How to Speak About Hell

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The logic of the Inferno has always seemed simple enough. It arrives without drama, by way of a boring syllogism. I am made to be with God in an eminently personal relationship. As with all loving relationships, I must freely enter into it. Being-coerced or being unable to do anything but love God contradicts the nature of love. I can no more be “forced to love” then draw a square circle or rip out the hair of a bald man. The possibility of a loving relationship with God necessarily includes the possibility of not entering into a loving relationship with God. This not-being-with-God we call Hell.

If I am going to effectively deny the possibility of Hell, I must deny that my relationship with God can ever really be one of love. I must deny my ability not to choose Him. This would avoid the problem of Hell, but only by making human existence hellish. It would make a good God easier to believe in, but only by making Him unworthy of worship — and thus no God at all. I, at least, will not bow to a God who damns me to paradise, deludes me into the experience of being-free, and acts, in the final analysis, as a rapist of souls.

This is why I have never been particularly impressed by those who don’t believe in God because of the doctrine of Hell: For my part, I refuse to believe in God (or at the very least I defy him) unless there is the possibility of Hell. Different strokes, I suppose.

Regardless, here I am, free to enter into loving relation with God despite John Calvin and Sam Harris. Entering into this loving relationship requires one thing only: That I love. I hardly deny that it is a complicated affair, figuring exactly how to love my Creator. (It is not enough, it seems, to love him in the same manner that I love my cat.) But this much is certain: To be in a relation of love, one must love.

The above premises are hotly contested, but again — the logic seems simple. Hell is a possibility I may choose by not loving God.

The paradox is this — I am the only person I may know, with certain knowledge, as “not loving God.” I do it rather often. I resent him, ignore him, insult him, delight in what he detests, detest what delights him, and I do it willfully, as a free choice of the will, a choice present to me by virtue of the nature of the God-relationship. Whether my neighbor loves God or not is not “data” given to me in the same manner. I do not know whether my neighbor did, does, or will love God with any certain knowledge. The evidences of her words and actions, no matter how strong, do not provide me the same certainty by which I know my own choice not to love God — for choosing and willing are secrets of the human heart. I may fear her eternal destination, I may hope for the same, but I cannot judge it with certainty.

The flippancy with which swaths of Christians condemn hordes of humanity to Hell becomes particularly bizarre when one considers it in this sense. It’s as if the Westboro Baptist Church were to translate their “Gays Are Going to Hell” signs to read “I know with certainty that this particular gay person has willfully and knowingly chosen not to enter into a loving relationship with God.” The certainty of their proposition becomes dubious even as their rhetoric becomes completely pointless: Really, what is the point of condemning someone to Hell if Hell is attained precisely by willfully and knowingly choosing it over life with God? It’s as if scores of enraged minions stood outside of a grocery store holding signs that read “You’re in a grocery store!” expecting shoppers to flee on the basis of their rhetoric. “Of course we’re in a grocery store! We willfully and knowingly chose to be in a grocery store!” (a philosophically adept mob of shoppers might respond.)

Surely, unless the Church can convince the world that being-with-God is good and that being-without-God is bad, the mere indication of who is with and who is without God (besides being epistemologically stupid and taking a hammer to the commandment of Christ to “judge not”) is an ineffective means of attaining the professed desire of the Church, namely, the salvation of all mankind. Hell is properly believed and feared only insofar as God is loved. The preaching of Hell only makes sense in the context of this love, in which the glory of his presence makes his absence something that sears the flesh. Only love can make fear intelligible, for we only fear to lose what we love, and the more we love, the greater we fear the loss. Preach Hell, and Hell becomes unintelligible. Preach the love of God, and Hell will follow, properly contextualized as the necessary possibility of an eternal, malignant solipsism that the radical gift of human freedom demands.

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