Images of Evil and Eternal Torment

An eternal Hell replete with the torment of conscious, human souls has been a rather distasteful doctrine for many believing Christians and skeptics alike. While it is not my goal here to offer a deductive argument for the traditional view, I would like to suggest a more intuitive defense of the traditional view of Hell.

Broadly, the traditional view claims that Hell is something like a place or mode of existence, whereby free human agents, who, during the course of their natural life, refused to repent of sin and come into a knowledge of the true God through faith in Jesus Christ. They thereby persist in hatred of and rebellion against the Almighty Creator, the Triune God, and subsequently endure eternal suffering.

That said, this particular post assumes a view sometimes called the “continuing sin view,”1see Shawn Bawulski, “Annihilationism, Traditionalism, and the Problem of Hell,” Philosphia Christi, vol. 12, no. 1, 2010, 72-73. which suggests that unrepentant human agents after natural death continue in their rebellion against God and their hatred of all that is, or that relates to Him (e.g the angels, the saints, and the new creation). Further, it assumes that the imago Dei is an ontological reality that God does not, although He could, eliminate from existence all-together, i.e. this is not an annihilationist, or “finite punishment” view.2ibid., 65-68. On this account, existence itself, even existence in a realm of eternal torment, is “better” than non-existence.

How then to appeal to the truth of conscious, eternal torment (torment being equivalent to something like conscious awareness of the lack of God and all the good that exists) without making  propositional claims to defend it? Well, perhaps one answer can be found, as often is the case, in the realm of the arts.

It seems to me that one reason we tend to emotionally react so swiftly and so disfavorably toward the traditional doctrine of Hell is because, pre-theoretically, we see human beings as both innocent and good, and, therefore, unworthy of punishment. Most of us, when we first think of people going to Hell, do not immediately think of Goebbels, Dahmer, bin Laden, or Gacy (although upon reflection those names will probably pop up sooner than later). Rather, we think either of our own self, or we think of our friends, our family members, those we personally like, or possibly of historical figures that seem morally upright and good, but who are not Christian (e.g. Ghandi). Our initial sense then, when confronted with the doctrine of Hell, is something like a knee-jerk reaction against the thought that God would send such innocent and helpless people to such a horrible and cruel place.

In other words, our imagination of the human person in Hell might match something like the old oil paintings from the Middle Ages, the ones that show vicious, horned and winged beasts pitch-forking hapless, little stick-figure men and women into the infernal netherworld. “What injustice” our imaginations cry! So, perhaps our initial image of those eternally damned souls looks something like this:

Poor, little, stick-figure people going to hell (note the bishop!)

But, perhaps our initial, knee-jerk image of what souls going to hell might look like (or might actually be like, if external bodily features and internal moral qualities become identical with each other in the afterlife) is fatally flawed. After all, how many can peer into the thoughts and desires of even our closest friends, our neighbor, or our spouse? How many of us really know what another person’s internal life is like, or what it will wind up being like? How many times, for example, have we read in the news of police officers finding a literal “house of horrors” owned and operated by the “nice couple down the street?”

In truth, none of us really know what kind of evil lurks in people’s minds, although we are starting to see more of it. Further, if it is possible that the internal, mental states of a free human agent, and the physical body of those embodied states come to reflect each other more closely, i.e. if the body actually exhibits externally and visibly those evil thoughts and desires, which now are immaterial and intangible, then perhaps we might imagine our “poor, damned soul” somewhat differently.

One of the great hedonists of the 19th century, Oscar Wilde, did, in fact, imagine this very mingling of the moral and physical natures of the human person in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. In the story, Dorian’s outward physical appearance remains not only in tact, but as charismatic and pristine as one could hope for in a vibrant, young man. But, the moral character of his inner self is projected onto an actual painting of him, an image of the man that degenerates into a visible representation of the corruption and malevolence of Dorian’s soul as he commits sin after self-serving sin.

In the movie version of Wilde’s novel, the Chicago artist, Ivan Albright, was commissioned to paint two actual portraits, ones that would, on camera, capture both the before and after of Dorian’s moral nature. The “after” version, the one that appears first at the end of the film, now hangs in the Chicago Art Institute. An in-person look at this 7’ tall monstrosity might, nay, definitely should, beyond a shadow of a doubt, unless one is himself a psychopath, socio-path, or otherwise deranged lunatic, strike dread into the heart of the observer. Albright understood sin and corruption in a way that many of us refuse to acknowledge, and he put it into an artistic medium that we usually equate with invocations of beauty and inspiration. This painting does not do that.

Grotesque monster going to hell

So, perhaps it becomes somewhat more palatable to us, even if not logically comprehensible, that God might actually banish a thing like this to an eternal, conscious torment. The problem, I think, is not that we wouldn’t want a thing like this damned to hell, but rather, we don’t think that human beings can actually become things like this. However, if what Albright has depicted in his own finite, human imagination represents but a shadow of what a truly evil soul might actually be like, then I, for one, have no real psychological or emotional struggle with desiring such grotesqueness to be thrown out into the outer darkness. 

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