June 6, 1944. Omaha Beach. Americans were getting the worst of it in the first hours of the invasion. Some GI’s, while pinned to the sand by gunfire, noticed that when fellow soldiers were wounded, and were being tended by medics, the medics would be singled out by snipers.
The Americans were so enraged at the snipers, one former GI recalled with fury 50 years later. “I hope,” he said in the oral history D-Day, “that the hottest place is hell is reserved for THEM.”
Hell seems to be necessary. Hell seems to be necessary, lest we conclude that there is no final justice in life.
Especially when perpetrators never have to answer to fellow human beings for what they’ve done–the 20 hijackers of 9/11, the religious fanatics in Waco, Texas, the terrorists most recently in France–there is at least as a last resort the belief that some day they will stand before God.
Else–ultimately–there IS no justice. And the worst that people do, they more it seems they can avoid judgment. They die thinking so nobly of themselves. if there is no hell, if there is no way to trump their evil, life would feel as if there must be no ultimate justice.
So–IS there a hell?
This seems so obvious a YES. Because it’s what people have believed for the two millennia of Christianity. Descriptions of final judgment run throughout the Gospels.
But two things have happened in modernity to raise doubts about hell.
For one, we have given up the idea of hell as being a place of fire “down there.” “Down there” IS a place of fire–but it’s the molten core of our planet, not the place of judgment. Modernity has caused us to re-think the old idea of hell. People no longer go “down there.”
Nor do the good go “up there.” The universe is today thought by astronomers to be boundless. There is end place. There is no “balcony” beyond the universe from which the heavenly beings look upon us. Both heaven and hell have been re-designated not as physical places; rather, as spiritual conditions. Heaven is union with God; hell is distance from God.
These modern concepts are perfectly consistent with biblical descriptions. Father Abraham dies and is carried by angels to the embrace of the Almighty. What better way to describe closeness to God? Hell is portrayed as being thrown outdoors into darkness. What better way to describe distance from God? Hell is also depicted as fiery. What better way to get across the point that isolation isn’t an easy sentence? It’s PAINFUL. Human beings are not meant to live in isolation. The way we are built, we are SOCIAL creatures. “It is not good for the man to live alone.”
So one adjustment we have had to make about someone being sent to hell, is a re-thinking of somebody being sent “down there.” There IS no “down there.” Hell is not a place. It is a spiritual condition–being distant.
There is a second hesitation about subscribing so readily to the classic idea that people who do the worst evil die, meet God and are sent to hell. This second issue is: Does it happen right away?
In the Scriptures, things happen right away. A man lies about how much money he is donating to the church–he drops dead. His wife lies–SHE drops dead. (Acts 5) Peter is imprisoned– prayers are offered–Peter is sprung free. (Acts 12)
I suspect most of us would agree that life is NOT like this. The connection between conduct and consequence is not normally immediate. It’s why parents have such a difficult time getting their kids to believe them. The kids can’t see the consequences of their behavior. So driving with several teenagers in the car becomes a thing to do; and becomes so often a tragedy. Society concludes that the way to get young drivers to listen is not parenting but policing. Laws have been written. A group of teens can not ride with a new driver.
The law exists because there has been a predictable consequence to the conduct of teens in a vehicle. The law exists because many teens are too immature to anticipate the results of their own behavior. The connection between conduct & consequence is not immediate, as it often is in the Scriptures.
The direct, quick connection is written that way in the Bible so that the connection is clear. But in real life, the results of poor judgment often are not instantaneous.
Thus, we may wonder: Is one’s final destination after death instantaneous? In the Scriptures, there ARE situations where a person dies and goes to heaven IMMEDIATELY (Enoch, Elisha, Father Abraham in the parable…) The other side of that belief is that a person could die and go to HELL immediately.
But these images of immediacy in the Bible exist, because the writers want to make clear the connection–between conduct and final judgment.
In the Bible, however, there is also judgment which is NOT immediate: namely, the LAST Judgment. People who die must wait until the end of all time to hear the trumpet, rise from death and face God.
Is it more realistic that the after-life is like life itself: things do not happen in a blink?
The Roman Catholic Church has recognized this gradual rather than immediate result after death–in the doctrine of purgatory. All persons who die with unforgiven sins must go through a stage of purging (purg-a-tory) before entering the presence of God. In the Eastern (Orthodox) communion, there exists the practice of praying for the dead, which means the dead are not fully perfected so as to be in heaven. Again, the ascent to heaven is portrayed as gradual vs. instant.
The combination of these two ideas–that (1) hell is not a place; it is a spiritual condition; and (2) being sent to hell is not something done instantly upon death; the final status of the deceased is a more gradual process–leave us with a different image of “hell” (and “heaven”).
The best I have ever read of this different way of thinking about hell and heaven is from C.S. Lewis. He wrote about it in The Great Divorce. The title is not about divorce as in marriage; rather, divorce as in the distance between heaven and hell.
C.S. Lewis portrays a traveler visiting heaven. The visitor looks out beyond heaven and sees a vast darkness–like a person looking up at the night sky. Like the night sky, the view of vast darkness includes tiny points of light. They aren’t stars. They are individuals. They are people who have died. But these are people who have done horrible things in their lifetime. And the punishment is: They are cast out into the darkness. And they are isolated. Some dwell not far from one another, but not close either. Others exist way, WAY beyond anybody else. They are so far from anybody else, their point of light is barely visible. (C.S. Lewis saves the very most distant point of light–the person he portrays as receiving the harshest judgment–for Napoleon. The story was written before the end of World War II–that is, before the full recognition of the Holocaust became generally known; thus, the worst judgment is passed on Napoleon, not Hitler. To the British, Napoleon was responsible for millions of deaths.)
I like this imagery. It is consistent with the idea that heaven & hell are more about distance vs. nearness in spirit than about going to a concrete place “up there” or “down there.” Furthermore, the idea appeals to the more life-like reality that things don’t happen instantly but gradually. Thus, like life here & now, the after-life has “stages.” When you die, you don’t go directly, immediately to one status of perfect union with God vs. total distance from God. Rather, it’s a more gradual, stage-like, spiritual condition–some being nearer, others being farther. How close or distant we were from relationships with people and God in THIS lifetime is reflected in the NEXT lifetime. Nothing gets erased immediately.
And there is one more twist on the classic idea that we die, we rise, we face God–we get sentenced to heaven or hell. How about the very idea that God–JUDGES? Isn’t it more reality that GOD doesn’t punish us; rather, we punish ourselves? By what we do, we bring upon ourselves the consequences–often delayed–of our own behavior.
The most obvious example, available for different generations to observe, that we do not need God to judge us–we are punished by our own conduct–is the three Godfather movies. In these life-like stories, nobody is ever arrested. Nobody ever winds up in court. But the Godfather loses two of his three sons and gets shot up himself; his son succeeding him loses a daughter. This is harsher than any sentence from a judge. Rather, it is the consequence of their own conduct that eventually catches up to them.
The key word is “eventually.” It doesn’t happen immediately that behavior results in consequences. That is why there is a belief that GOD will punish us. We can’t see ourselves being punished by OURSELVES. We have to be scared that some outside agent will do it.
This is the most immature level of thinking–that I had better behave, or else I will be punished, and punished by some outside agent. The more spiritually advanced believers understand: The punishment for our wrongdoing is contained in the wrongdoing itself. But it doesn’t happen immediately. Because of the distance between conduct & consequence, the immature do not make the connection as do the emotionally mature. The immature need an outside agent to do the punishing.
But what about people who do not live long enough to face the consequences of the awful things they do? They die in the act. They don’t think their own death is awful but glorious. They think themselves martyrs. They don’t seem to accept the idea that they are punishing themselves by their own awful deeds. Who punishes people that think like this?
Well, in real life, a martyr who survives is pilloried in public opinion; is isolated from former friends; is isolated in prison. Why not think that THIS is what happens in the after-life? It’s just that we can’t witness it. But I think in the after-life, a person spiritually feels the consequences of the way one lived life. Thus, the idea in The Great Divorce that people who have distanced themselves from others in life here & now find that this situation carries over into the hereafter.
The credibility of this belief–that those who die thinking themselves martyrs STILL face judgment–exists in the belief in justice itself. “The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.” This quote by Martin Luther King, Jr. was actually a remark made a hundred years previously by a Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker. A Unitarian would normally not be quoted by a Baptist. But this graphic expression that there is justice in the universe seems to cut across all denominations, and all religions, and all ages.
Thousands of years previously, the Greek philosophers put it this way: “The mills of the gods grind slowly but exceedingly fine.”
There WILL be justice. It may take a while. But it DOES happen. If not in this lifetime, in the next one.