Arts & Tradition

Our Problem With That Very Real Place, Hell

BY James Sale TIMEJune 25, 2022 PRINT

Does hell really exist? Jordan B. Peterson in a recent address to Hillsdale College said that “if you don’t believe in hell, then you haven’t thought about it enough!”

I am reminded of that wonderful moment in Christopher Marlowe’s play “Doctor Faustus” where Faustus asks Mephistopheles why, since he is a devil, he isn’t in hell.

Mephistopheles replies,

“Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it:
Think’st thou that I, that saw the face of God,
And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,
In being depriv’d of everlasting bliss?”

One implication of this remark is that hell as a place isn’t somewhere only in the putative afterlife, but is already here on earth; that may or may not be what Jordan B. Peterson meant. But certainly, we can easily see hell all around us whether we consider the obvious—the war in Ukraine and the hell it is unleashing upon its people—or domestically, if we consider the marriage of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. Forget who is right or wrong temporarily; just ask how many other less famous people have such tumultuous marriages and relationships that are as destructive as these two? Quite a lot, I think. It’s pure hell.

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“Torment of St. Anthony,” circa 1515–1520, by Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo. Oil on panel. Putnam Foundation, Timken Museum of Art, San Diego. (Courtesy of the Timken Museum of Art)

Hell is already on earth, but we knew that, didn’t we? Is it also in the afterlife, too? Indeed, is there an afterlife? There is plenty of evidence to suggest that there is.

Hell in the Afterlife

From the earliest times, peoples have affirmed hell’s existence. Right now, I have on my desk in front of me the Penguin Classic “Poems of Heaven and Hell From Ancient Mesopotamia” (translated by N.K. Sandars):

“There stands a house under the mountain of the world,
a road runs down down, the mountain covers it
And no man knows the way. It is a house that binds bad men with ropes
and clumps them into a narrow space.
It is a house that separates the wicked from the good …”

The ancient Egyptians, too, certainly believed in hell. Those who fail to gain the paradise of The Field of Rushes find themselves “subjected to knives and swords and to the fire of hell, often kindled by fire-spitting snakes,” as “The Oxford Essential Guide to Egyptian Mythology” puts it.

And, of course, once we come to the ancient Greeks, we find some of the most potent and memorable accounts of hell in tales of Herakles, Orpheus, and Odysseus, to mention only three.

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Illuminated manuscript of Lucifer torturing souls in hell from “The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry” circa 1411–1416, by the Limbourg brothers. Tempera on vellum. Condé Museum, in Chantilly, France. (PD-US)

But we need not list any further mythologies or religions, for as Patrick Harpur in “A Complete Guide to the Soul” more generally observed: “Even if we are not specifically religious we can all still resonate with the notion that there is some part of us which should not be sold, betrayed or lost at any cost.” To be lost! Heck, even the most “compassionate” of religions, Buddhism, has a “hellish” feature: What is reincarnation but an endless cycle of punishment until one escapes the cycle through enlightenment, if one ever does so, for of course one can also reincarnate into a deeper hell!

But secondly, a completely different strand of evidence for the afterlife is that of Near Death Experiences (NDEs), which came to prominence in the 1970s with the work of Raymond Moody. The most compelling book on this topic I have read is “Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into the Afterlife” by Dr. Eben Alexander, whose experience Dr. Moody himself described as “the most astounding [he] had heard in more than four decades of studying this phenomenon. … The extraordinary circumstances of his illness and his impeccable credentials make it very hard to formulate a mundane explanation for his case.”

Basically, Alexander had bacterial meningitis and seemed to be dead for some eight days. Naturally, what he saw and how he saw it have been disputed, but the fact is, this is not a sole testimony. There are hundreds and thousands of people experiencing these out-of-the-body moments, being technically dead and yet gaining insight or information that seems impossible to acquire through any naturalistic means.

Indeed, The Epoch Times has just published an incredible article about the NDE of Tricia Barker, of whose experiences Dr. Jan Holden remarks: “Any material explanation that’s been attempted doesn’t account for some of the things that happen in NDEs.”

Hell and Our Impudence

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“The Harrowing of Hell,” between 1586 and 1638, by Jacob van Swanenburgh. Oil on copper. (Public Domain)

Why mention, then, this aspect of mortal existence, a heaven or hell beyond our individual deaths? Because it seems to me that the willpower of the West is weakening: We are all for heaven, we all want that, for we continue to believe that surely heaven is “there.” But hell? No way, that’s not compatible with a loving God, and a “loving” God wouldn’t do this and wouldn’t do that, because—what?—because we know better!

We know better than God what he would or wouldn’t do. We say that it would be unfair to put babies in hell because they haven’t been baptized; it would be unfair to put pagans in hell because they hadn’t heard of Christianity; it would be unfair to condemn anybody, really, because they had reasons for doing what they were doing and it seemed right to them at the time. And so we generate lists of objections to the afterlife, which are entirely rational in that they are intellectual arguments, but these arguments always ignore the pervasive testimonies of human experiences.

It’s like arguing that the Declaration of Independence cannot have happened in 1776 because we cannot produce a double-blind experiment to demonstrate it.

And the thing is, it’s not just atheists and secularists who are undermining the concept of hell—they simply mock it. But Christians themselves are getting into the act—the act of undermining not just a Christian belief, but also a belief (as I have outlined) endemic to human societies throughout the ages: that hell exists, that hell is real.

Undermining Reality

The fine theologian Professor Keith Ward, for example, who has written many powerful apologetics for Christianity, argues in his book “Re-Thinking Christianity” for universalism, the belief that everybody gets saved and no one is condemned.

To justify this belief, he invokes various biblical texts. These generally run along these lines: Since God is all-powerful and wills only good, then everyone must conform to his will; ergo, nobody can be culpable because who can resist his will?

But this argument is part of that process by which human reasoning—logical reasoning—again ignores or replaces both revelation and human experience; for whatever else they are, the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religions are historical religions. They are based on testimonies of what actually happened.

For me personally, the most terrifying line in the Bible that unmistakably demarcates the existence of hell is the almost throwaway remark that Christ makes when he says of Judas Iscariot: “It would have been good for that man if he had not been born” (Matthew 26. v 24). Better that he had not been born? Does that really sound as if there is no hell, even if the speaker is the Christ of love and mercy? I think not.

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“The Fall of the Rebel Angels,” circa 1554, by Frans Floris I. Oil on panel. Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, in Antwerp, Belgium. (Public Domain)

All the great traditions from time immemorial have testified to the possibility of losing one’s soul and its dreadful consequences. Here “consequences” is exactly the right word, because it is the avoidance of consequences that is at the root of why the modern world does not wish to accept this unpleasant reality or prospect. I say unpleasant but, of course, as Dorothy L. Sayers observed, “Hell is the enjoyment of your own way forever.”

People who go to hell choose to; it’s what they want. It’s their true heart’s desire, so it’s not as if we have to think about it as something terrible that a vengeful God imposes on us or them. In a sense, we repay ourselves for our own sins; or as a traditional Buddhist aphorism puts it: “You will not be punished for your anger. You’ll be punished by your anger.”

To be clear, then, if you believe in the freedom of the human will and in God, it follows that there is a possibility of human beings turning away from God, eternally away. Hence, the logic of hell.

Actually, the concept of hell is unpopular to the exact degree that freedom of the will is unpopular: Today, we all want to be—what?—victims. In other words, the abolition of the concept of hell is no more, no less, than our attempt to avoid any responsibility for our actions; we wish to assert all our rights, surely, we do, but our responsibilities? Their consequences? There’s the modern rub. We don’t like them!

The Bible quote is from the New American Standard version.

James Sale
James Sale has had over 50 books published, most recently, “Mapping Motivation for Top Performing Teams” (Routledge, 2021). He has been nominated for the 2022 poetry Pushcart Prize, won first prize in The Society of Classical Poets 2017 annual competition, performing in New York in 2019. His most recent poetry collection is “HellWard.” For more information about the author, and about his Dante project, visit
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