In the classical meditation on the Four Last Things, the third is the unpleasant one, the one the modern world doesn't wish to mention or even think about.
Hell here means the place of final damnation, eternal separation from God, the place prepared for Satan and those who followed him, both spiritual and human. No second chances, no rescues, no escape hatches. Hell is the destination for those who want nothing to do with God.
Hell has to be one of the least meditated-upon topics in modern society. If we think about it at all, we consider that it was for the Middle Ages, we think, or for Puritans – narrow, superstitious, uneducated folk who were dominated by cruel overlords and driven by fear. In these more enlightened times we understand that God is Love, and would never be so cruel as to send someone to such a terrible place as hell. Well – maybe the Jeffrey Dahmers and Josef Fritzls of the world, but not somebody like me.
From what I've seen, modern consideration of hell goes no deeper than a hare-brained pseudo-syllogism that runs something like this: I'm too nice a person to damn anyone to eternal suffering, and God's far nicer than I am, therefore God won't damn anyone either, and thus we don't have to worry about hell.
Besides (continues the modern argument), of what benefit would it be to meditate on such a downer concept as eternal damnation? Why ponder hell if nobody's going there (except perhaps a few really bad people)? That's hardly enlightening or uplifting, and isn't religion all about being enlightened and uplifted?
There are so many ways to respond to the modern attitude toward hell that one hardly knows where to begin. But I'll try by starting with this last attitude, that hell is a downer not only unworthy of meditation, but deserving to be consigned to the bin of relics next to hair shirts and penance pilgrimages. Obviously, I believe that to be false, and that hell is very worthy of meditation, but for a reason that sounds incongruous.
We should meditate on hell as a demonstration of God's love for us demonstrated in His respect for us.
That's right – respect. The existence of hell is required by the existence of free will. A being that can choose, can choose to be somewhere other than with God. That may be a foolish and self-destructive option, but if free will exists, it needs to be there. And if a being is truly loved, it is truly respected, and if it is truly respected, it is permitted to make its own choices, even if those choices are foolish and self-destructive. In fact, to preclude certain choices is an expression of disrespect – and ultimately of something less than love.
Here's an example: in Hayao Miyazaki's classic Spirited Away, the slave driving witch Yubaba has no mercy on anyone – except a giant baby who she keeps in a posh and well-furnished nursery. (By “giant” here I mean just that – the infant is as tall as two men. Anything is possible in the spirit world in which Spirited takes place!) Yubaba prattles baby talk to this spoiled “infant”, cleaning up after it and pacifying its tantrums. By appearances, she loves this baby more than anything. But appearances can be deceiving, as demonstrated by the witch's smothering “love”. The titanic infant is, essentially, imprisoned in his nursery, stifled and stunted by the very thing that has provided for him. In reality, the baby is a pet – doted upon and looked after, but not respected. Only a strange alignment of circumstances permits the baby to escape into the real world, where he meets challenge, difficulty, and ultimately maturity.
God is no Yubaba. He's not interested in slaves or pets, but free beings capable of receiving and returning charity. That means He has to permit us to make choices and take risks, and yes, that includes the ability to choose an existence without God.
But why would any one choose that? The answer lies all around us, in a culture that is increasingly making clear that it wants nothing to do with God. Oh, we'll take the good parts – intellect and senses and a beautiful world to enjoy and other people to love and relate to. Just leave behind those rules about how we should treat each other, and certainly don't mention returning gratitude and worship to the Being who made all this goodness.
The problem is, we can't. God and the good things He creates are a package deal. If you take one, you have to take both. Reject one and you reject the other. That's ultimately what hell is: the rejection of God, and with that the rejection of all the good that God brings. That means puppies and sunsets and vacations and beaches – and, for that matter, creativity and beauty and love.
I can hear the whining already: “But why is God so vindictive? Why deny those goods just because we want nothing to do with Him? Is God like a child who scoops up his marbles and storms off just because things aren't going his way?”
A couple of points about that. I'm not up enough on the metaphysics of it all, but I suspect that is an impossibility. Good without God is probably one of those logical contradictions which C.S. Lewis so thoroughly skewered in Mere Christianity. But let's presume for a moment that if someone doesn't want anything to do with God, God will depart, and leave behind the goods of sense, intellect, and even a physical world in which to live. What kind of existence might that be?
Poets have speculated on that very possibility. One of the more famous exercises was the play No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre, wherein hell for three vicious, sinful people is simply being locked in a room together. No racks, no fires, no demons – just sinful human natures clawing at each other unmitigated by any compassion or charity. The effect is quite chilling. And mystics through the ages have speculated that hell might be nothing more than sinners repeating for a bleak and dreary eternity the sins which damned them: endless conversations consisting of nothing but bitter gossip, perhaps, or ceaseless banquets at which gluttons have nothing to do but stuff more and more food down their gullets. Even with our limited imaginations, the prospects of such eternities make us shudder – or should.
But why would anyone choose such an existence? If offered the option between such a bleak and empty existence and everlasting joy, why would any rational being choose bleak emptiness?
Well – we are being offered the option. From the perspective of eternity, that's what our lives are: one long question about which we'd choose. But simple mental assent isn't enough. Everyone wants good – the question is whether we want the God from which the good comes. Our lives are a long opportunity to answer the question. God gives most of us a chance to enjoy the goods while pondering the question and its terms. If we look hard enough, we can even see that the lesser goods are just signposts pointing to the greatest Good, the one thing we should really want. If we want that greatest Good, or even to still have the lesser goods that come with Him, He's opened a door to permit that to happen. But if by our lives and actions we prove that we don't want the greatest Good – well, He'll respect that decision. That will be hell.
The thing is that none of us knows exactly when the question is going to be closed. That's why it's good to meditate on hell, and to examine the kind of answer that our lives are giving to the most important question of all.
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