A Revaluation of Hell

A Revaluation of Hell January 6, 2013

Hell is one of those topics that makes people uncomfortable, like the female reproductive system, prostate exams, or being asked personal questions by complete strangers.  However, unlike these other uncomfortable things, many people don’t believe in Hell.  Many Christians in fact don’t believe in Hell.  But I’m a little confused by this rejection.  So, in an attempt to understand, I think  it might be necessary to address the evil elephant cloud in the room and finally ask the question; what is Hell?

Ignoring the all too plausible explanation that hell is simply being overrun by giant cloud demons in the form of animals, we have to admit that Hell means something different to different people.   For your average fundamentalist, Hell is that place where all of us sinners are going for our (insert sin here).  Equally said, for your average atheist  (not even atheist, agnostic, nihilist, post-structuralist, arm-chair social critic, etc. etc.) Hell is a myth.  It’s a myth to scare children into doing what their told, and to give old people a place to tell you where your lifestyle is going to get you.

From a Western perspective this makes a lot of sense, since in the West hell is usually thought of as something like this:

A fiery pit of physical suffering where people who didn’t do what was right suffer for all eternity for their wrong-doing.  But if this material type of suffering is all we got out of Dante’s description of the Pit then we’ve missed something integral.

However, this is what the West (in popular discourse and understanding, not necessarily in doctrinal teaching) has retained in their thought of Hell.  And so, the secularist sees this and shouts,

And, to be honest, I have to agree with them.  However, I still believe in Hell.  But how can I?

In the Eastern Church (no, the West is not the only Christian heritage there is, sorry to burst your bubble) Hell is taken to be something a little different.  Unlike the fire and brimstone vision of the (in my opinion too) physical description of Hell seen in the Western traditions (Latin Catholics and Protestants) the Eastern Christian depiction of Hell is something more along the lines of this:

The classic novel “Crime and Punishment” is one of the most vivid descriptions of the Eastern Christian view of Hell.  And to make a very (very (seriously it’s like 211,000 words)) long story short, Dostoevsky sums up Hell in a short sentence:

“What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.”

This seems kinda limp on its own, but consider the abject suffering of Raskolnikov (for those of you who haven’t read Crime and Punishment, he’s the main character who kills two women and then deals with the burden of the guilt).  For Raskolnikov it is not the guilt which he says is “torturing” him, but rather his friends and family and the love and attention that they give him in his poor health.  This torture is not just guilt, but physical illness and delirium which is brought on by the love and care of these people (worst of all, a young woman with a golden heart who sacrifices herself for her family) that he simply can’t return.  Thus, in an odd way, Sartre is right to say that “Hell is other people.”

But this seems like an earthly sort of hell.  A reality experienced in life, not some sort of horrific after life.  Well, I’m getting to that.

If being surrounded by loving relatives, friends, acquaintances, and even strangers is, for the one incapable of love, is hell, then being in the presence of one who is Love Incarnate would be… double hell?  Hell times infinity?  Well, naming it isn’t the point, you get the picture, it would be more horrific than we can imagine.  And THIS is what the Christian East describes Hell as.

But wait!  Isn’t hell the absence of God?

This is a pretty commonly held notion (even among well read Christians), but I would have to disagree simply on the basis that true absence of God would mean not existing, and this would mean God willfully taking you out of existence, and that’s not all that loving.

Instead, the Eastern view of Hell is that it is precisely the presence of this love which makes Hell… well, Hell.  But how is God in Hell?  Well, for this I must again appeal to a much wiser source than I, this time a professor of theology.  Dr. Regis Martin discusses exactly this issue in his book “The Suffering of Love”.  For my purposes I will elaborate simply on what happened on Holy Saturday, the day between the Cross and the Resurrection.

In the Eastern Church, this is referred to as the “Harrowing of Hell.”  The West tends to refer to it as the “Descent into Hell.”  I can hear the cry already, “Where is that in Scripture?”

Well, it’s not stated, but there’s really nothing else that the Scriptures could mean when they say that he died.  The dead, in Judaic tradition, all went to a place called Sheol.  Thus if Christ died, he also went to Sheol.  However, unlike everyone before Him, he would rise victoriously from Sheol taking His loving servants with Him, but I digress.  It’s right there in the Scriptures.  And if you still don’t believe me, I appeal to a higher authority, Protestant reformer John Calvin when he says that

 “Christ’s descent into Hell was necessary for Christians’ atonement, because Christ did in fact endure the penalty for the sins of the redeemed”

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.

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  • Elmtree

    Perhaps Hell is the absence of God, but not in the sense of it meaning God (who is everywhere) is not there. It’s that we do not experience him, because we’ve freely rejected Him. Like the Dwarves in the stable in The Last Battle, we are surrounded by truth and beauty and flee from it. God does not send us to hell. We send ourselves.
    I don’t think this is at odds with what you say, but I think you perhaps misunderstand what “absence of God” might mean. Then again, perhaps this is what you are saying.
    It also makes me think of the children of Fatima and their vision of hell. They asked Our Lady if the souls in hell pray to get out, would God take them out? She answered “they do not pray.” The children asked again “but if they did?” and again she answered “they do not pray.”

  • Michael

    I am a huge admirer of Dostoevsky, but I would tweak Dostoevsky’s definition.
    Hell is not being *unable* to love…but of *rejecting* love and refusing to return it.
    ‘Unable’ seems to erase any culpability. You can even take it further: wouldn’t that mean that God made you incapable of love? How can you suffer for something outside your control or choice?
    Also, if you are truly unable to do something, you are unlikely to desire it.
    Hell is a choice. An intentional hardening of the heart. A rejection of Christ and his saving love.
    A choice made in the face of the full realization of the reality of that love.

    • Ryan Adams

      I would have to disagree. Being ‘unable’ to walk doesn’t take away the culpability of choosing to put your leg into a wood-chipper. It’s clear in Dostoevsky’s work that man is free, God did not make you incapable of love, you made yourself incapable. It wouldn’t really be hell if it was just a rejection, because you can go back on your rejection, rather it must be something more permanent, thus the “inability” which Dostoevsky describes.

      • Randy

        your analogy here doesn’t address what he’s saying. it would be more like a person who is unable to walk but who is punished for not walking. psychopathy can result in a person being unable to love and in their case they wouldn’t care if anyone loved them. of all the descriptions of hell that I’ve heard I think the one that would provide the closest actual equivalent was being left conscious in a holding cell alone forever. we are social animals and of all the non-lethal punishments we can dole out onto each other solitary confinement takes the highest tole on a person’s psyche.

        • Ryan Adams

          I see what you’re saying, but I still think my analogy works. Someone who refuses their ability to walk to the point that they are made unable to walk is still culpable for their inability to walk.
          As for being alone being Hell, that’s an interesting idea. Although Sartre fundamentally disagrees, he claims that “Hell is other people.”

          • Randy

            you are right that if someone is able to do something but doesn’t then it would be their own fault but I think he’s referring to someone who was never able to do it to begin with. and I can totally see where Sartre was saying that hell is other people though I wonder if he had anyone in particular in mind. lol

  • Cam

    Great article, Ryan. I too have always preferred the Eastern perspective of hell, which C.S. Lewis seems to channel in “Great Divorce.”

    One area where the Eastern Christian view seems to part ways with the Western Catholic faith is the permanence of Hell. Many of my Orthodox acquaintances believe that it is possible for hell to be a temporary state, whereas my fellow Catholics seem to believe once an individual is grasped by hell it is for good. What are your thoughts on the permanence of hell?

    • Ryan Adams

      There is no official teaching on this in the Eastern Orthodox traditions. However, standing with the Catholic Church and many of my favorite Eastern thinkers, I have to say that I reject the Universalist theme of Hell as a temporary place. That being said, I still believe, as von Bathasar said, that we should, and must, hope that no one is in Hell.

  • Mitchell

    I question than, given the Eastern View seems to be entirely spiritual and emotional, why God raises the wicked from the dead? Why restore their flesh?

    • Ryan Adams

      You seem to have missed the connection I was trying to make to “Crime and Punishment.” While the cause of the suffering of Raskolnikov is a psychological one, it’s effects are both psychological and physical.
      Also, there simply isn’t a man, to the Eastern understanding of man, without both body and soul.

      • Mitchell

        Alright Ryan, I ask simply because Augustine would, personally, though I will be received soon into the Roman rite God willing, I prefer the Eastern view of hell, and I see it gaining ground in the West. As much as a love Augustine and Aquinas, I disagree with them on this one point

      • Mitchell

        Okay a few more question, if you don’t mind kind sir 🙂
        Raskolnikov here seems to condemn himself, what then does Jesus mean in the parable of the sheep, I understand other verse and JPII suggest that Hell is brought on by the the sinner, how do we reconcile this with the parable of the goats and sheep?
        What about when the Catechism says Hell is a separation from God?
        Do you believe in Purgatory?

        • Ismael

          There are many kinds of separation. in Hell we separate ourself from God, from fully being with him, but we are still tied to him regarding our existence, of course.

        • Ryan Adams

          I don’t mind questions at all.
          I would think that the parable of the sheep and the goats does not conflict with this. While it is God who separates the two, their actions are what decide the separation. “God is Love” and as such, to be unable to Love is to be ultimately separated from God. As for Purgatory, yes I do believe in it. What exactly it is, or how it works, I refuse to speculate on.

  • Ismael

    “But wait! Isn’t hell the absence of God?

    This is a pretty commonly held notion (even among well read Christians), but I would have to disagree simply on the basis that true absence of God would mean not existing, and this would mean God willfully taking you out of existence, and that’s not all that loving.”

    Well Hell is not exactly the complete absence of God but complete separation of a person from God… and by ‘separation’ I mean denial of fullfilling one’s final cause of being with God as we will be in Paradise and after our final resurrection.

    So Hell is ‘absence of God’ but not in in the sense God cuts us off and denies us our existence, rather it is the personal choice of the damned to refuse to actuallize their final cause.

  • Ismael

    Ryan I am sorry but you are somewhat LACKING in understanding the Western Picture of Hell.

    What you call the ‘Eastern Picture’ has also always been believed in the West.

    The Church teaches that in Hell the first and foremost punishment is the ‘poena damni’, i.e. being cut off from God’s Love, i.e. being indeed incapable of love.

    However learning also from Church Fathers there are also secondary punishments:

    The ‘poena sensus’, i.e. the punishment of the senses, often described as a ‘fire’. Such picture is not invented by the West but has grounds in scriptues (Jesus himself makes allusions to the everlasting fire).

    The ‘poena accidens’ i.e. pains inflicted by the damned or devil by each other in Hell, the fact that being unable to love causes impossibility to experience any real pleasure for the damned and the reunion with the body, after the final resurrection, might cause new, physical, pain upon them.

    In essence however, even the western Church has always taught that the first and foremost and most important punishment of Hell is being cut off from God’s Love and hence being unable to fullfull one’s final cause (as St. Thomas Aquinas would put it).

    The ‘Dante’s Inferno’ Hell is only an ARTISTIC view of Hell that has dominated the west, but this does not mean Dante’s Inferno is Church Teaching.


    Jesus did not go to Hell as we understand it. What Church Fathers (and of course scholars) teach us ia that “hell” is meant as the ‘dwelling place of the dead’, not necessarely a place of punishment.
    The Church teaches that Jesus went to what we call the ‘Limbus of the Fathers’, ie the place where the righous people went before Christ, waiting for Christ to preach the Gospel to them and open the gates of Heaven to them.

    So Jesus never went to ‘Hell’ as we understand it but descended in what the Church fathers called the ‘Limbus patroroum’ or ‘Anbraham’s Bosom’ (where Lazarus goes in Jesus’ parable)

    • Ryan Adams

      I am not lacking an understanding of the Western outlook on Hell. I simply think that the Eastern terminology makes things much easier to understand, and it is terminology not very often used. I take problem to the usage of the “Separation from God” language because most people, understandably, see that and think it refers to an ontological separation, which simply isn’t true. I am aware that Dante’s image of Hell is artistic, but it is a prominent part of how people in the West consider Hell. It’s unfortunate fact that many people do not understand the Church’s teaching therein, but it’s a fact none the less.
      As for the Descent, please read Dr. Martin’s book.

  • Hans-Georg Lundahl

    I was just arguing the other blog comment that Heaven is a place, since the Resurrected bodies of all the Blessed will be there.

    In what Church Father do you find “Hell is not a place”?

    I am not arguing against your description of the state, as such, I am asking why you believe there is no place for it in the universe, especially since you are yourself referring to Sheôl, a place which, were Christ went, is just outside where the damned suffer.

    So, where in the Fathers other than St Augustine do you find a clear dissent from him saying that Hell is not a place?

    Specifically, before 1054.

  • Nana

    Dostoyevsky’s quote ““What is hell?” I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.” is from the book “The Brothers Karamazov”, from the the short chapter „Of Hell and Hell Fire, a Mystic Reflection”, part of the “Notes of the Life of the deceased Priest and Monk, the Elder Zossima, taken from his own words by Alexey Fyodorovitch Karamazov”.

    Zossima says that hell can be the pain of not being able to love and to accept love (and explains this), but that it also can be a chosen, voluntary state for those, who “have cursed themselves, cursing God and life[…]” and who “[…] burn in the fire of their own wrath […]”.