There are many strange things about the myth of hell. Hell has that property of all incoherent things: there are abundant ways to re-describe its incoherence. At every point where nonsense attempts to dock at the harbour of truth, a new refutation forms, and the island of truth is so very large, and its docks so many, that every common nonsense springs a host of refutations, docking here and there, its advocates never alighting. Such it is for hell: its ghastly distortion of proportional justice, its permanent scarring of the good; its unsatisfactory resolution of sin; the enormous cost it assigns to creative acts; and the almost undeniably gratuitous nature of the evil it contains.
But among hell’s strangest features is its inability to dock at the Christian gospel, a philosophy so widely credited with the myth’s success. A central tenet of the gospel is that the wages of sin are death. It is a claim that warrants careful attention. Such is the seriousness of sin that it wars with existence itself. Let us say it differently: Such is the seriousness of life that it is sustained only by perfection.
However jarring at first glimpse, there is, on closer examination, an arresting sense to this. Sin is well understood as a kind of brokenness; a dysfunction. It is not fit for purpose. If sin were to go on forever, one would have the makings of an argument that sin, at some level, truly works. If unredeemed beings are to go on forever – if even Satan himself will continue to act and experience for all time – well, sin is not such a defeat.
Sin is unsustainable by its very nature. The wage it yields is death indeed. Our earthly lives reveal it in every way possible. The ghost of death haunts everything we touch. We learn in our mortal vessels that what is broken cannot last; that all the follies of man are like a flower that withers; that the very fabric in which we go on sinning has entropy in-built. It is made to fall. It is impermanent in its very essence. It will cease to exist. If the continuous crumbling of our universe were not compelling enough, our own fallen bodies decay continuously. We are made to watch. We are made to watch, all while carrying genes built to instill in us a furious desire to survive. To do something we cannot do. All this, that we may grow deeply familiar with the concept of death: its frightful and nightmarish possession of us.
This earthly death is given to us as a tool of comprehension. It is a metaphor for a death far, far more serious. In this death, a God-made soul that was designed to see eternities come and pass is destroyed beyond return. There is much beyond this earthly death; there is nothing beyond that one. The weeping we do for those who shuffle out of the physical realm is but a glimpse of this incomprehensible tragedy: to be excommunicated from what is; to be expelled from all that exists; to be dispossessed of eternities and all they contain; to never hear the voice of God; to know nothing beyond. What dies on earth barely existed – it is coded to decay. What dies beyond exists more than anything we have ever laid eyes upon. It exists as the word of God exists. Immovable. Indefeasible. Such was our soul before the tragedy of sin.
When you breathe in scripture – the story of man – you find this tragedy stitched into the very beginning. Eden never burned. We were expelled. The tree of life sits there, unharmed. We could not gaze upon it and we began to die. We race towards an end; not the meagre end of our transient avatars, but the end of our very selves. That death does not loom only over our universe. It is a threat which looms over the kingdom of God. It is the unassailable cost of defying God – of defying the laws of existence itself.
Consider Satan’s place in this story and much can be illuminated. When Satan fell from heaven his crash was great. And all the legions, locust-like, roved across the molten earth, defeated by an Almighty being, whose law they had defied. Their condition was one of immeasurable misery. Once radiant in glory, immense and stellar, coursing with life, they were now pitiful – dark, and still dangerous, but shadows of their former power. They crashed down from an immortal world, a world where time ticked on forever, curling on and on. A world where no threat of that Great Death had every loomed. A world where existence was guaranteed by existence, where no cancer had ever grown in the fabric of life itself. And when Satan paced the burning plains of his new home – so far low – he suffered, I think, a horrid revelation:
Immortal I can never lose my place
Among the realm of all the maker made
Though this rock be low my feet are firm
The buttresses of being hold my weight.
Until the nameless one is cast from high
These cursed plains of molten I will tread
And misery will know me as its chief
For linger on it will till I am fed.
Perhaps when Satan fell, in his own eyes, two paths lay before him. The first was to defeat the Creator who cast him down. Failing that, a harrowing second path – to go on suffering. To tread the planes eternally. As an immortal being, an immensely proud being, and a fearful, smited being, Satan may well have overlooked the third and most striking of possibilities; the possibility us humans are trained so well to comprehend: Death.
Perhaps there, at the site of a fallen star, lie the origins of hell. Satan’s fear that he will not, in fact, reclaim heaven; Satan’s pride that he will never, in fact, perish. His fate then would be to linger on in his profound suffering, a suffering that rips at the very validity of creation, seeking to devour all that may bring its Maker glory. What wonder then, that he would instill that fear in the heart of man. That in a universe God so carefully crafted to warn us of death, that he would convince us that death is a myth. That we are destined to linger, for such is our God, that he would cruelly sustain us against the laws of existence, sustaining forever the unsustainable.
There is another possibility. Perhaps Satan is, in fact, immortal. Perhaps hell is, in fact, his curse. That could explain why the only scriptural verse that directly and unambiguously predicts eternal torment applies to Satan and the demons (Revelation 20:10). Other verses that apply to humans (Mark 9:48) seem to avoid saying this at all. In that case, it is intriguing to imagine that Satan here again projects his own fears onto man. Knowing his eternal fate, he seeks to draw us mortal beings into the fray, envious perhaps not only of our freely gifted eternal life, but of our superior punishment: the grace of death. This interpretation is not my favourite, in part because that death is not a grace (but a nearly unfathomable tragedy, which Satan would be slow to envy), and in part because Satan’s eternal conscious torment faces many of the same issues as our own.
In any case, there are some takeaways.
- Hell does not seem a fitting result of sin, which is the ultimate corruption
- Death on earth is a metaphor, a tool to comprehend a greater looming threat
- Satan’s fall may provide some insight into our own thinking, the spiritual fears with which we are nightly haunted – hell among them