It is tragic that some Christians have been so battered with stories of a prideful, vindictive God that they have fled from Jesus’ fold. No wonder some become atheists; who would want to spend eternity with such a tyrant?
Yet I’m going to make a case for hell, though not the one you see in cartoons, a fiery cavern where demons poke you with pitchforks. Dante made that kind of thing look pretty exciting, but "The Inferno" was written almost 1,300 years after the gospels. When you strip away European and medieval assumptions, and look at the writings of Christians in lands and cultures closer to Jesus’ time, you get a different picture.
First of all, hell is not a place. If you’re separated from your body and exist only as a spirit, you don’t take up any room. In the Hebrew Scriptures all the dead, righteous and unrighteous, abide in Sheol (the Greek Scriptures translated it "Hades"). It is a non-physical realm where the souls of all the departed await the Last Judgment.
But they don’t all experience it the same way. In Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31), the Rich Man is not sequestered in a bleak alternative dimension; he’s able to see Lazarus, and speak to Abraham. But he’s sure isn’t having a good time.
How can this be? Because the real answer to the "where" question is "in the presence of God." Nothing exists outside God, making the concept of "separation from God" only a handy metaphor. "Whither shall I flee from thy presence? … If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there" (Psalm 139:7-8). In this life, we perceive God's presence pulsing through all material Creation. In the next life that materiality will be dissolved, and we’ll be irradiated by the living energy that sustains the universe.
Those who love God and prepare themselves to assimilate his light will begin to be transformed even in this life; they become "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4). But those who resist and ignore God "harden their hearts" (Hebrews 3:15). If they "love darkness rather than light" (John 3:19), they will find the inescapable brilliance to be searing misery and paradoxical blindness.
How can the same Light affect people in different ways? Hearers of scripture in earlier generations would have seen this phenomenon every day. Before the age of electricity, light always meant fire. And fire requires respect. From earliest childhood they would learn that fire gives us warmth and light, but if mishandled, it deals agonizing pain, darkness and death. "Our God is a consuming fire" (Deut. 4:24, Hebrews 12:29).
"The same sun that melts wax hardens mud" is how Origen, the third-century Egyptian writer, put it. In the fourth century, St. Basil the Great used the story of the three young men in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3:1-30) as an illustration: the fire spared the prayerful trio, while the guards who threw them in were destroyed.
God’s presence is not just Light, and Life, but Love. And Love invites, but does not compel. The Prodigal Son’s older brother lived in his father’s loving abundance, but was bitter and resentful. To the pure, God’s purity shines clearly; but to the twisted, even His love appears untrustworthy and twisted (2 Samuel 22:27). St. Isaac of Syria (seventh century) wrote that those who suffer in the next life "are scourged by the scourge of love."
This idea, that both heaven and hell are experiences of the same divine presence, is startlingly different from contemporary assumptions. But even more so is the next idea: hell is not a punishment. We assume God’s justice means settling the score; that each sin must have its payment, either in Christ’s blood or human writhing in hell. We can even sort of like the idea. Surely God will torture murderers and rapists and bad guys, and anyone who ever did us a wrong turn. Justice, we think, means finally getting even.
But as St. Isaac points out, God isn’t "just" in that calculating sense. "How can you call God just," he says, when you consider the parable of the workers paid for a full day when they worked only an hour? Or the parable of the Prodigal Son, restored fully to his father on the basis of mere repentance? St Isaac concludes, "Do not call God just, for his justice is not evident in the things concerning you."
God is not looking for repayment, but repentance. What heals a broken relationship is sincere love and contrition. What’s wrong with us isn’t a rap sheet of bad deeds, but a damaged heart, a soul-sickness, that plunges us into fearful self-protection, alienation from God and others. Paradoxically, this leads to death: "whoever would save his life will lose it" (Matthew 16:25).
Who will end up in hell? Nobody knows. God has not shown us the guest list. And "Judge not" (Matthew 7:1) means it’s none of our business. We can’t guess by looking at external behavior, because we don’t know whether someone, in private, is begging God for forgiveness and the strength to change. That’s the lesson of the Publican in the Temple.
The safest bet, and a venerable spiritual discipline, is to assume that you, personally, are the worst sinner in the world. St. Paul set an example, referring to himself as "the foremost" of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). And, while God has not told us who he will or will not save, he has given us a safe harbor. Christians have agreed on certain spiritual helps from the earliest centuries: the Eucharist, personal spiritual direction and confession, public worship, private prayer, and the intercessions of the "great cloud" of saints. In this way we can become light-bearers, even in this life.
If you hammer together your own stairway to heaven, you won’t know which rungs are missing. The practices upheld by the consensus of the community is a surer bet for the humble.
So, yes, we need "hell"--or rather, we need an urgent awareness that eternal misery is a horrifying possibility. And I don’t see any permission to imagine that "hell" sits empty, with the deck chairs stacked and folded. Jesus was emphatic, not that a place named hell exists, but rather that some will be in torment, with "weeping and gnashing of teeth." He nowhere encourages us to hope that he was just kidding and everything will turn out fine.
We don’t know, of course, how things will turn out. We hear that "God desires all men to be saved" (1 Tim 2:4), but we don’t know if that desire will be fulfilled, and in a way we could now understand. We don’t know how God deals with hard cases. All we know is that we’re commanded to go and preach the Gospel. If God has some emergency back-up plan in case we fail to do our job, he has not told us about it. He’s only told us as much as he thinks servants need to know.
What we know is not facts, but a Person, and even in this life we begin to be softened and warmed by his love. Every ordinary moment is turning us either into a light-bearing saint or a monster. The Judgment on the Last Day will reveal what we did with all that time, and how our choices shaped us, one by one.
And if Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats is correct (Matthew 25), Judgment Day will be less like judging a criminal trial and more like judging a livestock show. You don’t need a cross-examination to tell a sheep from a goat. Day slips into day, and after decades of goatish deeds, it will be nearly impossible to turn back.
"‘Today, when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts’…While the promise of entering his rest remains, let us fear lest any of you be found to have failed to reach it" (Hebrews 3:15, 4:1).