What Is The Nature Of Hell?
Hell, like Heaven, is in many ways set apart from our knowing, and as with all things that are so, we grasp it through metaphors and conceive it through hyperbole. It is the garbage dump, the blazing furnace, the rotting, festering, crawling outer darkness that is both dead and alive at the same time, where there is wailing and the grinding of teeth. It is Tolkien’s Ring Wraiths, who once were men, yet who now stalk the darkness as cloaked, skeletal beings, consumed by their own obsession. They have twisted beyond mortal recognition into shadows of themselves.
Hell, that state beyond any physical place, beyond all geography and allegory, is choosing to eternally live a lie, and refuse to admit to the truth, no matter how clearly it is revealed to you. It is staring reality in the face and saying “I want no part of you.” As Milton’s Satan says, “Better to rule in Hell than to serve in Heaven.”
To serve is the essence of the Christian life, to roll up our sleeves and wash our neighbor’s feet. To grasp at power for ourselves at the expense of others is the antithesis, and the code of Hell. It is grounded in a vicious cycle of hatred and pride and fear, and as a result is grounded in a terrifying eternity, when the walls of time and space have been knocked down, and there are no borders at all.
“What is the world, O soldiers?” W. De La Mare has Napoleon query. “It is I: I, this incessant snow, this northern sky; Soldiers, this solitude through which we go… is I…”
“What do I fear? Myself?” Shakespeare had his Richard III query in the depths of his despair. “There’s none else by. Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.”
How many people pass into this state of perpetual inability to be whole, a timeless, cyclical abyss of self-absorption? No one can say with any accuracy. We are warned of its reality, of its potential, and we may catch glimpses of it in this world. But we cannot know the undercurrent without already having been sucked up into it.
And then I wonder if we would have the wherewithal to comment, or instead that we had already severed our wills from our consciences to such an extent, we, like sadists, may perversely enjoy the planning of great evils with quiet voices and manicured fingernails. Perhaps we would even learn to smile, though there would be no joy in it. No, it would be the kind of smile that is more terrifying than any frown, for it marks out a comfort for things inhuman. Have we not seen it often enough in this world? Can we truly question if there is a Hell?
Even the extreme analogies of anguish would be mild in comparison with the actual spiritual experience of being cut off from the Source of Life, and turning in oneself. One need not believe that the physical descriptions of Hell are literal, with real worms and real fire, but the metaphors that give us a glimpse of self-destruction, of being alive yet not alive, will haunt us always, as it should. As for the literal nature of Hell, like Heaven, it is a thing which “eye has not seen and ear has not heard thing.”
It’s shrouded in mystery, and yet we know of those who have brought a taste of Hell upon this earth. Perhaps we have even encountered them in person. And oftentimes being in the presence of a truly evil person is far more horrifying than any description of physical pain. It is Satan, in his block of ice at the center of Dante’s Inferno, unfeeling, unmoving, as tragic as he is twisted.
While the Catholic Church has officially recognized countless saints to be in Heaven, it has never made any official claim at knowing the head-count of Hell, nor even claimed to know if any individual person has been damned. Even figures as heinous as Hitler and Stalin are relegated to the unknown, in spite of their objective evil.
Although accounts of visionary mystics vary, some in favor of full and thrashing Hell and others viewing instead a telling emptiness, there is one anecdote told about Teresa of Avila before the Inquisition, where she affirmed her belief in Hell, but afterwards muttered to one of her sisters, “But there is no one there.” Julian of Norwich also seems to take this approach, in that when she was asked to see those in Hell, nothing was revealed to her. “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” was her only take-away.
While we may not pretend to know one way or the other, it must be held as a logical plausibility that there have been those who embraced that demented decision in the finality of it all. It is part and parcel with free will. We see such decisions clearly enough among men; we see dehumanization of the most vulnerable persons and groups in our society; we see bitter cynicism in the face of all that is good, true, and beautiful; we see ambition that drives beyond morality and turns inward in crushing ways; we see projection of evil onto others without account for their own similarity to our inner potential to stumble and fall; we see pride that is so self-assured of its correctness, it does not go in search of medicine for a cure. And thus the limbs grow numb with gangrene and the thought to cut them off to save yourself does not even occur. “If your leg causes you to sin, cut it off…”
But it is not hard to imagine some refusing to cut it off, to cling to their exterior idols and interior egocentricity to the bitter end, like Gollum with his “precious” ring, grinning ghoulishly and holding it aloft as he sinks into the boiling lava. We are free, and that freedom enables our most self-destructive decisions. We are what we make ourselves, in the end, and it is impossible for one hardened in hatred to appreciate love unless the crust is cracked open, unless the scab is torn and bleeds.
We get exactly what we want via the cosmic ramifications of what we ourselves have nurtured. No one is in Heaven who does not want to be. No one is in Hell who does not want to be. No, in truth, we are making a Heaven or a Hell inside of ourselves in this world. In the end of it all, it is just a matter of which key fits which door that locks from the inside. This is the true nature of excommunication, Anathema Sit, “to us thou art as hellfire”. No medieval maneuver can deal it with as true a strike as one’s own self to one’s own soul.
It might even be said that, if there are any in Hell, it is a state of numbness, dumbness, and isolation where the door locks from the inside. The only people in Hell are those who have turned themselves off to the essence of love, in time and in eternity. This is brought to light in a vision of St. Faustina, who saw a merciful Christ asking the soul three times “Do you love Me?” The soul would only go off into the darkened chasm of its own turning away and revulsion at that divine love itself. But to a soul unable to love, love is indeed a torture. We have seen glimpses of this state often enough, in serial killers, global tyrants, and sometimes, more subtly, in those who simply cease to see humans as intrinsically worthy, and life as infinitely valuable, and instead see themselves as heroes of their own stories, and the rest are either dragons to be slain or unimportant extras to be ignored. Love becomes a bitter herb, yes, even a poison. Love is the enemy of death. And hollow lands of death must shut it out.
However, there is a great deal of hope for humanity, for though we are flawed and fickle, we have a great capacity for good, a great capacity to be those icons of the divine in all our jagged physicality, and I believe that if we cling to some goodness, some love, that taps into the depth of us, we will reach out for redemption and transformation when the veil is drawn back. We must keep both our humanity and our humility alive as we struggle through the daily grind of living, so that we may be prepared to face death with a willingness to be transformed when encountering a higher plane of consciousness. It is that deadly determination to be left on our own, wearing our sins as badges of honor, which may prove damning in the end.
But then must it be forever? Must it be endless and everlasting as the doors of doom? Perhaps Hell is not so much a separate place as a separate spiritual state from that of Purgatory, for no such punishment can truly endure if the hearts within are transformed and the gates shattered. Perhaps the cherished hope that no human soul may know “hell” in its fullness, the eternal separation from all that is life-giving, might be realized by the draw of grace upon the soul, even in death, making out of every sepulcher a womb and every potential Hell a redemptive purgatory for those who yield to the pull. The question is: will they yield?
George MacDonald describes this concept thusly:
“Imagination cannot mislead us into too much horror of being without God. For that is living death. But with this divine difference: that the outer darkness is but the most dreadful form of the consuming fire – the fire without light – the darkness visible, the black flame. God hath withdrawn himself, but not lost his hold. His face is turned away, but his hand is laid upon him still. His heart has ceased to beat into the man’s heart, but he keeps him alive by his fire. And that fire will go on searching and burning in him, as in the highest saint who is not yet pure as God is pure.”
Jewish mysticism maintains that all things which exist contain a “soul” or spiritual element by virtue of their very existence, and that the spirit of God holds all such things within His own reality. Perhaps it is this very act of maintaining existence that reveals a portal of hope, for nothing held in the palm of existence itself is beyond the consideration of God, even in the pit of the flame that burns on, like that which burnt on in the bush which was not consumed.
It has been said that the love of God lights up the fires of Hell, the reflection of something the hardened heart has rejected. And yet, might it not be argued that God’s fire will burn out the longest, until Hell itself is consumed by it? Is this perhaps the true nature of purgation, of our prayers for eternal rest? For Hell robbed of its eternal component might then not be Hell at all, but a blazing spiritual pruning that draws up the very essence of conscience existence upward and upward yet. Might it not yet be the guiding night, the night more guiding than the dawn?
We might fight it with all our strength, but perhaps it might be hoped that God’s strength proves strongest, and the divine presence ultimately embraces “all in all.” Maybe in the end, it is the destiny of our consciousness to be drawn up into the Great Consciousness where time and space cease to hold sway, and as we move upward, every infection is sucked out, if we but will to burn on, burn in love’s urgent longings. It is the sum of ourselves to recognize the good, by our very existence, no matter what we must endure for it to be so, but Good is always stronger than Evil. Ultimately the shadow may yet melt back into the form through Universal Reconciliation. If we may not know it, perhaps we may yet hope for it, as all good Christians should do.
MacDonald continues with his hypothesis:
“But at length, O God, wilt though not cast Death and hell into the lake of Fire – into Thine own consuming self? Then indeed wilt thou be all in all. For then our poor brothers and sisters shall have been burnt clean and brought home. For if their moans would turn heaven for us into hell, shall a man be more merciful than God? Shall, of all his glories, God’s mercy alone not be infinite? Shall a brother love a brother more than the father loves a son? Would Christ not die yet again to save one more brother?”
Some would say that since time and space have stopped, a state of separation from God after death must be unending. But all perpetuity flows forth from God, and God alone maintains eternity. Anything opposed to Him, in the end, must have the potential to be finite, and to flow back towards him if it be eternally crafted. Love, we must hope, will win out in the end, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. We may stumble on through the tunnel, and feel trapped in the stories that seem endless, and yet perhaps we are finding our way through the dark-laden fairytale forest, to the center of the labyrinth, going round and round, if we will but let ourselves be drawn to it. Loreena McKennitt’s “Dante’s Prayer” speaks of this:
“When the dark wood fell before me and all the paths were overgrown, when the priests of pride say there is no other way, I tilled the sorrows of stone. I did not believe because I could not see, but you came to me in the night. When the dawn seemed forever lost, you showed me your love by the light of the stars…”
This is the shape of the great myths and those frightening, open-ended dreams we have, and we know the clawing of the dark for what feels like an eternity of wandering, until the light breaks just over the horizon, and we are so overcome with boundless joy, and then we wake, and we would given anything to remember that which we have now forgotten.
Gregory of Nyssa, called “the father of the fathers”, described this hope: “The annihilation of evil, the restitution of all things, and the final restoration of evil men and evil spirits to the blessedness of union with God, so that He may be ‘all in all,’ embracing all things endowed with sense and reason.”
We may not know for certain the fate of any soul, but we can live with the recognition of how far God has been willing to go to bring us to Himself… even through undergoing the crush of consummation itself. That is the most powerful of realities. The divine Trinitarian dance is ever circling, ever-present, and never lets us go. The reason is the Heart of the Universe is what put the divine sparks in all of our hearts, and we are sucked into its core.
The Heart does go on, and so do ours, by our very existence, by our very immortality. Hope springs eternal, and as Dante said, “The poets leave hell and again behold the stars.” For true poets of the heart are those who keep reach towards the light, who push open the windows, who see the face of God.
“All will be redeemed in God’s fullness of time, all, not just the small portion of the population who have been given the grace to know and accept Christ,” Christian fantasy writer Madeline L’engle was sure. “All the strayed and stolen sheep. All the little lost ones.”
Oftentimes, though, the invocation of Hell is too quickly used as a threat or as a curse upon people by those who think themselves better. “You’ll go to Hell for that,” we trumpet, although in truth we cannot know nor judge. We can only address the illness, and its dangers, not determine the outcome. We might say that sexual usury debases the nature of the act, just as gluttony debases the nature of eating, or greed debases money. We might go through the list of deadly sins, and warn that they might cause a deadening of the soul, a severing of conscience from will. Yet we cannot say with any certainty what the outcome will be. And perhaps before being so quick to cast stones, we should think more upon the hand that throws them, and what acts it has committed in living memory.
And so it is we should not be overly surprised to find that prostitutes, tax-collectors, Samaritans, and centurions have inherited the Kingdom of Heaven through a single act of willingness to be reborn, like the thief on the cross who simply asked to be remembered. We may further be surprised to find the priests and Pharisees of our world, so certain of their righteousness, will tear their garments and cry “Blasphemy!” all over again when faced with the truth, and take their council and run their courts in the dead of night, in the outer darkness.
Our job is not to become obsessed with the supposed pains and pleasures of the world to come to the point of forgetting our purpose for living in the here and now. It is to start our eternity on earth. We may start our Heaven or our Hell in our daily lives, by living in love of God and our fellow man or by living only according to ourselves, our unhinged desires, our unfounded prejudices, and the sickness of our own pride. We are here to help walk each other home, to bring out the best in one another, and raise our souls to a higher consciousness.
MacDonald concludes his theological thesis with these words:
“As for us, now will we come to thee, our Consuming Fire. And thou wilt not burn us more than we can bear. But thou wilt burn us. And although thou seem to slay us, yet will we trust in thee, even for that which thou hast not spoken, if at length we may attain unto the blessedness of those who have not seen and yet have believed.”