What Christians get wrong about hell
In a recent column, I explored some obstacles to the embrace of religious faith among young people today, paying special attention to the gulf between the often simplistic way that traditional churches talk about God and the pluralistic complexity of modern life.
Here's another obstacle: The overly literalistic character of so much of American piety.
My favorite example is the way that many American Christians think and talk about hell.
Jumping off from a handful of Gospel passages in which Jesus Christ speaks about "eternal punishment" for sinners in the afterlife, these believers conjure visions of a cosmic torture chamber in which those who reject God or commit grave sins without repentance are subjected to endless torment as punishment for their transgressions. It is a ghastly analogue to equally crude and comical visions of heaven as a place where the righteous are rewarded with angels' wings and an eternity of harp lessons.
This is very bad theology — because it takes off from a deeply confused, though very commonly held, view of punishment.
Plato's Socrates has given us the most cogent critique of this common view — and some of the greatest Christian theologians have shown that they understand and agree with it.
According to Socrates, most people assume that when a person does something bad, he deserves retributive punishment in the form of inflicted suffering. "Hell" as it is depicted in the popular imagination is modeled on this view: It is where evildoers are sent to suffer punishment, deservedly, for their sins.
But Socrates implies that this view makes no sense. Doing the morally right thing must be good, intrinsically, for the moral person himself. (Otherwise, in what sense would it be good?) But that means that the opposite must be true as well: The person who fails to do the morally right thing suffers intrinsically by virtue of missing out on the good that comes from doing the right thing.
The implications of this position for how we think of punishment are quite radical. It implies, first, that people undergo punishment for their moral transgressions all on their own, without any additional infliction of suffering. The immoral person foolishly thinks she will benefit from her immoral deed. But she is mistaken and suffers from having cut herself off from the good.
As for those immoral people who don't sense any suffering or loss from having committed an immoral, sinful act, their proper punishment should be education in the error of their ways. They must be made to see their mistake. Once they do, they will begin to experience the pain that follows from the realization that they have denied themselves what is truly good.
All of this follows of necessity from the logic of morality itself. What makes no moral sense at all is the popular view of punishment embodied in the vision of hell as a place for the infliction of external torments. To say that an immoral person deserves to suffer for his sins is like insisting that a man with cancer deserves to have his legs broken. It's a prescription of additional suffering for someone who's already suffering.
Why is it nonetheless so common for people to think about punishment in this way? The Socratic view is that it flows from our own doubts about the goodness of morality. Part of us worries or suspects that the perpetrator of an immoral deed who isn't caught and made to suffer won't actually suffer anything at all. We fear she will have gotten away with her deed, as we say, scot-free. Which means that part of us doubts the intrinsic goodness of morality.
But this doubt — along with the accompanying indignation that leads us to want to strike out and inflict pain on someone who has committed an evil deed — is a sign of our own alienation from what is right. In Christian terms, it is a sign of our own sin.
No human penal system can bring itself into complete, or even substantial, conformity with what the Socratic critique of retribution implies. It would be nice to transform all punishment into educative rehabilitation. But we don't have the slightest idea of how to accomplish it. And without that knowledge, we're forced to fall back on using punishment, instead, for deterrence and the incarceration of people who threaten the public peace.
But with God, all things are possible. Including the realization of what divine justice requires and demands.
Which is why the most theologically cogent view of hell found in classical Christianity maintains that it is the state of mind (or soul) of someone who is alienated from God. Living a life that is out of harmony with God is painful, and to die and be confronted so decisively with the error of your ways — to be made to see that you made a wreck of your life by separating yourself from God, and to have to learn to shatter your pride by reforming yourself in his divine presence — is, one imagines, excruciating. But it is intrinsically painful, not externally imposed by torturers in some fire-and-brimstone-filled dungeon.
Or in the words of theologian David Bentley Hart, "What we call hell is nothing but the rage and remorse of the soul that will not yield itself to love." In refusing to "open itself to the mercy and glory of God, the wrathful soul experiences the transfiguring and deifying fire of love not as bliss but as chastisement and despair."
This is what hell must be if God is truly good.
I, for one, find this far more plausible than the popular vision of hell as a torture chamber run by sadistic demons. And I suspect that at least some young religious skeptics might, too, if only committed Christians would rise to the challenge of making the case.