The Insignificance of Hell

For the first-time reader, it is a surprise. C. S. Lewis (the character in his “dream,” The Great Divorce) asks his guide, George MacDonald, where he came from, when he came out of the Grey Town (which is, for those who stay there, hell)? He came by a bus which had flown up into the air and landed on the outskirts of what is (for those who stay there) heaven. Where had he come from?

His guide bends down to the earth and picks out a tiny crack in the ground between two blades of grass. He can’t say for sure it was from that particular crack, but it was from something like it, he says. Meaning: the trip from hell to heaven was not just a movement in space, it was a movement of expansion. Hell is about as close to nothing as anything can be.

It’s insignificant.

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When Dante gets to the very center of the Inferno, the lowest place of hell, it’s the center of the earth, and he finds there Satan. Satan has a three-faced head, and in each of his three mouths he is chewing, forever, the greatest traitors of all time. (One of them is Judas.) Satan himself is frozen in ice—it’s all ice there. The center of hell, in other words, is frozen existence—in Dante’s imagination. I like to think of this as something like “absolute zero,” the temperature, never quite reached, at which all motion completely ceases. It’s absolute zero at the center of hell. Not fire, but its opposite: complete inaction. Nothing happens.

In this view also, hell is insignificant.

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Now a “nothing” can be a very significant nothing. If you are driving along a road and the bridge is out, the lack of a bridge can be mortally significant, particularly if you don’t stop in time. “Nothing” (where there ought to be something) can hurt us grievously, even mortally.

But we shouldn’t think of hell as a frightening counter-reality to the reality of God. God just is reality. The opposite of God is non-being. It’s nothing.

There was a elderly woman in my parish, long ago, who had been trained as a philosopher. She once said, quoting an old proverb, that she would choose heaven for the climate, but hell for the company.

It’s a charming quote. We think of heaven as a very pleasant place, but we think people are interesting only insofar as they have some sin, break some rules. Interesting people may be hard to live with (they may be cruel to their spouses), but somehow that’s what makes them interesting to be around.

Not true. Absolutely not true! There is no interesting company in hell. There is only smallness, inactivity, near-nothingness. Hell is the ultimate insignificance.

Out & About. The next “Good Books & Good Talk” seminar will be on Sunday, March 10, at Incarnation, Dallas, at 6pm. We’ll discuss a story by James Joyce called “The Dead.” It’s in his collection called Dubliners, and (I note) there are many copies available at the Dallas Public Library. But it is also a lovely book to own. The story’s action takes place on Christmas Eve, and anyone who reads it is welcome to the conversation. However, to participate you must be alive!

Looking further ahead: On Sunday, March 24, I’ll give the spring theology lecture at 6 o’clock: “What Good Is Suffering?” I will endeavor that it not be a practicum.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."