The idea of judgement and heaven and hell is essential to Christianity, and traditionally Christianity teaches that after death, the faithful will go to heaven and those who have lived in sin will be subjected to eternal punishment. The story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke’s gospel, for example, gives a clear message that there will be separation after death between some kinds of people and others. The rich man who has been too interested in material possessions and has ignored the poor man at his gate is sent to eternal punishment, while Lazarus is united with Abraham in heaven.
For those who support this notion of hell, its purpose illustrates the necessity of belief in Christ and the need for repentance. Christians believe that far from diminishing God’s love, hell illustrates God’s love and justice; if the wicked are not punished then God is diminished and his goodness questionable. It is traditionally believed that hell will involve some kind of physical existence for the people there, and whilst this may not be the same kind of physical existence that we are used to, it is a physical place that comprises of whole people (body and soul).
Hell, because it is in a different dimension from this world, has to be described figuratively, with different metaphors and symbols to help point the believer in the right direction while still recognising that the afterlife is a mystery. It is often depicted in art as a place in which people are tortured by demons and with fire. In the Bible, hell is sometimes described figuratively as a rubbish dump, where the useless people are thrown; sometimes a metaphor from agriculture is used, where the good wheat is kept but the left over husks and weeds are burned to get rid of them. In the book of Revelation, the writer has a vision in which the bad people are thrown into a lake of fiery sulphur (Revelation 21:8). Hell is seen figuratively as being downwards, below the physical world.
For the 3rd Century theologian Origen hell was to be regarded as a spiritual state where ‘each sinner kindles his own fire… and our own vices from its fuel’. Rather than hell being a physical place of torment, it refers to an impermanent ‘interior anguish’ suffered at the prospect of being separated from God. Similarly Gregory of Nyssa believed that descriptions of hell symbolise the guilty conscience that will be felt when a person is placed in front of Christ at the Parousia. For both theologians then, hell was not a place but an internal feeling, and idea to be grappled with, until the omnibenevolent God granted access to heaven.
St. Paul (who himself claimed to have seen the risen Christ) provided the most comprehensive account of the nature of resurrection, was quite clear that the resurrection of Christ was a promise for all Christians that they too would be resurrected: “So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown perishable, it is raised imperishable… it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.” (1 Cor 15:42-44) But what is a ‘spiritual body’? If it is made of material stuff, then we must presume the afterlife to be a physical place. If it is a disembodied spiritual experience, it would not make sense to talk of hell as a place, but rather as a spiritual state of mind. But Paul is ambiguous, comparing the body now to a seed that will grow into something far different, suggesting that the body will be transformed and radically changed, although it is not clear how.
Protestants have tended to understand hell in a very literal sense. However, regarding hell as a physical place of eternal torment brings into question the omnibenevolence of God. Can the existence of hell, with eternal punishment that can never be escaped, be compatible with the existence of a perfectly loving and perfectly just God? David Hume raised this problem, suggesting that the whole idea of hell calls God’s justice into question because (in his view) a finite sin can never deserve an infinite punishment. John Hick rejects the traditional doctrine of hell, because in his view it is incompatible with belief in a God of love. He argues against the notion of hell as an actual place but rather that this belief was developed as a form of social control, encouraging people to be fearful of disobeying the teachings of those in religious authority, and that it is not conceivable that a God of infinite love and mercy would consign his creatures to a punishment from which they had no hope of escaping.
The Catholic tradition has usually expressed its understanding of hell in terms of eternal separation from God for those who have committed mortal sins. To die in the state of mortal sin without repentance and ‘accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever’ (Catechism para. 1033). Hell is not something actively chosen by God, but rather the responsibility lies with the free choices we make and thus hell is seen as self-imposed. Hell is not merely an idea, but a very real eternal state.
Viewing hell as ‘self-exclusion’ does go some way to avoid some of the challenges raised against the notion of hell as a physical place of eternal torture. The notion of hell is to urge people to use their freedom wisely and to do good. Hell is not seen as something that God wills for his creation but it is reserved for those who persistently reject goodness until final judgement.
Another interpretation of hell is as a symbol of alienation. In our contemporary cosmology, we know that hell is not situated at the core of the Earth, nor heaven above it, despite our figurative use of language. So, the question is can hell be a place, or is such language without meaning and therefore to be abandoned?
The existentialist theologian argues that talk of hell needs to be reinterpreted as psychological and spiritual ideas of human alienation. Paul Tillich follows the argument going back to Origen that if out of love God reconciles all things to himself, then it would be contradictory and immoral to exclude some of his creatures to a place of eternal torment. So for Tillich, ‘heaven and hell must be taken seriously as metaphors for the polar ultimates in the experience of the divine’. Hell maintains its psychological power as the idea of life alienated from God.
So in this sense hell is not a place but a state of mind. Existentially speaking it means to find no purpose in life, to lie to one’s self, to escape from reality into trivia, to find no joy in music, art, nature and so on.
In defence of hell as an idea rather than a place, it could also be argued that hell, and similarly purgatory and heaven, are all symbols of a person’s moral and spiritual life as experienced on this earth, rather than after death. People sometimes talk in terms of heaven when they are blissfully happy, of purgatory when they are going through testing times and of hell when they suffer bereavement and mental health problems. This interpretation of hell does not assume an afterlife, and so, in many ways, it avoids the philosophical problems that these ideas raise. However, in order to make this interpretation, many biblical teachings about heaven and hell have to be discarded as they often refer to heaven and hell in the context of life after physical death of the body. Alternatively, it could be that such experiences in our earthly moral and spiritual lives are glimpses of states which will be understood much more fully after death.
Author: A Meredith