What the hell?

Recently a friend of mine asked me about hell. I can’t remember his specific question, but he was curious how hell “worked” in Christian teaching. I explained to him that the Bible speaks of hell as separation from God who is our ultimate good (2 Thess. 1:9). The Scriptures speak of hell as a literal place, but they speak of it metaphorically as hot, cold, destruction, decay and so on.  I also explained that the doors of hell are locked from the inside. It’s a place where people can evade a relationship with God for all time. It’s a chosen place of privation, of lack of good.  But it’s also a place of righteous judgment too where wrongs are put right.

The doors of hell are locked from the inside.

This understanding of hell relies on a little deeper reading of the Bible and a consciousness of literary conventions.  For example, the word Jesus uses for hell is gehenna, which was a well-known garbage dump.  He obviously didn’t mean that hell really was gehenna (Matt. 25:30).  Rather hell has rottenness and decay like gehenna. Jesus also speaks of it as outer darkness which sounds like a place that is cold.  In other places he talks of eternal fire (Matt 25:41).  Fire speaks of dissolution or destruction. Biblical scholars usually recognize the metaphorical way that Jesus speaks of hell.

But it this way of looking at hell shuts down the notion that Christianity is exclusive to a small club. Though God offers himself to all in the good news of Jesus, hell is a place where people can choose to live apart from him; it shows how the loving God even allows his image-bearers to choose to reject him in the end.  Instead of God keeping people out, people are keeping God out.

Instead of God keeping people out, people are keeping God out.

Johnny Cash once said something intriguing about hell. He said something like, “we’re not going to hell; we’re already in hell.” Now that may sound like some hipster idea that contradicts the Christian teaching while enjoying every minute of it, but it’s not completely wrong. Because life without God is one of privation (a lack of good).  It’s one where his presence to bless is missing; peace is missing; goodness is missing; wholeness is missing.  It’s one where we are bound in the slavery of many impulses, even good ones, that easily become self-destructive. We see a powerful image of this self-destruction in the drug addict; but we all can so easily become addicted to our own personal drugs. Addictions destroy relationships and all that is good in our lives. So in this sense we already experience a taste of hell right here.  After death, these processes of privation just continue.  All of this is described as a process of God’s wrath, his anger towards that which separates us from him.  Romans 1 describes this exact process as God handing people over to do what they desire to do.

Addictions destroy relationships and all that is good in our lives. So in this sense we already experience a taste of hell right here.

C.S. Lewis wrote about this in his book the Great Divorce.  He pictures hell as a shanty town where people are obsessed with their own twisted desires, living their lives hostile to others and the Creator.  His book is full of tortured souls who want their own way.  One character cannot accept that God would forgive murderers. Another wants to continue his own moral crusade to make hell a better place. Another wants the manipulative control over her son that she had in life. None of them want to go to heaven when given the chance.  Why not?  Because this means surrendering control of their own lives to a God whom they just don’t trust.

A related insight comes from philosopher Peter Kreeft.  “The fires of hell may be made of the very love of God, experienced as torture by those who hate him: the very light of God’s truth, hated and fled from in vain by those who love darkness.”  The Scripture says that God is love and my experience of life confirms that many people hate his love and truth with venom.  Kreeft points out that the very light of God’s love and truth are themselves a torment of those living apart from him in the sub-compartment of the afterlife.

“The fires of hell may be made of the very love of God, experienced as torture by those who hate him” – Peter Kreeft

Much of this raises the question of the possibility of salvation after death.  If you’re curious about this topic, I’ll have to write on it in another post.  Suffice it to say, that I am more committed to Jesus as the way of salvation than I am to the time period that people must receive it.

Additionally this topic raises to mind the question, why bother believing in hell?  Well, first of all, hell as described in this article mirrors the kind of self-destruction that we observe on this side of the afterlife.  That should raise an eyebrow.  But also, hell reminds us that God is a God of justice who will punish sin in the end.  If there is no ultimate judgement, then that leads us to seek vengeance for the wrongs we experience on this side.

This is a mysterious topic. It confronts us with the reality that we are all mortal. We all must die. If it’s true that we must acquiesce to God or remain apart from him, then every moment we remain apart from him is like hell, though we may not know it. There is a deep restlessness in living apart from loving relationship with God. God is the ultimate source of all life, goodness, joy and meaning. Pascal once said that our infinite desires can only be satisfied by an infinite object, namely God himself. Perhaps that’s why Jesus talked more about hell than any other person in the Bible. He wants to warn us about infinite misery of being apart from him and the infinite joy of being with him.  All the while we are content with the next release on Netflix. Our pursuit of distraction is often our own blind effort to not think about death nor the eternal love and justice of God.

For those who want to read more on this topic, here are several books you can pick up:

  1. C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
  2. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
  3. C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle (for children and those who love YA lit)
  4. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
  5. Peter Kreeft, Heaven, the Heart’s Deepest Longing
  6. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God
  7. Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics

Photo by Hoach Le Dinh on Unsplash