The truth about hell

A theological overview of hell is not something we would normally expect to see in a midweek edition of the Guardian, and Anthony is right to say that Meghan O’Gieblyn’s ‘My Life in Hell’ (Guardian Review 26th November, 2014) deserves recognition in the pages of our blog.

O’Gieblyn’s thoughts derive from personal experience, not of hell itself, despite the title, but of the way it is presented in certain American evangelical circles. In this respect, she touches on two significant areas when it comes to the nature of God and the nature of eternal damnation. I think, that for the purpose of this discussion, and to be fair to the Guardian, we need to start from a given premise (whether or not we personally agree with it) that such a thing as hell exists. But here we already run into difficulties, because the very idea of existence begs a host of other questions and musings concerning space dimension, time and being, as well as the nature of the afterlife and of God himself.

Added to these, is the rather pragmatic question of ‘is hell a good idea and, if it is, is it God’s?’ Meghan O’Gieblyn reminds us that the notion of hell in scripture derives from a number of pre-Christian sources, some of them shaped from early animist religions or from later Greek Gnostic thinking. They are all pretty graphic and, over time, have afforded plenty of material for doom frescoes and for the Bosch and Bruegel schools of painting. In addition to these, Francis Bacon, Francisco de Goya and even Damian Hirst give us a pretty good intimation of the kind of hell we are capable of generating for ourselves from within our own psyches.

What is interesting about the latter, in relation to the Guardian article, is that the concept of hell has long been connected with that of a vengeful God and, as a result, created a fair bit of theological confusion and psychological pain when it comes to envisioning God’s idea of justice and where hell actually begins. God’s justice, in relation to traditional teaching on hell, comes across as retributive and God himself as biased and unlovable. Consistent with this line of thinking, hell is the inevitable outworking of God’s righteous anger. The concept of divine judgment is invariably presented as a punitive exercise having no connection with God’s mercy, which is an aspect of God’s nature. It does not even meet the standards of justice in a human court, where the full facts and circumstances are known to the judge before a just verdict can be pronounced.

Justice begins with equilibrium. If God is really just, he will embody this equilibrium. Meghan O’Gieblyn speaks of the ‘yin and yang’ of God, a Jungian concept which is interesting and helpful. Is there a dark side to God? Possibly, but if there is, then what kind of darkness is it? The psalmist says that ‘the darkness is not dark to him. The night is as bright as the day’. This presents God as holding light and darkness in himself, in such a way as to prevent the darkness of oblivion and despair becoming absolutely final. Darkness is not final because it is always defined by light, or obliterated by it.

Where darkness is defined as darkness, over and against light, we also have a picture of the idea of Sheol, the place of shadows. Thought of as part of God’s darkness, and pertaining to God, Sheol is also a place where a different kind of vision might be possible. Perhaps it is a dimension in which the individual who has not known, or who has refused, the light, for whatever reason, is left only with the instinctive and primal urge to return to it, something akin to that of a seed pushing up through the dark earth for the light it needs in order to live.

But these ideas of darkness do not take us very far when it comes to the kind of hell described in the Guardian article. Hell begins with our own propensity for evil, as the writer discovers through the sermon preached at Willowcreek church following the 9/11 attack in New York. Our own propensity for evil is not limited to the great evils of history, especially those perpetrated in the name of religion up to and including the present day. Our propensity for evil is an attraction to evil in which we all share personally. Those of us who are captivated by Channel 4’s Homeland on a Sunday evening are being entertained by evil events. We are literally ‘captivated’ because we are being entertained and ‘gripped’ by the amoral machinations of intelligence services even if we wish we weren’t. Perhaps this is why the programme enjoys such huge ratings.

If we take this picture of our involvement with evil back into the various portrayals of hell touched on in the Guardian article, we begin to see a hell which is partly of our own making, although we may not be experiencing it quite so acutely as the ‘collaterally damaged’ in Homeland, or for that matter, in Gaza or Syria. This is where the concept of Divine judgment might have something new to say in relation to hell. If God is just, we must logically expect a state of ultimate equilibrium to exist with regard to the evil and suffering one nation, or group, or church, or individual, inflicts on another and the expectations of a just God. But is it necessarily purely retributive? Is God’s justice simply ‘payback’?

As the article points out, one of the most difficult questions for a conservative Christian to answer pertains to the nature of God in relation to eternal damnation in Hell. How can a loving God allow evil and suffering to go on for some individuals for eternity? The key to the answer lies, of course, in the word ‘allow’ which opens up the whole realm of thought pertaining to freedom and free will, our free will in this life and God’s boundless freedom in the context of eternity. Even so, free will and God’s own freedom, are not always very helpful points of reference in discussions pertaining to eternal damnation.

An alternative and less generalised proposal might be that we go to that ‘place’ or state of ‘existence’ to which we are best suited, for which we are best morally and spiritually equipped, morality being a matter of choice and freedom and spirituality being defined as a desire for God. When morality is bound up with a relationship with a merciful God it defines the way we treat others.

Together, morality and the spiritual life, become the outworking of God’s own ongoing creativity. So we could say that a person’s experience of hell in the next life will depend on the extent to which they have contributed to creating hell for others, by denying them God’s love and mercy, when they could have done the opposite. As Dante suggests, and as the article indicates, there are gradations of hell.