“The notion that hell is a place of “just” punishment is meaningless. Parents punish their children so that they will learn not to repeat undesirable behavior. The jail system isn’t even really interested in that. It is vengeance, pure and simple. And that is the problem with “hell” as most christians portray it. The only way it could be reasonable is if it were to improve people’s behavior on release. But if there is no release, it is not even punishment. It is torture. And I submit that a being who would create an eternal torture chamber does not come remotely close to embodying perfection. In fact, I would say he compares unfavorably even to Hitler who, for all his evil, could only condemn his victims to finite torment.”
Analogizing from the temporal to the eternal is difficult, if not impossible, since we have no frame of reference other than the one we occupy. How, then, do we make sense of a place in which there is no way to improve a person’s behavior on release? In which the torment that is felt is unending because there is no release?
Let’s consider for moment the analogy that is being used, that of the modern prison system. In dealing with the worst offenders, prison is meant to separate them from society, but it is also meant to punish. Both purposes are legitimate. But the punishment we speak of is, in essence, the incarceration, the very same act that accomplishes the separation. We do not first separate inmates from society and then inflict additional punishment; there are no medieval tortures that await them, no mistreatment that is deliberately inflicted to further the pain these inmates feel, no chain gangs to make their daily lives unbearable. In a very real sense, the punishment is the product of the incarceration, not an additional purpose.
Many people feel that prisons, for this very reason, do not provide adequate punishment for wrongdoers. Many feel that justice would be better served if more punishment were inflicted. But this criticism does not – indeed, cannot – apply to the eternal. Why? Because forcible separation from God is the worst thing that can befall any soul. There is nothing more to be done, nothing that could increase the pain that such a soul would experience. By the same token, there is nothing to be done that would lessen the pain; no way to make separation from the source of all that is good more bearable.
Consider for a moment of what the pain of separation consists. In a prison setting, being prevented from exercising any real control over the activities of one’s day, and one’s movement, would be bad enough. But being unable to spend time with others, being forcibly torn from one’s family and one’s closest friends – this indeed is torment. Imagine for instance a newlywed knowing that his lovely bride will be 80 before he is released. Or a new mother knowing that her vulnerable child will have to grow up without knowing her. This is anguish, pure and simple.
Move now to a still deeper level. Even for the most hardened of criminals, there are people to whom they are attached, with whom they wish to spend time, even if they are simply fellow inmates. These others have some quality, some attribute, which makes them attractive, makes them desired. That is why solitary confinement is such an extreme form of punishment.
Now, consider the soul facing eternal separation and eternal alone-ness, isolated and embittered, aware of but forcibly separated from the God against whom their rebellion rages? What a human being feels on a limited and temporal basis, such a soul feels magnified a million, a billion …. an infinity of times. And he is not contemplating separation from a limited and flawed human being, but from the source of all life, all goodness, all joy. Can we even find words to describe what infinite emptiness feels like?
No, God does not actively torture people in hell. But he does not change His nature to suit those who shake their fist at Him. The separation that He imposes, just though it is, is a horrible thing indeed. But it is not torture; it is the nature of things.
Posted by Al Serrato