Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 8 – The Concentration Camp and Separation from God

There are two common interpretations of hell today that I think are particular troublesome. Both are variations of “the basement” in the two-story house metaphor I discussed in an earlier post. Both tend to be linked to descriptions of heaven and hell as “actual places” that are in some sense distinct and separate from our reality. And both portray God and reality in ways I find disturbing and inconsistent with traditional Christian views.

I tend to think of the first view as the “Concentration Camp.” There are a lot of variations on this view, but its central feature is that those human beings who are not “saved” (with differing definitions and sometimes different words used) will be relegated by God to some “actual” location or place where they will suffer in torment forever. In a common SBC version of this view, the earth is seen as fleeting and will eventually be destroyed. That reduces the metaphor of the two story house with a basement to just the second floor and the basement. Those are the only facets of reality that endure forever.

The problems with the Concentration Camp perspective of ultimate reality seem legion to me. The immediate question to me seems obvious. This view places a gulag in the middle of “paradise” where people we have loved are being tortured. In what possible sense is that paradise? Doesn’t that really just turn “paradise” into another form of hell?

This view also turns God into the Torturer-in-Chief. Instead of a God even vaguely like anything we see in Jesus of Nazareth, we see an angry God who has a problem with forgiveness. We see a God whose thirst for blood and suffering in recompense for “wrongs” committed against him can never be satiated. I’m unable to understand why anyone would worship this God. It makes no sense to me at all.

Probably in reaction against the above, I’ve often heard hell described in a similar overall framework, but with the torture characterized instead as the pain of “eternal separation from God.” This view is not as bad as the above and, as we’ll explore later, has elements of truth in it. However, the way it is typically explained has some serious problems.

The first problem is the way this idea is usually framed. A typical introduction to this idea begins along these lines. “God is holy and can’t be around evil.” There are a variety of ways this idea can be phrased, but that’s the gist of it. I’ve explore elsewhere what “holy” actually means, so I won’t go into that here. The idea that God can’t be around evil is deeply flawed and has no connection to anything I can find in the Holy Scriptures or Christian tradition. After all, if we see and understand God through Jesus of Nazareth, what do we see? We see Jesus embracing sinners and unclean people. We see Jesus eating and drinking with the people with whom you don’t dine. And he takes a lot of flak for it.

But that’s hardly a new image of God. One of the very first pictures we get of God in the creation narrative shows him seeking out the man and the woman, caring for them, and clothing them. God’s entire relationship with Israel is one of them being unfaithful and God seeking them out again and forgiving them. God has no problem being around evil. Evil undoubtedly has a problem surviving in God’s light, but God is not driven from the presence of evil. Evil and darkness do not have the same reality God has.

From there, the “separation from God” view devolves into a sort of “concentration camp lite” idea. God can’t be around evil, so if your evil is not “covered” by Jesus so God doesn’t see it anymore, you have to be relegated to this actual place where you suffer not from direct torture but by being deprived of the light and presence of God – because God is not in this “hell”.

And that, of course, creates another problem. Tied to the idea that God can’t be around evil is the idea that Hell is an actual place where God is absent. But that utterly contradicts the true Christian view of reality. Nothing has independent existence. In the Christian view, as I’ve already explored, everything was created by Christ and is sustained moment to moment by him. As we see in Isaiah, all creation is full of God’s glory.

It’s not possible for anything or anyone in the whole creation to exist and actually be “separated” from God. There is no place where God is not present, filling, and actively sustaining it nor is it possible for such a place to ever exist.

These are hardly the only two flawed ideas about heaven, earth, and hell. But I wanted to highlight them because they seem to be very widespread in the circles in which I move. A variation of one or the other of these ideas probably describes what the majority of Christians I personally know in “real-life” believes. Many if not most of them practice our faith better than I do, so at the individual level these distortions do not necessarily create problems. But when they begin to dominate our collective proclamation, these ideas and the God they portray are often rightly perceived as repellent and easily dismissed.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted August 7, 2010 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    Scott, your essay reminded me of some talks given by Pope John Paul II many years ago. I googled and found a reference :

    “In three controversial Wednesday Audiences, Pope John Paul II pointed out that the essential characteristic of heaven, hell or purgatory is that they are states of being of a spirit (angel/demon) or human soul, rather than places, as commonly perceived and represented in human language. This language of place is, according to the Pope, inadequate to describe the realities involved, since it is tied to the temporal order in which this world and we exist. ”

    If you are interested, you can read more. Here is the link: http://www.ewtn.com/library/papaldoc/jp2heavn.htm.

    What I get from reading the Pope’s words is that human language falls short when trying to describe something that transcends temporal life.

  2. Posted August 7, 2010 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the link. I’ve often enjoyed both Pope John Paul II’s and Pope Benedict XVI’s writings and those above were no exception. There are many places I would agree and some where I take a different tangent. My perspective in this arena is probably more in line with the Orthodox perspective than the Roman Catholic, especially when it comes to discussions of purgatory. Still I do appreciate the way the Roman Catholic Church has moved away from some of the places where it found itself in the late middle ages.

    As I mentioned, this post is part of a series I did, so it’s not a complete thought in and of itself. I picked it for the Saturday Evening Blog Post because I hear a lot of people today discussing hell in terms similar to the ones I outlined. And this was the post in which I explored the problems with those perceptions. I dealt with better ways to view reality in other posts in the series.

    Thanks for adding your thoughts (and the link) to my post!

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  • By Scott Morizot on July 2, 2010 at 10:39 am

    New at Faith & Food: Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 8 – The Concentration Camp and Separation from God http://bit.ly/cGUdjn

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