In his play No Exit, existentialist thinker Jean Paul Sartre said and portrayed that “Hell is other people.”
In a post that deals with the question of eternal punishment and the alternative views of universalism and annihilationism that we have been talking about, Lutheran writer Nathan Rinne develops the idea that, no, Hell has to do with isolation from others, while Heaven is about eternal communion with them.
Photo of a scene from Sartre’s No Exit, by KsKal (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
From Nathan Rinne, To Hell With Our Fallen Love: Why “Annihilationism” and Universalism Fall Short:
One of our Lord’s great promises is the blessed fellowship we will know in the life to come:
“And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.”
The Apostle Paul, in Philippians 4:1 and I Thessalonians 2:19 respectively, can hardly contain himself when he thinks about this fellowship:
“Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!”
“For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you?”
On the other hand, the famous 20th century philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre is famous for his quip that “hell is other people”. Many want to say “Amen” to this, but then again, a moment’s reflection will tell us that being alone and isolated is no fun either. Broken people that we are, most of us can nevertheless think of at least some people in our lives who we continue to want to be with.
Actually, hell is not other people, but the exact opposite. It is the lack of other people – particularly the people who love you and care about you the most – that would be Christians.
Heaven is other Christians.
That is, in fact, how Dante portrays eternal life. The damned absorb the light of God’s love but reflect nothing back to Him or to their neighbors. Like a high-intensity lamp shining on dark paper (OK, that’s not in Dante), they burn. Dante describes the lost as either fighting each other or as being utterly isolated.
Whereas the saved in the Paradiso are described as mirrors, reflecting the light of God’s love everywhere, so that all of Heaven is filled with multi-faceted light.
This makes me wish I were teaching again. I could put together a seminar on literary depictions of Hell: Sartre’s No Exit, Dante’s Inferno, C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, and I’m sure I could come up with more, playing them off of each other and helping us imagine what these issues are, imagining often being the first step in understanding.