This is a place where eternally
Fire is applied to the body
Teeth are extruded and bones are ground
Then baked into cakes which are passed around.
- "Hell", by the Squirrel Nut Zippers

L'enfer, c'est les autres.
- "Huis Clos", by John-Paul Sartre

Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.
- "Heaven", by the Talking Heads
Once as as a teenager, when I was beginning to seriously question the religious dogmas that I had been brought up to believe, I had a conversation with my brother and mother, both of whom were Christians, about hell. I asked them how they could possibly find it acceptable that another one of my brothers, who was at the time an atheist, would be condemned to eternal torture in an afterlife just because he wasn't a Christian. The answer I got was predictably unsatisfactory--a sort of "that's just the way it is." I was appalled. I am still appalled thirty years later. This is the kind of rationalization that takes place when dogmas are more important than common sense human compassion, and even familial love--and I just don't get it.

Recently a commenter in Heather's blog who disapproved of the idea of hell posted a link to this article of a few years ago from Christianity Today, in which a conservative theologian answered the question, "Won't heaven's joy be spoiled by our awareness of unsaved loved ones in hell?"

That's an interesting question. How can one exist in eternal bliss if one knows that others are suffering? The answer that was given in that article was every bit as appalling as you might expect. Of course, it repeats the usual claim that people "choose" to go to hell (how you can choose to go to a place that you don't even believe exists isn't exactly explained), but more to the point, it claims that humans in heaven will be transformed by God in such a way as to be totally in sync with God's glory and justice, and therefore they will not even give those in hell a single thought. "Love and pity for hell's occupants will not enter our hearts," this author claims. This is because "God will be doing the right thing," and "we shall approve the judgment of persons—rebels—whom we have known and loved."

Ahem. It is bad enough when people compartmentalize the doctrine of hell or simply shrug it away as "just the way it is." But the above justification goes much farther by spinning a scenario that tries to make all of this barbarism into something glorious and positive. It suggests that Christians in heaven won't mourn those in hell because God won't do so either, and since God's perfect justice will be revealed to them they will just think like God does on the matter.

But why assume, even if we accept for the sake of argument that God's perfect judgment requires the existence of hell, that God wouldn't mourn those who suffered there? Imagine that hell is somehow necessary (I don't believe that, but let's assume it for a moment.) Why does the necessity therefore imply that there is nothing tragic about it? Even if humans in an afterlife "approve of the judgment", how does that imply that they wouldn't also mourn its consequences as well? Since when is there a contradiction between approving of an action and still recognizing that it might have elements of tragedy? That sort of thing happens all the time in the real world; it is the stuff of which pathos is made.

Which is to say that the author of that article is making a huge leap from acceptance of necessity to outright indifference towards the consequences. But acceptance doesn't mean indifference, and necessity doesn't obviate compassion. To suggest that God would ever be immune to the pathos of some form of human suffering simply because of a supposed necessity is to confuse the issue, and it is to limit God's compassion. To suggest that humans in a hypothetical afterlife would emulate God in such a scenario is to cheapen human compassion as well.

The real problem is that if you believe that some people are consigned to eternal torment in hell, you have to come up with some way of reconciling that with the idea that some of those who love them are supposed to exist in infinite and eternal bliss. And the only way around that conundrum is to claim that somehow compassion for those in hell will disappear among the saved once one is in heaven. Out of sight, out of mind. Blissfully ignorant, in other words.

But I do not believe that God is ever indifferent to any human suffering. Ever. For God not to be compassionate at all times, for all of those who suffer under any circumstances--well, I simply cannot believe in such a God. An implication of God's perfect knowledge and compassion is that he/she experiences fully the joys and sufferings that all creatures experience. If there were a hell, then God would have to be fully aware of and perfectly empathize with the suffering that its denizens experienced. The subjective experience that each person in hell experienced could not be out of God's sight and mind. If it were, then God's knowledge would not be infinite.

And frankly, a heaven full of people who don't mourn the suffering of others sounds more like hell to me.

This whole idea of eternal damnation in hell for non-believers was the kind of thing that made me as a teenager resent so bitterly the religion of my upbringing. I think I objected to the notion of hell even more than I did to its unscientific biblical literalism--and that's saying a lot. It offended my moral sense at a core level. I had internalized the idea of Divine love and compassion for all that Christianity ostensibly preaches in certain contexts; and I could not reconcile that with the idea of a post-death torment for endless gazillions of years, simply because someone didn't have the right theology over the course of their 15 or 35 or 70 or whatever years of existence on earth. And I still feel that way today.


JZ said...

from what i can tell. early judiasm had no idea of an afterlife. heaven or hell. sheol was the end. the pit. that's it. the ideas of heaven and hell grew out of surrounding cultures. you can see the evolution through the OT. and when it came around to the first century. the idea was pretty cemented in judiasm and found its way into christianity.

if this is the case. then why do we see the afterlife as divine reality and not what it really is. a mystery.

Andrew said...

Hell caused major theological upheaval for me in my twenties. I remember sending out an email to all of my Christian friends, explaining my misgivings about Hell. I ran into everything you described, but no one seemed to be able to intelligently explain it or defend it. It is just one of those things you are supposed to believe. I for one could never get around the horrible things the evangelical view of Hell says about God. Having children really put the nail in the coffin for me on that issue. What could my son do? What could he POSSIBLY do that would make me think an appropriate response would be eternal torture? Can any Father conceive this?

I agree also that no one "chooses" Hell. The notion is absurd.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

I think there is a growing sense that the idea of hell is theologically problematic. If we claim that God is truly loving, and if Jesus teaches us to forgive times uncountable, how is it that God can't be so merciful.

The idea of hell provides for some a sense of justice -- but unless hell is exceedingly small -- reserved only for Hitler, Stalin, Charles Manson, and maybe Atilla the Hun, what good is it?

The answer is that unless there is hell to fear we'll not act appropriately. Such a reason for hell isn't too defensible. For that reason I too long ago abandoned it.

Heather W. Reichgott said...

My conversion was probably delayed much longer than necessary by a Baptist friend's youth group, who were always talking about Christian faith as the way out of hell. I didn't believe in hell to start with, so none of the predictions of torment scared me very much, and I hated the idea of devoting myself to God merely out of a selfish desire to keep my sorry butt out of the flames.

In the same way this Christianity Today writer's comment makes me want to cry. God is going to transform us... to make us MORE complacent about the suffering of others? ???????? What Bible is this guy reading?

Even Christians who believe that hell exists must also acknowledge our creed which says Christ descended into hell. On the third day he rose again. We don't really think that upon leaving hell, he just shook off the sulfur dust from his feet, and said "Screw you guys, you're doomed, and I'm going home," do we?