The two views of hell that make most sense to me are that it is unreality and unrelationship. Rather than a spatial location, a place of divinely-imposed torment, I’d suggest that hell is an existential state – the internal condition of the person in denial of reality and in rejection of redemptive relationship.
Furthermore, hell is not just a future state but one which starts here and now. It is the continuation into the hereafter of a present condition of heart and mind, one whose trajectory is anti-relationship, anti-reality. C.S. Lewis makes the point that those in hell will have always been there in a sense; that hell reaches back to taint all the steps that have led to it; conversely heaven reaches back to redeem all that has gone before.
Hell as unreality
In Lewis’s The Great Divorce, the heavenly country is too solid, too real, for the shadowy shades of unredeemed people to inhabit – they would be pierced by its grass as if by swords and crushed by its raindrops as if by boulders. To be able to live there permanently they need to be transformed, become more real.
In Lewis’s picture then, heaven is an actual place with reality and substantiality, whereas hell is merely a state of unreality. It is the condition of becoming less real, less human, less oneself. This makes a lot of sense to me.
There’s also something in the idea that the unredeemed do not have enough of their own reality to survive in the environment of heaven. For Lewis’s shades to become natural heaven-dwellers they must let go of some dear but deadly thing they have been holding onto (or that has been holding onto them); some manifestation of hell within themselves. For one it is lust, for another resentment, for others self-pity or pride or hate or fear or a false view of themselves. In other words, they must face reality; must accept the parameters and conditions of reality. Sadly, in Lewis’s story most find it too difficult and prefer to cling on to their unreality or falsehood, returning to the shadowy ‘grey town’ where they dwell in ever-increasing self-isolation and self-pity.
There’s an argument that heaven can contain nothing that has not been redeemed or renewed by and into God. By its own very nature, no evil or corrupt (or unreal) thing can dwell in heaven – it would be as impossible as for a fish to breathe air, or a human to live in fire. (One view of the ‘fire’ of hell is that it is God’s unmediated glory, which no unredeemed soul can survive.) All who won’t allow themselves to be transformed and made real must therefore remain outside, for their own sake as much as for those inside.
Hell as the disintegration of self
If this is correct, I’d suggest that what keeps the unredeemed out is not so much their ‘sins’ as their anti-relational and anti-reality state; it’s this which prevents them from entering fully into heavenly communion. But in a sense, clinging onto ways of sin is choosing unreality and unrelationship.
We’re told that ‘virtue is its own reward’ – usually taken to mean that good behaviour makes you feel good. I think there’s more in it than that. The ultimate reward of genuine Christ-empowered virtue is transformed character. It’s nothing less than becoming ‘fully human, fully alive’; the real fulfilled people we were always meant to be. To put it another way, the reward is reality, redemption – and relationship. Right living (not the same as ‘good behaviour’) leads to us becoming truly ourselves, in harmonious union with God and his creation.
By contrast, ‘unvirtue’ is its own punishment, because in living falsely we mar and may eventually even obliterate the image of God in ourselves. The further we go down this path the less human, the less real, the less truly us we become. The end of this road is what we might call hell. If so, hell comes from within us not from without. It is internal fragmentation and alienation, being shut in on oneself, shutting out light, love, life and reality. It’s the end result of a self-chosen journey into unreality.
In this view hell is a personal state, though it might be better to say that it is an anti-personal state. It’s a condition of losing one’s personality; of the self destroying those very elements of itself which make us personal, real, human. Subject to a kind of internal spiritual entropy, the soul separated from God’s sustaining source of life and order and personality gradually falls apart into meaninglessness. Perhaps.
I’ve written before of the forces of chaos at work in the present universe – entropy, gravity and inertia acting on everything and everyone. I went on to say that God is building a new cosmos, a new order out of the pieces of the existing one; one that is no longer subject to these chaotic forces. We can participate in and be a part of God’s redemption and renewal of everything. Alternatively, perhaps, if we want to we can cling on to the old order that is slowly but surely falling away and apart, disintegrating into meaninglessness, nothingness, chaos. ‘You can fall with the night or you can rise with the Sun’, as a song once put it.
The hell of the self
I think it might have been T.S. Eliot who said that ‘Hell is oneself’.
In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton suggests that hell is more like an asylum for the insane than a prison for the criminal. In his view, the ways of thinking and living likely to lead to losing one’s mind are much the same as those likely to lead to losing one’s soul. (The rest of Orthodoxy looks at those ways, concluding in each case that the only sane alternative is Christianity.)
Using the example of a man who believes himself to be Napoleon or even God, Chesterton likens this kind of madman’s mind to a dark, shut-in, airless and windowless cell – effectively a kind of hell of the self. Again it’s a place of complete unreality, based on an utter denial of and refusal to engage with wider reality.
This kind of madness also has its own irrefutable internal logic. One cannot effectively argue with someone who genuinely believes that they are the one true God, or that you and the rest of the world are a figment of their imagination. They reign supreme in their own small and enclosed universe, but their shut-in heaven is really a hell; a hell of their own making, of their own self.
In heaven, but still in hell
It’s possible to be in the most delightful external environment and yet still be inwardly in torment, if your deepest being is in a state of internal disintegration, lacking or rejecting love, hope and goodness.
Once again C.S Lewis depicts this well. In The Magician’s Nephew, Digory’s vain and selfish Uncle Andrew has deliberately ‘made himself more stupid than he really is’; he has refused to acknowledge the speech of Aslan and his talking creatures, to the point where he is only able to hear it as roaring and growling instead of words. He has thus put himself in a place where he cannot be helped by Aslan, except by being given the temporary relief of sleep – brief respite from ‘all the torments you have devised for yourself’ as Aslan sorrowfully puts it.
Lewis presents a similar picture in The Last Battle. The treacherous and therefore ever-suspicious dwarves have reached a point where they cannot trust anyone and cannot accept or receive – or even recognise – any genuine kindness or generosity. When Aslan gives them delicious food, they taste it as raw cabbage leaves. They are also unable to see that they are no longer shut inside a dingy enemy stable but are outside in the beautiful light and air of Aslan’s country. ‘Their prison is only in their own minds,’ explains Aslan, ‘yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out’.
So even in heaven, Lewis’s dwarves are still in hell, because hell is in them; in their own hearts and minds. This is the true spiritual blindness against which Jesus warns so often; ‘there’s none so blind as those who will not see’, as the folk proverb puts it. This is the hell we choose for ourselves, in our pride, our fear, our refusal to trust or to see.
The Dark Island
I’ve said elsewhere that hell doesn’t have to be the worst thing we can imagine. However, if hell is indeed a prison of our own minds, then perhaps in a sense it may be the worst thing we imagine – the product of our own ‘hellish’ imagination.
Lewis presents a picture of this in Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The ship sails into the unnatural darkness of The Island Where Dreams Come True. The dreams though are not happy fantasies but terrifying nightmares. The crew are soon plunged into their own deepest, most irrational personal night-time terrors – products of their own minds and imaginations. While they are trapped in the darkness, each of them is alone in a private hell, though physically they are all together.
When they get out into the light they realise that none of it was ever real; in a sense it was all in (or from) their own minds. Escaping from this hell is like waking from a nightmare into a bright morning.
Perhaps then hell’s terrors and torments – if such exist – are just fantasies of our own troubled minds. Yet for those trapped in the nightmare, while it lasts the terrors may still seem terribly real.