When Osama bin Laden was killed, a man whose wife died in the 9/11 attacks expressed gladness that the person responsible for her murder was now suffering in hell for eternity. At the time I was horrified by this sentiment; I couldn’t relate to it at all.
But many good and lovely people, Christians included, do derive comfort from the belief that evildoers and mass-murderers like Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Harold Shipman and Fred West are suffering terribly in hell right now – and forever – for what they did while they were alive. I’ve always found the notion abhorrent, but I’m perhaps beginning to understand it just a little.
As a sheltered member of a nice safe modern civilised liberal society, I’m not accustomed to real-life brutality and bloodshed. Probably for the same reason I don’t like the idea of physical punishment, of beatings or the death penalty. And of course I don’t like the idea of a hell that involves punishment and pain.
However, just occasionally something awakens the wild and uncivilised part of me, stirring up a fierce rage and desire for bloody vengeance.
Rage beyond reason
One such stirring was occasioned by watching a BBC Panorama documentary called ‘Breaking into Britain’. The programme followed the incredibly tough journeys of migrants seeking a better life in Europe and ultimately England. Many of the stories were deeply troubling, but by far the most horrific and heartbreaking was of Congalese mother Philomen, raped in the desert by a lorry driver as forced payment for a ride. Her rape was witnessed by her 4-year-old daughter, who the same man then also kissed and touched sexually.
Suddenly I was filled with deep, boiling anger and hate for this man, and a terrible desire for personal vengeance – to punish and even torture him as much as possible for the monstrous thing he had done to these people. Emotionally, hell’s worst torments felt like an appropriate and proportionate response to this act of casual, callous evil.
More recently, I heard a BBC radio programme about Irish soldiers who fought on the British side in World War II and were then treated as deserters by their own country. Their treatment at the hands of the Irish government was inhumanly cruel – harsh penal sentences, and a secret starvation order preventing them from getting work or their families getting enough to eat. Even worse was the treatment of their children, taken away into special schools run by (for example) ‘The Christian Brothers’, who systematically subjected them to physical and sexual abuse, all the while claiming to represent Christ. Again, fury rose up in me against these utter bastards (I’m restraining my language). I wanted them to be punished, to feel the pain of what they’d done to innocent others; to burn in hell, quite literally.
There are things against which the soul rightly rages. Deep in our beings, we sense that crimes like these cannot go unpunished, unavenged; that those who did such things should have to pay for them.
So I can begin to understand those who feel that some acts and deeds merit post-mortem punishment; it is the hope for ultimate justice in the next world that has too often been denied in this one. Indeed, I wonder if the whole doctrine of hell’s torments did not arise originally as a source of comfort to people suffering terrible persecution and abuse at the hands of unchallengeable tyrants. Though I’ve not experienced this myself, I can feel the force of the argument.
Yet as one who trusts in Christ’s perfect act of redemptive self-sacrifice, there is an alternative perspective I have to put forward.
Another side of the story
Even mass-murderers and rapists have their story to tell; their own dark and twisted reasons, their tortuous, tortured paths which have led them to the point where they can treat others as non-human. I’m not suggesting that this excuses their crimes. But perhaps if we really knew their stories, were able to walk in their shoes a while, we might feel less desire to hurt them and more just a terrible sadness at the kind of world that can produce such twistedness.
As I said about The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, some perpetrators of horror are simply normal people caught up in evils greater than themselves. And of course, many who abuse others have themselves been victims of abuse. Many who commit hate crimes are striking out against injustices that have been done to them, but are striking the wrong person. Let’s make sure we don’t also strike the wrong people in our desire for vengeance against Evil. The evil we hate is greater than any person or their deeds; and it may even have a hiding-place in our own hearts.
I pray God I will never be in a position where I am even tempted to commit terrible crimes. Nonetheless, I know that deep in my own heart and mind are tendencies which could lead to all sorts of harmful behaviour given the conjunction of opportunity, provocation and weakness. Over the years I have done countless things of which I am deeply ashamed, and I’ve imagined many others which I’ve been too afraid of censure to carry out. If I require a punitive hell for those who commit dreadful crimes, I must at least be prepared to face the possibility of punishment myself.
Similarly, if I hope for redemption myself, I must at least hold out the possibility of redemption for these people. Whether or not punishment is needed first, there must be hope for ultimate redemption. Indeed, that is surely the best and fullest way in which good can finally defeat and overcome evil, showing itself to be truly better than evil as it does so.
The hope of redemption
I’ve said before that eternal and infinite punishment cannot be a proportionate response to finite crimes, even the most terrible ones. There must come a point when the fury is spent and the evil avenged.
Of course, it could be argued that some evils can never really be undone; that some deeds have unending consequences and therefore require unending vengeance. No amount of punishment or payment can ever truly make up for something like the rape of a mother and child, nor mend the damage done. But this surely is the point. No amount of vengeance can actually resolve, restore or redeem. The only thing that can truly make things better after such a terrible crime is the love and redeeming power of Christ; God’s amazing ability to bring good out of even the worst evil. Only the deepest love can truly conquer evil.
I have a very high view of Jesus’ sacrifice; I do not believe there are any limits to who or what can be covered by the atonement Jesus made for sin and evil, or the forgiveness he brings. If I can be forgiven and redeemed, so can anyone, whoever they are and whatever they’ve done.
If the dad of the little girl killed at Enniskillen can forgive her killers; if Jesus can say from the cross, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’, then there is a better way, a more heavenly solution than vengeance; than a punitive, retributive hell.
An unhealthy view
So I understand the desire for some to be punished in hell, but I’m not sure that it’s a helpful one. I think that the more we see hell as vindictive vengeance on our enemies, the less healthy it is. Any sense of satisfaction in the thought of others suffering endless agonies is psychologically and spiritually damaging to ourselves. It can be excused to an extent when those others have done terrible things to our loved ones. It’s more repellent when it’s just those we dislike or disagree with who we imagine suffering in hell – a narcissistically self-righteous view.
I’d even argue that the desire for others to burn in hell is a manifestation of hell itself. Those who think this way already have a bit of hell within themselves, which needs to be dealt with before they can be fully healthy, human – and heavenly.
The neurotically self-blaming view isn’t healthy either – the paralysing fear of going to hell because of one’s deep unworthiness, or of sending others to hell through one’s failure to evangelise.
Does anyone not deserve hell?
We’ve been considering the worst crimes and criminals; those for whom hell’s torments might seem a fair response. But of course many believe that hell is also for all unbelievers; all who have not received Christ’s gospel or who belong to other faiths, however good, kind and loving they are. This strikes me as monstrously unjust.
Imagine a child born in sub-Saharan Africa into terrible poverty and conflict, subject to abuse and violence, and dying in early teenage of a common preventable disease. Now, according to evangelical doctrine, if she didn’t receive Jesus during her life, she passes from a life of misery into eternal torment. I can’t accept that; it’s not divine justice, nor does it bear any relation to the character of the God shown in Christ.
As always, Jesus offers a different perspective. He tells the story of the poor man Lazarus who has suffered all his life, who dies and is comforted in the afterlife. By contrast, the selfish rich man – who throughout his life ignored Lazarus – dies and is tormented. It’s the sheep and goats again; not what we say we believe but the kind of people we have made ourselves; the kind of hearts we have, shown in our treatment of others. Of course there’s more to heaven or hell than this; but surely not less.