Hell Is Being Alone, Absolutely and Forever
‘To die in mortal sin … means remaining separated from God forever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion … is called hell.’ (CCC 1033)
Of all the religions invented by men — enabling them to reach beyond the stars, and thus look upon the face of God — only Christianity has the capacity to pull it off, effecting that very self-transcendence which men have always sought but could never achieve on their own.
And that is because Christianity is not man’s invention. Nor is it even, properly speaking, a religion, owing to the fact that it is God’s free gift. The initiative is always from above, you see, even as the horizon toward which we move will likewise remain a finality beyond our reach.
So, it is not a self-help enterprise we’re looking at here, one which anyone may choose to jump-start. But a saving event offered by God alone, whose origin is another world, one which is infinitely and necessarily beyond this one. The abyss separating us from God, in other words, is not amenable to human machinery, however adroit the application. And it is upon that other world, where God lives and moves amid precincts of purest felicity, that everything in this world depends.
Because Christianity is primarily God’s work, which he performs on our behalf, two things remain always in play: divine grace and human freedom. And in the movement between the two — the sheer tension generated between the finite will of the one and the infinite will of the other — life becomes very interesting indeed. Wholly and wonderfully dramatic even. In short, a great story.
And why is it dramatic? Because it is in drama alone that the human element resonates best, exalting it above all else. Especially in the relationship we have with Christ, who brings God, the Infinite Other, right down into the messiest details of our finite life. What could be more dramatic than that? There is no room for boredom or futility then. How can life be deemed meaningless when the Word Itself, which is but another name for Meaning, enters so deeply into the human estate as to become wholly one of us?
But at the same time, because man remains always and everywhere free, that being his most basic and defining feature, he is always at liberty to refuse God’s offer of grace. Putting it in the bluntest possible way, he can choose to spit in God’s eye, perversely deciding to burn every possible bridge to beatitude. Call it the infernal option, if you like, the exercise of which will carry a man straight into hell, where over and over he shall say to God, “I don’t want to love. I don’t want to be loved. I just want to be left alone.”
And God, having fashioned man to be free, will not nullify the exercise, will not empty it of its ultimacy because the outcome sends a man to hell, plunging the self into a state of unending misery and despair. That, after all, is the price God knew in advance when, as C.S. Lewis reminds us, we were first paid “the terrifying compliment” of his taking our liberty seriously.
Isn’t this why hell is locked on the inside? No one is forced to go there; it is not like a prison from which one is forbidden to leave. The damned do not want to leave. Not even were they armed with the certainly of knowing that only on the outside, in the bright sunshine of divine grace, will happiness be found. Because they surely know that already, which is why, with apologies to Plato, virtue is not knowledge.
One thinks of that wonderful Holman Hunt painting, depicting Jesus as he stands outside the door, rapping with gentle insistence for someone to please open it. But the door, lacking any handle whatsoever, can be opened only from the inside. He will not force the lock, even as he hopes — for God is a hoper, as the poet Peguy tells us — that someone may come along and open it for him, inviting the Lord of the Universe into our homes as the guest of honor.
“There was a door,” cries the loveless, self-tormenting husband to his unloving wife in T.S. Eliot’s Cocktail Party,
And I could not open it. I could not touch the handle.
Why could I not walk out of my prison?
What is hell? Hell is oneself,
Hell is alone, the other figures in it
Merely projections. There is nothing to escape from
And nothing to escape to. One is always alone.
Jean Paul Sartre was dead wrong: hell is not other people, as evinced by his play, No Exit. Hell is being alone, absolutely and forever, preferring a life of complete self-enclosure to any connection with or to another. Neither God, who is everywhere, nor the neighbor, who is next door, will the damned soul permit himself to engage. And because to be is always to be in relation to another, such an act of self-estrangement tears at the very heart of what it means to be human. It suggests, says Josef Pieper in his book About Love, the radical posture of those who literally insist on never “giving a damn,” which is nothing less than an invitation to be damned.
“In Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov,” he writes, “Father Zossima says: ‘Fathers and teachers, I ponder, What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love. Once in infinite existence, immeasurable in time and space, a spiritual creature was given, on his coming to earth, the power of saying: I am and I love.’”
To refuse with utmost obduracy to love, to root all one’s eros in oneself alone, this is the philosophy on which life in hell rests. And God has taken us at our word. Such is the nature of the “terrifying compliment” paid to the creature on whom from the very start the liberty to refuse felicity had been bestowed. God will not stop us. Thus, we remain free, most terrifyingly so, at the very last, to declare before God, in words that recur throughout C.S. Lewis’ magnificent fantasy, The Great Divorce — “not Thy will, but mine be done.” And so it is done, forever. And from the sheer weight of all that cumulative self-will, the soul shall sink, ineluctably, into an everlasting hell.