Can loved ones be in hell? I think everyone who believes in hell would say, “Of course.” But this poses some logical problems for me.
In Veggie Tales’ Jonah, the Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything define compassion for us: “Compassion is when you see that someone needs help, and you want to help them.” It could also be said that you “let someone else’s trouble trouble you.” But how do the troubles of those in hell not trouble those in heaven who, I assume, tend to be loving, compassionate people? Is heaven possible in a world with a populated hell?
In The Great Divorce, CS Lewis wants to say it is. It is possible to love those in hell, which in his grand metaphor is a greytown filled with those determined to hate the world and themselves, and not to be made miserable by that love, even if they are our dearest loved ones. Lewis wants to say that if there is a hell then the Veggie Tales view of compassionate love does not work, because then hell would hold heaven hostage.
My trouble is that the Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything have a good definition. My understanding of love seems to necessitate letting others hijack your emotions. As Mr. Holton, my 9th grade English teacher, said about having kids, “It’s like letting your heart walk around outside your body.” That makes sense to me. That is how my marriage feels, or having good friends, or having a god you love, or a dog you cherish, or loving anything at all ever. A true lover cannot care about the self-inflicted emotional distress of those they love without that distress in some way translating into distress for themselves. Distress is distress even if deserved.
Because love connects us, in a world of hate, all suffering is local. It’s quarantined. In a world of love, pain rides veins of sympathy, slowly spreading throughout the world to make us all miserable. Maybe God made the world that way purposefully. If we all loved each other, joy and misery would be universal. That also means that those veins of sympathy would intertwine heaven and hell.
So, is compassion not good, or does it somehow become not good after Judgement Day? Does compassion need to somehow accommodate corollaries (for example, another’s troubles only bothers you when they are not self-inflicted or deserved)? How can it? Will we not have real compassion or love for people in hell? Or, will hell be empty? I have no answers.
Maybe God cuts people off from his love because he loves others and must be allowed to be happy for their sake, otherwise the pain of the former will spread. Maybe hell could mean being completely forgotten. I cannot have compassion on someone if I do not remember they exist. But while God can make me forget, can he forget? I doubt it. Even if he is the only one who remembers that there are people in hell, wouldn’t his love of people who are getting tortured torture him? Is heaven good for us and miserable for God?
I think the magnitude of suffering dictates in part how bad we feel for even self-inflicted pain. Lewis’ “greytown” seems less awful than fiery torment. Even if fiery torment is self-inflicted, if we love them in any meaningful sense, we will feel bad, right? Aren’t we called to love our enemies? Is it a big step from that to love the damned?
But maybe my definition of love is incomplete. Maybe more central to love is caring about someone else’s wellbeing more than your own. In doing this, you throw yourself wide to the afflictions of compassion, but misery is avoided, because this sort of love is impossible without something else: a radical humility. You cannot care about someone else more than yourself if you care for yourself an infinite amount. Have you ever been loved by someone who is not humble? You haven’t. It’s impossible. Humility makes love possible, and part of humility is not taking on cares and woes that are not yours. You are not responsible for everything if you do not think of yourself as having power over everything. “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Somehow, maybe, by giving up on yourself, you can care about others, but that care does not pollute your happiness, because you have given up on yourself. As Tyler Durten says in Fight Club, “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.” As Victor Frankyl notes in Man’s Search for Meaning, you have to give yourself up and devote yourself to some larger purpose to be happy. As Jesus says in Matthew, “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.”
A radical humility is more central to our faith than anything else (my favorite passage is the Christ Hymn in Philippians). Maybe radical humility is what saves hell from destroying heaven. But at times it feels like alot of bullshit. Christ’s call to die to self is an obnoxiously internal command. I wish I could just do some hail Mary’s, observe Friday fasts, make a pilgrimage, and do stuff that makes me feel Christian and good. I long for legalism. But Christianity is an immensely internal experience. Humility, love, faith, God…I cannot measure it, see it, record it, or describe it. I hardly understand it.
So of course it would feel like bullshit, and of course it might be. It just makes me crazy.
These are ramblings. Please take them as such.