Underwood’s Deviled Ham.  That’s how I pictured Hell as a kid.  Not the deviled ham.  It wasn’t half bad.  No, the picture on the can.  I imagined Hell as a fiery place in the bowels of the earth where a little red man donning horns and a pitch-fork—the devil as pictured on the Underwood can—ran around tormenting people. 

Greek mythology provides some vivid examples of eternal torment, or, as it’s often called, Hades—somewhat of an equivalent to Hell.  For instance, consider Prometheus.  He is chained to a rock while Zeus’s eagle pecks away at his flesh each day to get at his liver.  Each night, his liver and flesh grow back so he can be tortured all over again the next day.  Nice visual, isn’t it!  Then there’s Sisyphus.  He’s forced to push a huge stone up a hill.  Just as he’s about to push it over the edge, it rolls back down the hill where he is doomed to repeat this process forevermore. 

These images of Hell are so ridiculous it’s easy to dismiss them as pure fiction.  However, our contemporary images of Hell aren’t that much better.  Whether people mean it literally or not, we talk about Hell as if it’s a real place where bad people are punished with some kind of eternal torture.  We use phrases like, “it’s hot as Hell” or “I hope they burn in Hell”. 

This isn’t that far from my childish picture of Hell.

But this understanding is a complete caricature.  It has nothing to do with the reality Jesus describes. 

When Jesus talks about Hell, he piles up images to describe the dreadful reality of it: outer darkness, everlasting fire, a place where people will be forever wailing and gnashing their teeth in regret, Gehenna—the long-ago site of pagan child sacrifice and contemporary Jerusalem garbage dump where trash was perpetually being burned.  One reason Jesus does this is because finite words inevitably fall short when trying to describe an eternal reality—words can’t capture it.  The other reason he piles these images up is to emphasize the unspeakable horror of this state—it’s worse than our worst nightmare.

What all these piled up images point to is that Hell is, in essence, final separation from God.  Final separation from the source and summit of ALL love.

Many years ago, there was a show called The Twilight Zone.  One episode begins with a criminal running from the police.  As he flees, he is shot and dies.  In the next scene, he is standing before a rotund man in a white suit.  It’s St. Peter—played by Orson Wells—at the “pearly gate”.  Peter asks this hardened criminal what he would like.  The man is confused.  He presumed he was going to wake up in Hell, in eternal torment.  And here he is in what appears to be Heaven.

“Anything I want?”

“Yes”, Peter answers.  “Anything you want.  Name it and it’s yours.”

He asks for a large mansion.  And instantly, it appears.

Then he asks for all the fanciest sports cars he can think of.  Bingo.  They’re his.

Finally, he asks for dozens of beautiful women to hang all over him.  They too appear.

Peter asks if there’s anything else he wants.  “No!” he says incredulously.  “I have everything I’ve ever wanted!”

Peter tells him he is leaving for a while but will check back in a few weeks to see if he wants anything else.  A few weeks later, Peter returns as promised.  When he sees Peter, the man runs up to him.  In desperation, he pleads with Peter, “Get me out of here.  If this is Heaven, I want no part of it.  I’d rather be in Hell!”

To which Peter calmly replies: “Who ever said you were in Heaven?”

The man had been in Hell all along.  There was no fiery torment.  Just the complete absence of God, the complete absence of any love.  He could have anything he wanted: the finest house, the fastest cars, the most beautiful women—these women weren’t real people of course; the were just objects of his lust.

All things were at his disposal.  But there was no God, no love.  As a result, He was miserable.

As Jesus consistently teaches, this is what Hell is.  Not the stuff of mythology.  Not some fiery place in the bowls of the earth ruled by a creature in red tights and a pitch-fork.

Hell is getting exactly what you want—what you love—most. 

And this ultimately boils down to a simple choice.  As C.S. Lewis observes: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’” (C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, San Francisco, CA: Harper, 2001, p. 75)

Either we want God at the center of our reality, or we want ourselves at the center. 

Heaven is all about God at the center.  And since He is Perfect Love itself, by its very nature, Heaven is all about love; it’s all about being other-focused, just as God is. 

By nature, Hell is all about self; it’s all about me.  This excludes any genuine love, even if the thing I “want” most is another “person”—they are simply being used to fulfill some self-focused need, not a person to be cherished in their own right.  It’s impossible for love to exist in Hell. 

In the end, God gives us exactly what we want.  If not God, then we get to be our own “god”.   We get ourselves—for all eternity.

This is what Hell is.

And that should scare the Hell out of us!

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About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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