In my talks in various places about Growing in Love and Wisdom, my conversion from Catholicism to Buddhism and back to Catholicism, and the continuing influence of my years as a Buddhist on my Christian prayer practice, there are certain questions that I get with some frequency. One of those questions that I am often asked is, “Do you believe in hell?”
My answer to that question depends on what we mean by hell.
Wen I was a child, the image of hell I had was of a fiery pit with Satan (who in my childhood was red with horns) holding a pitchfork to keep everyone in flames. Hell was an awful place you got locked up forever as punishment if you died with moral sin on your soul.
If that is the Hell someone has in mind when they ask do you believe in Hell, my answer is no. I don’t believe there is a place (or places – Tibetan Buddhist cosmology has a number of hell realms) somewhere where we get locked up to experience torture for all of eternity because of the sins we have committed. But that just says I don’t believe in a grade school or metaphorical understanding of Hell.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines hell as “The state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed, reserved for those who refuse by their own free choice to believe and be converted from sin, even to the end of their lives.”
A state of self-exclusion. A state of remaining separated from God forever by our own free choice.
In that sense of hell, the answer to the question is that I believe in hell to the extent that I accept the theoretical possibility that someone could irrevocably reject God and God’s love. I accept the possibility that one could choose separation from God. I have to understand that – because God has given us freedom – it is possible that someone could make that choice.
That is how I answer the question, with this addition: I’d like to think no one inhabits that hell. That because God keeps trying to bring us back, hell is an empty place.
And that is a happy hope: For me, the banquet just won’t be the same if we’re not all there.