There is a real darkness in every human being’s soul that can make evil look compelling. It is a well-known phenomenon in fiction that the villain tends to be the most interesting character: we like to voyeuristically watch someone who has gone to “that other place” that we may have only flirted with in our imaginations. Some people take this a step further and become obsessed with real-life murderers and serial killers. But at the end of the movie, we usually want to see these characters punished: it’s okay to enjoy the evil character’s antics as long as we psychologically reject them at the end and withdraw our sympathy from them. There is a real pleasure in withdrawing sympathy from another, and as spiritual people I think we must be aware of this pleasure. It shows its ultimate form when we give our blessing to the idea of Hell.
The best and most tempting expression of this feeling that I’ve ever seen is in this quote by Russell Kirk:
At the back of every discussion of the good society lies this question, what is the object of human life? The enlightened conservative does not believe that the end or aim of life is competition; or success; or enjoyment; or longevity; or power; or possessions. He believes, instead, that the object of life is Love. He knows that the just and ordered society is that in which Love governs us, so far as Love ever can reign in this world of sorrows; and he knows that the anarchical or the tyrannical society is that in which Love lies corrupt. He has learnt that Love is the source of all being, and that Hell itself is ordained by Love. He understands that Death, when we have finished the part that was assigned to us, is the reward of Love. And he apprehends the truth that the greatest happiness ever granted to a man is the privilege of being happy in the hour of his death (emphasis mine).
If we look at the world around us, we can certainly see many places where love “lies corrupt”, and we can see many other places where power and greed are valued to a disturbing extent, drowning out the natural compassion we are called upon to exercise. And above and beyond all this, we can see evil. “Evil” is a very fractious word in our society. Some people are too scared to use it, saying that the concepts of good and evil are essentially relative and have no value if we want to truly understand what’s happening around us: others use it with abandon, further implying that it is our moral duty to root out and destroy all evil in this world. Christian Deism, along with many other religious traditions, holds that evil is real, and that it is essentially an inevitable result of God allowing his creatures to follow their own paths. However, we reject the idea of eternal suffering in a place called “Hell”.
The Kirk quote above contains much truth, and I find it very beautiful, but it contains a poison pill that is all too common in religious traditions. When we say that “bad people deserve to suffer eternally”, we are embracing the part of ourselves that is willing to permanently withdraw sympathy from someone. This step, so easy to take, is the first step towards becoming evil ourselves. And, in informal language, the idea of an eternal Hell messes people up.
Jesus didn’t use the word “Hell” this way, and a careful reading of the Gospels backs this up. The idea is older, and was probably the result of Zoroastrian ideas being co-opted by cultural Christianity. Hell exists in the minds and hearts of people who have turned their backs on goodness, and it shows up in their lives. It is terrible to witness (let alone to live!), but it is the price of freedom. If we define Hell in this way, then Hell itself is indeed ordained by love. The other idea of Hell comes from a hateful part of our souls, and it is incompatible with our idea of a loving God.