Perhaps the most disturbing idea in Christian dogma is the notion of hell — a place of unending torment for the detestable souls who don’t qualify for a blissful eternity with God and the angels in heaven. Who are these horrible people who are condemned to agonizing, eternal punishment? Those who don’t believe in Jesus. That’s it. Merely failing to believe in Jesus means you are one of the loathsome vermin who must suffer forever, with no possibility of a respite, and not even the prospect of a welcome oblivion.
The Bible’s most famous verse is John 3:16, which in context lays out the bleak picture in Jesus’s own words:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
[John 3:16-18, NIV]
This idea is, or should be, repugnant to any decent person. Indeed, there are many Christians who deny the doctrine or seek to soften it somehow. This is difficult, though, because Jesus himself refers to hell repeatedly and in graphic terms. An example:
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where
‘the worms that eat them do not die,
and the fire is not quenched.’
Far from hoping to soften the doctrine, some Christians actually seem to delight in it. Tertullian and Thomas Aquinas wrote of the pleasure the saved would take in viewing the sufferings of the damned. Jonathan Edwards notoriously exulted in the prospect of the gruesome spectacle, writing “the sight of hell torments will exalt the happiness of the saints forever.” You can also sense the relish when he writes
The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his Wrath towards you burns like Fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the Fire; he is of purer Eyes than to bear to have you in his Sight; you are ten thousand Times so abominable in his Eyes as the most hateful venomous Serpent is in ours.
[From his sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, 1741]
Such creepy people aside, there are many Christians who are uncomfortable with the idea of hell but feel forced to accept it, given that Jesus himself mentions it again and again. C.S. Lewis wrote
There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than the doctrine of hell, if it lay in my power. But it has the support of Scripture and, especially, of our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by the Christian Church, and it has the support of reason.
[From The Problem of Pain]
In the comments, I’d like to discuss the attempts of Lewis and others to rationalize this odious aspect of Christian doctrine. I’m hoping that our Christian readers will weigh in and describe how they, personally, deal with this difficult subject.