The Death of Hell

hell pitchforkOn 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.