“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Matthew 10:28
Do we believe in Hell?
Drawing on the book of Revelation, the traditional Christian understanding of hell has been of a place of eternal torment. In his novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce describes a Redemptorist preacher describing Hell to a congregation of schoolboys:
‘And this terrible fire will not afflict the bodies of the damned only from without, but each lost soul will be a hell unto itself, the boundless fire raging in its very vitals. O, how terrible is the lot of those wretched beings! The blood seethes and boils in the veins, the brains are boiling in the skull, the heart in the breast glowing and bursting, the bowels a red-hot mass of burning pulp, the tender eyes flaming like molten balls’.
Perhaps we would not use such graphic language, but I think James Joyce captures the picture many people would have in their minds when they think about hell; it was certainly the picture of hell taught at the evangelical school which I attended.
For me, it was always a troubling picture. People who had spent their entire lives as rogues but underwent a death bed conversion, would enjoy eternal bliss, while those who lived good and decent lives but had never been religious would suffer eternal torment. It seemed odd and my school teacher would respond by pointing out Revelation Chapter 20 Verse 12, “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books.”
The question still remained, though, of not wanting to see God as someone who might be eternally vindictive, did God really wish to see someone eternally suffering unimaginable torment?
Scholars like John Stott saw hell as a place where people ceased to exist, where they suffered “annihilation;” hell was the place where both body and soul are destroyed. Jesus says in today’s reading from Saint Matthew, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Hell is the place where both body and soul are extinguished, consciousness is ended, the person ceases to be.
Believing in hell in the 21st Century can seem very old fashioned, it was thought old fashioned by some in the 1940s when C.S. Lewis wrote his novel The Great Divorce. The title came not from the breakdown of any human marriage, but as a counterweight to William Blake’s 19th Century book, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Lewis, a lecturer in English at Oxford, believed very firmly in the divorce of heaven and hell. It’s a story about belief and unbelief; about holding onto your faith when it’s not fashionable to do so. It’s one of those books that makes you ask, “Well, what is it that I do believe?”
In the story, a spirit from heaven meets a ghost from hell. The spirit is a young student who carried on believing the Christian faith, even when it was not fashionable. He is considered a narrow-minded stick in the mud, but he will not let go of his beliefs. The ghost is a very polite, very charming bishop who refused to accept traditional Christian beliefs. He lives in a town full of ghosts; it is dirty, grey and it is always night time. The people are bad-tempered and miserable and there is nothing to give them hope or encouragement.
The student and the bishop find themselves on a bus that shuttles between Heaven and Hell—the bishop had always refused to believe in such things and had mocked the student for such old fashioned faith.
“Why my dear boy you were coming to believe in a literal Heaven and Hell!”
“But wasn’t I right?”
“Oh, in a spiritual sense, to be sure, I still believe in them in that way. I am still, my dear boy, looking for the Kingdom. But nothing superstitious or mythological . . .”
“Excuse me. Where do you imagine you’ve been?”
“Ah, I see. You mean that the grey town with its continual hope of morning (we must all live by hope, must we not?), with its field for indefinite progress, is, in a sense, Heaven, if only we have eyes to see it? That is a beautiful idea.”
“I didn’t mean that at all. Is it possible you don’t know where you’ve been?”
“’Now that you mention it, I don’t think we ever do give it a name. What do you call it?”
“We call it Hell.”
“There is no need to be profane, my dear boy. I may not be very orthodox, in your sense of that word, but I do feel that these matters ought to be discussed simply, and seriously, and reverently.”
Without the absolutes; without a belief in heaven, and in hell; without the old faith; the Christian Church has nothing to offer. Reduce faith to what is acceptable in a secular world, and what is there left that is worth preserving? C.S. Lewis would have urged that people be on the right side of the great divorce between heaven and hell.