Hell as love’s absence or abuse
Last time I looked at the hell of self, of utter social isolation or madness. We are fundamentally social beings; even the most introverted cannot survive entirely without human company. Paradoxically, deprived of others we lose our sense of self; we cease to be fully human. I mentioned the quotation ‘Hell is oneself’; here it is in full:
“What is hell? Hell is oneself.
Hell is alone, the other figures in it
Merely projections. There is nothing to escape from
And nothing to escape to. One is always alone.”
These lines come from T.S. Eliot’s 1949 play The Cocktail Party, and I can’t help wondering if they weren’t written in response to another oft-quoted and apparently opposing line, Jean-Paul Sartre’s ‘Hell is other people’. This appears in Sartre’s 1944 play No Exit, which depicts an afterlife in which three characters are locked together in a room forever, their inability to coexist happily forming the source of their punishment.
Perhaps there’s truth in Sartre’s version as well. Hell can be other people if our relationships are based on patterns of control and coercion rather than of mutual love, giving and setting-free. If the worst place to be is solitary confinement, the second worst is an abusive relationship.
In fact, both these hells are aspects of the same thing, the destruction of love – either by its abuse or its absence. The kingdom of heaven is a community of relationships of mutual self-giving love, in which each participant finds their true self, their true freedom and true place. This is the kind of community that exists eternally in the Trinity and into which, in the kingdom, all are welcomed. To be somehow unable – or unwilling – to enter into this quality and reality of relationship is hell.
Love, the key to the kingdom
Cue C.S. Lewis again. In The Last Battle, at the end of the world all people and creatures must pass by the Great Lion Aslan and look into his face. Those who behold him with love pass by him into the light of the renewed and eternal Narnia. Those who look on him with fear and loathing shrink back into the darkness on his other side and are never seen again.
The image is richer than any explanation of it, but the idea is clear enough. Those who are characterised by love and goodness are natural inhabitants of the new kingdom of love and goodness. Because they look on its king with love, they are shown to be fit to enter. Conversely, those who cannot love the king of goodness have chosen, by their very nature, their own darkness and unreality. It’s another illustration of Jesus’s story of the Sheep and the Goats. Love is the key to the kingdom; unlove is the route to hell.
The kingdom is a family more than it is a place. It is founded on healthy, loving mutual relationship – with God, with ourselves, and with one another (‘love the Lord your God with all your heart… and your neighbour as yourself’). What excludes people then is above all their rejection of this relationship, or their inability to enter fully into it. This is what sin means; it is those elements of ourselves which keep us out of communion. Some attitudes, patterns of thought and behaviour, and some ways of life are psychologically and relationally unhealthy. Things like resentment, unforgiveness, lying, envy and lust militate against relationship. Such ways tend to lead us away from participating in loving, open, honest, mutual, equal, giving-and-receiving relationships – the ways of heaven and of true humanity – and into ways of dependency, control, manipulation, blame, avoidance, repression, obsession, pretence etc, which are the ways of unheaven and inhumanity.
If original sin and depravity mean anything then, it’s that we all suffer from pathological conditions common to our species. We all bear the deep wounds of humanity, because we all need to be truly loved, fully accepted and forgiven, but haven’t been; we all need to love and forgive, but haven’t. We are all damaged and damaging people. We’ve built up self-protective ‘false selves’ which we’ve come to half-believe are true. We’ve become locked into cycles and patterns – addictions even – of thinking and behaviour and relating which are ultimately damaging, even destructive, to ourselves and our relationships. We delude and deceive ourselves; we’re blind to so many of our deepest flaws and weaknesses.
To be truly healed and redeemed, we have to undertake the difficult long-term process of facing our deepest darknesses and demons. We have to come face to face with ourselves. We have to own and accept the painful, shameful realities we have spent all our lives and energies denying, concealing and blaming others for. Most of us shy away from this. Perhaps this is why redemption can be so hard, and why it can feel like a kind of death. It may be the worst suffering we can bear. But it can be redemptive if we let it; it’s only punitive if we refuse.
If we consistently fail to face this hard redemptive work, we’ll ultimately face the consequences of our avoidance. That perhaps is hell, or a part of it. That perhaps is judgement, or an aspect of it – the judgement we pass on ourselves by refusing or failing to participate in our own redemption.
I’ve said that hell is unreality; perhaps it is also the pain of avoiding reality, or of being forced finally to face a reality we’ve always denied. If we continue in self-deceit, we will crash up against the greatest reality there is – the reality of God. If we will not let his reality change and redeem us, bringing us to reality (though the pain of that be terrible), we will destroy ourselves against the solidity of his reality – just as in The Great Divorce the shades would be crushed by the solid raindrops of heaven.
Hell as self-chosen and merciful
So heaven is the intimate presence of God and his redeemed people; the true and perfect relationship of the kingdom. If hell is being excluded from this, I don’t believe that God is the one doing the excluding. It is rather we who shut God out, in so doing shutting ourselves out. The door of hell is locked – or unlocked – from the inside. God can knock, but we have to open. Hell is self-chosen; its torments self-inflicted.
We reject God’s forgiveness because that would mean having to admit that we need it, preferring to cling to our pride. We reject his light because we don’t want to see what it would reveal, not wishing to be exposed to ourselves or others in our reality. We reject his love because we want our independence and self-sufficiency, our own way of doing or seeing things – ultimately our own private and personal hell.
C.S. Lewis suggested that hell was not God’s punishment of sinners but rather (in a sense) his final kindness toward those who would accept nothing else from him. Henri Nouwen said that hell is our final ‘no’ to God; for Lewis, it is God’s acceptance of that ‘no’. For those who finally refuse to say to God ‘your will be done’, God says to them – in sorrow – ‘then your will be done; go the way you have chosen, though that way be your own self-destruction’.
In a strange sense hell may also even be merciful. For Lewis, hell not only allows humans the ultimate dignity of choice, it also sets a limit on how bad the consequences of that choice can get. He thought that the image of a pit expressed something that had a limit and did not go on getting deeper or worse; that God limits the pain we can inflict on ourselves. If so, by God’s mercy hell is not as bad as it could be.
I’ve said that hell need not be the most terrible thing imaginable. Perhaps it need not be terrible at all in one sense – except in the sense that it cannot be the one thing that alone is truly good, the full reality and relationality of heaven.
Jesus’ vision of hell
Before closing I need to acknowledge that Jesus did teach and warn about hell. He even appears to present a version in which the unrighteous are resurrected to face everlasting punishment in the accursed and God-forsaken ‘Gehenna’, a place of torment and burning – exactly the vision of hell I wholeheartedly rejected in an earlier post.
I can’t deny that Christ used these images, but I do believe he used them as images rather than literal descriptions. Had they originated with Christ, I would find them harder to argue away, but he seems largely to be drawing on existing, contemporary views and images of the afterlife, most of them originally expressed in the intertestamental book of Enoch. This allows me to hope that he was drawing on them much as I might quote (say) C.S. Lewis; using familiar texts and imagery to make a point, rather than necessarily endorsing the whole content of those texts.
So I can’t say that hell isn’t real; but I will say that hell is unreality.
I reluctantly accept that there may be a state of self-imposed post-mortem exile in which souls exist until they are willing or able to face reality and to receive Christ’s love and forgiveness; and in which any torments are those natural to the soul in such a state.
I also accept that some may never be willing, and may simply therefore become less and less real until they cease to exist as persons in any meaningful sense. But I can’t believe that God stops trying to reach them to the very end of possibility; and I will not put limits on God’s ability to recall and redeem even those at the uttermost limits of humanity.
I believe that if hell is a prison, it is a self-made one and the key is on the inside. If it is a quarantine, it is as much for the quarantined soul’s health as for those in heaven. If it is a fire, it is the fire of the soul’s own self-consuming passions and lusts, or else (perhaps later) the refining fire of God’s salvation. If it is a rubbish dump for all that is unfit to enter heaven, it may be that some or all can nonetheless be reclaimed from the rubbish. If it is a pit or darkness it is the black pit of despair; the soul or mind’s own closed-in darkness that lets in no light from outside.
And there must at least be a chance that, at the restoration of all things, God’s will will be done and all will be saved as he wishes. So I believe there is always the hope of redemption, right up to the point when God rings down the curtain on history and makes all things new.
Love cannot coerce, and therefore in the end it may be that some do hold out and reject it forever. But equally, love is the greatest and most mysterious power in the universe, and has time and again achieved the apparently impossible in melting the hardest of hearts and bringing to an end the bitterest of estrangements and feuds. So there are grounds for hope.