Americans’ interest in the afterlife is higher than ever, and no part of it sparks more feeling and opinion than the subject of hell.
Two things make hell an unbearable thought for almost everybody — severity and duration. But a closer look at how people handle life on earth makes hell look more like the same old same old.
For instance, some wonder how a “higher power” could damn anyone to eternal punishment. On the other hand, they also wish for the power to condemn fellow mortals for their politics and opinions or because they are competitors in the worlds of love and business.
From that angle, hell is for the worthless and hated.
Families of crime victims often say the perpetrators don’t deserve forgiveness and that their prison sentences could never be too severe or too long.
Sometimes people even throw friends away and vow to do whatever possible to “make their life hell.” They obviously have some idea of what hell should be, and they hope to replicate it.
From that angle, hell is for the unpardonable and discarded.
My Grandpa Russell used to rub his hip and tell me, “It’s hell gettin’ old.” He was usually settling into a recliner to watch a few hours of TV when he said that. He also had ice cream in the freezer and a wife who cooked and kept house until the day she died, eight days after the flu took him down at the age of 91. That’s not the hell enemies wish upon each other.
I was raised by a prison lieutenant. If you’re very familiar with people confined for long periods of time or if you’ve known intelligent students who experience crushing boredom during long years in school, you might appreciate a little of the devastation that goes with the loss of freedom to do what you want to do. Time becomes a perpetual moment of painful existence.
From that angle, hell has no end in sight.
Most people eventually have direct experience with a sense of ceaselessness. One person is trapped under heavy debris after an earthquake. Another is in a horrible, violent marriage. Another is tortured by waterboarding, another can’t forget watching a truck crush her daughter, and another is trapped in a meaningless career.
Those are pictures of hell, no end in sight, no tolerable reason for hope, no apparent meaning for the life that has been lived. Many people take their own lives after concluding their suffering will never end. Others reach the same conclusion and turn numb to the world or smolder with constant anger or shame. You might say the smoke of their torment goes up forever.
We need to remember that time comes in two types — chronological and psychological. We don’t care what time the clock says it is when the ticks and tocks seem miles apart, when we know the next hour or minute will look just like the one we’re suffering now.
That is hell. That is what we can find ourselves wishing upon people we despise, while objecting to the notion of such a place being reserved for “good people.”
Hell is not a far-fetched idea for its severity and duration. It’s not even a strange one. Naturally we prefer the idea of a blissful forever, even though we might be suspicious about the promise of rewards we haven’t earned. How surprised unfortunate souls would be to go to hell and find it was exactly what they’d wished upon others.