Something interesting I found exploring the Patheos neighborhoods: A discussion from Ryan Adams (whom I assume is not the same person as the former lead singer of Whiskeytown) on the Eastern Orthodox understanding of Hell, which is defined as the suffering that comes from being loved by God and yet rejecting that love. He talks about this notion in Dostoevsky and shows how that mysterious phrase of the Creed about Christ’s descent into Hell plays into this. Read it all, but here is his conclusion:
This is the Hell that I believe to be the most true, that you cannot love and yet are loved infinitely. You are in a place where even God Himself has suffered for you, and you reject it. If Dostoevsky’s depiction of Raskolnikov is to be believed at all, then this is the worst sort of suffering, a suffering which cannot be gotten away from. This is a Hell that I think we should all be afraid of, even if we think it’s a myth, even if we don’t believe in a God, even if we think it’s a story told to scare children, or a clever literary device used to make fun of popes without getting in trouble. No matter what, we should all be afraid that we could become incapable of love. We would all like to think of this as a fiction, no one can be incapable, but if you lived your whole life without doing it, then what’s the difference between that and not being able to? So, it is incumbent upon us all to live in fear of THIS Hell, of looking back and realizing we didn’t love.
I would just like to add that, contrary to something Ryan says and an illustration he gives, this concept is also in Dante, who organizes his allegorical geography of the Inferno according to the various defects and absences of love. (The lowest circle, where we find those who betrayed those who loved them–Judas being at the lowest point–is to be frozen in a sea of ice, the opposite of the warmth of love.)
In fact, this notion is not infrequent in Western Christianity. St. Catharine of Siena said, “The fire of Hell is the love of God as experienced by those who reject it.” This is basically what C. S. Lewis is symbolizing in The Great Divorce.
This is not allegorizing the Biblical accounts of Hell. It posits true eternal suffering. The Bible speaks of “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Those are associated with sorrow. Hell involves spiritual pain. This doesn’t necessarily exhaust the horrors of Hell. Perhaps after the resurrection of the dead, when we all will have bodies again, the pain will be physical also.
Hardly anybody mentions or thinks about or preaches about Hell anymore. I can understand why. But should we?