Hell Part 2 – What Hell is Not – What Hell is

Defining the Doctrine of Hell

Before reaching a verdict we need to cross-examine the defendant. Before deciding whether the doctrine of hell is guilty of being a monstrous myth, or is innocent and true, we need to know just what it is, what it means.

Divine revelation gives us much less information about hell than about heaven. This is what we should reasonably expect, for at least two reasons.

First, hell is essentially the absence of heaven, “the outer darkness”. Darkness is defined only negatively, as the absence of light. Light is not the absence of darkness. Evil is the privation of good; good is not the privation of evil. If you believe good and evil are each relative to the other, then you cannot believe in the God of the Bible, for the God of the Bible is perfectly good and independent of all evil.

Second, we were created for heaven, not for hell. The travel agent will tell you more about the beach resort you are supposed to go to than the swamp by the side of the highway that you are not supposed to fall into.

Five Things Hell Is Not

Even though we can know only a little about hell, we can know enough to distinguish it from five things with which it is sometimes confused, five popular substitutes for hell. Before we can intelligently argue whether hell exists or not, we must know what it means.

  1. The most obvious alternative to hell is universalism, or universal salvation. Universalism was believed, or at least strongly suggested, by a number of otherwise very so called orthodox Christians, for example, Julian of Norwich, George McDonald and Hans Urs von Balthasar. But their views are clearly contradicted by Jesus and His frequent teachings about the reality of hell.
  2. There is also the popular notion that hell exists but only in this life. However, what Jesus warns us against is not merely Pharisees, lawyers, theologians or Roman soldiers, but Satan and eternal death. The pains of this life end at death; what Jesus warns us about has no end (Mk 9:44-48) “And if thy foot scandalize thee, cut it off. It is better for thee to enter lame into life everlasting, than having two feet, to be cast into the hell of unquenchable fire: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not extinguished. And if thy eye scandalize thee, pluck it out. It is better for thee with one eye to enter into the kingdom of God, than having two eyes to be cast into the hell of fire: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not extinguished. For every one shall be salted with fire: and every victim shall be salted with salt”.
    Perhaps it is better said that hell begins in this life in the same sense that heaven does: its seed is planted here. Perhaps when we reach eternity we will look back and see this life as the beginning of our eternity; thus the blessed will say we have always been in heaven and the dammed will say we have always been in hell. This is not extending this life into the next but extending the next life into this life – not mitigating hell’s horrors by “earthifying” them but magnifying earths sins by “hellifying” them.
  3. Most orthodox Protestants believe in hell but not in purgatory; some Catholics believe in purgatory but not hell. They interpret Scriptures references to hell as references to purgatory. Purgatory seems to do all that hell is supposed to do (punish sin), but not eternally. This seems to satisfy both their sense of justice and the purpose of purgatory, which is reduction, or purification; and also their sense of ultimate optimism (everyone in purgatory eventually gets to heaven).
    But the difference between hell and purgatory is clear. By definition purgatory is good; it purges and purifies. By definition hell is evil. Demons exist and work in hell; angels in purgatory. ( I am merely comparing the definitions of these two things here, I am not assuming either one exists or doesn’t exist just yet.) {I will be addressing the doctrine of purgatory in a later writing}.
    Christ says nothing explicitly about purgatory, but He says explicitly that hell is eternal, and this is enough to distinguish it clearly from purgatory. Dante was right in his Inferno to have the sign over hell’s gate read: “Abandon all hope, ye that enter here”, and Sartre was right to call his play about hell “No Exit”.
  4. Some think the eternity of hell can be preserved without conceiving it as horrible pain but instead as annihilation of souls. The effect of annihilation would be eternal; thus hell would still be eternal punishment.
    There are three problems with annihilationism. First, it seems contrary to the plain words of Christ. Second, it would make hell to have an end, like purgatory; once annihilated, all suffering ends. Thus it makes hell temporal and only its effects eternal. Third, souls seem to be intrinsically immortal, immortal by their essence, so that it would be as self contradictory  to have a soul  cease to exist as to have a circle become a square.
  5. Reincarnation is also a popular substitute for hell. The two ideas are far from the same. In Eastern religions, reincarnation is punishment and undesirable and in some sense functions as hell does in Christianity; but it is not eternal and hopeless. It is like a universal purgatory. To believe in reincarnation is to believe that everyone necessarily gets to heaven (or rather “enlightenment”) in the end. There is no hell in Eastern religions. Reincarnation denies not only hell but free will as well. Eventually enlightenment is fated for you whether you like it or not; you have no choice.
    It also denies individuality, for according to the Hindu scriptures, “Brahman is the only reincarnator” (Brahman does not create individual souls), and according to Buddhism there is anatta, or “no soul”, in the first place. Thus reincarnation denies what hell affirms (eternity) or presupposes (free will and individuality).

So the above are five things that hell is not. There are more but I just wanted to point out a few.

So now I will turn to what hell is.

Three Things Hell Is

Having spend some time on what hell is not, I will share my thoughts on what hell is. The Church has traditionally described hell under three aspects: punishment, pain and privation.

1. The word punishment can be interpreted in two different ways: as a “positive law” or as a “natural law”.  A “positive law” is a law that is “posited” or made by a will that chose to make it but could have chosen differently. The punishments of positive law are not necessary but rather chosen by the punisher. They may be right and reasonable, but they are not necessary; they are changeable.  “If you steal that cookie, I’ll slap your hand”, “If you drive a hundred miles and hour, we will take your license away”, these are examples of positive law. This is not in my opinion the right way to conceive the punishment of hell: as something God chose but could have chosen differently.

The punishments of “natural law” are intrinsic rather than extrinsic, necessary rather than chosen. “If you eat that cookie before supper, you will spoil your appetite”; :If you drive your car one hundred miles an hour, you will endanger your life and the lives of others”; “If you jump of a cliff you could die”; “If you are a promiscuous, sexually active homosexual, you are likely to contract AIDS”, these are punishments of the natural law.

Take as an example God’s commandment to Adam and Eve not to eat the forbidden fruit. If this was a positive law it would be more like a father threatening to slap his child’s hand if he takes a cookie. On the other hand if it is a natural law, it means that if we eat the forbidden fruit of disobedience to God’s will, divorcing our will and spirit from God’s, then the inevitable result will be disaster and death, for God is the source of joy and life.

In the natural law, virtue is it’s own reward and vice is its own punishment. Virtue is to the soul what what health is to the body. It has its own intrinsic, necessary and unchangeable structures, such as all good deeds help the doer as well as the recipient and all evil deeds harm the doer as well as the victim.

The punishment of hell is inevitable, by natural law. Any human soul that freely refuses the one Source of all life and joy must find death and misery as its inevitable end.

C.S. Lewis makes the point most clearly:  “Though Our Lord often speaks of hell as a sentence inflicted by a tribunal, He also says elsewhere the the judgement consists in the very fact that men prefer the darkness to light (Jn 3:19; 12:48). We are therefore at liberty since the two conceptions, in the long run, mean the same thing, to think of this bad mans perdition not as a sentence imposed on him, but as the mere fact of being himself. The characteristic of lost souls is this, “their rejection of everything that is not simply themselves”. Our imaginary egoist has tried to turn everything into a province or appendage of the self. The taste of the other, that is, the very capacity for enjoying good, is quenched in him except in so far as his body still draws him into some rudimentary contact with the outer world. Death however, removes this last contact. So he has is wish, to live wholly in the self for all eternity and to make the best of what he finds there. And what he finds there is hell.”

There is a famous painting where Jesus is knocking on a door (the door symbolizes your soul), there is no knob on the outside of the door  (Click Here To View Painting). Only from the inside can the door of the soul be open, freely, to goodness and truth and joy. But likewise, only from the inside can it be locked. If we lock that door, our folly and crime is its own punishment.

2. Since God to whom we choose to open and love and obey is the sole source of all the joy and reality, our refusal of this God must necessarily be the opposite,  joyless and painful. Thus hell must have the aspect of pain as well as punishment. If God is joy hell must be misery and pain.

Somewhat as with punishment, the pain can be thought of as either externally or internally. The internal pain would be far worse than external pain, just as internal and spiritual joys far exceed any physical, external pleasures. Therefore the old question of whether there is physical fire in hell is a moot and pointless argument.

When we suffer mentally and our soul is in pain (despair), we may hit our head against the wall. Why? Because physical pain is not as bad as spiritual pain, such as when a soul suffers from deep depression, and banging our head against the wall distracts us from the worse pain, the spiritual.

The only premise we need to prove the conclusion that hell is supremely painful is the premise that the supreme joy is love, and thus the supreme pain is lovelessness. Dostoyevsky says that “hell is the suffering of being unable to love.” There can be no greater pain than that because  there is no greater joy than loving. Loving is and even greater joy than being loved, for it is more blessed (happy, joyful) to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Anyone who does not understand that yet is still a spiritual infant.

Satan’s primary lie that deceives humanity, keeps it in spiritual infancy and causes more suffering than anything else is the lie that selfishness is fun and unselfishness is not. The origin of sin and suffering is faith in Satan’s lie (which began in Genesis 3) that life and joy come from disobedience to God, from “my will be done not God’s.” At the far end of that lie lies hell.

3. The third aspect of hell is privation, or deprivation of God. This does not mean that God shuts us out but that we shut Him out and thus are deprived of God by our own free choice. This aspect of hell is the cause of the other two. Only because hell is the privation of God  (the source of all joy) is hell painful. And only because hell is the deprivation of God, the only God, the true God, “the only game in town”, is hell’s alternative to God the inevitable and just punishment for the folly of refusing this only game in town. The desire to be happy without God is doomed to failure, pain and inevitable misery because God is not one among many sources of joy but the only and ultimate source of all joy. Therefore deprivation of the ultimate cause of joy must in turn mean deprivation of all its effects.

Dante's-Inferno1It is not a very popular idea in todays world that God is the only game in town. Yet it necessarily follows from the much more popular idea that God is Creator. If everything is either God or a creature of God, then there cannot be any source of good or joy that is not God or sourced in God. Everything in life that gives us joy is like a sunbeam from the Divine Sun. However perverse or perverted, however turned or twisted, all joys in someway are reflections of God. Therefore the privation of God is the privation of not just some joy but all joy. Of all hell’s aspects, this is the most terrible and frighting. You see it in the faces of the damned in Gustave Dore’s illustration of Dante’s Inferno. You can imagine it when pondering this quotation: “All your life an unattainable ecstasy has hovered just beyond the grasp of your consciousness. The day is coming when you will wake to find, beyond all hope, that you have attained it; or else, that it was within your grasp and you have lost it forever.”

Stay tuned for part 3, reasons for believing in hell.

God bless,
Gary Downey

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