From childhood through my teenage years and into college, whenever the topic of hell arose in conversation or whenever I was presented with some depiction of hellish torments, I would feel my heart descend into my gut–sometimes gently and noticeably only a little, at other times with the momentous speed of a great plunge. I would on occasion awaken, heart pounding, from nightmares of demons and devils and their hunger for my soul. Satan and his minions were very real to me and very active in my imagination. To keep them at bay, I wore a scapular and held on to other pious arms.
These terrors have long since passed. I no longer live in fear of hell, a state that, for me, is somewhat irrational. As someone who does not rule out the existence of such a place or the possibility that I may find my flesh eternally cooked to well done (unwell done?), I really should still respond to these prospects with at least a little fear and trembling. Such would be the appropriate responses, no?
That I don’t fear eternal tortures suggests perhaps that I presumptuously believe myself to be safely among the elect or perhaps that I really, deep down in unexplored pits, disbelieve in the existence of hell. After all, if I were captured by terrorists and threatened with torture, no doubt I’d be a nervous wreck, unable to eat or relax or function in a dignified manner. I face the possibility of eternal torture, and yet my bowels work just fine. I don’t lose sleep. I don’t worry. I don’t think about hellfire when diving headfirst into some delicious sin or even afterwards when I feel guilty for having done wrong. I make no efforts to feel the appropriate fear that the prospect of hell should elicit. I’m troubled only be the hurts I cause this side of eternity.
If I wanted to be optimistic, I would say that I am not afraid because I recognize that God, who loves me and died for me, is perfectly trustworthy. I can trust him and be not afraid. This is the reasoning of apologist Mark Shea, who argues that hell should not keep believers forever in a state of servile fear because God wants everyone to be not afraid and to be rather in happy, loving communion with him. Speaking to the overly scrupulous, Shea remarks:
Hell is not a threat by God. It’s a diagnosis of the stakes for which we play and the consequences of being the sort of fallen creatures we are in the sort of universe this is with the sort of God who made it. When the doc says “If you persist in your behavior without change you will get liver cancer and you will die” he’s not threatening you. He’s stating a fact. The cancer is not being sent by the doc to kill you. It’s the fruit of the stuff you are doing. The doc is there to heal you. But the healing requires the diagnosis.This sounds awfully nice, but the comparison here doesn’t really work. God doesn’t just diagnose the sickness of sin and promise healing; God created a universe in which horrific eternal suffering is a consequence for not living according to the moral rules of the universe–rules everyone, everywhere breaks. Rules that are almost always difficult and impossible to follow all of the time. Hell may not be a threat from God, as Shea says, but if it’s part of the universe and might be the whole of your future, then it’s rationally something to fear. Like, a lot. Any religion that preaches the possibility that you will go to hell preaches the message, “Be afraid.” That God has also said “Be not afraid” doesn’t cast the reasonableness of fear into the outer darkness.
Jesus’ diagnosis is that our race is sick with sin. Hell is the fruition of a life obstinately ordered toward sinful selfishness. The endstage of sin is hell just as the endstage of cancer is death. It’s not an extra added punishment for sin. It’s just what sin fully is. So it’s not something God does to us. It’s something we do to ourselves.
Let me start with Kyle's claim that the existence of hell is a message of "Be afraid!" from God to us. What do we mean when we say that we fear something? I think in this context, we are afraid of things that we consider bad which might happen to us against our will.
But in Shea's description of sin and hell which Kyle is responding to, damnation is not something that happens to us against our will, it is something that happens to us because of our will. If we utterly reject God and refuse to be with Him for eternity, God will grant our wish. Having endowed us with the dignity of free will, it would be inconsistent with God's nature for Him to do otherwise.
Kyle doesn't attack this conception of sin and hell, but some of his statements seem to suggest disagreement with it. For instance, he says, "God created a universe in which horrific eternal suffering is a consequence for not living according to the moral rules of the universe–rules everyone, everywhere breaks. Rules that are almost always difficult and impossible to follow all of the time." The implication seems to be that the unfortunate sinner could want very much to be happy with God for eternity in heaven, but without thinking much about it he committed some little sin that everyone does all the time -- that it's almost impossible to avoid -- and now, against his will, he finds himself in the fires of hell.
However, what Shea is saying (and what I think is indeed the correct way to understand sin and hell) is that sin is not just the performance of some action which God arbitrarily imposes heavy penalties upon. Sin is the rejection of God. Sin is putting oneself in God's place and following our will rather than his, consciously and deliberately.
This necessarily means that our damnation can never happen against our will. We can't reject God without rejecting God. I could perform some action which, if I fully understood its meaning and gravity, would constitute a rejection of God, but if I did so without fully understanding the action's meaning and import I would not incur the full effect. My action might have the same destructive effects on the temporal lives of myself and others that it would have if I had committed it in full knowledge and culpability, but it would not have the full effect on my relationship with God (of which my eventual salvation or damnation is the culminating expression) if I performed the act without full knowledge and intent.
Now, there is a sense in which we should be afraid of hell, but it's a different kind of "be afraid". We should regard our relationship with God with gravity, and make an effort to think seriously about how our actions affect that relationship -- just as we would with any other relationship that we treasure.
Take, for instance, your relationship with your spouse. It doesn't make sense to be afraid that you will somehow end your marriage and leave your spouse without meaning to. However, it does make sense for you to examine your actions in terms of how they affect your marriage. After all, if continuing your relationship with your spouse is important to you, it would make sense to examine your actions in terms of whether they bring you closer to or further from your spouse.
Sure, no one can be a perfect spouse. Just as Kyle says that it's well neigh impossible for us fallen creatures to do God's will every single time, we none of us are perfect spouses. We do things that are selfish or short sighted. In our human relationships, this means that it's at times even possible for us to hurt another so badly, without meaning to make a definitive break, that we find ourselves with an irreparably ruptured relationship before we realize what we're doing.
With God, however, we have a relationship with One who is both all knowing and all merciful. There is no point when God is going to say to us, "I just can't trust you anymore and I need to cut myself off from you lest you hurt me again." We can't, after all, hurt God. And He knows what goes on in the depth of our hearts better than we do ourselves. Thus, the only rupture that can occur between us and God is the one we make. We are only cut off from his mercy and forgiveness if we refuse to accept it.