Is There Really a Hell? What is it Like?

Will God Damn Me to Hell if I Break the Commandments?

Aw, hell!

A fire-and-brimstone preacher terrifies his listeners with lurid tales of the scorching punishment awaiting them in hell if they don’t repent from their sins.

Perhaps those preachers have had some success in scaring their people into better behavior. But can a modern, rational person really believe in all those flames and pitchforks? And is God really such a you-know-what as to condemn people to eternal torture for breaking his commandments?

In a word: No.

God loves everyone, saint and sinner alike (see Matthew 5:43–45), and is always working to bring every single one of us out of hell.

How could there be a hell, then?

The surprising answer: because many of us insist on having a hell. Hell is not a place we are sent after we die if we’ve broken God’s commandments. It is a state of mind and life that we create within and around ourselves when we put our own pleasure, possessions, and power first—and don’t care who we have to step on to get them.

If this is the kind of life we love, we will choose to go to hell after we die because we’d rather be in hell than in heaven.

Hell: the punishment of the damned?

Imagine this . . .

A burglar who has committed a string of crimes in well-to-do neighborhoods is shot while breaking into a swanky home. He dies on the spot—but not before swinging around and taking a shot at his killer, who turns out to be the woman of the house. The burglar soon finds himself standing before God’s heavenly throne. God pronounces him guilty and casts him down into the smoking chasm of hell. No sooner has he hit the charred ground than red, horned devils snatch him up and deftly turn him into a human shish kebab. They place his oversized skewer on stands across a well-stoked fire pit. As he screams in agony, devils poke and prod his blistered flesh with pitchforks, turning him over and over to keep him roasting evenly all the way around.

The rich, glamorous woman whose home the burglar was robbing also dies from her gunshot wound. She is next in line to stand before God’s judgment seat. Her recent killing is excused on a self-defense plea. But when the celestial register of her earthly deeds is opened, it turns out that she has secretly engaged in a whole string of adulterous affairs. God pronounces her guilty, too, and sends her hurtling headfirst into the abyss. She tries to buy her way out, but her credit is no good in hell. Soon, stripped of every last scrap of her wealth, finery, and pride, she is mortified to find herself roasting right next to the common criminal who had shot her.

To add insult to injury, the two of them quickly realize that it’s a spectator sport. As their bodies slowly rotate, they see ever-changing crowds of happy people in white robes lounging on the comfy clouds above them, sipping frosty drinks and watching the punishment of the damned for their evening entertainment. The front row seats are reserved for their former victims, who settle in with their friends for hours at a time to point, hurl insults, and stare in smug satisfaction at the naked, writhing scoundrels suffering the eternal sentences for their crimes.

On earth the burglar had laughed at the people he robbed; the highborn woman had scorned the wives of the men she slept with. Now they wail and gnash their teeth not only in excruciating pain from the flames and pitchforks, but in helpless rage at the ogling eyes and triumphant jeers of their enemies.

No matter how hard they struggle and thrash around, they can’t break free. The spits keep turning, the fires burning, the spectators taunting, forever—all because they sinned against God.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Almost everything, according to scientist, philosopher, and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772).

Okay, it’s true that there is no favoritism in hell. Wealthy or poor, in the end it doesn’t matter. Beyond that, where do we start?

Who sends us to hell?

Let’s start with God throwing people into hell. It just doesn’t happen. God loves all people, no matter what they’ve done. God is always working to bring everyone out of hell. That’s what salvation is about—and God wants to save everyone.

If there are people in hell, it’s not because God wants them there, but because they themselves choose to be there. In fact the only way people can be in hell is to insist on going there despite everything God does to keep them out.

Yes, Swedenborg tells us that people who get their gratification from personal power, pleasure, and wealth at the expense of others choose hell over heaven because hell is where they can enjoy their selfish pleasures in at least some limited fashion.

It may be surprising, but anyone who wants to can go up to heaven after death. However, those who care more about themselves than about others find heaven to be excruciatingly painful. They can’t stand the atmosphere of mutual love and service that reigns in heaven. It is torture to them to be in that environment. So they rush headlong out of heaven as fast as they can go.

In hell, on the other hand, they can breathe easily. This is the kind of place they love! Here it’s all about me, and I can do whatever the hell I want! (Not quite, but at least they can do some of what they want, unlike in heaven.)

Nobody is forced to go to hell. And nobody is sent to hell as a punishment for evils committed on earth. But those who enjoy evil will keep on committing evil. They can’t do it in heaven because heaven’s atmosphere prevents it. So they go to hell of their own free will. And they laugh at anyone who would try to convince them to go anywhere else. This includes God, whose efforts to pull them out of hell they utterly reject.

In other words, hell is a choice. It may be a bad choice, but it is our choice. If we go to hell, we have been sent there by nobody but ourselves.

What makes hell hell?

So does it really matter what choice we make? It sounds as if whether we choose heaven or hell, we get to enjoy ourselves!

There is some truth to that. Both the people in heaven and the people in hell get to enjoy themselves. However, there is a distinct difference.

In heaven, everyone’s joy is to love and serve others, and make them happy. This means that my joy adds to your joy and your joy adds to mine. When everyone in an entire community is working for the good of others, it all adds together and creates a level of happiness and bliss that goes almost beyond human comprehension.

In hell, everyone’s joy is to get power, pleasure, and possessions for themselves at the expense of others. Wealth gotten fairly is no fun! What’s fun, rather, is getting it by cheating and stealing from others. And power is all about imposing our own will on others, forcing them to serve us and grovel at our feet, and miserably punishing anyone who dares to disobey. In other words, my pleasure is your pain, and your pleasure is my pain.

This means that all pleasure in hell is fleeting, as well as self-punishing. I may have pleasure while I’m the top dog and I’m torturing you. But pretty soon you’re going to get together with some of the other prisoners in my dungeon, stage a break-out, and throw me and my supporters in there, where we’ll take our turns being stretched on the rack.

Everyday life in hell

Of course, there is a lot of variety to how people live in hell. Not everyone is into lording it over others. Some are interested only in money, money, money! Some like to torment people psychologically. Some just like to argue and fight to prove that they’re right and everyone else is wrong.

What is everyday life in hell like? Probably a lot like the lives of people here on earth who devote themselves to their own power, wealth, and glory. Except mostly without the actual power, wealth, and glory. Hell is all about trying to get the kind of pleasure you want for yourself, sometimes succeeding, but then losing it all and having to start all over again. We can see a symbolic image of the life of people in hell in the ancient myth of Sisyphus, who was condemned to eternally roll a huge boulder up a hill only to see it roll back down again before he could get it to the top.

The actual life in hell is probably more like continual gang warfare, except nobody dies, because they’re already dead. Or it’s like the continual rise and fall of empires and kingdoms through brutal warfare, intrigue, torture, corruption, and then conquest by one’s enemies. Or it’s like a home in which the husband and wife are continually battling one another, verbally or physically, for supremacy. Or it’s like robbers continually stealing from one another and then being stolen from in turn. Or it’s like misers counting huge piles of money only to discover that it’s all fool’s gold.

Whatever the particular evil love that the people in a particular community in hell are driven by, that will determine the quality of their everyday life. For those looking in from the outside, the sight will be horrible and disgusting. But for those engaging in these sick and ever-repeating scenes, they are intensely pleasurable—when they’re on the dishing it out end and not on the taking it end.

There’s also the problem of how to get food and clothes. All who live in hell must work for their keep—no matter how much they hate to do anything for anyone else. They don’t work willingly. But when they feel a gnawing hunger in their bellies and their clothes are turning to rags, they go to caves where there are workhouses. There they are given tasks by harsh taskmasters. Once they have finished their work, they are given food, clothing, and perhaps a partner to sleep with for the night.

Tying up a few hellish loose ends

Oh, and a few more things about my earlier caricature of hell:

There are no red, horned devils in hell. At least, not as a separate race of beings. Every devil and evil spirit in hell was once a human being living in the material world. Perhaps some of them do look like red, horned demons. But that is only how they look outside of hell. To each other and to themselves they look like normal human beings.

Hell is not some giant, fiery nudist resort gone bad, as depicted in many classical and renaissance paintings. As a matter of mercy, the evil spirits in hell, both male and female, are given clothing in return for their periodic work. And to them, life seems quite ordinary.

That’s because the fire of hell is not literal fire at all. It is the spiritual fire of continually burning anger and hatred toward everyone else but oneself, and especially toward God. The damned do not roast on a spit in hell. But they do get continually skewered figuratively by their fellow devils.

Further, angels do not look on as evil people get their just desserts in hell. The sight would be too sad and disturbing, so hell is closed off from their sight. Besides, angels have their own good and happy lives to live. They take no pleasure in anyone’s pain, and they have no desire for revenge.

Finally, there is no eternal punishment for anything done on earth. Evil spirits in hell are punished only for the things they continue to do after death. And those punishments are simply the unavoidable consequences of their own evil actions.

Despite the previous disclaimers, many of the punishments in hell are felt as physical pain. But the worst part is psychological, not physical. Evil is always accompanied by fear—and evil spirits are always bringing their worst fears upon themselves. The fear and terror itself is the worst part of the experience.

It is also true that the rich and powerful on earth who were driven by evil and selfish motives will be stripped of all their wealth and power in hell. There, they will forget all about their former wealth and power, and live as abject slaves in the same squalid conditions as everyone else. But rich people who were good, thoughtful, and caring will find their place in heaven, where they can live in splendid homes and enjoy the finer things in life as they go about the business of serving others in their communities.

The balance between heaven and hell

Does hell do any good?

Not intentionally!

But hell actually does serve a use in the divine order of things.

The primary use hell serves is as a balance for heaven, so that we humans on earth can be in a state of freedom of choice between good and evil.

As long as we continue living here on earth, God sees to it that the balance between heaven and hell is always restored whenever it gets tipped too far in one direction or the other. If we are going down toward hell, God arranges opportunities for us to choose to turn around and go in an upward direction. If we are going upward toward heaven, God opens up successively deeper and more intransigent evils within and around us so that we are always facing greater challenges.

Either way, the balance between heaven and hell keeps us human. It is human to have freedom and rationality—to make our own decisions and chart our own course. If we were never presented with anything but what is good, we would automatically follow that path, and there would be nothing virtuous about it. But since we do have the ability to choose either good or evil, and we are constantly making that choice as long as we live here on earth, the path we take is real, and it is ours.

Hell serves many other purposes as well, such as providing object lessons for us about what will happen if we follow a particular destructive path. It also provides contrast in the fresco of life, making the good and beautiful parts of our lives stand out all the more clearly, and feel all the more sweet and blessed, because of the darkness that often surrounds them.

The real hell

Yes, there is a hell. But it is not the place of smoke, fire, torture, and condemnation depicted by the old literalistic Christian theology. Rather, it is the state of mind and the human community that results when each of us seeks our own pleasure and power first, and we don’t mind trampling on everyone else to get it.

If selfishness, materialism, and the desire for personal power and pleasure drive us, we won’t be sent to hell after we die, because we’re already in hell. All that will happen after death is that our outward facade of civility will be torn off, and we will fully express and fully live the life that we have chosen and continue to choose.

In short, hell, like heaven, is 100% voluntary. We choose one or the other by what we love, what we believe in, and how we live. And whether we choose heaven or hell, we get to spend eternity in community with like-minded souls who have made a similar choice.

This article is © 2013 by Lee Woofenden

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Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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Posted in The Afterlife
15 comments on “Is There Really a Hell? What is it Like?
  1. jambulee says:

    Right on Lee, well said and very clear.

  2. jahnosecret says:

    Fear of retribution never worked, only humility in the knowledge of a loving God!
    ‘Freewill to dwell in heaven or in hell’
    Peace and thanks for your article which has served as my Sunday Service!

  3. Rob says:

    It a contradiction to say that God wants all to be saved and yet he needs people to be damned in order to bring “balance”.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rob,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for bringing up a great point!

      In response:

      God does want all to be saved, and God does not want or need anyone to be damned. God is always putting out every effort to lift everyone up into heaven.

      However, once we humans have created evil by choosing to defy God’s wishes for us, hell comes into existence–through human will, not Divine will. Still, God does not allow anything to exist that is completely useless. So in the divine economy, since we humans insist upon having a hell, God presses hell into service in providing balance for other human beings who are making their own choices between good and evil.

      For more on the existence of evil and where it comes from, please see the article, “If God is Love, Why all the Pain and Suffering?

      Thanks again for a thought-provoking comment!

  4. Rob says:

    What about those who for whatever reason don’t get along with the world and its people? You know, those who have forever felt like outcasts and can’t help but to feel antagonism towards others? Some people have been deeply hurt by life and find it hard or impossible to trust others, even after years of trying. Its seems so unfair that they will have a negative eternal existence.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rob,

      Good question!

      The general answer is that neither external circumstances nor inborn character will send a person to hell, or even to heaven, for that matter. Only the choices we make within our circumstances, and given the character born and bred into us, will matter in determining our eternal home.

      Life here on earth is often very unfair. Some people are dealt much better “cards” than others. But spiritually, all of that earthly unfairness is canceled out, and each person born has an equal opportunity to make choices within his or her own circumstances that will lead toward heaven (or toward hell).

      For a more in-depth answer, please see the article:
      Can Gang Members Go to Heaven? (Is Life Fair?)

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rob,

      One more thing (for now):

      After we die, we go through a period of transition in which anything that doesn’t match our true desires and motives is stripped away. If, as in the example you give, we truly want to be a good and loving person, but our external circumstances make that very difficult, then in the afterlife the obstacles to our true motives and desires will be removed, and we will be able to fully express what we have tried not so successfully to express here on earth.

      For more on the process we go through after death before reaching our final home in heaven or in hell, see the article:
      What Happens To Us When We Die?

  5. Walt Childs says:

    Lee, I liked your article on hell, it is very clear and makes perfect sense. However, I have a question concerning some of the parables in the Bible as they seem to indicate that if we are not careful in our walk with the Lord we could end up being cast out of the kingdom at the judgment. Any comments concerning this would be appreciated.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Walt,

      Thanks for your comment and question. I would say some of the parables are more along the lines of if we’re not careful to walk with the Lord, but walk away from the Lord instead, then our souls are in peril.

      “I wasn’t paying attention” is often not a very good excuse. Those who get hurt by our inattention and negligence may fairly ask this question: What were you paying attention to when you should have been paying attention to the road? The same principle applies in our walk on the spiritual road with the Lord.

      However, if you have a particular parable or parables in mind, let me know which ones you’re thinking of, and I may be able to give you a more specific answer.

  6. Tony says:

    just out of curiosity just say you was destined to hell after dying if you supposed to go there for eternity doesn’t that mean you aren’t supposed to escape it?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Tony,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your question. I’m not sure exactly what you’re getting at, but here are a few shots in that general direction:

      No one is destined for hell. Everyone is destined for heaven. But those who choose hell over heaven as self-responsible adults in this world will find themselves living in hell to eternity in the afterlife.

      This is not forced on them. It is by their own choice. Although they do suffer punishments, forced labor, and various other pains, indignities, and humiliations in hell, for them, the alternative (heaven) is even worse. If they try to go up to heaven (which is sometimes allowed), they soon start gasping for breath and writhing in agony because they can’t stand the atmosphere of powerful divine love and light that reigns there.

      If you think of little boys torturing ants by focusing sunlight on them through a magnifying glass, that’s about what it feels like for evil spirits to go to heaven. They feel like they’re about to die! They either rush out of heaven themselves or are thrown out by the angels there so that they won’t die in that intense heavenly warmth and light. To the angels, though, that same intense warmth and light feels beautiful, gentle, and life-giving. (Still, even they experience only a tiny fraction of the full power of God’s love and light.)

      Yes, there is also the power of God and the angels keeping evil spirits in hell so that they won’t escape. They are, in a sense prisoners. But even when they do manage to stage a “jailbreak,” they don’t last long. Soon they go rushing or slinking back to their own hell, where they can breathe freely and enjoy their own sick and evil pleasures at least some of the time–even if those pleasures inevitably carry pain and punishment with them.

  7. Tony says:

    well that does give some perspective but I think what I was trying to ask is, is it possible to reject living a life of hell having already experienced what it is like and actually start spending eternity in heaven. This is all assuming you have already died by the way so if you choose hell while alive and then died and find out that you having landed yourself in hell is there truly no way you can get yourself out of an eternity in hell once you have died. If the answer is no then it seems that you follow what the mindset of some christians think that once dead you will definitely your eternity in one or the other with no way of getting out of it. I hope this makes sense :)

    • Lee says:

      Hi Tony,

      Thanks for clarifying your question.

      There actually are some people who experience hell after they die, find that it’s not for them, and then leave it and enter heaven for eternity. These are people who have perhaps fallen in with bad companions and allow themselves to be influenced into doing things they shouldn’t, but are not actually evil people at heart. What happens to them is that after they die, they still stick with the bad crowd they’d been attached to on earth, and get dragged down to hell along with them. There, they suffer hard things until they are finally ready to break their ties with those friends, having realized that they don’t belong with them. Then they rise out of hell, are taught by angels in the world of spirits (the area midway between heaven and hell where everyone goes at first after they die) and then find their eternal homes in heaven.

      However, for those who truly are evil at heart having chosen a life of selfishness and greed during their life on earth, it’s a different matter. The plain fact is, these people don’t want to leave hell.

      Or if they do want to leave hell, it is only to attack good spirits and angels. So if they were allowed out and could stay out, they would only wreak havoc and make life miserable for good and innocent people. It would be like letting all the hardened criminals out of jail so that they could go on murdering, raping, and robbing people. You just can’t do it if you want a safe society. And as much as we might wish hardened criminals would change and reform, most of them just don’t.

      As long as they’re here on earth, even hardened criminals do have the opportunity to change. And occasionally they do have a change of heart. But the reality is that most of them have no interest in changing. They get a thrill, and intense pleasure, from their particular type of crime. Not being allowed to commit it is the real torture of jail for them. And if they were not allowed to at least desire and fantasize about it, they would feel as if life was not worth living.

      Hell is where those who, having been given every opportunity to change here on earth, still chose to live a life of evil, selfishness, greed, and disregard for their fellow human beings. Nobody goes there by accident. And nobody goes there who doesn’t belong there and wants to be there. Though they are kept there, they also choose to be there. As I said in my previous comment, if they do try to go up to heaven, they feel intense pain and hurl themselves back down into their own hell.

      I realize this sticks in the craw of thoughtful and merciful people who want everyone to end out in heaven. The problem with this is that it just isn’t realistic given what we know about human nature. But more than that, if we didn’t have the choice to choose an eternal hell, we wouldn’t be truly free, or truly rational, or truly human.

      That last statement might sound surprising. If you want to follow up on it, please go to this article:
      The Bible, Emanuel Swedenborg, and Reincarnation
      It’s a long article. If you don’t want to read the whole thing, scroll down to the section titled “What’s wrong with reincarnation?” and read the next five sections, up to and including the one titled “A conversation with some inhabitants of hell.” There, this issue is discussed in more depth.

      Another article you might find helpful is:
      Can Gang Members Go to Heaven? (Is Life Fair?)
      The point of this article is that no matter what it looks like from the outside, nobody goes to hell unless that is where they truly belong.

      I hope this helps.

  8. Tony says:

    thanks that is what I wanted, I guess that means once you have made that choice and die you most likely won’t be able to make that eternal choice again, I think that this demonstrates it must be truly difficult if not next to impossible to accept god’s love after rejecting it. It would be really hard to fathom what it would take to turn back after such rejection of such a love.

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Lee & Annette Woofenden

Lee & Annette Woofenden

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Earlier Posts
Lee Woofenden speaking at Fryeburg New Church Assembly, Fryeburg, Maine, August 2012

Lee Woofenden speaking at Fryeburg New Church Assembly


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