These days Christians rarely assert that hell is a place where people get burned alive. It’s become de rigueur for Christians to instead say that hell is “the absence of God.” We’ve all heard that a million times; Christians—especially of the emergent/leftist/progressive persuasion (my peeps!)—fairly love saying it. The idea (whether explicit or implied) is that existing outside of the presence of God is a kinder, gentler fate than is having one’s mortal body burned alive.
The problem, though, is that the new Christian line does not describe a kinder, gentler hell. If anything, our new hell is worse than our old one.
Saying that the old version of hell is cruelly passé and that the new one is somehow more humane is like saying that things have really improved since cops stopped beating suspects with clubs and started Tasering them in the gonads. Sure, it’s a new approach. And it’s definitely less messy. But it’s hardly a preferable way to suffer.
Christians believe that God informs and sustains all of life. You permanently remove from life the substance, intention, and infinite expressions of God, and you’ve got what for Christians would be an existence unimaginabely horrible.
A place where God is absent is a place where everyone is stripped of love and the possibility of it. In such a world no one can be trusted; everyone, overtly or otherwise, is reduced to a craven animal. All is chaos: there are no patterns of behavior, of properties, of time, of light.
No rhythms; no warmth; no comfort. No peace.
Nothing to depend on.
Nothing to hope for.
Fathers rape their daughters; beaten old ladies are shat upon; gaping flesh wounds never heal. Everyone’s a cannibal. Screams are music.
Or perhaps in a world absent of God everyone is in complete and total isolation. Dark. Cold. Soundless. Here on earth, after all, if you really want to punish a prisoner, you put them in solitary confinement. (Of his five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, John McCain wrote, “It’s an awful thing, solitary. It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”)
Maybe it’s violent, horrifically degrading chaos. Maybe it’s complete isolation. Who knows?
What we do know, however, is that when Christians say that hell is the absence of God, what they mean, apparently, still, is that hell is the absence of God throughout eternity. I’ve never heard anyone say, “Hell is the absence of God—for awhile,” or, “Hell is the absence of God for four of five months, and then things generally start picking up.”
The part about hell that’s so grossly and ridiculously unfair—the part where, no matter if you’re Hitler or a six-month old Muslim baby, you’re maximally punished forever—remains, even in hell’s new formula. Hell is still about forever; it’s still about an eternal negation of the possibility of redemption.
“Hell is the absence of God” reminds me so much of that wretched other new Christian standard, “Love the sinner; hate the sin.” It makes the person who says it feel better. It sounds spiritually evolved. But it’s nothing but the same old vinegar in a brand new bottle.