On Hate and Hell
Andrew Hackman calls Hell a hateful idea:
[T]he vast majority of Christian churches believe that anyone who does not subscribe to some form of Christianity (and often, their version of Christianity) is going to be tortured in flames without mercy and without end. They may not put that in the church bulletin, but it is there.
I submit that believing that is REALLY bad for the psyche.
Subconsciously, realizing the unreasonableness, and because many Christians are truly people of good will, most churches put Hell on the back burner (yes, good pun there). But in doing so, Christianity becomes a contradictory, bait and switch, sales job.
The notion of Hell, a place of eternal torment managed by devils and demons, doesn’t sit well in the postmodern secular imagination, and I won’t deny that it can be traced, at least in part, to hateful tribalistic wishful thinking, but it would be wrong to outright dismiss the idea of Hell as unreasonable and hateful.
First, as a religious myth, it illustrates very important lessons: 1) actions have consequences 2) sin breeds misery, for others if not always visibly for oneself, and 3) getting what you want is sometimes a really bad idea. Take Dante’s Inferno, perhaps the most famous literary depiction of Hell. It’s not meant to be read as a literal rendering of the eternal abode of sinners, but as a figurative analysis of the affects of sin now on the human soul and on human relationships. Little doubt Dante had his fun putting people he disliked into everlastingly horrors, but this shouldn’t distract us from the central spiritual truths of the poem.
Second, a reality of Hell makes some sense given particular economies of salvation that imagine Heaven and Hell as ultimate destinations freely chosen by how well one lives in cooperation with grace and in accordance with love. If the path of love towards God and others can be freely taken, then it can also be freely refused. In this line of thought, Hell would be what it means to refuse God, i.e., to reject the way of love, knowingly and willfully.
Here, I gather, is where many people find the notion of Hell especially ludicrous. Given the elusiveness of God and the, um, difficulties verifying the grand dude’s existence, can anyone really reject God with full knowledge and full consent? That beggars belief in our day and age. If, however, the rejection of God is a name we give to the rejection of love, and if we can knowingly and willingly walk the path of love, and, finally, if our actions have eternal consequences (because we are both temporal and eternal beings), then there may be a reasonableness to the belief in Hell. On the other hand–the sinister one–if what we do in the here and now matters only so long as we and those affected live, or only so long as the universe has being, then, I agree, the “punishments” of Hell are disproportionate to our sins and crimes.
In sum, I take the view that the idea of Hell can be unreasonable, centered on and fueled by hate, and bad for the psyche, but that it can also be an illuminating myth, figurative image, or posited reality, one that reminds us that wrongdoing separates us from ourselves and from one another, and, to paraphrase a line from Gladiator, that what we do in life may echo in eternity.