Hell: Still a Burning Question?
James Breig

Be it ever so horrible, there’s no place like hell.

That charming place of everlasting fire, pitchfork-bearing demons, and constant gnashing of teeth is going out of style for many contemporary believers, party because they have focused their attention on heaven, partly because they cannot reconcile a merciful God with a damning divinity, partly because hell seems like such a childish belief, and partly because they don’t really understand what hell is supposed to be. Threat? Punishment? Myth? Reality? Just what is hell?

According to Woody Allen, it is the abode of all the people who annoy him. In his recent film,
Annie Hall, you will not see this sequence (filmed, edited, and then discarded): Allen descends in an elevator through the levels of hell. At each floor, some nemesis of his life steps on - CIA agents and fast-food waiters among them. At the final level a great blast of flame engulfs the elevator as Richard Nixon boards. That image of hell is what many Christians hold.

Hell is sort of a whimsical place, more of a joke than an eschatological reality. It is a fictional domain, created from one part Dante and one part Milton with a dash of religious art thrown in. The picture conjured up is most often the one presented in a campy movie of the ‘30s called “Dante’s Inferno” in which Spencer Tracy (playing, ironically, a carnival con man named Jimmy Carter) presides over a sideshow attraction purporting to show the agonies of the damned. In mid-movie, illustrations of Dante’s allegory come to life to show us what real gnashing of teeth is all about.

How can you take it seriously? Hell has become so trivialized that it has even lost its force as a curse. “Go to hell” is a suggestion friends share. “The hell it is” is an exclamation of surprise and incredulity. “Dammit” is something we utter when we stub our toes, not an eternal sentence.

And that’s another thing. If the church really wants us to believe in hell, then why don’t we ever pick up the paper and read something like this:

VATICAN CITY—In colorful ceremonies today, full of
traditional pageantry, Pope Paul VI solemnly declared that
Adolf Hitler has been damned to hell.
Thousands of pilgrims from Germany attended the outdoor rite as
the Pontiff announced the church’s belief that Hitler deserved
everlasting torment. His condemnation followed years of Vatican study
and research, including the counter-arguments presented by the angel’s
advocate of the church.

After all, if we can canonize people, why can’t we cast them down into the pit? Is it because the church always holds out some hope for forgiveness and mercy?

Many individual Catholics hold out that hope. Father Andrew Greeley has done a study showing that while 70 percent of Catholics believe in life after death, only on-third of them believe in hell.

What we may have here is a case of closing our eyes and hoping it will go away. Cardinal Newman recognized that symptom a century ago, writing, “I have held with a full, inward assent and belief the doctrine of eternal punishment, though I have tried by various ways to make the truth less terrible to the imagination.”

What is the truth of hell? Could someone really so order their life that they would choose to go there?

Go to Sheol

The origins of hell reach back into history. Early religions believed that the soul went somewhere, even if it only hung around the grave for all time.

Old Testament Jews called this location Sheol and whether you were good or bad didn’t make any difference. Everyone ended up in the same place.

After that the notion developed that how people lived should determine where they spent eternity. So good people stayed in Sheol—a sort of dark, cold region where nothing much went on—while the evil ones (primarily those who had sinned against the faith) were sent to Gehenna—the burning dump.

Picture an ancient Jewish mother strolling along Jerusalem’s main drag with her cranky child in hand. Finally fed up with his antics along the food market’s aisles, she points to the dump—a mound of rotting garbage, bones rats and worms—and warns him: “Keep it up and that’s where you’ll end up.” And thus, according to some scholars, hell was born.

“I’ve seen it,” says Dr. Martin Marty. “The fires we now associate with hell are symbols of Gehenna,” where fires burned constantly to keep the pile of rubbish manageable.

Add to this the notion that Gehenna’s location had once been the site of pagan child sacrifices and one understands how hell got such a bad name. It was the name Jesus used when he spoke several times in the Gospels about hell.

Christianity accepted the notion of hell as a place of fire and physical torment and thus spawned “fire-and-brimstone” sermons.

Such sermons are often referred to by people who have no idea what brimstone is much less what those sermons were like. (Fire-and-brimstone sermons are, in the scheme of homiletics, perhaps not as scary as hellfire and damnation preachings). Let us journey back to 13th century to hear one Berthold of Regensburg describe hell:

“The best man in hell has such comfort as if the whole world were on fire, even to the firmament on high and he were in the midst of that fire in his shirt or stark naked.”

Think that’s bad? That was the guy on top. “But another man may have it tenfold worse or thirtyfold or sixtyfold”—wait, he just getting started—“of an hundredfold or a thousandfold or sixty-thousandfold worse for the more his sins, the deeper his place in hell and the hotter his fire.” Whew! Can’t you just hear Berthold building up those “folds” until your pew started to get hot?

St. Cyprian announced to his readers that “ever-burning Gehenna will burn up the condemned with living flames; nor will there be…respite….Weeping will be useless and prayer ineffectual.”

Pope Gregory I announced that it was his opinion that the fire of hell was one temperature, but it tormented each occupant in different ways depending on his or her sins.

Francis de Sales pictured hell as “a city involved in darkness, burning with brimstone and stinking pitch and full of inhabitants who cannot make their escape.” Such an image may cause contemporary listeners to think first of New York City.

Thomas Merton thought that “hell is where no one has anything in common with anybody else except the fact that they all hate one another and cannot get away from one another.” Hell is a cocktail party.

The way to Hell

Along about the 17th century, great thinkers, theologians, and educators began debating what hell was paved with. They came up with everything but yellow bricks.

A gaggle of them chose “good intentions,” a saw we still use today.

Richard Baxter, a theologian with an active imagination, decided “hell is paved with infants’ skulls.”

John Chrysostom had a happier thought: “Hell is paved with priests’ skulls.”

An English physician chose “skulls of scholars” while a German educator was naturally dissatisfied with that and with craniums. “Hell,” he proclaimed, “is paved with monks’ cowls, priests’ drapery, and spike helmets.” Try to walk that road in your earth shoes.

There was a counter movement to all this pavement work. Francis de Sales wrote a letter to a friend and said simply, “Do not be troubled by the saying ‘Hell is paved with good intentions and wills’” Poet Robert Southey put things into perspective by stating flatly that “it has been more wittily than charitably said that hell is paved with good intentions; they have their place in heaven also.”

As to the location of hell, people have long held it to be in the center of the earth, an opinion geothermal proponents heartily support. No less an authority than Thomas Aquinas opined that, “concerning the inquiry whether hell is at or near the center of the earth, my opinion is that nothing should be rashly asserted. “This is so,” he went on, because Augustine “reckoned that nobody knows where hell is.” And besides, “I do not believe that man can know the position of hell.”

Not everyone in the early church, however, was wrapped up in painting a picture of hell. There was a movement afoot that questioned not only the eternity of hell but also that its punishment consisted of physical fire. Origen, in the third century, was one who mulled over these problems.

Speculation and debate continue today, but the church’s position remains firm if rooted in rather loose soil. Hell exists, says the church, because Christ will come to judge the living and the dead. The existence of hell is assumed, in other words, because of the doctrine of the last judgment.

Which doesn’t clear up much. Is hell full of worms and fire like Gehenna? Or is it something else?

What the hell

Many average Catholics will tell you that hell is here on earth; life is our punishment, they declare. It is a feeling voiced by philosopher Thomas Browne a few hundred years ago: “I feel sometimes a hell dwells within myself.” The torment of living, of existing, of working out our problems and pains, of experiencing loss and failure and humiliation—all this, these people assert, is hell and nothing could be worse.

It is a feeling that Augustine understood and rejected: “The perpetual death of the damned will go on without end and will be their common lot, regardless of what people prompted by human sentiments may conjure up about different kinds of punishment and a mitigation or interruption of their torment.”

Augustine was rejecting no only the belief that hell now, but the felling that hell after life is only a brief punishment—God’s penalty box—or a sort of divine closet to which we are banished for a while, the time limit determined by how long the punisher can stand the thought of us cowering in the gloom among he winter coat, surrounded by brooms. In this theory, God will one day drop down to hell to surprise everyone with instant parole.

That idea that hello is here is an appealing one since it would mean we are simultaneously committing our crimes and serving our sentence. But, in the final analysis, it is an untenable position.
The New Catholic Encyclopedia puts it strongly: “It is impossible to soften the severity of Jesus’ warning against unrepented sin and the sentimentalism that seeks to do so is a distortion of his teaching and that of the New Testament as a whole.”

Those who find the accusation that hey are going against Christ and the Bible to be somewhat exaggerated could, instead, ponder this argument: how can this life be hell when that would mean hell contains not only Michelangelo’s sculpture and Mozart’s music and all else of beauty but the Eucharist as well?

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen put it simply: “Some say we have our hell on this earth. We do. We can start it here but it does not finish here.”

Hell no

A more pressing problem than the location of hell is the lack of acceptance of church teaching. Catholics are not so much denying hell as just ignoring it. That is due, in part, to the leftover and no longer effective imagery of Gehenna.

“Today,” says Marin Marty, “fire and brimstone convey in no way what hell is. As time has passed, hell has lost its power to terrify.”

Are we in need, then, of new imagery, of metaphors that will present hell in modern terms and make it more real to people? Will people 2000 years from now have to explain why, in our day, it was thought that hell was an eternal subway ride or everlasting underarm odor?

Or is there something more basic behind the refusal to accept the existence of hell? Rather than an unfamiliarity with symbols, might it not be an unwillingness to accept the possibility, first, that God would ever condemn a person to eternal suffering; and second, that a human, given the choice of heaven or hell, would ever choose the nether region?

Consider the quotation from Martin Marty: “Only one in eight who believe in hell believes it is a threat to him.” In other words, there is a blindness in people that refuses to see not the imagery of hell but the application of that imagery to themselves.

An interesting theory developed from the babies-in-limbo debate. A common answer to those who wondered about unbaptized infants was to say that at the moment of death the child was given maturity and the choice of God or the devil. Everyone breathed a sigh. Of course the kid would select God. Then people began to wonder. Might not this same thing happen to each of us? Might not the final judgment be a case of everyone being given one las choice: pearly gates or fiery caverns? It is a consoling thought: no matter what I do, I’ll have one last swing of the bat.

Under such circumstances, who would choose hell? Perhaps this is why the church has no condemnation ceremonies because, in fact, there is a hell but it is unoccupied except for Lucifer and company. Is it possible?

Dr. Marty: “No. People would choose hell.”

Then how does he reconcile God’s mercy and his justice? “I don’t,” says Dr. Marty, “but He does. I picture his love as encompassing but resistable.”

Resistable because God gave humans free will, a will He does not usurp even at the last moment when the choice may not be between clouds of gold and walls of worms but the same choice one has been making for a lifetime: other or self, reaching out or holding back, love or hate.

Looked at this way, hell acquires new dimensions. It is not Gehenna and it is not a subway. It is, to use Dr. Marty’s words, “an absence from love, from God,”

Hell thus becomes the reverse of what we are being called to by God. As the
Catholic Encyclopedia states, “The possibility of hell is made intelligible by the conception of unbelief.”

What is hell like then? In the end we cannot say, no images will suffice. If eye has not seen nor ear heard what heaven is like, the same holds true for hell. It must consist of abstractions like dissatisfaction, deprivation, loss, absence. What we know of these from this life can give us a clue to what they would be like for eternity.

While pondering hell’s dimensions is a fascinating exercise, it is ultimately useless and distracts from what we should be considering. The stress of the Second Vatican Council laid it out for us. Its focus was not on failure and sin and damnation, but on triumph and virtue and salvation. Look in the index to
The Documents of Vatican II. Hell is not listed. Under love, there are 45 entries. That is where the church is asking us to go—away from hellfire and toward a new understanding of what God is asking of us.

If there is a reason for ignoring hell, therefore, it is not because of its ancient imagery or our pride or inability to comprehend God’s justice, but because our eyes should turn to what we are to do rather than what we are to avoid. “One is to love God for his own sake, not out of fear of hell or hope in heaven,” concludes Dr. Marty. “The accent should be on the character of God, not the temperature or geography of personal fate. Then all will be well.”

Place the emphasis on finding out who God is and what He wants of us; Gehenna will take care of itself. A people who care about God will not have to worry about hell.