In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis retells the epic journey of Dante from hell to heaven in a way that should be readily accessible to modern readers. In the opening scene, the protagonist runs into a small crowd of people in what otherwise appears to be a dreary ghost town. They are getting ready to board a bus for the ride of a lifetime—a brief holiday from hell in heaven, or a final release from purgatory, depending on how one reads the story.
It’s a sort of abbreviated and modernized version of Dante’s Divine Comedy, but the question raised in Lewis’ story—what happens to us after we die?—would nonetheless be a head-scratcher for many Americans.
Our culture is one that denies death and worships youth. We pump poison into our faces, jam silicon into our bodies, and bathe ourselves in all sorts of crazy concoctions in an effort to delay the bodily dilapidation that come with aging. As cultural critic Christopher Lasch has pointed out, what was once viewed as the natural aging process has become a medical problem to be solved.
As for death itself, our society has done everything it can to make the inevitable invisible. As a New York Times writer recently observed, the West has spent the last century “sequestering the dying and dead away from everyday life,” which is why the elderly have been exiled to nursing homes while the bodies of the dead are “secreted behind hospital curtains.” Little wonder, then, that our culture is so obsessed with alternatives to the normal process of death. One has to look no further than the Twilight vampire series or the endless hordes of zombies on shows like The Walking Dead to see to what lengths the American imagination will go to distract itself from the real thing.
Ultimately, the denial of death is really a denial of life after death.
With the decline of faith, people are increasingly unsure about where they are going in the afterlife—or whether there will even be an afterlife. Therefore, it becomes necessary to postpone and push to the fringes of our consciousness the event that brings it all about: death.
When pressed by pollsters—if not their pastors—to say what they really believe about the afterlife, Americans consistently express belief in heaven, but not hell. One can only imagine that the concept of purgatory, where the saved still suffer, would fare no better in such surveys, not to mention limbo, the no-man’s land between perdition and paradise where unbaptized babies are reputed to go.
Hell is usually the biggest sticking point when it comes to conversations with unbelievers and skeptics about the afterlife. The reason is simple and it always comes in the form of a question: How could a loving God send someone to eternal punishment for their sins? Maybe the worst of criminals deserves a hundred or even a few thousand years in the lake fire of hell, the thinking goes—but eternity, isn’t that going a bit too far?
To critics, hell is possible only if there isn’t a loving God. But it turns out it’s only by taking the reality of a loving God seriously that hell—along with purgatory, limbo, and heaven—makes any sense.
Hell as Separation: Hell is traditionally defined as the place where sinners suffer eternal punishment for their sins. As correct as this definition is, it doesn’t do justice to the fundamental reason that sinners end up there in the first place. The Church teaches that sin separates us from God. As Christians, we know that the barrier between us and God is bridged through the Cross. As Catholic Christians, we know that the saving grace won for us on the Cross is initially imparted to us through baptism and then is renewed repeatedly in Confession, which has aptly been renamed the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Hell, then, is the inevitable destination of all those who have not become reconciled to God through Christ in this life. Put simply, hell is eternal separation from God.