Must we believe in hell? Surely, when faced with Auschwitz, Hiroshima, the Boko Haram, and the barbarians of ISIS, the question should be, “Is it possible not to believe in hell?” I don’t simply refer to the fact that concentration camps were a kind of hell on earth. Instead I wonder how one can deny the existence of a place of severe and eternal punishment when faced with Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, murderous jihadists, and African soldiers who chop off little girls’ hands for fun.
When faced with such monsters can we really cry with our suburban good conscience, “God would not send anyone to burn forever in the fires of everlasting torment!” If it were true that there is no hell I, for one, would be howling with rage at the insanity and unfairness of it all. Yet those who deny the existence of hell calmly assume that their denial shows how enlightened and humane (and therefore fair) they are.
I would like to think that the people who deny the existence of hell are good people. They dismiss the possibility of hell not because they deny the wickedness of human beings, but because they affirm the goodness of God. They believe in a God who is so very good that he would not send anyone to hell.
It would certainly be pleasant if there were a heaven but not a hell. But can you believe in one without the other? How can someone believe in heaven, which must after all, be a place of goodness (and if goodness, then justice), while denying the fact of hell which makes justice possible? Therefore it seems to me, that if you believe in heaven you must also believe in hell. Hell is somehow written into the constitution of heaven.
Nevertheless, good-hearted people insist that a good God would not possibly send anyone to be tormented in hell for all eternity. This is a laudable sentiment, but I worry that it is only sentimental. Nevertheless, the conviction that God would could not send anyone to hell is a feeling I myself incline to—especially after a warm day in May followed by a very good dinner with three glasses of claret and a snifter of Bourbon in my hand. Furthermore, at that moment I am not usually thinking about Pol Pot or Stalin. I am thinking that God would not send an ordinary, decent fellow like myself to hell.
This is exactly the point where the possibility of hell is meant to knock me down and shake me up. We are told that the road to hell is a wide, smooth, downhill highway, while the road to heaven is a narrow and hard, mountainous climb. What if hell were populated with hordes of overweight, complacent people just like me who never really did anything magnificently evil, but also never bothered to do anything spectacularly good?
When I look at it this way I have the dreadful suspicion that perhaps those who deny hell because God is too good to send anyone there are really proposing that God is too good to send them there. It is ironic that people who believe in heaven are sometimes blamed for wishful thinking. Isn’t it more likely that it is those who disbelieve in hell who are the wishful thinkers? In other words the man who disbelieves in hell hopes he will get away with it after all, and this, it seems to me, is real wishful thinking.
Others protest that the concept of eternal punishment makes God out to be an angry, short-tempered disciplinarian of the worst sort. But is God such a nice. polite deity that he would not be angry enough to send anyone to hell? What if God were more like a passionate and hot-tempered Mediterranean papa? That is not to say that God is petulant and petty. He isn’t angry with wickedness the same way a fifteen-year-old is angry, who refuses to tidy her room. God does not slam the door and stamp his foot. Neither is God angry the way we are when we don’t get our own way. He does not sulk, dish the ice, and then pretend nothing is wrong.
What if, instead, God’s anger is the sort we feel when we hear of a young boy being abducted, raped, killed and chucked into a ditch? What if God’s anger is the sort of anger and revulsion you feel when you see a young African woman whose hands have been cut off by rampaging soldiers, and who cannot cuddle the child those same soldiers gave her when they raped her? What if God’s anger is the disgust you feel when you hear of a middle-aged Barbie clone who has paid thousands for plastic surgery in a world of starving children? When you hear such news don’t you respond with an element of rage as well as disbelief, horror, and grief? Aren’t you righteous to do so? Perhaps God is angry at the wicked in the same way. He sees the everlasting beauty of goodness, the vibrant potential of each human being, and the stunning radiance of his creation, and when it is soiled, trampled, raped, and thrown onto the trash heap by humanity’s folly, greed, stupidity, and violence, he is full of fury, frustration, sorrow, and compassion.
Does that mean God would cast someone down into hell to be tortured forever? Perhaps this too, can be seen the other way around. Is God too good to send someone to hell? It could be that God is so good that he gives everyone exactly what he or she wants. If we have spent our whole lives pursuing love, goodness, beauty and truth, then after death we may get exactly what we always wanted and find ourselves in a land where love, goodness, beauty and truth are as natural and abundant as light.
On the other hand, if our whole lives are spent in an insane flight from all that is good, beautiful and true, then perhaps God in his goodness will also give us exactly what we always wanted… and that would be existence in a madhouse with no exit where love, beauty, goodness, and truth were unknown: an existence in the outer darkness with gibbering maniacs like ourselves.
Life pans out, and despite our greatest efforts, we almost always end up getting what we really want. In fact, this sort of justice is built into the system. We will get what we want just as naturally and certainly as an acorn becomes an oak tree. Giving people what they really want is natural justice. To do otherwise would be cruel.
We think everyone ought to go to heaven, but can we imagine that a person who hated God, goodness, truth and beauty all his life would actually enjoy heaven? If they could visit that place of eternal beauty and laughter, they would howl with serious terror and run with all their being in the other direction. We know this is true because there are people in this life who hate truth, beauty, and goodness and do everything in their power to flee from the light.
Does God send them to hell? I think he watches them flee to “their own place,” and that he does so with a broken heart, for as Mother Julian of Norwich says, “He looks on us with pity not with blame.”