What is Hell?

A question from a man up late one night wondering:

It seems that if one can know something he can also from that, arrive at its opposite – what it is not. If we can not know Heaven, can we know Hell? Divine Revelation gives a nice lot of imagery: Fire, darkness, etc. and if the greatest joy of Heaven is of the soul in the Beatific Vision, the primary suffering in Hell would be the deprivation of It. But we don’t know what ‘It’ is.

Why I am wondering what Hell is like, I do not know. It is known that if I knew the smallest bit, I would wish that I didn’t, and also I am left confused about the fact that people do indeed choose to be there.

On a somewhat smaller scale, I have chosen against good sense, to be up far past a relatively decent hour. Similar problem, smaller matter?

My response:

Can an abused child imagine what a loving father would be like? The opposite seems true. Can the hopelessly ignorant imagine what intellectual fulfillment would be? My experience suggests not. In general, it seems that the experience of deprivation does not require but may even exclude an understanding of what has been lost.

But what is lost in Hell? Can we who are neither in Hell nor in Heaven express either? I think we can say this much: Heaven is not only fullness but also deep rootedness, a participation in the solidity, the eternity, of God. And it is arrival, completion, “THE END”, “Happily ever after”; Heaven is that rapturous moment when you have just finished the book but you have not yet grown dull and put it down.

By contrast, Hell must be rootlessness, chaos, insubstantiality, fragmentation. And despite its never-endingness, it is not an arrival but the denial of arrival, the opposite of eternal because it is without end, without “THE END”; it is reading the story and reading the story and reading the story and the story never ends and the story has no meaning and the story has no shape and the story is not even a story it is just one damn thing after another….

But that is not all of Hell. In our day we are too eager to dismiss the notion that God punishes, and so we gloss too quickly over the intense language of Scripture about fire, torment, and the “winepress of the wrath of God.” Hell is not only deprivation. Those in Hell may not even know to express its essential suffering, but if they have done wrong then they know keenly that they have done wrong, and they know all too well what has come of it. Perhaps this is emphasized in Scripture because it is easier to grasp:


Does anyone choose Hell? I don’t think so, not for what it is. Instead, people choose anything other than God, and that is their choice of Hell. They don’t choose pain, and they don’t choose not-God, because no one chooses a negative. There is always some drug or prostitute or ecstasy they choose over God’s weirdly thorny path (and why should the path to the Good Itself be narrow and thorny—how credible is that?). Hell is not getting what they chose—don’t believe that lie. What they chose was somehow good, but the only path to real possession of what they loved was somehow through the death of that good (and resurrection, but this is so thin and rarified and difficult to make out).

And you chose to stay up. What did you choose? Do you crave eternal wakefulness? Or is it the blessed solitude of the eleventh hour, when your rambunctious thoughts are just sleepy enough to stay still but not so sleepy as to vanish? Look closely, and you will find that you fled pain and chaos to choose solidity and arrival.

Without having been to Hell, this is the best I can do; never having seen Heaven almost disqualifies me from writing, and yet makes it wonderfully more probable that I will write.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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