Why Believing in Hell Makes You a Demon

A belief in Hell will make you into a demon. Before I can say why, some psychology.

Death is at the top of a long list of scary things. This list doesn’t include spiders or public speaking or showing up late to take your exam in your underwear. I’m not talking about things that give us the heebie-jeebies. I’m talking about the kind of fear that threatens our ability to make meaning. The kind of existential threat which turns lifelong convictions to Jello.

We are all going to die, of course, and I can say that here without you running off screaming into the night because we are all very well psychologically insulated from this existential fear. We have beliefs, even if we’re not conscious of them, that serve as a bulwark against the pain of mortality, borrowing from Ernest Becker let’s call this bulwark your “immortality project”.

An immortality project is a psychological construct that you participate in that gives you the comforting feeling of having some ability to survive death. Your legacy. Your heroic contribution. Your guarantee of being remembered, or making an impact that will endure past your death. Many of us are realistic enough to know that there will be no statues of us in front of important looking Neo-Classical buildings, but we can still have more modest immortality projects.

Heaven is an immortality project. By many people’s understanding all you have to do in order to get into heaven is to believe the right things about Jesus. It isn’t a very demanding immortality project, but it works.

In order for an immortality project to serve its function of keeping us from experiencing existential anguish we need some sort of guarantee; a sign that our immortality is secure. Perversely this means looking around us to compare ourselves with other people and to determine who in our vicinity is doomed. So we draw up lists of criteria for achieving immortality and measure ourselves and others against this mental list. In the case of heaven criteria may include:

  • accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior
  • believing correct doctrine
  • being a good person
  • being baptized
  • avoiding any unforgivable or mortal sins
  • being elect

From looking at this list and seeing examples of people who don’t meet the criteria we believe are necessary we comfort ourselves that we, unlike them, are going to move on to everlasting life. Our immortality assured we can live our lives like normal people without worrying about our own impending death. Of course, most of this process was unconscious. I doubt many of you ever actually said to yourselves – ah, good my immortality is assured.

Immortality has a dark side though. The process of denying death is what we call “repression” and like any repressed thought it tends to surface in situations of anxiety. Lots of things can cause this anxiety – noticing that someone we love doesn’t meet our criteria for immortality, becoming aware that we ourselves have slipped from our position of security, realizing that someone we dislike has a better claim to immortality than we do etc…

When repressed thoughts start to surface we either push harder to keep them down, or we “project”. Projection is taking the repressed fear and externalizing it, placing it onto another person or group in order to remove the anxiety. So when our immortality is threatened we tend to react defensively by projecting our fear onto someone else. I’m going to Heaven. That person over there is going to, you guessed it, Hell.

Mentally assigning other people to Hell becomes a necessary part of our defenses against existential doubt. The more anxiety creeps into our lives the more necessary it is that we are sure other people are burning in Hell so that we can experience the comfort of believing we are going to Heaven. Our immortality requires that others suffer.

Enough amateur psychology.

A guy named Jesus had this to say about the connection between our internal world of thoughts and our external actions, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder,and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sisterwill be subject to judgment… You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

The implication is that our thoughts are not so innocent. Following this logic: if you have wished for anyone to go to Hell, you are guilty of torturing them for an eternity.

Of course we protest that this is too extreme, that Jesus is engaged in a rhetorical tactic here to demonstrate to his audience that there is no position of moral purity and we are all in need of grace. We’re right to make a distinction between thought and action. I would rather you think horrible things of me than that you actually enact them on my person. Action is more determinative of who we are than what we think. Christians should really be called “practitioners” and not “believers”.

So let us do a little thought experiment.

Suppose we develop the ability to digitize the human mind and to create virtual environments where your mind can be stored. Suppose we begin using this technology to create a sort of afterlife for ourselves. After your physical body dies your mind can simply be placed in a virtual environment where your conscious existence can continue. At first these virtual environments are all a variation of heaven. Why not, they’re virtual?

But then… a debate arises. What about a murderer on Death Row? What about a war criminal? A traitor? A terrorist? When they die do we put their mind into a virtual environment and if so would it be fair for it to be heavenly? Or would we be party to actually creating Hell, even a virtual one?

To answer this question consider that there is a high correlation between belief in Hell and support for the Death Penalty. A significant number of people believe that when we execute a human being for their crimes we are sending them to be tortured for eternity. Consider the various ways we’ve already created Hell on earth. Consider war, poverty, and slavery. Consider Auschwitz.

The point here is not merely that we are capable of horrible things: that is established. What is important is why. Protecting our immortality project requires more and more elaborate criteria for determining insider status and more severe projections on those deemed outsiders. The more anxiety in our lives which threatens our Heaven, the more we demand proof that others are bound for Hell.  This includes manufacturing Hell if necessary.

Ultimately if you believe in Hell you are betraying the truth about yourself – that if the gavel was in your hands you would condemn certain people to eternal torture. We have a name for the beings that would engage in the torture of souls – demons.

  • Lyman Stone

    Clarifying questions:
    You argue that demons are not tortured in (your rhetorical conception of) hell, but are the torturers? Is there any reason to believe that is what most Christians believe?

    The connection between the “immortality project” and others’ state in hell is tenuous. It is naturally predicated on an “immortality project” being only psychological; for example, it assumes that, if my project is based on a legacy of fighting world hunger, all that matters is that I feel good about my legacy, and that my actual fight against hunger is insignificant. If we assume that “immortality projects” have some relationship to “reality,” that is, reality as it exists prior to our psychological conceptions of it, then the argument collapses: because it means we might not be able to fully choose our “immortality projects,” and the standards by which we measure our success might not be standards we can edit or reject (not only on a psychological level that doing so would undermine our sense of self, but on an existential level where doing so would amount to denying gravity, or bacterial infections).

    If this is the case, that “immortality projects” have some connection to reality rather than being only stories we tell ourselves, then the argument falls apart.

    This being the case, we then recognize that your argument is predicated on the belief that immortality projects with some referent “hell” do not refer to a real thing. Maybe I’m stating the obvious here, but it’s important.

    Obviously, if you enter into a conversation believing that there is no “hell” as a real thing, then any reference to it can only reveal a person’s psychological state. But this is simply begging the question. You assumed the answer from the beginning by entering into the question limiting what hell could be to an exclusively psychological concept. That’s unfair argumentation from the get-go. If you want to have anything meaningful to say about the psychological ramifications of belief in hell, you have to be able to describe that belief as something that is at least remotely similar to how its believers conceive it.

    • aricclark

      Hey Lyman! Good to see you still lurk around here from time to time. You bring up some good points. I will try to respond.

      I can’t speak for most Christians – but every conception of Hell I’ve ever encountered (including Dante) describes Demons as celestial beings, like Angels, who do the work of torturing souls in Hell. It also matches the way they appear to function in the New Testament where they possess people in order to torment them.

      You’re right that I don’t believe in Hell. There are lots of reasons not to. To pick an arbitrary number, how about 95? BUT, as Ernest Becker describes Immortality Projects in his book “The Denial of Death” it doesn’t actually matter if the project refers to a real thing for it to perform its psychological function. In other words, whether Hell is real or not, the psychological function it performs for people is serving as a mechanism of projection to mask their anxiety about death. For it to work this way you have to secretly want other people to be tortured for eternity. It’s comforting. Wanting other people to be tortured is demonic.

      Heck. If God wants, or even permits, people to suffer eternal conscious torment, God is a demon.

      I’m interested if you can describe the belief in hell in a way you think is similar to the way its believers conceive it. Since the existence of Hell is entirely unverifiable I don’t know how to treat it as anything other than a purely psychological concept. Even if it does exist, since we don’t interact with it in any way whatsoever, for our purposes it is nothing but a psychological concept.

      • Andrew Kukla

        “If God wants, or even permits, people to suffer eternal conscious torment, God is a demon.”

        thank you for that… my day is now complete. (if only) But really – loved the post, loved the wandering/conversing/musing way you unfolded it as well.

        I have, for a long time now, been intrigued about demons (and Satan) from a psychological perspective of object relations theory and splitting. Unable to handle certain aspects of the God’s personality we have to split God into “good” and “evil” versions… just as we have to take figures of the heavenly council and split them into “good” (angels) and “evil” (demons) counterparts. (This acknowledging that depending upon interpretation some concepts of demon from ancient Israel aren’t necessarily that of an evil spirit but include ambiguous, neutral, and even positive images. And the same can be said of the concept of angel which is quite notable in Daniel where angels both work for and against God’s sovereign design. This acknowledged ambiguity is decisively absent from the NT where angel and demons have taken their sides so to speak.) Okay – a conversation for a different day… but your post brought it back to the foreground of my thoughts for a moment, and for that – among much else – I am grateful.

        • aricclark

          Glad you liked it.

          Yeah, the Old Testament is really ambiguous about demons/spirits/angels. Even the New Testament depicts demons as part of the powers over whom God has authority. They are corrupted, surely, but still part of God’s original design and intentions for creation. But then, the Bible is really ambiguous about the after life and a lot of things. Hell doesn’t really exist in the Bible, for example.

          This post is really more playing off of the popular conception of Hell than any Biblical definitions.

          • Andrew Kukla

            “This post is really more playing off of the popular conception of Hell than any Biblical definitions.”

            Yes clearly… though one might (at least I would hope – I will stick to speaking for myself, but without attempting to claim uniqueness or originality) always hope for some correspondence between the two – both in the popular conception and our engagements of those conceptions.

  • Derrick

    Amateur psychology, indeed. There are so many assumptions inherent in this essay that it is hard to even find a starting place to begin unraveling this perspective. Why my “immortality project” would require anyone to go to hell is very unclear to me and probably to most people of faith. Apparently this is a huge psychological construct driven solely by my fear of death. “The kind of existential threat which turns lifelong convictions to Jello.” Yet, I have stared down death before. It is a fear I can deal with. Greater fears than death might involve an isolated life in an infirmary or someone doing harm to my children, and yet I do not have such elaborate psychological constructs for those issues. Someone trying to get me to turn a lifelong conviction on it’s head would be much more effective playing on my fear of heights by taking me sky diving than my fear of death by pointing a gun at my head.

    That said, let’s assume the rather far-fetched psychological construct as described above. How does my desire for eternal life lead me to feel justified in sentencing others to eternal torment? This is particularly tenuous when some of the people who I fear may not believe in God are close friends and family. We are to believe the cognitive dissonance is so strong that we can face allowing those closest to us to face what is presumably our greatest fear for anyone rather than tweak the system?

    Finally, there is an enormous difference between fearing that a person may be making choices with bad eternal consequences, and wishing it upon your enemies. I think there is a small nugget of truth buried in this essay. Those that wish hell on some have a “demonic” influence. Christ wants to forgive and redeem. Therefore, any one or anything in opposition to forgiveness and redemption is “anti-Christ.” However, wanting people to suffer eternal torment is SO far removed from believing in a hell that the argument breaks down entirely. It is like saying that because I believe racism still exists, is bad, and want to save people from it I am a racist. Or better yet, that Anton van Leeuwenhoek believed in bacteria, and therefore willed people to have diseases.

    • aricclark

      Hey Derrick, everyone hates when you comment on a blog and the reply is “read this book”, but I assure you, however poorly I am explaining these things that I am not just making them up. Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize winning work in psychology is foundational and a lot has been done since then in the laboratory to observe and verify aspects of his thesis.

      I encourage everyone reading this to check out Dr. Richard Beck’s series on the Slavery of Death at Experimental Theology to see a much better explanation of this theory.

      Enough with the recommendations though.

      In response to what I take as your main point – that believing in hell doesn’t mean wanting people to go there – since there is no reason to believe in Hell, no evidence of its existence at all and much evidence to the contrary, believing in Hell is a choice that meets a psychological need. I believe the most plausible explanation of this need is the one that Becker has given which implies that at some level, believing in Hell does mean privately desiring other people suffer there as proof of our own position of security. This isn’t that hard to see – we do in fact take pleasure in other people’s suffering. It reminds us how much “better” our own lives are.

      Of course, human psychology is correct and this runs up against other things going on in our minds simultaneously. We are also capable of empathy and seeing other people suffer also causes us pain, particularly if those people are close to us (family & friends). I’m not implying a world of black and white where people who believe in Hell consciously and actively go around wishing horrific torment on everyone all the time. Just that their belief system, which serves a psychological purpose of providing existential comfort, requires that some people suffer imaginary torments and this fact is a source of relief.

      • http://www.robersonblog.blogspot.com/ H Roberson

        “since there is no reason to believe in Hell, no evidence of its existence at all and much evidence to the contrary, believing in Hell is a choice that meets a psychological need.”

        For you, there is no evidence to believe in Hell. For others, its existence is axiomatic, having been taught them from an early age. It isn’t a psychological wish as such; it is simply an accepted fact (for them).

        Psychology for the most part, focuses on illness and effective treatment. It isn’t primarily about wellness or healthy functioning except in response to illness. There are exceptions of course, but psychological treatises describe sickness structures, not universal normal structures and behaviors. It is a signal misuse of psychology to extend the underlying causes of illness to psychic promptings in otherwise healthy people.

        Behavioral health exists on a continuum and we describe people as ill on either end of the spectrum. In the middle, there is a broad range of beliefs and behaviors which are completely acceptable. Whether something is maladaptive is largely dependent on its promptings more so than the thing itself. Therefore, the existence of a belief in Hell may underlie some peoples’ psychological issues (or result from them – psychology is quite reflexive in that way), the presence of that belief does not in and of itself mean that everyone who holds it is ill.

        And…while a Pulitzer prize is really cool, such a prize in psychology is less “hard” than one perhaps in physics. Impressive, yes; but hardly Gospel.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Douglas-Hagler/848645164 Douglas Hagler

          I think your mistake here, which come from not having read Becker’ book (which is a weakness with this conversation in general, it is partially rooted in a book only some have read) is that Becker is not talking about mental illness, he is talking about psychological function. There is a significant body of psychology that is not aimed solely at illness, and Becker is part of that body. He is not describing mentally ill people – he is describing people. He actually doesn’t technically fit into behavioral health at all, since the paradigm of behavioral health is to evaluate people’s behavior compared to norms and to re-integrate them into the broader society (at least that’s how I would characterize working in behavioral health when I was involved in it). Becker describes how the “immortality project”, and the many ways the anxiety around death comes out in our lives, *is* the norm.

          I also just have to note that an axiom is not evidence. When Aric says “there is no evidence of Hell”, he doesn’t mean “no one is ever taught to believe in Hell”, he just means that there is no evidence, as in physical evidence in the world that anyone can perceive, for the existence of Hell. I would also argue that if you maintain a belief from childhood in the face of no evidence for it and significant evidence against (i.e. geologists have not identified evidence of vast punishment chambers beneath our feet), you maintain that belief because if fulfills a need.

          If I tell you that I, a 32 year old, believe in Santa, I think it’s a reasonable assumption that on some level, I *need* to believe in Santa.

  • http://troogoo.wordpress.com/ Matt

    Made me think of this thought provoking episode of This American Life. http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/304/heretics I believe in hell but more of a “in this life” type of hell…like Youth Group Lock-Ins. That’s hell.

  • Nick the Nevermet

    On another forum I frequent, people often make a distinction between science and SCIENCE! Science is what is actually done by biologists, physicists, etc. SCIENCE!, however, is when one uses a thin veil of scientific authority to make overly-broad, overly-confident claims about something definite, concrete, and simple. There is a brand of internet tough guy (yes, this is usually a guy) who enjoys using SCIENCE! in his arguments, as it allows him to perform the “Hard Man Making Hard Choices” trope.

    I bring this up because Aric, your piece seems to be less about Hell than about justice. Someone who believes in Hell and supports the death penalty could read your piece and make a comment about the need for punishment, etc. However, it would be more accurate to say your piece is less about Hell and more about JUSTICE! Your concern is that Hell is the ultimate embodiment of shooting the bad guy, getting one’s just desserts, the chickens coming home to roost, etc. This worries you because, if I’m reading you correctly, this is a textbook example of the will to truth being just another form of the will to power. Your concern is that we should do away with things that give the sneering moralists theological cover for their need to say, “they had it coming.”

    If my reading is correct, then an interesting question for is must a doctrine of hell necessarily be linked in practice to a moralistic will to power? I take it you would say yes?

  • EddieLouise

    I remember being introduced to Hell doctrine in American Baptist Sunday School at age 7 or 8. It made me sick to my stomach. It is my first remembered encounter with hypocrisy. They said that God was all-knowing, all-loving and all-forgiving. Then they introduced this gigantic BUT. God was all-loving BUT if you broke the rules: eternal torment! God was all-forgiving, but not really, because: eternal torment! God was all-knowing – and he was watching you, 1 misstep: eternal torment!

    I remember crying and screaming that God was a big fat bully. The Sunday school teacher washed my mouth out with soap, muttering about blasphemy and breaking commandments.

    As I matured I learned that ASKING forgiveness was key. I could stay out of hell as long as I truly repented. This helped, but I couldn’t help thinking about the ‘what-if’ cases. What if you died right as you were committing a sin? Did you still burn in hell? What if there wasn’t time to ask forgiveness? What if you committed a sin, got hit on the head and never regained consciousness? What if you committed a sin, went crazy and couldn’t remember that you needed to repent? What about the Indians and the Amazonian tribesmen that never even knew that they needed to repent?

    It was so easy to poke holes in the argument for hell, and so difficult to hold on to the concept of a loving and powerful God who would allow hell to exist. I eventually gave up.

    I chose love. I chose to believe that hell didn’t exist – that it was just a story used by adults to get kids to behave. It was exactly the same kind of story as ‘Stranger-Danger’ – a narrative to contain amorphous fear.

  • Paul W

    My position on the matter:
    I sincerely hope that there is no such thing as Hell.
    I’m extremely uncomfortable with the idea of an ‘omniscience morality-license.’ It is very hard not to see the act of condemning people to eternal torment and agony as an act of wickedness. There’s some wiggle-room in those statements, I admit, but less in the following: a monstrous God of Power is not the god I worship, and not the God revealed in Jesus. The moral response to the cruel God of Power, the Almighty destroyer, is opposition. Puddleglum’s response to the Emerald Witch actually works better as a response to the Almighty destroyer than it does as a response to Atheism: “I am on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.”

  • http://www.robersonblog.blogspot.com/ H. Roberson

    Well, no, actually. The conclusion is incorrect and the psychology a bit suspect. The acceptance of the existence of a prison does not mean that I would send anyone there. it is simply an acknowledgement that they exist. The same is true with Hell. Part of the confusion may be a misunderstanding of Hell as primarily a place of punishment rather than simply a chosen separation from God. People are not “sent there” as much as they “end up there.” My personal piety has nothing to do with it.

    A corollary is that, correctly understood, my piety is not essentially designed to keep me from Hell. It is rather, the result of my being convinced that Spirit life is the best life for people. Life is not about avoiding Hell, but becoming who you were made to be.

    • aricclark

      Hello friend, thanks for joining the conversation.

      I can accept the existence of a prison without bearing responsibility for it because it is observable. The idea of a metaphysical realm of never-ending post-mortem conscious torment is not observable in any way. There is nothing for me to accept. Rather I have to actively convince myself of it’s existence. I have to, at some level, want it to exist.

      In other words belief in hell isn’t equivalent to belief in gravity or sunlight. It is more equivalent to values statements like “I believe in the equality of people”. It is a statement that indicates what you believe the universe should be like whether or not it is like that. If someone thinks that the universe should contain Hell, I am willing to call that position demonic.

      • http://www.robersonblog.blogspot.com/ H Roberson

        But do you need to observe it, or can you take someone else’s word for it? Does being pro-prison mean that you have a secret malevolent wish that others go there? The answers are, yes to the first, and no to the second.

        We live as though love – as love, and compassion – as compassion, exist but we cannot touch them or measure them. We believe that God exists and are presented by the same problems. Now, there are a number of physicists who posit that all of your beliefs and behaviors are essentially hardwired into you from – well, essentially the beginning of existence. So, for them, love and compassion, as volitional choices are invalid concepts. Not only can you not measure them directly, but whatever you’re doing, you must do.

        The requirement that something be measurable and touchable in the first person, in order to be accepted as true absent any psychological wish, is an artifact of the Modern mind, and is insufficient as a basis for acceptance of the object.

        The presumed fact that some people who believe in Hell have malevolent wishes may well be true. It is however a non sequitor to leap to the conclusion that all people who believe in Hell harbor such wishes, and this is where your premise and appeal to psychology fails.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Douglas-Hagler/848645164 Douglas Hagler

          I disagree – if a person is pro-prison, I think it is self-evident that they therefore have a wish that at least some people go there. No one is pro-prison and then wants the prison to be empty – that doesn’t make any sense, and entirely defeats the (supposed) purpose of the prison. Similarly, no one is pro-Hell and does not wish at least some beings end up there.

          I also think you’re making another error. There is far more evidence for love, compassion, and all sorts of other non-physical things than there is for Hell. That is a false comparison, in my view. A better comparison is the Easter Bunny, and we don’t need to refer to the determinism proposed by some physicists (as well as biologists, chemists, not to mention evolutionary psychologists) in order to conclude that it is reasonable not to believe in the Easter Bunny. We just need to point to the utter lack of evidence of any kind of Easter Bunny. I mean, at least love and compassion are composed of cascades of hormones and neurochemicals, even if you’re a determinist and think the story ends there.

          You’re correct, of course, that things we have not experienced in the first person can reasonably be assumed to exist – like North Dakota, in my case. Hell is distinct in that it lacks even the evidence we have for love and compassion, much less North Dakota. Hell is like the Easter Bunny – and I maintain it is reasonable to assume that if someone believes in the Easter Bunny, they have some motive for doing so, ranging from a child’s motive: my parents told me about the Easter Bunny (Hell) to a psychological one: I want things from the Easter Bunny (or I want there to be a Hell where conscious beings are tortured forever) or maybe a cultural one: I must say I believe in the Easter Bunny (Hell) or else my family and community will shun me (in my opinion this is probably the most common reason).

          I agree that it is very unlikely that every person who believes in Hell harbors deep malevolent wishes. While the title of the piece implies that I suppose, I don’t think that is a position that is being espoused. Rather, this: “Ultimately if you believe in Hell you are betraying the truth about yourself – that if the gavel was in your hands you would condemn certain people to eternal torture. We have a name for the beings that would engage in the torture of souls – demons.” As I said at the start – no one is pro-prison who doesn’t want at least some people to end up in prison. I’m not sure what the point of Hell could possibly be if it is quiet and empty for all eternity.

          I’d say that the strong language here is warranted rhetorically, even though obviously Aric can’t claim to know that EVERY person who believes in Hell necessarily does so for malevolent wishes. I think it’s worth considering, and it’s too easy to just dismiss it out of hand because it doesn’t hold up as a formal logic proof.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Douglas-Hagler/848645164 Douglas Hagler

      I think that the belief in an imaginary prison, for which there is no evidence, is indicative of what a person wants. That’s where Hell is distinct from a prison, in my view. You can go view the prison, talk to prisoner and guards, and be entirely convinced it exists. In contrast, if no one convinces you that Hell exists, despite there being no evidence for it in the world, you’d never know it was there. People have to come up with Hell and then convince others that it is there.

      For another example of something translated as “Hell” in English-language Bibles: Tartarus. There is no Tartarus, but the Greeks believed in Tartarus because it supported their mythology, the idea of the gods rising up to slay or imprison the titans. We don’t believe in titans anymore, though, so there’s no reason to believe in Tartarus. If someone comes up to me believing strongly in Tartarus, I can safely assume that is because Tartarus functions for them in some way. There is no more evidence for Hell than there is for Tartarus, so if someone believes strongly in Hell, I think I can assume it function for them, even if only in the fact that they belong to a community that teaches a belief in Hell and they don’t want to be shunned.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1176355049 Scot Miller

    I’m fairly confident that hell does not exist as a place of eternal and inescapable torment. I find the justice argument against an eternal hell too powerful: why should even the most horrible, evil, vile person who ever existed be punished infinitely and eternally for finite and temporal sins? Just doesn’t make sense.

    By the same token, I have my doubts about self-conscious immortality (and heaven, too). I think the idea of an ontological soul-stuff is utter fiction. No “ghost in the machine” for me. We encounter heaven and hell right here, right now, and when we die, it’s all over. (Of course, I’ll be pleasantly surprised if I discover a pleasant postmortem existence. I’m just not counting on it.)

    But I’ll always remember what my systematic theology professor say about the afterlife. He was pretty sure hell wasn’t a place of eternal punishment, but he could imagine that most of us deserve to go to hell for a day or two… some of us a few more days than others…..

  • Patrick Clough

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post. In trying to envision what sort of Hell would be allowed to exist by an omnibenevolent God, I have rooted around and looked at a variety of material including a number of accounts of near-death experiences. The aggregate of that experience has left me with the following thoughts.

    Reunion with God at the end of one’s earthly journey is often described as the most joyous, blissful, and uplifting experience the likes of which cannot be experienced here on earth. Therefore, one could argue that the worst Hell imaginable would be to remain forever separated from that redeeming love and wholeness. It’s hard to even grasp what that would feel like, but it’s safe to assume that the pain would be deeper than being rejected by the one person in the world you are most madly in love with, being abandoned by parents who you believed loved you dearly, or having your own child taken from you. All of these are experiences of loss and removal from love, but they wouldn’t hold a candle to being separated from perfect Love.

    At any rate, I don’t suppose I have much of substance to fall back on aside from my experience of God in my life and my understanding of Jesus’ message as shown through his own life, but I can certainly envision a Hell where God regretfully allows us to remain forever distanced by our own sin, or possibly by an unrepentant attitude towards our own sin. I’m not entirely sure if the sin itself is as grievous as the attitudes and rationalization that we use to justify our sin while condemning others. In a state like that, you don’t need any demons to do the work. I wonder if that’s too far-fetched?

    • aricclark

      Patrick, I don’t think it’s too far-fetched. Indeed it is a conception of Hell I’ve heard others offer too. In my mind it comes close to annihilationism and the question that lingers in my mind is why does God eternally sustain the suffering existence of the people who choose separation? That seems sadistic to me. Why not allow them to die? Scripture offers a lot of support for annihilationism – see our #95tweets for some examples.

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