Will God Damn Me to Hell if I Break the Commandments?
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 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 and families for hours at a time to point, hurl insults, and stare in smug satisfaction at the stark 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 from 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?
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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