In Sunday's New York Times magazine interview, Gore Vidal was asked about how he felt when he heard that William F. Buckley died this year. His response was:
I thought hell is bound to be a livelier place, as he joins forever those whom he served in life, applauding their prejudices and fanning their hatred.Vidal's curmudgeonly reply was consistent with the tone of the rest of the interview, and I somehow doubt that he actually believes in hell--but then, neither do I. I think his response, though, does illustrate the way hell can serve as a metaphor, or at least as an outlet, for frustration over the fact that we live in a world where some people have spent their lives acting on behalf of things we object to in the most strenuous way imaginable, and, dammit, they got away with it. That is to say, they died before they could be held accountable for whatever it was that they did that got us riled.
Certainly, I think that God is better than our petty human foibles, including the desire for vengeance. But speculating on who would go to this hypothetical hell can serve as an entertaining imaginary exercise. Getting to play God in this way can be fun because it doesn't really mean anything; no one will actually go to hell because we pretend that they will. What dead criminal would you send to hell if you had the power to do so? Augusto Pinochet? Pol Pot? Henry Kissinger? (No, wait, scratch that, Kissinger is not dead yet.)
The thing is, though, justice is not mean spirited, and hell is not about justice, although it is often claimed to be. But if we assume that there is an afterlife--and that's a big if--it is not inconsistent to also believe that we are somehow held accountable for the evils we do. That doesn't mean eternal torture in a lake of fire; on the contrary, I would suggest that it would mean something quite different, because under a God of infinite love it would mean an opportunity for all of us, regardless of what terrible things we've done, to reconcile ourselves to God and to the divine will.
I am currently reading the book Rethinking Christianity by Keith Ward. He says this about the idea of hell:
The God disclosed in Jesus is not a punitive avenger. But it is possible for rational creatures to exclude themselves from love, and therefore from the divine life. In that state, they will be tormented by their desires and by the desires of those who are like them. They will set themselves on a path that leads to final destruction.Because I am in sympathy with that point of view, I guess that makes me a universalist, or it would, except that I am an agnostic on the subject of an afterlife. Whether or not there is life after death, I think that our ideas of justice should not be restricted to what we think God does after we are all dead. Justice, I believe, should instead permeate what we make of the world in this life, the one life we know about. And by the same token, I also think there is nothing wrong with us feeling angry over the fact that we live in a world in which people who perpetrate justice seem to get away with it.
A God of love cannot leave them in that state. A God of unlimited love would go to any lengths to persuade them to return to the path of eternal life, and to help them on that path. So Jesus says, 'I came not to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance' (Luke 5:32). And his death on the cross is, John says, to take away the sins of the world.
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
Maybe the author of Ecclesiastes is right. Maybe it is all vanity. But then perhaps it is our task to break through the vanity of our short existence here on earth and make it as meaningful as we can anyway. This is true optimism. This is Albert Camus's Sisyphus, rolling the stone up the hill and creatively constructing meaning out of an apparently absurd existentialist universe. The concept of an afterlife where all is made right in the end might comfort us in some way, but it doesn't change the fact that the task we face here and now is in making the world a more just place. And regardless of what God does or doesn't do with us after we are dead, I think that God is calling us forward at each moment while we are alive, in this world, asking us to make a difference.