It’s a saying that I’ve heard many times before. “Hell is other people.” That is, the definition of Hell–the worst thing ever–is comprised of those little annoyances and irritants we get from people around us. The cap left off the toothpaste, the milk left out of the fridge, the high-pitched shrill laughter that hurts your ears, the singing along with the radio. Or deeper: the snobbery, the rejection, the insults, and hurt: all the pains that we can only get from rubbing shoulders with other human beings. As a natural loner, and one who enjoys the occasional time without anyone else around, this made sense to me.
But lately it’s been occurring to me that Hell is quite the opposite.
My revelation came while I was trying to fix that still-malfunctioning printer, and contemplating calling tech support. I’ve been putting it off because of what comes with tech support: the automated answering machines, the red tape, the different divisions of a company that don’t talk to each other, the bureaucracy. Not too long ago, I sat on a tech support line for two and a half hours, trying to put through an airline reservation after the airline’s website glitched up. And if the techie tries to put you on hold and accidentally disconnects you? You have to start all over again from the beginning.
As I examined the feelings that the thought “tech support phone line” evoked in me, I realized how powerful and universal those fears are. The fear of falling through the cracks. Of being unable to get through to a real person: of being trapped in some web of bureaucracy without any actual tangible human contact. Or worse, getting through to a real person and being unable to understand what they want of you. Isolation and separation. Heck, I’d pay the extra cash for a face-to-face techie or a Geek Squad house call any day.
And as I thought about this, I realized that those very emotions are the very emotions the Bible associates with Hell. After the imagery of fire, the next most common description of Hell is of being “outside” in “darkness” with “weeping.” (Protip: whips and pitchforks and torture are never mentioned.) In a parables regarding the last judgement, you have the God-figure not saying “Take him away to be tortured for all eternity!” but simply, “Depart from me” or “Throw him outside.” (Matt 7:23, 8:23, 22:13)
Hell is separation. It is isolation. It is being cut off from communion and community, from others and from God. Hell is being on the outside.
And I don’t know about you, but I would take the companionship of the most annoying person in the world rather than complete and total isolation. Hell isn’t other people–it’s being left to myself, being left to my own devices.
“Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ “But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.'” –Jesus of Nazareth
“In short, hell is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity… All God does in the end with people is give them what they most want, including freedom from himself.” –Timothy Keller
Contrast that with the depiction of heaven. If Hell is akin to that cut-off-from-contact tech-support isolation, what is heaven like? If the images that come to your mind involve anemic people sitting on clouds playing harps, then you should probably double-check the Bible’s depiction.
“Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude… shouting… ‘Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.’ …Then the angel said to me, “Write: ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!’ …I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.'” –John the Divine
Why describe heaven like a wedding reception? What does that mean?
I think of my own wedding, a scant month past. I think of the feelings that filled me at the reception. How I was surrounded by people who loved me, who loved my wife, and who were celebrating with me. I think of the dancing, of laughing and being silly together, of twirling about on the dance floor. And–most of all–of being united with one who loves me, and knowing that we would be together from now on.
If I’ve ever been close to heaven, it was then.
Heaven is the opposite of Hell, in that where Hell is separation, Heaven is union–an end to separation. Where Hell is isolation, Heaven is communion–with God and with others. Where Hell is the ultimate self-absorption, Heaven is the celebration of another. The metaphor of a wedding fits perfectly.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come… Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.” –Jesus of Nazareth