I struggled with the title of this post. Something that would capture the essence of the topic and also get someone’s attention. But it certainly is risky. Any association of the two words “hell” and “love” can sound more like the musings of a jaded lover coming off a failed relationship: a bit of a metaphor for a painful human experience. But I intend no metaphor here nor do I have any obsession with the graphical images of eternal punishment; I’ll even admit that I have never read Dante’s Inferno, though that admission may cost me some “reputation points”. What I am “obsessed” with is love, true love, “mutual gift of self” love, the only real source of lasting fulfillment and happiness. But this love is not possible without human freedom, and human freedom cannot exist without the possibility of hell.
Love and hell have at least one thing in common. They are topics that are frequently talked about but almost never thought about. Love is spoken of as a feeling, an attraction; a wonderful but primarily emotional experience. Hell brings to mind thoughts of physical pain and torture; a horrible, but again, a primarily emotional experience. Reason has little to do with either viewpoint; in the case of love, the emotional viewpoint can go as far as to say that reason cannot have anything to do with love, that “subjecting” love to reason destroys it!
Feelings and emotions, which often powerfully and wonderfully accompany the experience of love, are not, in themselves, actually love. For the most part, they are almost completely involuntary but, more important, they are entirely subjective. They do not engage the whole person in their innermost freedom. Love, on the other hand, engages persons in their conscious exercise of freedom in a mutual FREE gift of self to one another. The emphasis is on “free”: it cannot be coerced or forced. One cannot be forced to give themselves to another, nor can the gift of another be forced upon one. Any attempt to force or coerce love can only succeed in destroying it.
Though love must be freely given and received, it is essential for our happiness that we do so. We are made “in the image and likeness of God”, who is subsistent love. We possess a nature that is fulfilled in love, that is completed in opening ourselves to relationship with other selves, and ultimate with “the Other”, God. “Heaven” is the definitive form of this state of openness to God and to God’s gift of self to us. It is the eternal joy of seeing God “as he is”, the full realization of all the potentialities of human nature. While this view of heaven ultimately involves the gift of faith, any deep examination of human anthropology in general and one’s own inner experience in particular confirms that our desire is infinite and cannot be fulfilled in anything less than the Infinite.
“Hell” is the definitive and eternal experience of the rejection of this love. No one is “thrown into hell”, they freely choose it over relationship with God. Ultimately it is a choice of self over other, of prideful independence from other over willing acceptance of our fulfillment only in the complete openness to love of other. The pain of hell stems from the truth that the person rejecting love is still a person created in the image and likeness of God who will only be fulfilled in love. The definitive choice to reject love is therefore also a choice to reject the only possible source of complete fulfillment, complete happiness. The person is ultimately rejecting their very self.
St Theresa of Avila described a vision in which she was granted an experience of “her place in hell”. She described many Dantesque trappings of what hell is like. But she described as the true horror of that experience was not this painful punishment inflicted from outside, but the inner experience that her soul was “tearing itself to pieces”. It was a very graphic reminder that hell is primarily self inflicted.
Hell is a mystery bound up with and inseparable from the mystery of love. Both love and hell are each individually not possible unless the other is also possible. This possibility and inseparability is a direct consequence of that gift which is the defining trait of our human nature, that of personal freedom. Other or self, Love or Hell, it’s our choice.