Our problem with this very real place, hell

Does hell really exist? Jordan B. Peterson, in a recent speech at Hillsdale College, said, “If you don’t believe in hell, then you haven’t given it enough thought!”

I remember that wonderful moment in Christopher Marlowe’s play “Doctor Faustus” where Faustus asks Mephistopheles why, since he is a devil, he is not in hell.

Mephistopheles replies,

“Why, it’s hell, and I didn’t make it either:
Do you think that I, who have seen the face of God,
And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,
Am not tormented by ten thousand hells,
By being deprived of eternal bliss?

One implication of this remark is that hell as a place is not just somewhere in the putative afterlife, but is already here on earth; maybe that’s what Jordan B. Peterson meant. But certainly we can easily see hell all around us, whether we consider the obvious – the war in Ukraine and the hell it is unleashing on its people – or on a national level, if we consider Johnny’s wedding. Depp and Amber Heard. Temporarily forget who is right or wrong; just ask how many other less famous people have such rocky marriages and relationships that are as destructive as these two? A lot, I think. It’s pure hell.

“Torment of Saint Anthony”, circa 1515-1520, by Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo. Oil on panel. Putnam Foundation, Timken Museum of Art, San Diego. (Courtesy of the Timken Museum of Art)

Hell is already on earth, but we knew that, didn’t we? Is it also in the afterlife? Indeed, is there a beyond? There is plenty of evidence to suggest that there is.

Hell in the afterlife

From the earliest times, peoples have affirmed the existence of hell. Right now I have on my desk in front of me the Penguin Classic “Poems of Heaven and Hell From Ancient Mesopotamia” (translated by NK Sandars):

“There is a house under the mountain of the world,
a road descends, the mountain covers it
And no one knows the way. It’s a house that binds the wicked with ropes
and groups them in a narrow space.
It is a house that separates the wicked from the good…”

The ancient Egyptians also certainly believed in hell. Those who fail to earn the paradise of The Field of Rushes find themselves “subjected to knives and swords and the fires of hell, often kindled by fire-breathing serpents,” as “The Oxford Essential Guide” puts it. to Egyptian Mythology”.

And, of course, once we get to the ancient Greeks, we find some of the most powerful and memorable tales of hell in the tales of Heracles, Orpheus, and Odysseus, to name a few. only three.

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Illuminated manuscript of Lucifer torturing souls in hell from the “Very rich hours of the Duke of Berry” around 1411-1416, by the Limbourg brothers. Tempera on vellum. Conde Museum, in Chantilly, France. (PD-US)

But we need not list other mythologies or religions, for as Patrick Harpur observed more generally in “A Complete Guide to the Soul”: “Even if we are not specifically religious, we can all resonate with the idea that there is a part of us that should not be sold, betrayed or lost at any cost. To be lost! Heck, even the most “compassionate” of religions, Buddhism, has a “hellish” characteristic “: what is reincarnation, but an endless cycle of punishment until one escapes the cycle through enlightenment, if ever one does, because of course one can also reincarnate into a deeper hell!

But second, a completely different stream of afterlife evidence is that of near-death experiences (NDEs), which rose to prominence in the 1970s with the work of Raymond Moody. The most compelling book on this subject that I have read is “Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into the Afterlife” by Dr. Eben Alexander, whose experience Dr. Moody himself described as “the most amazing [he] had heard about the study of this phenomenon for more than four decades. … The extraordinary circumstances of his illness and his impeccable credentials make it very difficult to formulate a banal explanation for his case.

Basically, Alexander had bacterial meningitis and appeared dead for about eight days. Of course, what he saw and how he saw it has been disputed, but the fact is that this is not a single testimony. There are hundreds and thousands of people experiencing these out-of-body moments, being technically dead and yet gaining knowledge or information that seems impossible to acquire through naturalistic means.

Indeed, The Epoch Times just published an incredible article about the NDE of Tricia Barker, whose experiences Dr. NDE.

Hell and our impudence

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‘The Harrowing of Hell’, between 1586 and 1638, by Jacob van Swanenburgh. Oil on copper. (Public domain)

Why mention, then, this aspect of mortal existence, a heaven or a hell beyond our individual deaths? Because it seems to me that the will of the West is weakening: We are all for heaven, we all want it, because we continue to believe that heaven is surely “there”. But the hell? No, that’s not compatible with a loving God, and a “loving” God wouldn’t do this and wouldn’t do that, because – what? – because we know better!

We know better than God what he would or would not do. We say it would be unfair to put babies in hell because they weren’t baptized; it would be unfair to put pagans in hell because they have not heard of Christianity; it would be unfair to condemn anyone, really, because they had reasons for doing what they were doing and it felt right to them at the time. And so we generate lists of objections to the afterlife, which are entirely rational in that they are intellectual arguments, but these arguments still ignore the ubiquitous evidence of human experience.

It’s like pretending that the Declaration of Independence can’t have happened in 1776 because we can’t produce a double-blind experiment to prove it.

And the thing is, it’s not just atheists and secularists who undermine the concept of hell, they just don’t care. But Christians themselves are getting into the act – the act of undermining not only a Christian belief, but also a belief (as I have pointed out) endemic to human societies throughout the ages: that hell exists, that hell is real.

Undermine reality

The excellent theologian, Professor Keith Ward, for example, who has written many powerful apologetics for Christianity, argues in his book “Re-Thinking Christianity” for universalism, the belief that everyone is saved and no one is not condemned.

To justify this belief, he invokes various biblical texts. These generally go in the following direction: since God is all-powerful and wills only the good, then everyone must conform to his will; ergo, no one can be guilty because who can resist their will?

But this argument is part of that process by which human reasoning – logical reasoning – again ignores or supersedes both revelation and human experience; because whatever they are, the Jewish, Christian and Muslim religions are historical religions. They are based on testimonies of what really happened.

For me personally, the most terrifying line in the Bible that unequivocally delineates the existence of hell is the almost disposable remark that Christ makes when he says of Judas Iscariot: “It would have been good for that man if he was not born” (Matthew 26. v 24). Is it better that he was not born? Does it really sound like there is no hell, even though the speaker is the Christ of love and mercy? I do not think so.

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“The Fall of the Rebel Angels”, circa 1554, by Frans Floris I. Oil on panel. Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, in Antwerp, Belgium. (Public domain)

All great traditions from time immemorial have testified to the possibility of losing one’s soul and its terrible consequences. “Consequences” is exactly the right word here, because it is the avoidance of consequences that is at the root of why the modern world is unwilling to accept this unpleasant reality or prospect. I say unpleasant but, of course, as Dorothy L. Sayers observed, “Hell is the pleasure of your own way forever.”

People who go to hell choose to do so; that’s what they want. It’s the true desire of their hearts, so it’s not like we should think of it as something terrible that a vengeful God imposes on us or on them. In a sense, we are repaying ourselves for our own sins; or as a traditional Buddhist aphorism goes: “You will not be punished for your anger.” You will be punished by your anger.

To be clear, then, if you believe in the freedom of the human will and in God, it follows that it is possible for human beings to turn away from God, eternally. Hence the logic of hell.

In fact, the concept of hell is unpopular to the exact extent that freedom of will is unpopular: today we all want to be – what? – the victims. In other words, the abolition of the concept of hell is nothing more or less than our attempt to avoid responsibility for our actions; we want to assert all our rights, of course, but our responsibilities? Their consequences? There is the modern snag. We don’t like them!

The Bible quote is from the New American Standard Version.