; when used by bullies, the powerful or the state, it’s usually called abuse or tyranny. God is better than that, even though we are only children in the light of His wisdom. I think a perfectly loving, compassionate God would want us to respond to him for a positive reason, out of love rather than fear, out of hope for fullness in this life and Eternal Life to come rather than fear of Eternal Damnation.
We should believe out of gratitude: a sense of awe at the undeserved gifts we’ve received; a sense of belonging to the World and everything in it, and knowing we belong to Christ as well; a sense of knowing how human and imperfect we are and being called to be Christ’s presence in the world anyway. We should love God in return for God’s love for us. If we refuse this, we’re on our own, and knowing what Life, the Universe and Everything is like, why should we want to be on our own?