Where the Hell Is Hell?

Much of modern Christian belief is predicated on an afterlife in which the worthy are rewarded in Heaven and the damned are punished in Hell. Critics have, not without justification, questioned whether this is an appropriate foundation for faith, since it amounts to coercion. If, it is argued, a person is “good” in this life only in order to avoid punishment in the next, is their goodness not disingenuous? Or, more simply put, should goodness not be its own reward? Indeed, some Christians do believe that the “Kingdom of Heaven” is not a place to which believers ascend in the afterlife, but is what they should strive to establish, through their actions, here in this world, at this time.

I recently attended a performance of a play entitled “The Christians” in which the pastor of a megachurch challenges traditional concepts of hell as a place of eternal torment. This shift in doctrine ends up alienating many of his congregants, who split off to form their own church, and the pastor’s church eventually fails. In one of the key scenes, a congregant poses a hypothetical question to the pastor: “You’re telling me that if someone murders my child, my child will end up in Heaven, I’ll end up in Heaven, and so will the murderer?” To which he is forced to respond that yes, indeed, all three of them would be in Heaven, since, according to the Bible, Christ came into this world to be “…the Savior of all people…” (1 Timothy 4:10). When asked whether Hitler would be in Heaven, he is forced to answer that in the affirmative as well.

What does the Bible actually say about Hell? Three different words are typically translated as “Hell” in the Bible: Sheol; Hades; and Gehenna. Sheol and Hades are similar concepts, and represent a destination which all of the dead, whether good or evil, go to when life ends. There is no eternal torment to be found in either of these places (although the Greeks did recognize a lowest level of Hades, called Tartarus, in which naughty little guys like Sisyphus and Tantalus did, indeed, receive rather diabolical punishments). Gehenna, on the other hand, was an actual location outside of Jerusalem where, it is purported, children were burned as sacrifices. Thus, the equation of Gehenna to Hell can, plausibly, be interpreted as symbolic, and not to be taken literally.

Consider the fact that Christ urged his followers not simply to forgive their enemies, but to actually love them. Are we capable of this? There have surely been examples of this, rare though they may be, so it appears to be within the range of human responses. However, simply forgiving our enemies is too painful for most of us to endure; how much more so with actually loving them? And yet this is what Christ instructs us — all of us — to do. As someone who is Jewish by birth, can I love Hitler? If I’m honest with myself, I’m not sure I can. I can try, but I’m not sure I’ll ever succeed.

This raises a question about the nature of Heaven itself. Christ, in exhorting us to love our enemies, must have know how difficult this would be. He must have realized that many of us would fail. How could a Jew possibly love Hitler? And would not a Heaven which contained both Hitler and me be a Heaven only for Hitler, but a true Hell — a true place of eternal torment — for me? But this, of course, presupposes that I can comprehend what Heaven actually is. It presupposes that I can visualize it, imagine it, and describe it in exacting detail. Which is pretty presumptuous of me. Perhaps Heaven is a place in which the hurt caused by Hitler (or the murderer of one’s child, for that matter) is healed and made right in some manner which we are incapable of comprehending? Why not? Would a comprehensible, predictable, knowable Heaven qualify as Heaven at all? Any Heaven I can imagine, after all, would become Hell given enough time. So whatever the Bible is describing must be far beyond anything my puny little imagination can conjure.

There are, sadly, many of the Christian faith who take satisfaction in the idea that those who do wrong — those who, in their estimation, are guilty of sin — will be punished. Painfully. Eternally. Brutally. That those who claim to adhere to a faith in which forgiveness and love are identified as the greatest of laws, and in which all human beings are identified as sinners, yet wish pain and punishment to befall those they adjudge to be evil, is disheartening in the extreme.

Am I saying that Hitler would necessarily go to Heaven? No. There is still a choice which each of us must make based on our free will. What I am saying is that I find it hard to believe that Jesus Christ, who walked among every manner of pariah and social outcast, would deny entry into Heaven to anyone who sought it. And I furthermore maintain that Jesus would never have consigned anyone to an eternity of torment, no matter how deeply flawed they may have been. If such torment is the fate of some souls, I rather think it is the result of them choosing it of their own volition. So where the Hell is Hell? It’s in the mind that kindles its fires.

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