Apparently, the afterlife is a tricky business. According to a 2016 Gallup poll, 89% of Americans firmly believe in Heaven. Most likely, they all have similar ideas as to what it looks like: clouds, flowing rivers, delicious food, endless entertainment, etc. However, in that same poll, Americans were asked about “the other place,” and it was found that only 64% of those who responded believe in Hell. Do we as a country think that people are not punished in the afterlife? Do those remaining 25% think that everyone gets a free ride into heaven?
Perhaps this disparity exists not because we doubt in the existence of Hell, but because we have varied ideas as to what Hell is. We don’t really take time to grapple with the belief of Hell, because frankly, we don’t understand it.
Jean-Paul Sartre once stated that, “Hell is other people,” and although it feels like it at times, Hell must be much more than that. Of those who believe in Hell, most if not all agree that suffering plays a key role. Isaiah 66.24b describes that suffering with this visual: “The worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched.” Yet no matter what we imagine with our human minds, I must think that it doesn’t even approach what Hell’s suffering is really like. However, this past weekend, I think I caught a glimpse of Hell at the local Cupcake Festival.
It sounded so good on paper: cupcake competitions from over 50 vendors, a virtual conglomeration of confections. The streets would be lined with all sorts of sweets ready for our tasting and purchase. With salivating taste buds and high hopes, we embarked. As we approached the vendors, we witnessed a wide variety of people with delicious-looking cupcakes in their respective carrying containers. Our hearts leapt with excitement and anticipation.
Yet, as we got closer, our hearts sank as we saw large crowds surrounding all the booths. We thought about waiting in line, but found that for the most part, the lines were not moving. We pushed onward towards booths further up the block, only to find the same length of lines everywhere, all preventing us from getting any cupcakes. I could literally see the cupcakes at the vendor stands, but couldn’t get even the slightest bit close to purchasing them. It reminded me of the old parable that describes Hell as a massive, delicious banquet where everyone seated at the table cannot eat, as they are unable to bend their elbows.
At the festival, I could see Heaven and hope for it, but it was just out of reach, the true nature of Hell. So maybe Hell should not be defined by what it is, but what it is not; not what it has, but what it lacks. In Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, Hell is described as the polar opposite of Heaven, where everything in Hell is defined by what it lacks in comparison to Heaven. The poem describes Heaven with eternal peace and light, where Hell has flames that radiate insufferable heat and eternal darkness. 2Thessalonians 1.9 describes Hell as being, “shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” Maybe then we should look at Hell as the complete absence of God. Perhaps Hell should be defined by how impossibly far it is separated from everything that is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable (Philippians 4.8), all qualities that are from God. To be that far from the goodness and glory of God, that truly is Hell, and makes it completely devoid of hope. To conceptualize that thought, think about the amount of time we spend on this Earth asking for God to be a part of our lives, with Him answering that call, and imagine what it would be like if when we asked, we knew that God would never show up. If we frame Hell around the idea that it’s a place with a total and complete absence of hope, our true motivator, then we quickly realize that without hope there is nothing but empty despair, the true character of Hell.
In realizing what Hell is like, we more deeply understand the contrasting gift that is Heaven, giving us hope for an amazing eternity. With hope in our hearts and an eye to the promises of the future kingdom, we know with great certainty that eternity with Him is most assuredly not out of reach. Amen.