The Mystery and Tragedy of Hell
As much as we might prefer to deny it, hell is a reality (CCC 1034-35). But exactly what hell is like and how it is experienced is couched in imagery and mystery.
Scripture uses two very different pictures to describe hell – unquenchable fire, yet also cold darkness. Dante’s The Inferno depicts hell with various levels, with Satan at the center, frozen in ice. C.S. Lewis, in The Great Divorce, envisions a gray town where residents increasingly turn inward as they move farther apart. In Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit, where the characters are forced to spend eternity together, “hell is other people.”
Far worse than these images is the reality of hell. Furthermore, contrary to wide belief, God does not send anyone to hell. No one who might be in hell is there because God willed it. Rather, people send themselves to hell by their own choice.
To begin to grasp it all, we must start with the understanding that heaven is eternal life with God who is Love and Truth and Life itself. It is precisely because God loves humanity that hell is even possible. Love by its very nature is voluntary – to be love it must be freely given and freely received.
God wants to share his love and life with all, but because he loves us and is Love, he does not compel anyone to love him back. Rather, we each have free choice of the will and God will respect our choices. We can choose to live in God’s love, grace and truth, or we can choose not to. God will not impose his love or salvation upon anyone and this cannot be said to be unjust. God will not force anyone to be united with him in heaven if they do not indicate they want a relationship with him in this life.
This is the essence of hell – definitive self-exclusion and eternal separation from God, and thus separation from love and from truth (CCC 1033-37) – and there could be no worse fate. Yet, if we always think about ourselves and choose to live our way rather than God’s way, believing that we do not want or need him, if we choose not to genuinely love God and our neighbor and live against truth and the Holy Spirit’s voice in our conscience, which is called “sin,” we injure our relationship with God (CCC 1849-50). Ultimately, one’s actions and choices might rupture entirely that relationship with the Lord who is Life, so that they are “doomed to die” if reconciliation with God is not sought before death. God will forgive any sin no matter how grievous if the person only turn to him, but this cannot happen if forgiveness is neither contritely sought nor accepted for whatever reason.
The mystery of hell remains disturbing. We have every good reason to dread the possibility that persons created for eternal life could shape their wills in a way as to be forever apart from God. We take consolation, however, in the recognition that Jesus died on the Cross to save us from such an end if we are willing before death to open our hearts to his love, grace and truth and set aside what would separate us from him.
This is the fifth entry in a multi-part series on the Last Things.