The traditional concept of hell as a place of eternal damnation and punishment for the wicked does not seem to be a very viable idea for many modern people on a spiritual path. Most reject it out of hand as a relic of a past primitive belief system. I would tend to agree with them, but with a twist.
One problem with the concept of “eternal” punishment is in the translation from the original language of the New Testament, for example, take Matthew 25:41:
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
The original Koine Greek word underlined above is αἰώνιος which transliterated into English is AIONOS and that comes from αἰών which transliterated into English as AION. The Blue Letter Bible (BLB) Lexicon gives three possible translations:
- for ever, an unbroken age, perpetuity of time, eternity
- the worlds, universe
- period of time, age
The modern word “eon” comes from AION. An eon is admittedly a long period of time, but it is not forever. Matthew 24:2 uses this AION also:
As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
This corresponds more closely to the 3rd definition given from the BLB as a “period of time” or “age” and I think this more closely reflects the original meaning. Christ would return at the end of the age and no punishment is eternal. Punishment (or a time for correction) is for a period of time, the amount of time required to learn the necessary lessons to move on. Think of karma.
If you are you are old enough you might remember a popular TV series in the 1960s called The Twilight Zone. It included a fair amount of science fiction and fantasy that always had a surprise twist at the end.
I remember one episode where it starts out with a gangster getting killed in a gunfight with the police. He wakes up and is greeted by a man who is his guide to the world he finds himself in after death. It seems unbelievably pleasant. He can pretty much have anything he wants. He particularly likes to gamble so he goes to a beautiful casino and he can’t lose. Not even once. There are beautiful women everywhere who fawn over his every word and will jump in the sack with him anytime he wants. The finest food and booze are at his disposal just for the asking.
No matter what he does he can’t lose, but after a while it starts getting a little boring. Part of the spice of life was the potential to lose. But not here.
Eventually he is talking with his guide and he asks him a question that has been bothering him ever since he got here. He says, “So I wasn’t such a nice guy in life, so how did a guy like me end up in heaven?” The guide looks him in the eyes and replies, “Who told you this was heaven?”
Exit episode with the guide howling with devilish laughter.
The reason I tell this story is that perhaps we need to rethink what hell is, and where it is. Maybe you are in hell right now and just don’t know it? (… Soundtrack: devilish laughter!)
Author Joseph J. Dewey has an inspiring story called The Parable of Decision which is well worth your time to read. In the story four men die and wake on a path and are greeted by a mysterious man who instructs them:
“Welcome, my friends’, he said. ‘You are approaching your new home and I am here to instruct you as much as is permitted. You notice there are two paths before you: One of them takes you to Heaven, a place more beautiful than you can imagine. The other takes you to Hell, a land full of darkness, despair and wretched individuals. All I can tell you at this point is you are to choose a path, but once you reach your destination you cannot turn back. Once you get to Heaven you will stay there, or once you get to Hell you will stay there. One more word I can say. Do not be frightened, for that reward you get in the end will be that which you deserve. Go forth confident that if you have led a just life, you will reap as you have sowed. You must proceed one at a time and each walk the path alone.’”
One of the things you learn in the story is that if you find yourself in hell you can work to turn hell into heaven. The other thing you learn is that there is no apparent end to the path. You really should read The Parable of Decision.
If you think about it, and watch the evening news regularly, for a lot of people this world is not unlike a kind of hell. Disease, famine, war, all the horses of the apocalypse parade across our TV every night. Today it may be Syria, or the brutal dictatorship of North Korea, or drug cartels murdering with abandon.
Like in the parable, perhaps the idea is not to give up, but to see that in time we have the possibility of turning hell into heaven. Like in the parable the only thing that is possibly eternal is the path.