For forty years I’ve made my living as a structural designer of packaging, displays and paperboard novelties. Yesterday I explained to my workmate Nathan how I’d lost my former zeal to make clever and beautiful design innovations: “It doesn’t feel important to me anymore. What does feel important is, I don’t want anybody I know, or know about, to go to hell.”
I was astonished by the simple clarity of my own words. I’d just named something I’d long been carrying in my heart. I’d just needed an occasion, and someone I felt safe saying it to. Nathan, a Pentecostal, felt safe to me; Ricky, my frequent companion on the bus to work, a Shiite Muslim, would also have felt safe. Sadly, I reflected that most of the Friends I worship with each Sunday would not have felt safe to speak of hell to. Those who didn’t simply turn away or quickly change the subject might have said, “I don’t believe in a punishing God,” or, “I believe that God saves everybody.”
Well, Friends, I don’t believe in a punishing God, either; and I, too, believe that God saves everybody. But God seems to have allowed a world in which workmen fall forty-four floors to their death when a gust of wind overturns their scaffold, mothers see their children killed by enemy weapons, and folks of all types go mad from shame, terror or depression. So our Creator does allow us to endure terrible experiences; convince me, then, that God couldn’t have allowed a hell, too! Granted, it may be one we condemn ourselves to by our own choice, and that God, who is Love, damns no one; for such was the teaching of Jesus Himself in John 3:19-20 (KJV):
And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.
But if there is a hell, is there any sort of exit from it, short of the complete severing of spirit from soul so that spirit, life and consciousness may return to their Divine Origin unencumbered? And how is any hell – including the short-lived one experienced by the workman falling from the scaffold – compatible with the infinite goodness of God? I, who have lived through enough of the little hells of this world to care greatly about the answer, look forward to receiving, one day, a completely satisfactory explanation from my Lord; and in the mean time I have the option of praying, with His apostles, “increase our faith” (Luke 17:5). But for now I remain uneasy, knowing myself and just about everyone I know to be full of sinful inclinations and highly temptation-prone. I’ve received inward assurances of my own salvation, yet the chief apostle himself warns me that the righteous are “scarcely” saved (1 Peter 4:18).
The teaching that all damnation is self-damnation is well illustrated in a short dialogue, Of Heaven and Hell, by the German mystic Jakob Boehme (1575-1624) (available in William Law’s translation at http://www.iinet.com/~passtheword/DIALOGS-FROM-THE-PAST/heaven.htm). It begins:
The Scholar asked his Master, saying;
Whither goeth the Soul when the Body dieth?
His master answered him;
There is no Necessity for it to go any whither.
Boehme’s point is that when the physical world falls away from our consciousness at death, we are left alone with the abiding inclination of our own will; and if this has been selfish, deceitful and cruel, our afterlife experience must be one of a “self-tormenting Abomination” who dares not even ask for divine mercy because, in its condition, the soul cannot conceive of God as anything but fearsome and wrathful:
The godly Soul, you see, is in the Hand of Christ, that is in Heaven…. But the ungodly Soul is not willing in this Lifetime to come into the Divine Resignation of its Will, or to enter into the Will of God; but goeth on still in its own Lust and Desire, in Vanity and Falsehood, and so entereth into the Will of the Devil. It receiveth thereupon into itself nothing but Wickedness; nothing but Lying, Pride, Covetousness, Envy, and Wrath; and thereinto it giveth up its Will and whole Desire. This is the Vanity of the Will; and this same Vanity or vain Shadow must also in like Manner be manifested in the Soul, which hath yielded up itself to be its Servant….
…Now when the Body is parted from this Soul, then beginneth the Eternal Melancholy and Despair; because it now findeth that it is become altogether Vanity… and a distracting Fury, and a self-tormenting Abomination. Now it perceiveth itself disappointed of every Thing which it had before fancied, and blind, and naked, and wounded, and hungry, and thirsty; without the least Prospect of being ever relieved, or Obtaining so much as one Drop of Water of Eternal Life. And it feeleth itself to be a mere Devil to itself, and to be its own Vile Executioner and Tormentor; and is affrighted at its own ugly dark Form, appearing as a most hideous and monstrous Worm, and fain would flee from itself, if it could, but it cannot, being fast bound with the Chains of the Dark Nature, whereinto it had sunk itself when in the Flesh. And so not having learned nor accustomed itself to sink down into the Divine Grace, and being also strongly possessed with the Idea of God, as an Angry and Jealous God, the poor Soul is both afraid and ashamed to bring its Will into God, by which Deliverance might possibly come to it.
The Soul is afraid to do it, as Fearing to be consumed by so doing, under the Apprehension of the Deity as a mere devouring Fire. The Soul is also ashamed to do it, as being confounded at its own Nakedness and Monstrosity; and therefore would, if it were possible, hide itself from the Majesty of God, and cover its abominable Form from his most holy Eye, though by casting itself still deeper into the Darkness, wherefore then it will not enter into God; nay, it cannot enter with its false Will; yea, though it should strive to enter, yet it cannot enter into the Love, because of the Will which hath reigned in it.
Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) in Heaven and Hell (De Caelo et Ejus Mirabilibus et de inferno, ex Auditis et Visis, 1758; online in English at http://www.swedenborgdigitallibrary.org/contets/HH.html) wrote of heavenly and infernal spirits as having their vision and their love oriented in opposite directions, either toward God or toward “self and the world,” in such a way that an infernal soul can feel nothing but tormenting pain when in the presence of beings whose inclination and delight is contrary to its own; for this reason, he alleges, souls in hell stay in hell by choice:
400. But it must be understood that the delight of those who are in the loves of self and of the world, when they draw near to any heavenly society, is the delight of their lust, and thus is directly opposite to the delight of heaven…. Spirits who go from this world into the other life desire more than any thing else to get into heaven. Nearly all seek to enter, supposing that heaven consists solely in being admitted and received. Because of this desire they are brought to some society of the lowest heaven. But as soon as those who are in the love of self and of the world draw near the first threshold of that heaven they begin to be distressed and so tortured inwardly as to feel hell rather than heaven to be in them; and in consequence they cast themselves down headlong therefrom, and do not rest until they come into the hells among their like. It has also frequently occurred that such spirits have wished to know what heavenly joy is, and having heard that it is in the interiors of angels, they have wished to share in it. This therefore was granted; for whatever a spirit who is not yet in heaven or hell wishes is granted if it will benefit him. But as soon as that joy was communicated they began to be so tortured as not to know how to twist or turn because of the pain. I saw them thrust their heads down to their feet and cast themselves upon the ground, and there writhe into coils like serpents, and this in consequence of their interior agony. Such was the effect produced by heavenly delight upon those who are in the delights of the love of self and of the world; and for the reason that these loves are directly opposite to heavenly loves, and when opposite acts against opposite such pain results. And since heavenly delight enters by an inward way and flows into the contrary delight, the interiors which are in the contrary delight are twisted backwards, thus into the opposite direction, and the result is such tortures. They are opposite for the reason given above, that love to the Lord and love to the neighbor wish to share with others all that is their own, for this is their delight, while the loves of self and of the world wish to take away from others what they have, and take it to themselves; and just to the extent that they are able to do this they are in their delight. From this, too, one can see what it is that separates hell from heaven; for all that are in hell were, while they were living in the world, in the mere delights of the body and of the flesh from the love of self and of the world; while all that are in the heavens were, while they lived in the world, in the delights of the soul and spirit from love to the Lord and love to the neighbor; and as these are opposite loves, so the hells and the heavens are entirely separated, and indeed so separated that a spirit in hell does not venture even to put forth a finger from it or raise the crown of his head, for if he does this in the least he is racked with pain and tormented. This, too, I have frequently seen.
Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582) reports, in Chapter 32 of her Autobiography (1565, as translated by David Lewis), having been shown, while at prayer, “the place which the devils kept in readiness for her” in hell:
But as to what I then felt, I do not know where to begin, if I were to describe it; it is utterly inexplicable. I felt a fire in my soul. I cannot see how it is possible to describe it. My bodily sufferings were unendurable. I have undergone most painful sufferings in this life, and, as the physicians say, the greatest that can be borne, such as the contractions of my sinews when I was paralyzed… yet all these were nothing in comparison with what I felt then, especially when I saw that there would be no intermission, nor any end to them.
These sufferings were nothing in comparison with the anguish of my soul, a sense of oppression, of stifling, and of pain so keen, accompanied by so hopeless and cruel an infliction, that I know not how to speak of it. If I said that the soul is continually being torn from the body it would be nothing – for that implies the destruction of life by the hands of another; but here it is the soul that is tearing itself in pieces. I cannot describe that inward fire or that despair, surpassing all torments and all pain….
…I was placed as it were in a hole in the wall; and those walls, terrible to look on of themselves, hemmed me in on every side. I could not breathe. There was no light, but all was thick darkness. I do not understand how it is; though there was no light, yet everything that can give pain by being seen was visible.
…this vision was one of the grandest mercies of our Lord. It has been to me of the greatest service, because it has destroyed my fear of trouble and of the contradiction of the world, and because it has made me strong enough to bear up against them, and to give thanks to our Lord, who has been my Deliverer, as it now seems to me, from such fearful and everlasting pains. …
It was that vision that filled me with the very great distress which I feel at the sight of so many lost souls… and also gave me the most vehement desires for the salvation of souls; for certainly I believe that, to save even one from those overwhelming torments, I would most willingly endure many deaths….What, then, must it be to see a soul in danger of pain, the most grievous of all pains, for ever? Who can endure it? It is a thought no heart can bear without great anguish. Here we know that pain ends with life at last, and that there are limits to it; yet the sight of it moves our compassion so greatly. That other pain has no ending; and I know not how we can be calm, when we see Satan carry so many souls daily away.
This also makes me wish that, in a matter which concerns us so much, we did not rest satisfied with doing less than we can do on our part, – that we left nothing undone. May our Lord vouchsafe to give us His grace for that end!
Closer to our own time, and to our own condition as souls not yet passed to the afterlife, American Friend Joseph Hoag (1762-1846) reports in his Journal on a vision granted him in his early youth:
Feeling solitary, I laid me down in the twilight of the evening, in a ponderous muse, and whether I went to sleep or not I never knew. But so it was, I was conducted with great quickness, an immense distance down, or from all that was light or cheering, until I was brought into full view of the regions inhabited by infernal spirits. There I heard the cries and doleful lamentations of the miserable, exclaiming against conduct that brought them there. And I saw that every tongue had to confess to the truth, and to acknowledge that it was their own evil conduct which brought them there. Their agonies, and cries, were beyond description, and their habitation a sea to which I could see neither bottom nor shore, and all appeared far below where I stood. And though it did not appear to be elementary fire, yet there appeared a dark cloud of smoke perpetually rising, that spread over the earth. I turned to look, and beheld, as it spread over the earth, that darkness increased, and where the thick columns were, it almost eclipsed the light of the sun; then looking I beheld that there was a few who seemed pleased with the light of the sun, and took pains to keep in it. The countenances of these appeared bright and active; but the greater part of the people appeared disposed to choose the darkened air to breathe in, and where they got under the thick columns of smoke, which were so dark, as almost to take off the light of the sun, and quite the warming beams. These I saw in motion, (and they perceived it not), hastening down a gradual descent; they soon moved more rapidly. As they verged towards the burning sea, the columns of smoke became so thick that little was to be seen; yet they appeared merry, and would make one another so. They seemed to have neither fear nor concern, till they dropped into the burning sea, when their surprise appeared indescribable, and their anguish, no pen can paint. As I beheld, I noticed in the burning sea and in the black smoke, there appeared great motion, as though the sea boiled. The sight seemed amazing, but more, when I beheld the old dragon in his terrific hue, whose appearance, and all the motions of his tail, seemed wonderfully to promote horror and agony through the dark regions, at which sight, it seemed as if I had no strength left. Then I heard a voice from on high, saying to my guide, “see thou and take him back;” he touched me, and conducted me back. When I came to myself, my face and body were much covered with large drops of sweat, much resembling spring-water for coldness. I soon raised up and saw that daylight appeared. (pp.15-16, reprint of 1861 ed.)
Wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, observed Jesus (Matthew 7:13), and many there be which go in thereat: Why, then, is there not more widespread fear of hell? Why did the merry-makers of Joseph Hoag’s vision not notice that they were sliding downward out of control? Boehme’s young scholar, fully persuaded that the souls destined for hell already contain hell within them, asks why they do not feel it. His master answers:
They bear it about with them in their wicked Consciences, but they know it not; because the World hath put out their Eyes, and its deadly Cup hath cast them likewise into a Sleep, a most fatal Sleep. Notwithstanding which it must be owned that the Wicked do frequently feel Hell within them during the Time of this mortal Life, though they may not apprehend that it is Hell, because of the earthly Vanity which cleaveth unto them from without, and the sensible Pleasures and Amusements wherewith they are intoxicated. And moreover it is to be noted, that the outward Life in every such one hath yet the Light of the outward Nature, which ruleth in that Life; and so the Pain of Hell cannot, so long as that hath Rule, be revealed.
But when the Body dieth or breaketh away, so as the Soul cannot any longer enjoy such temporal Pleasure and Delight, nor the Light of this outward World, which is wholly thereupon extinguished as to it; then the Soul stands in a eternal Hunger and Thirst after such Vanities as it was here in Love withal, but yet can reach nothing but that false Will, which it had impressed in itself while in the Body; and wherein it had abounded to its great Loss. And now whereas it had too much of its Will in this Life, and yet was not contented therewith, it hath after this Separation by Death, as little of it; which createth in it an everlasting Thirst after that which it can henceforth never more obtain, and causeth it to be in a perpetual anxious Lust after Vanity, according to its former Impression, and in a continual Rage of Hunger after those Sorts of Wickedness and Lewdness whereinto it was immersed, while being in the Flesh.
Fain would it do more Evil still, but that it hath not either wherein or wherewith to effect the Same, left to it; and therefore it doth perform this only in itself. All is now internally transacted, as if it were outward; and so the Ungodly Soul is tormented by those Furies which are in his own Mind, and begotten upon himself by himself.
A veteran street evangelist once observed to me that he’d stopped warning people about hell because moving people by fear, in his observation, had no lasting effect on their conduct, whereas moving them by love was more likely to. And so, readers that have followed me this far, this may be the last you hear from me on this blog about the terrors of hell; I would much rather sing the praises of God’s goodness, and I expect you’d much rather hear me do that, too. But if you would know my heart, you need to know that I’ve seen enough of hell to know that it’s a fact of experience, and that I would gladly do anything the Lord permits me to do to keep you out of it.
And if the prophet’s testimony is true (Ezekiel 33:11), then that’s how God feels about it, too: As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?