There are quite a few scary references in the Gospels to the torments of the damned: “the fire that is never quenched, the gnawing of worms, the gnashing of teeth.” What are we to make of them? How could a God of Love torture anyone?

Many people today just do not believe in hell. The fashionable cliché goes likes this: “I don’t believe in hell; I think that hell is here on earth.” But that is a direct contradiction! If they believe that hell exists here on earth, then they believe in hell! What do people mean when they say that hell is here on earth? Probably they are referring to the violence and murders that seem to have reached an all-time high in our sophisticated civilization. But I suggest that a better definition of hell would be “Evil at work in men’s hearts.” When a murder is committed, hell exists in the heart of the murderer, not in the murder itself, which may dispatch the murdered person straight to heaven! There is no hell present in an accidental killing, say from a car crash, appallingly tragic though it may be. Hell is hatred, jealousy, resentment, anger, contempt of others, unforgivingness. It is nursing a grievance, feeling offended, clinging to the memory of old grudges. It is love of self and the things of this world at the expense of God and the neighbour.

Hell is not a place but a state of mind. People who have had their eyes opened into the other world speak of hell as a place, because, by the law of attraction (“birds of a feather flock together”) those who are evil at heart tend to gang up with others who are similarly evil, and where many are in league together, as in the other world, one gets the impression of hell as being a place. We hear of the gloomy shadows of the nether region, the spiritual underworld, the hide-out of the damned — those who have rebelled against the Kingdom of God. Nevertheless, hell is essentially an evil state of mind; and if you accept that there is hell anywhere on earth, and if you believe that when people die they take their nature with them into the other world, then you must believe that there is a hell in the other world.

The question still remains: Are there punishments in hell? How about the torments of the damned? Who does the tormenting? God? Surely not! The punishment of an evil-doer comes stabbing up from the disorderly condition in which he is living. It is never inflicted by God, who in fact mitigates it as far as possible. Take the example of a drunkard. What a hell that poor man is in! He is a slave of his craving for alcohol; he has locked the chains on himself in a prison of his own devising. God would stop him if he could, but the man won’t let him. The final development is delirium tremens; and no torture of the Inquisition itself was worse than that!

I once attended a lecture by the late Rev. James Pike, one-time Bishop of California, who had some interesting observations to make on the subject of heaven and hell. He remarked that he could not believe in the conventional heaven and hell, because the kind of person who would be in heaven would never tolerate the thought that there were have-nots or deprived souls suffering torment down there in hell. He said: “We would stage a demonstration; we would do a protest march; or, if that didn’t work, we would go down ourselves and live in hell side by side with those poor wretches, as a ministry of sympathy. In the end, God might relent and come down too, and see for himself how dreadful conditions were down there, and would eventually perhaps clear the whole place away!” Bishop Pike’s satire was disturbing, but always healthy. How much better, this, than the point of view of Tertullian, who thought that the joy of heaven consisted in being able to look down into hell and watch the torments of the damned! Or good Christian people in the Middle Ages who would wile away a dreary afternoon watching a criminal being hanged, drawn and quartered in the market place, or burned to death at the stake. At least the tastes of the majority of people have improved in this direction; not many of  us would relish watching a torture. So Jim Pike was a product of the New Age. I liked his liberalism and humanity. Remember also that he was only satirizing the conventional idea of heaven and hell. In fact, the inhabitants of hell are not being deprived of anything! Heaven is as available to them as to anyone else. Pike seemed to be thinking of hell as a kind of Nazi concentration camp, but it is not like that at all. If there is barbed wire around hell, it is to keep the inhabitants out, not in; but they will get in, even tearing themselves on the barbed wire in their eagerness to continue their quarrelling and indignation and mutual accusations — barking and snarling at one another like a lot of dogs, never so happy as when they are at each other’s throats! Their ideal is to be able to indulge every wandering lust, to gratify every whim, and ride roughshod over everybody. The result is a mad-house situation which they seem to enjoy, despite the galling frustrations and misery of it all. At any rate, they are happier in hell than they could be in heaven.

Hell is in little everyday things as well as in major wars and world-shaking assassinations. You get a glimpse of it in some households on earth where husband and wife nag and bicker. Hell fire? — hearts aflame with anger, burning with lust and hatred. Gnashing of teeth? — the perpetual argumentation and quarrelling of self-centred men and women, rubbing each other up the wrong way. We can be in hell, and we often are, though it does not seem so bad here on earth because the physical body cushions it. In the spiritual world one’s feelings and emotions are no longer hidden, and so influence us more completely.

I mentioned “galling frustrations” as being a cause of misery in hell. It is in this area that punishments seem to be inflicted — even severe punishments which could be regarded as torture. There are certain limits of perversion beyond which God in his mercy will not permit even the devils to go. Stop them He must, for their own sakes and for the preservation of the minimum of order within their society. So, if an evil spirit tries to plunge deeper into evil than the limits set, then the Lord allows pain to rack him until he thinks better of it and desists. It is then that he curses God for torturing him. But in fact it is the perversion itself that causes him pain, just as fire hurts us if we put our hand in it, or sulphuric acid or caustic soda. Evil spirits being what they are, they cannot be controlled except by pain. But the torture ceases at once as soon as they stop what they are trying to do.

Having now straightened out our ideas somewhat on the nature of hell, let us consider a specific evil which Jesus said is punishable in hell. This is anger with one’s brother (Matthew 5:22). Anger is not necessarily an evil thing. Jesus was scathing in His denunciation of hypocrisy, and thunderously angry with those who ill-treated children. (“It were better for such a man if a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” Matthew 18:6.) And as is well known, Jesus violently overthrew the tables of the moneychangers in the temple, so that it was said of him, “The zeal of God’s house has eaten him up.” Maybe we need more of this passionate concern for the rights of other people, especially the weak, and for the sanctities of religion. Such indignation on other people’s behalf can be a flame which sterilizes and heals. On the other hand, Jesus was never angry on his own behalf, nor did he ever attempt to defend himself by word or deed — except to withdraw. Even when appealed to by Pilate to say something in his own defence, he remained silent.

How different it is with us, and how easily anger runs away with us! We are annoyed by somebody, “justifiably” of course. We ask ourselves, How can he act that way? The more we think of it the more our indignation increases. The thing rankles. It “burns us up” we say — and that is exactly what it does do. Indignation is a fire that grows with feeding until it destroys us. Annoyingly enough, it does not destroy the person we are angry with — he gets away scot-free; but it torments and tortures us in our own little jail. It puts our wellbeing and peace of mind on the rack.

Jesus said, in the Sermon on the Mount: “Whosoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment.” In the Authorized Version we read: “Whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause,” but this qualification is omitted in the Revised Standard Version and most modern translations. Probably it was not in the original, but was added by some copyist who could not believe that Jesus was condemning justifiable anger. But it is the anger itself that is damaging, whether there is a cause or not! Anger, indignation, self-justification — these constitute the hell-fire which consumes all who expose themselves to them. Strangely enough, some people seem to enjoy being burned, in a perverted kind of way. They hug their resentments to their hearts and won’t give them up.

I know a man who says proudly that he “cannot suffer fools gladly”. He does not even try! It probably makes him feel superior to say this, as it demonstrates to himself that he is not a fool! But a feeling of moral superiority is a psychological poison which can corrode the vitals. Is it not the height of folly to drink psychological poison — and be proud of it? Then there is talk of “righteous indignation” and “duty.” Many people go to hell from a sense of duty. It is their duty to correct somebody, to put somebody right, to revenge themselves on somebody — to get even with them and put them in their place. I am sure there are many evil spirits in hell who would willingly give it up and go to heaven, only they feel it their duty to remain in hell! Honour demands that they should not lose face. They must hold on to the bitter end. It is a matter of principle!

There are people in this world who are suffering from indignation-poisoning without realizing it. They will assure you that they have no ill-feelings towards anyone; they feel nothing but Christian love towards the whole world. Then a few days later you will hear them being quite violent about some teenager who gets under their skin or into their hair, or their mother-in-law, or the screaming child next door, or a barking dog, or some lousy storekeeper that swindled them. This may seem a very trifling matter, but emotions, like fire, grow if not checked, and after death may burst out into a blazing fury.

Indignation can be just as tormenting if it is directed against situations. Maybe your situation is hard, unjust, undeserved. But you hurt only yourself by being resentful. Try, by all means, to change and improve your situation; but to be mad about it will only result in your being bound and gagged and handed over to the jailer, the tormentor, who will torture you until you come to your senses. And what if you never come to your senses? . . . Now I am being scary! How about the “eternity of the hells”?

To end on a more optimistic note, there is actually no need for anyone to submit to spiritual torture. The torturer is in our own employ; we can dismiss him at any time and send him away. He is certainly not employed by God, who is love and mercy personified, and who, I believe, suffers with us in Divine sympathy. The jail or torture-chamber is not in one of the dungeons of the royal palace; it is in our own hearts, and we built it there. We can will it away and it will disappear. No one need be in hell — it can only be by their own perverted choice. It may seem that God casts people into hell, and that appearance is reflected in the Bible, especially in the Psalms; but it is only an appearance; how could our Creator and heavenly Father be so cruel? The whole thing is a horrific fantasy, a nightmare! Wake up! Come out into the sunlight and turn your face towards heaven, and there will be rejoicing among the angels on account of your liberation.

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