Is It Possible To Believe In Hell?
Is it possible to believe in hell? Surely, when faced with Auschwitz, Hiroshima, the Gulag and the killing fields, the question should be, “Is it possible not to believe in hell?” I don’t simply refer to the fact that concentration camps were a kind of hell on earth. Instead I wonder how one can deny the existence of a place of severe punishment when faced with Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin and African soldiers who chop off little girls hands for fun. When faced with such monsters can we really cry with a good conscience, “God would not send anyone to burn forever in the fires of everlasting torment!” After a century that has witnessed more genocide, religious martyrdom and brutality to children than ever before in human history, can we really dismiss the only punishment left for the dictators, abortionists, terrorist bombers and genocidal maniacs who have got away with their crimes? If it were true that there is no hell I, for one, would be howling with rage at the insanity and unfairness of it all. Yet those who deny the existence of hell calmly assume that their denial shows how enlightened and humane (and therefore fair) they are.
These are good people. They dismiss the possibility of hell not because they deny the wickedness of human beings, but because they affirm the goodness of God. They believe in a God who is so very good that he would not send anyone to hell. It would certainly be nice if there were a heaven but not a hell. But can you believe in one without the other? What I mean is, how can someone believe in heaven, which must after all, be a place of goodness, (and if goodness, then justice) while denying the fact of hell which makes justice possible? Therefore it seems to me, that if you believe in heaven you must also believe in hell. Hell is somehow written into the constitution of heaven.
Nevertheless, good-hearted people insist that a good God would not possibly send anyone to be tormented in hell for all eternity. This is a laudable sentiment, but I worry that that’s all it is: a sentiment. Nevertheless, the conviction that God would could not send anyone to hell is a feeling I myself incline to—especially after a warm day in May followed by a very good dinner with four glasses of claret. Furthermore, at that moment I am not usually thinking about Pol Pot or Stalin. I am thinking that God would not send an ordinary, decent fellow like myself to hell.
Can Ordinary, “Nice” People Go To Hell?
But this is exactly the point where the possibility of hell is meant to knock me down and shake me up. We are told that the road to hell is a wide smooth, downhill highway, while the road to heaven is a narrow and hard mountainous climb. What if hell were populated with hordes of overweight complacent people just like me who never really did anything magnificently evil, but also never bothered to do anything spectacularly good? Why should we imagine that heaven is reserved for the mediocre?
When I look at it this way I have the dreadful suspicion that perhaps those who deny hell because God is too good to send anyone there are really proposing that God is too good to send them there. It is ironic that people who believe in heaven are sometimes blamed for wishful thinking. Isn’t it that more likely true of those who disbelieve in hell? I say this because the person who disbelieves in hell doesn’t really believe in heaven either. He believes in oblivion. He desperately hopes that he will cease to exist after death. In other words he hopes he will get away with it after all, and this, it seems to me, is real wishful thinking.
Does The Prospect Of Eternal Punishment Make God Seem Angry And Vengeful?
Others protest that the concept of eternal punishment makes God out to be an angry, short-tempered disciplinarian of the worst sort. But is God such a nice middle class English gentleman that he would not be angry enough to send anyone to hell?
What if God were more like a passionate and hot-tempered Mediterranean papa? That is not to say that God is petulant and petty. He isn’t angry with wickedness the same way our fifteen-year old is angry, so he refuses to tidy his room. God does not slam the door and stamp his foot. Neither is God angry the way we are when we don’t get our way. He does not sulk, dish the ice and then pretend nothing is wrong. If God is angry with the wicked it is not because he is an arbitrary and babyish tyrant who loses his temper when is disobeyed.
God’s Just Anger Is Not The Anger Of Spoiled Teenager!
What if, instead, God’s anger is the sort we feel when we hear of a young boy being abducted, raped, killed and chucked into a ditch? What if God’s anger is the sort of anger and revulsion you feel when you see a young African woman whose hands have been cut off by rampaging soldiers, and who cannot cuddle the child those same soldiers gave her when they raped her? What if God’s anger is the disgust you feel when you hear of a dowager who leaves her vast estate to her poodles, in a world of starving children? When you hear such news don’t you respond with an element of rage as well as disbelief, horror and grief? Aren’t you righteous to do so? Perhaps God is angry at the wicked in the same way. He sees the everlasting beauty of goodness, the vibrant potential of each human being and the stunning radiance of his creation and when it is soiled, trampled, raped and chucked into a ditch by humanity’s folly, greed, stupidity and violence he is full of fury, frustration, sorrow and compassion.
Does that mean God would cast someone down into hell to be tortured forever? Perhaps this too, can be seen the other way around. Is God too good to send someone to hell? It could be that God is so good that he actually gives everyone exactly what he or she wants. If we have spent our whole lives pursuing love, goodness, beauty and truth, then after death we may get exactly what we always wanted and find ourselves in a land where love, goodness, beauty and truth are as natural and abundant as light. On the other hand, if our whole lives are spent in an insane flight from all that is good, beautiful and true, then perhaps God in his goodness will also give us exactly what we always wanted; and that would be existence in a madhouse with no exit where love, beauty, goodness and truth were unknown: an existence in the outer darkness with gibbering maniacs like ourselves.
Life pans out, and despite our greatest efforts, we almost always end up getting what we really want. In fact, this sort of justice is built into the system. We will get what we want just as naturally and certainly as an acorn becomes an oak tree. Giving people what they really want is natural justice. To do otherwise would be cruel. We think everyone ought to go to heaven, but can we imagine that a person who hated God, goodness, truth and beauty all his life would actually enjoy heaven? If they could visit that place of eternal beauty and laughter they would howl with serious terror and run with all their might in the other direction. We know this is true because there are people in this life who hate truth, beauty, and goodness and do everything in their power to flee from the light.
Is Hell An Actual Place?
Is hell a real place? Now this is where the topic really starts to interest me. I find it interesting because down through the ages human beings from every culture and time have recorded fascinating stories about their visits to hell. I wish I could recount them all because they are far more fun and interesting than philosophical speculation on the topic. Here is one story: The philosopher A.J.Ayer (who was a noted rationalist and atheist) choked on a piece of smoked salmon and “died.” His heart stopped for four minutes before he was revived. Once he came back he recounted his experience. His biographer writes, “He had been confronted by a bright red light, painful even when he turned away from it, which he understood to be responsible for the government of the universe…. Ayer became more and more desperate…when he regained consciousness he spoke about crossing a river—presumably the river Styx—which he claimed to have crossed.” In subsequent interviews Ayer admitted that the experience had made him feel “wobbly”, but he soon reverted to type and labeled himself as a “born again atheist.”
Witches, exorcists and mediums tell us how they have summoned or wrestled against the inhabitants of hell. The famous sixteenth century magician John Dee summoned a demon and described him thus, “He appeared in his red apparell: & he opened his Clothes & there did issue, mighty & most terrible gastly Flames of Fire out of his sides: which no mortall eye could abide to looke upon any long while. And in the marvelous raging Fire, the word BRORGES did appeare tossed to and from in the fiery flames.”
The visionaries at Fatima were given glimpses of demons and hell as well. One of them described the sight,
The rays of light seemed to penetrate the earth, and we saw, as it were, a sea of fire. Plunged in this fire were demons and souls in human form, like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze floating about in the conflagration, now raised into the air by the flames that issued from within themselves together with great clouds of smoke, now falling back on every side like sparks in huge fires, without weight or equilibrium, amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair…the demons could be distinguished by their terrifying and repellent likeness to frightful and unknown animals, black and transparent like burning coals.