The Problem of Telling People to Go to Hell

“I hope you burn in Hell.”  I have read this condemnation several times over the past few weeks, the vitriol coming from someone who is incensed over someone else’s position or action.   Over the years I have heard it said directly, not at me, but at a close friend and colleague after we made a difficult, but to the aggrieved curser, a disastrous decision. 

As public nastiness becomes even more public, we can expect that an increasing cacophony of fiery condemnations will be spoken, written or bullhorned.   These violent outbursts sear the heart, burn  the soul and compel the ego to either put on a fireproof suit or respond with a retaliatory blast.  Or both.

Historically, Hell is regarded as the place of ultimate condemnation.  While most people say that Heaven is somewhere ‘up there’, Hell is seen to be ‘down below’ – paradoxically a dark place with perpetual fire that somehow doesn’t incinerate those who are exiled there, but leaves them in eternal torment.  An afterlife of endless burning.

Many people subscribe to a religious belief system not because of the grace that each of them offers in their own unique way, but as a spiritual insurance policy to avoid being sent to burn in eternity.  “I better believe this, or pray that, or go to church/synagogue/mosque/temple/ashram so I don’t flunk out of my Heaven-bound life course and get thrown into Hell.”

That perspective is a powerful incentive to become a believer.  But it is based on fear, which no end of religious, political and other leaders over the centuries have sought to exploit.  “You are going to Hell, some leaders will imply, or actually say, to offenders; not as a wish, but as a statement of fact.  That they somehow have the power to sentence people to the fiery furnace.  These sorts of arrogant and hateful pronouncements sear my heart and compel my faith to respond, not in kind, but with a different perspective.

I don’t believe that Hell is a place.  I think that the notion of Hell is a malevolent convenience.  It is conceived as a place where some people –not just bad people, but unholy people (so called because of illegitimate or threatening beliefs) can be put.  “I hope you burn in Hell” is a condemnation, just shy of being a homicidal act.  “I hope you burn in Hell” is a total dismissal of someone else:  “you may not be dead, but you are dead to me.”

To my mind, Hell is a condition.  A condition of separation – from self, others, Creation and God – all at the same time.  Death marks a separation from the world as we know it.  The prospect is scary.  As a person of faith, I hold onto the promise that in death I – and that we (and I mean all of us), while being separated from life as we have lived it, will not be separated from God.

I don’t think Hell is a place where some people go after death.  I think we need to pay attention – and fiercely respond, to the condition of Hell that too many people experience here on earth.  Situations when people feel separated from self, others, Creation and God – all that the same time:  after a flood or a fire, in war, during some dehumanizing trauma, or experiencing soul grinding poverty – situations of separation that can last for a moment or a lifetime.  These separations are debilitating, if not life threatening. The intense grief, the expressions of terror, the unbridled rage, the overwhelming helplessness – are images and stories we see and hear every day.  They depict Hell in all its rawness.  In the face of these tragedies, our job as fellow human beings is to do whatever we can to repair the separation.  Most of the religions of the world seek to bind wounds and rebuild connection after episodes of separation.

The person who says, “I hope you burn in Hell” (which I have never said, but have nonetheless thought on a few occasions), just adds to the Hell that we see, and perhaps have experienced ourselves.  It is a statement, yes, of cruelty, but also of arrogance.   Ironically, the person who wishes someone else to burn in Hell is placing themselves in the condition of separation; and by their self-righteousness they become unwilling or unable to see the Hell that swirls around them.  By their vicious condemnation of someone else, they end up putting themselves in Hell instead.

We don’t need any more Hell than we already have.





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