So far I have argued that hell, while painful, is meant for our purification; and that it has a limit – that hell is not, in other words, eternal.
To understand the limits of hell, we need to see it from God’s perspective. This raises an important theological question: Is God present in hell? Or is hell a state of separation from God?
Christians in the West have typically seen hell in terms of separation from God. If God is in any way present in hell, it can only be in the form of His wrath against sinners, it is said. This has been argued in many different ways, but the consensus among Western Christians seems to be that God’s love is not accessible to those in hell.
Those in the East, however, have historically held a very different view. In the seventh century, St. Isaac the Syrian famously said that those in hell are “scourged with the scourge of love.”
God, in other words, is love – and only love! It’s never God’s intention to punish, only to reconcile; but to those who hate God and cling to their own selfishness, God’s love itself can seem like a punishment.
St. Isaac came to the amazing conclusion that the fire of hell and the purifying fire of the Holy Spirit are the exact same fire! It’s just experienced differently by different people.
Following St. Isaac, the Eastern Orthodox Church continues to teach this. To those who love God and seek to be with Him, the fire of the Holy Spirit is said to be a blessing; to those who don’t want to be in God’s presence, it is a torment.
If this is true in our earthly lives, it’s argued, how much more will it be true once death has taken away the veil, and we come directly into God’s presence!
But who is right? Is God present in hell, or not?
If God is truly omnipresent (which both the Western and Eastern branches of the church have always taught), then it would seem that wherever hell is, God must be there – for indeed God is everywhere (Psalm 139:7-10)! And there are many Scriptures that speak of God’s presence in hell – usually in a punitive sense (Matt 10:28, Heb 10:26-31, Rev 14:9-11, etc).
But there are also many Scriptures that describe hell as an “outer darkness” or place of separation from God (Matt 8:11-12, 22:11-14, 25:30; Rev 22:14-15); and even some places where God specifically tells the wicked to depart from His presence (Matt 7:21-23, 25:41).
So then we may well ask, does God actively punish sinners in hell, or is the pain of hell separation from God? Both perspectives pose theological problems.
The idea of God actively punishing the lost seems to contradict Jesus’ claim that God loves both the just and the unjust, and sends blessings to both (Matt 5:44-45).
The idea of hell being a separation from God, however, creates the problem of a place or state where God is not present; and how can an omnipresent God not be present?
The Eastern approach seems to be the best solution, since it focuses not so much on objective reality as subjective experience; and it’s quite true that we all experience God differently!
It would seem, then, that hell is the reality of being in God’s presence but not being aware of it.
Some of those who are suffering in hell are completely unaware of God’s love, and feel like they are all alone in an “outer darkness” (as it was for me for much of my life, before I awakened to God’s presence ).
Others may be aware of God’s presence, but experience it as a torment rather than a blessing.
But neither of these experiences are necessarily what God intends. It may in fact be the case that God is reaching out to everyone in love, but some are simply unable or unwilling to receive it – and that this, and this alone, creates the condition we call hell!
I have already argued that the purpose of hell is rehabilitation, painful though it may be. To this I feel I can safely add that wherever hell is, God is there in the midst of it, working in some incomprehensible way to redeem the lost.
But just where the hell is hell? Is it experienced here on earth, or somewhere else? And when is it experienced – before death or after?
I got a measure of clarity on this point in March 2016. In a vision I entered into eternity, and was able to see my entire life (up to this point) as if it were happening all at once. I was able to travel to any part of my life that I wanted to, and spend as much time there as I wanted.
Strangely enough, all of the times I visited seemed to be positive! All my negative memories had either been erased, or were so small in comparison to the more positive ones that they may as well have not existed.
At one point I was reliving a scene from my childhood, playing in a field of freshly cut grass. I noticed that there was a fence on the far side of the field, with some vicious-looking dogs on the other side. They barked and barked, and tried to climb over the fence, but couldn’t do it.
“Wow, I’m glad that fence is there!” I said aloud. “Those dogs look fierce.”
Those are demons, God said to me. And yes, that fence is there for a reason! Can you imagine the damage they would do if they could get into eternity?
When I awoke from the vision, the message was clear. The demonic “dogs” were precisely those kept out of the New Jerusalem (Rev 22:14-15).
It’s been clear to me ever since that hell can’t make it into eternity! The very nature of hell is that of being trapped in a specific place or time – and eternity transcends both.
This means that hell is here, on this earth. It’s in our trials here and now that the ego is destroyed; though God usually tries to reach us with less drastic measures first!
There are some who seem to make it to death with their egos still in charge. Perhaps these folks must be reincarnated a few times to have their egos burned away; or perhaps there’s something else that happens to them after death that I’m not aware of.
Either way, those who experience hell experience it here on earth, in a specific time and place – of that I’m fairly certain.
Most people tend to picture reality in terms of three dimensions (or four, if they count time as a dimension). But in reality there are many more dimensions than this; and it’s in these other dimensions that most of our spiritual life is lived.
At present, I know of at least seven dimensions. The first four are the space-time world that we all know. The fifth dimension is conscious thought, and the sixth is subconscious thought. Beyond this is the seventh dimension – the realm of pure spirit.
Most of the spiritual experiences we have happen in the sixth dimension, our subconscious mind. It’s here that we usually meet angels, demons, and so forth.
In rare moments we may find ourselves in the seventh dimension, as all thoughts cease and we experience life from “somewhere else” – no longer aware of our mind or body.
There is a great chasm, however, between the sixth and seventh dimensions; and this is what keeps the demons from entering eternity. They are trapped in hell, which is found only in our conscious and subconscious minds.
If it sounds like I’m saying that hell is “just in our heads,” that’s exactly what I’m saying! But that doesn’t mean that I, like the liberal pastor in the joke, would say that “there’s no such thing” as hell.
Hell is very real in the minds of those trapped there! It should give us a good deal of peace, however, to know that it exists only in our minds – and cannot, therefore, be eternal.
And this, it seems to me, is the biggest difference between heaven and hell. In the words of C.S. Lewis: “Hell is a state of mind. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind – is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself” (The Great Divorce, 70).
The journey to heaven, in other words, is the journey into what is Real – what has always been real and always will be – if we have the eyes to see it.
(Coming Next – Jesus and Hell, the Conclusion: Getting the Hell Out)