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Does Hell Exist?

by Dr. Anthony Antolini


            Jack Carpenter and I had very different concepts of Hell presented to us as we grew up. Jack’s was the traditional “fire and brimstone” depiction of what would happen to sinners when they die. That was in a Congregational church. If you want more details, ask Jack about it. I grew up in the Episcopal Church. It was what they used to call “low church” for its lack of elaborate ritual. The Rector, the Rev. John A. Bell, was a famous preacher and had been considered for Bishop of the Diocese of New York. His sermons fascinated me. He made the Bible come alive in his preaching. But I didn’t feel uncomfortable with thoughts of being sent to Hell if I was a bad boy.

            At my church, Hell did come up in the Apostles’ Creed with the sentence “He descended to Hell and on the third day ascended into heaven.” As a youngster I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about what that might have been like for Jesus. I was glad he got out. That was about it. Later on, I learned that this sentence has caused no little controversy among theologians. Historically, we are told that the Apostles’ Creed wasn’t actually written by the apostles but was an early attempt to summarize their teachings. The Creed was probably formulated in the third century – long after the deaths of the apostles. Later versions of this creed changed the sentence to “He descended to the dead.” This made more sense to me as a young person but I saw the theology “in a mirror darkly.”

            If we read the Bible narrative about Jesus on the cross, we learn that Jesus says, “It is finished.” This seems to indicate that his earthly suffering on the cross is over. Why then would he go to Hell and experience further agony? Traditional Christian teaching answers this question by saying that his descent to Hell was to liberate those Old Testament saints who had been imprisoned there since the world began. “Loose the souls long prisoned, bound with Satan’s chain; / all that now is fallen raise to life again…” (Hymn #179, stanza 6).

            On the 17th of February Deacon Robert Laite, Jr., preached a sermon that had reference to the story in Luke 16 about the Rich Man and Lazarus: “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.  At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hell, he was in torment. He looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received many good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.’”

            This wasn’t “fire and brimstone” but it was definitely a depiction of Hell that we’d rather not spend a lot of time imagining. It certainly raises the question as to whether Hell does exist and, if so, do we 21st-century Christians think about it the same way our forebears did?

            The January 21st issue of the New Yorker carried a fascinating review on page 60 by Vinson Cunningham entitled “The Bad Place.” It was subtitled “How the idea of Hell has shaped the way we think.” The book being reviewed is The Penguin Book of Hell, edited by Scott G. Bruce. I have not read this book, nor do I own it, but I heartily recommend Cunningham’s brilliant review of it. The rest of this column is a mash-up of Cunningham’s review that focuses our attention on how Hell as understood in our Western post-modern culture. At the end I add a conclusion on the subject from the theologian Richard Rohr (thanks to Jack Carpenter).

            I think it’s safe to say that as we become adults we, as Americans, don’t spend a lot of time worrying about going to Hell. In The Penguin Book of Hell this place is called “the punitive afterlife.” It seems as though our belief has shifted nowadays and that many of us can attest to the experience that Hell isn’t an afterlife but something we can experience here on earth. Cunningham states,“As a metaphor for global warming, hellfire is almost too on the nose.” Those who struggle with addiction can describe what Hell is like. Those who are afflicted with mental illnesses live in Hell all the time. The afterlife is irrelevant to their suffering.

            Cunningham writes, “The afterlife is an old room in the house of the human imagination, and the ancients loved to offer us a tour. Homer’s Odysseus sails through the underworld looking for a way back home to Ithaca. The Odyssey presents a different geography when compared to the Bible. The underworld is, according to Bruce in the Penguin Book of Hell, ‘…not deep beneath the earth, but on a dark and distant shore.’ In that Greek Hades we meet characters like Sisyphus, who can’t get his boulder to keep to the high ground. Tantalus stands in a pool of water that flees when he stoops to drink, and he takes shade under trees whose fruits disappear when he tries to take a bite. “The Hades drawn by Homer, and later, by Virgil, in the Aeneid, is not quite Hell as understood in the post-medieval Christian tradition, but it is one of its ancestors…”    

            In the Hebrew Bible we read about Gehenna – where the kings of Judah were said to sacrifice children by fire. And Sheol is the place of darkness awaiting all of us. Cunningham comments, “From antiquity forward, our stories about Hell often feature some prematurely damned hero – Orpheus or Aeneas, the three Hebrew boys in the furnace or Jesus during his three days dead, the innocent prisoner or the untried detainee – passing though the state of hopelessness, then coming back, blinking, into the light. There’s something practical about this from a storytelling perspective: how better to draw readers or listeners into a godforsaken realm than through the eyes of someone just like them – lost, maybe, but not yet totally toast? (A recent application, and, possibly, a subversion of this template is the sitcom ‘The Good Place,’ which follows four very flawed individuals…as they tour a false Heaven, and then the entire cosmos, in a widening rebellion against an overly stringent afterlife.”

            Dante’s Inferno, written in the fourteenth century, begins with the narrator “midway upon the journey of our life,” having wandered from the life of God and into a “forest dark.” The forest is full of wild animals and fears set loose. The story leads the wanderer to Virgil, who acts as his guide through the ordeal, and whose Aeneid is a kind of pagan forerunner to the Inferno. Eventually, Dante’s wanderings lead him out of the dark forest but not before he looks into the eyes of the Devil, who is trapped beneath a layer of ice. This is the deepest circle of Hell. The Devil has multiple mouths. In one of them is Judas, Jesus’s betrayer. In the others are Cassius and Brutus, who worked together to kill Caesar. If Hell is eternal fire how odd that the Devil is trapped beneath a layer of ice!

            These narratives remind Cunningham of the writings of the Catholic activist and writer Dorothy Day. In her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, she recounts an episode from her pre-conversion youth: she participated in a protest, in front of the White House, against the poor treatment of imprisoned suffragettes. She and other protesters were arrested. They resolved to go on a hunger strike until they were released and their demands met.  “After six days, exhausted and increasingly hopeless, Day slipped out of consciousness and into a protracted reverie of worldwide despair. Her mind shuttled away from her vacant stomach and visited every other despairing incarcerated soul…Day doesn’t explicitly associate this meditation with Hell, but her newly deepened association with the poor, and with other people on the periphery of society, has the effect of Dante’s journey through the Inferno: it sets her on the path toward the light. The vision is also, perhaps more harrowingly, characteristic of how the idea of Hell has shaped perceptions of our own time. Torturous places such as the Gulag, the gas chamber, death row, and the detainment site are often comprehended, and depicted, as new iterations of perdition.”

            The Roman Catholic Church has a long history of depictions of Hell as the place where sinners go. And it has been assailed as a way of maintaining control over the flock. Recently, Pope Francis attempted to lighten this load when he had an interview with the ninety-four-year-old atheist Italian journalist, Eugenio Scalfari. According to Scalfari, the Pope claimed that Hell doesn’t exist but sinners are simply “annihilated” instead of burning in fire forever. Later, the Vatican denied that the Pope had said any such thing but Cunningham states, “…it didn’t seem entirely out of character. The great theme of Francis’s pontificate is his emphasis on mercy over judgment. More to the point, he has already made it his business to clarify that Hell, properly understood, is less a place than a…state of remoteness from the love of God.” Here Cunningham observes that the Pope echoes C.S. Lewis, who wrote that “The doors of hell are locked on the inside.”

            The big question surrounding all this is: If Hell does exist, who decides which people are sent there? As Cunningham cleverly notes, “Of course, as in everything Greek and Roman, there’s the unanswered question of agency: just who has done the sorting, and how do we know that this is judge has been just?” The Hebrew Bible is filled with references to God as Judge. Read the Psalms! They are filled with messages that the wicked will be punished and get their just desserts. Christianity, on the other hand, presents a more complicated concept. Here I turn to a column by Richard Rohr, with thanks to Jack Carpenter for providing it for this column.

            Rohr’s daily meditation is entitled “Jesus on the Cross” with the subtitle “An Alternative Story.” It was published on- line on the 4th of February 2019. Rather than try to summarize or rephrase Rohr’s essay I shall quote briefly from it here.

            The theory of substitutionary atonement has inoculated us against the true effects of the Gospel, causing us to largely “thank” Jesus instead of honestly imitating him. At its worst, it has led us to see God as a cold, brutal figure who demands acts of violence before God can love creation. There is no doubt that the Bible—both Old and New Testaments—is filled with metaphors of sacrifice, ransom, atonement, paying the price, opening the gates, et cetera. These are common temple metaphors that would have made sense to Jewish audiences at the time they were written. But they all imply that God is not inherently on our side.

            Anthropologically speaking, these words and assumptions reflect a magical or what I call “transactional” way of thinking. By that I mean that if we just believe the right thing, say the right prayer, or practice the right ritual, things will go right for us in the divine courtroom. In my experience, this way of thinking loses its power as people and cultures grow up and seek actual changes in their minds and hearts. Then, transformational thinking tends to supplant transactional thinking…

              As long as we employ any retributive notion of God’s offended justice (required punishment for wrongdoing), we trade our distinctive Christian message for the cold, hard justice that has prevailed in many cultures throughout history. We offer no redemptive alternative, but actually sanctify the very “powers and principalities” that Paul says unduly control the world (Ephesians 3:9-10; 6:12). We stay inside the small “myth of redemptive violence”—which might just be the dominant story line of history. I think the punishment model is buried deep in most peoples’ brain stem.

            It’s time for Christianity to rediscover the real biblical theme of restorative justice, which focuses on rehabilitation, healing, and reconciliation, not punishment. (Read Ezekiel 16, especially the revelatory verses 53-63, for a mind-blowing example of this.)… Jesus represents the real and deeper level of teaching of the Hebrew Prophets. Jesus never punished anybody! Yes, he challenged people, but always for the sake of insight, healing, and restoration of people and situations to their divine origin and source. Once a person recognizes that Jesus’ mission (obvious in all four Gospels) was to heal people, not punish them, the dominant theories of retributive justice begin to lose their appeal and authority.

            He closed the yawning gates of hell, / the bars from heaven’s high portals fell: / Let hymns of praise his triumphs tell! Alleluia! (Hymn #208, stanza 4).







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