Hell is other people.
At least, that’s what French existentialist and Marxist Jean-Paul Sartre said. The line comes from his 1944 play Huis Clos (“No Exit,”) in which three damned souls discover that their eternal punishment is not fire-and-brimstone tortures such as abound in Dante’s Inferno, but rather to be locked in a room with the people who will most get on their nerves, to put it mildly, for all eternity.
Sartre’s “Hell is other people” line is usually taken as his commentary on the discomfort caused by living in community with other human beings. The most terrible, exasperating torment, in Sartre’s eyes, is the agony of soul caused by having to live forever alongside someone who drives you up the wall. Their annoying habits, their pettiness or cynicism or stupidity, their disposition and tastes that so frustratingly conflict with yours and require, if you are to live in communion with them, some sort of accommodation or concession of your own likes and desires—that, says Sartre, is Hell.
But another man, an English contemporary of Sartre, had a vastly different vision of Hell. In The Great Divorce, a novel written in 1945, C. S. Lewis made it shockingly clear that Hell is not being forced to live with others you hate; rather, real, genuine, horrible Hell is to be all alone at last with nothing but your sins; alone without any true communion with others or with God. Condemned souls, from Lewis’ point of view, are not souls who suffer because they are forced to be around people they don’t like; they suffer because they are utterly absorbed into themselves, and are left in the end with no solace from their own sins.
Like Huis Clos, Lewis’ novel dispenses with the typical depictions of hell as a place of physical torture; yet unlike Sartre’s play, The Great Divorce paints hell as a grey, mundane, dull town where people are constantly restless and dissatisfied, in increasing and agitated personal and spiritual isolation from one another even if they yet remain in some façade of a community. To be sure, they retain a sizeable contempt for their fellow sinners and even for the saints; the arrogant poet considers them all intellectual inferiors, the narrow-minded cynic thinks them all fools, and the self-satisfied apostate thinks them all unenlightened. Yet their punishment is not to be in company with such people, but to have isolated their souls from real and selfless relationship with an “other,” leaving them alone with their pride, or their cynicism, or their lust, or their selfishness.
The essential point Lewis is trying to make is that, in the end, Hell is not a punishment imposed by God upon unwilling, unfortunate souls. It is a deliberate, individual choice, a choice a soul makes freely. As Lewis’ “guide” through other-worldly regions explains: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it.” He goes on to clarify that at some point, a condemned soul decided it would rather keep a damning little sin, even if it cannot be happy with it, rather than have that sin taken away altogether. When that happens, a soul becomes practically swallowed up by its self-destroying sin; the soul almost ceases to be itself, and begins to be merely the stuff of its own sins.
Often, as flawed human beings we can be easily tempted to think our problem is other people. If only so-and-so wasn’t such a jerk, this wouldn’t be so frustrating; my life would get so much better if people just appreciated me. He is just so unreasonable; she whines all the time. Dealing with other people can be so trying an experience that we may despondently declare that someone is “giving us Hell.”
But Lewis’ insight is clear: Hell is not bearing with the (perhaps grave) faults of other people, but living willingly in our own. In reality, human community (“other people”) is our greatest opportunity to grow in charity; it sanctifies us in this life, and is one of the great joys of the next. Here on earth, living with “other people” is not our hell, but our Purgatory: it teaches us to learn about, cope with, and grow out of our own faults in order to function as best we can in a faulty human society. In heaven, at last, we will be relieved of our deficiencies and our sins will be erased from our souls, so that the “other people,” the community of saints and angels, will not be a burden but an everlasting joy—that exchange of mutual love with each other and with that all-important “other,” God, for all eternity.
While Sartre may have been on to something about the pain of living in community, he missed the other side of the coin: in a certain sense, Heaven is other people—because we cannot get there, and we cannot choose to be there, without being other-centered, without coming to live in the selfless communion of love with God and man.