The Death of Hell

On a recent post about grace and Karma, a commenter posed a challenging question:

I \'d like to ask you a question because you strike me as an intelligent man of faith. I was taught that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment, a nice euphemism for a torture chamber. Do you believe that those of us who fail to accept grace will be tortured? If not, why not? Augustine and Calvin seemed to believe it.

Sometimes people ask the damnedest things…

I been sitting on this one for several weeks, because, well, the subject of eternal damnation is not exactly the most delightful topic on which to expound. But, hey, anyone can tackle the easy ones, so what the hell…

The topic of hell has never been a popular subject — for reasons not terribly difficult to discern. Yet belief in hell is both ancient and widespread, comprising an important doctrine in some form or other of most of the world’s great religions, especially Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, each manifested by belief in a personal God. In our secular, postmodern age, however, it has become something of a quaint superstition, widely perceived to be a tool for manipulation of the ignorant and gullible by the religious patriarchy. It has long faded from the lexicon of contemporary culture and conversation, and is rarely even mentioned in religious contexts, much less in secular. The death of hell has been quiet, almost unnoticed, like the slow starvation of some hideous child left in the wilderness to die.

Yet the death of damnation has left a vacuum into which far more diabolical spirits have swarmed. Perhaps the most unsettling of these is our growing sense of helplessness against a pervasiveness of evil which seems ever more prevalent, ever more senseless, ever more violent and hideous. The gunman, some hitherto lonesome loser with a heightened sense of victimization and a laundry list of petty grievances, lays waste to a school in an orgy of carnage — and then, having drunk his fill of slaughtered blood, ends his own life by his own hand, leaving naught but a narcissistic video hungrily devoured by a bloodthirsty media, who wish only to “understand.” Other than his final instant of presumed pain, the killer receives no justice, no retribution for his murderous rage — and more perversely, carves out his place, albeit briefly, in history and notoriety.

While such cases are the extreme, unrequited evils of a lesser sort could be multiplied without end. The child molester, who gets out of jail in 3 years on good behavior; the murderer whose high-priced attorneys sway feeble-minded juries to garner his acquittal; the corporate executive who steals billions from the retirement plan of his underpaid employees, getting off with a wrist slap fingering someone higher in the food chain; the tyrant who tortures and murders millions, escaping to live in opulence, dying in a safe secure asylum provided by others of his ilk. Even at the most personal level, much evil goes unpunished, from the undetected adultery, to the undiscovered lie, to the drunk driver not arrested, to the fraudulent tax return which escapes the scrutiny of the IRS.

There is in human nature something which rebels at such injustice, which cries out for punishment proportionate to the crime. We hunger for some restraint upon such evils unleashed, some effective deterrent, knowing our imperfect legal system often fails to deliver its promised justice. Yet, paradoxically, we justify and rationalize our own evil, not merely hoping for leniency if caught but expecting, even demanding it.

If hell does not exist, men would be wise to invent it. If it does exist, we are fools to deny it.

Yet our technologically advanced, psychologically sophisticated, scientifically saturated society can in all its knowledge find no such restraint upon evil. For we arrogate with confident assurance that there is no God; no transcendent moral absolutes; no spiritual or immaterial reality beyond the tangible and measurable. We hunger for justice but have no standard against by which to calibrate it, save our volatile emotions and ever-changing subjective values. We attempt to constrain evil through law and societal coercion, while having no coherent metaphysics upon which such constraints must be grounded. Our GPS satellites are not fixed, but wander through the sky; our maps are detailed, but bear no relation to the geography through which they purport to guide us.

If hell does not exist, men would be wise to invent it. If it does exist, we are fools to deny it.

The premise of hell rests solidly on certain metaphysical pillars. It begins with the conviction that there is an immaterial, spiritual aspect to man which makes him unique among living creatures, not only in intellectual and behavioral aspects of our nature, but by touching and communicating with something outside the self which is transcendent, moral, eternal, and personal. The notion of eternal consequence points to an absolute, a fixed and immutable truth, a standard beyond ourselves, against which our thoughts and actions are judged, forming the very foundation of the moral ramifications of our life and behavior. The premise of hell rests also on the conviction of a divine Being, whose knowledge and power are infinite, who gives rise to the absolute standards against which we are measured. Such a deity embodies pure goodness, with neither malice, revenge, nor capriciousness, perfect in justice and wise in its administration. Being both eternal and personal in nature, and having engendered beings in some measure like himself — possessed of intellect, free will, and transcendent spirit, and therefore capable of good or evil — this God must measure those choices for good or evil against the absolute standard of goodness embodied in himself.

Thus the foundations for the idea of eternal punishment rest on our eternal nature as humans which transcends death; our moral standing relative to a divine being embodying absolute good; and the consequences of our free will decisions made while free will is operative — that is, before death — which, because of our eternal nature, have not only immediate temporal but eternal consequences.

Modern secular man, with limitless knowledge and hubris, yet utterly without wisdom, rejects all such foundational truths, repudiating the deep wisdom of millennia of philosophical and theological thought and experience. There is no God; there is no transcendence; there are no absolutes; there is no eternal destiny for man. The resulting metaphysics bears the fruit of the inevitable and inherent contradictions arising from their dismissal. There is no God — and therefore our existence is random and purposeless, our absolutes all relative. There is no immaterial aspect to man, no soul or spirit — therefore, we reject all that makes us uniquely human, from art to music, from compassion to creativity, from incomprehensible self-sacrifice to incalculable and irrational evil. There are no absolutes — but even the most fanatic secularist cannot avoid the language and judgments of good and evil, belying their conviction. There is no eternal destiny for man — and therefore no eternal consequences, indeed no consequences whatsoever, in the pursuit of unspeakable evil. The secular seeks the illogic of actions without consequences, the childish wish that we may do whatever we desire without remorse or retribution, disregarding at will the laws of the universe and the precepts of human nature.

But if these things be true — if there exists a God of pure goodness and perfect justice, applying the moral absolutes necessary for his creation to rightly relate to Him, seeking eternal friendship for those of creation who seek His perfect goodness — then surely the rejection of this relationship, this perfect goodness, brings consequences of eternal nature which by necessity are entirely dark and devoid of goodness.

Whatever particulars such a bleak destiny might entail; whatever standards must be met to avoid it; whatever race and mercy might be available for those who do not measure up — these details, while critical and often confusing, should not distract us from the reality of eternal consequence. The idea of heaven — a place of eternal peace, happiness, and rest after death — figures prominently in the hopes of man, who alone among living creatures ponders the inevitability of his demise. Yet in a moral universe, heaven and hell are inseparable, opposite poles of the magnet which draw us toward or repel us from our Creator and source of life.

The death of hell is indeed the death of life itself, for it ensures a world without justice, without consequence, and without restraint. Like the Phoenix, Hell will always arise from its own ashes, bringing new horrors far beyond what our vaunted knowledge can comprehend or conquer. To deny the reality of hell after death is to guarantee its incarnation in life. Hell will not be denied; its horrors will be visited liberally upon those who acknowledge it least.

What might such a destiny be like? How can a purportedly good God allow such a fate for His creation? Such questions have no quick answers, but are not by any means unanswerable.

At least that is my hope, to be tackled anon.

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7 thoughts on “The Death of Hell

  1. Thought-provoking reflections here, Dr. Bob. You have dealt manfully with one of the toughest issues enriching the soil in which agnostics and athiests plant their roots. Indeed, the faithful themselves in the darkest of times often wander into this territory.

    Years ago when I peeked into that dark closet I was first puzzled, later comforted by the language of a confession of sins “known and unknown.”

    Hell is where we find ourselves as the result of sin. And how, I wondered, could I be guilty of sin of which I was not aware? The idea grated on my sense of justice. “Accidental” events over which I have little or no control should not be labeled “sin.” How could I know that an unlocked gate might cause the death of a child, especially when no children were there when I left the pool briefly to buy a newspaper?

    But the fact remains, a sin of omission can have grave consequences, even in the absence of intention or awareness. So what’s a Diety to do? Let it pass free of consequences? Alter all the laws of Nature and Nature’s God (Jefferson’s phrase…Jefferson, a Deist) to keep innocent people safe? Anyone can see where this is going. That line about inventing hell applies.

    Unknown sins, not hell itself, are the real gremlins here. And anyone who wants to argue they don’t exist will be swatting into an eternal cloud of gnats. I came across this from a quick Google search for “sins, known and unknown.” From a Russian Orthodox site:

    One of the major ways God deals with our unknown sins is precisely to MAKE THEM KNOWN, so we can deal with them. As a Christian prays and fasts and worships, and does all the other things in a normal Christian life, God enlightens him, and at the same time invisibly strengthens his will, giving him a greater ability to avoid sins he previously did not even consider to be sins. Many of these sins are because of pernicious bad habits, which we have become adept at making excuses for.

    That’s as far as I have traveled in my own investigations of hell. So far I have found no way to make my notions normative for everyone else. The matter is too complicated. I face personal challenges enough without trying to solve those of the rest of mankind.

    So much for sin and injustice in this life. I leave it to some other commenter to deal with the looming threat of hell in the afterlife. As for the death of hell, it’s like the death of God. Looks to me like it’s very much alive and well.

  2. Nice essay, I really enjoy how you lay out your ideas.

    My husband and I were talking about how horrible films have gotten in the last 20 years or so. And I was puzzling upon that and came to the realization that – since Hollywood has become so Godless – they’ve lost the ability to create stories based on right and wrong, Good and Evil, which are the fabric of the Human Story. And it seems to me that moral relativism is its own little Hell, style without substance and stories without heart…Jess

  3. I can see that you haven’t lost your touch, Dr. Bob. Thank you for a fine post … full of vivid imagery and thought provoking concepts.

    Will you ever compile them all into a book?

  4. The only sin for which man is condemned to hell is the sin of unbelief in the death, burial and resurection of Jesus Christ our Savior and God.

  5. I can’t believe I haven’t seen this before now. True, we were gone for a week, but I should have seen it before we ever left.

    Anyway…we’re turning in for the night, but I will be back to read this tomorrow.

  6. As at other times, when I have searched scriptures looking for some comforting support for what I want to be true, I do not find here the comfort I was looking for. Not expecting, you understand, because I don’t think it exists. Nobody ever said the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth would always be what we want to hear.

    I look forward to your next effort on this subject, and I do appreciate your willingness to tackle it. God bless.

  7. Me, again. In the Bible study I attend at church, we’ve been going through the first epistle of John. There’s just no escaping the bald truth; the writer repeated himself a lot, probably because he knew how thick-headed we can be, and how much we want to deny the unpleasant. I have to stop looking for loopholes for my loved one and pray more, knowing that free will is still granted.

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