Hell Is Other People. Or Is It?

Hell is other people.

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)

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.

credit: paintin.blogspot.com

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.


Lauren Enk


Lauren Enk is a student at Christendom College in Front Royal, VA, where she plans to major in English and minor in Philosophy. She writes as an editor for Christendom’s student newspaper, The Rambler, regularly posts opinion articles at her own blog, God’s Spies, and is a regular contributor to The Catholic Young Woman Blog.

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  • Lynda

    You say, quote: 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.

    So correct you are, and it is our fallen nature (sin) that separates us from the Love of one another and of God (for the “other people” you speak of most certainly can and will be you and I). Only through and in our Love relationship with God can we truly (“sincerely”) Love one another. We are the most loneliest people here, separated from one another by sin and death we struggle against the sincere Love that God wants us to have for one another. But He says if you Love Me you will Love one another… and so He shows us and gives to us a “more excellent Way” which is not the way of the world but the Way of His Love. And even in this “more excellent Way” we can Love our enemies, what a Good God we have!

  • Sadly many post vat 2 priests and bishops have preferred to take c s lewis version of hell over Jesus’s.Hell is not a boring gray town where evryone is caught up in their own selfishness.Its a real place with real flames,torments gnashing of teeth,demons and the worst kind of anguish.This is the real hell that Jesus taught,the early church fathers taught,all the 2000 years of popes and the greatest of saints taught and what the magisterium teaches.We also have the anedotal evidence of many who died went there and came back and radically changed their lives.C.S Lewis was a writer of fiction.Hell is real/Listen to God.

  • Voice of Reason

    The stupidity of humans is boundless. Stop propagating ignorance. There is no god, heaven, or hell. All living beings are survival machines, acting out the will of the mindless DNA molecule that has only one goal: replicate. The closest thing we have to an actual hell is, you guessed it, other people.

  • Frank

    You are the stupid one. He was using hell metaphorically, but it was over you ingenious head.

  • Voice of Reason

    Frank, obviously Sartre was using it as a metaphor. The fact that you thought that I didn’t know that reeks of the Dunning-Kruger effect and shows how ironically idiotic of a person you are.

    My post was a reaction to how the article writer and commentors did NOT take the quote as a metaphor.

  • Voice of Reason

    Lynda, you say “what a Good God we have!” only from your selfish point of view.
    But what about the 2/3 of the world that is living in extreme poverty, starving and suffering to the extreme? What a great God he must be to create all that suffering so the privileged few like me and you can live in comfort.

  • Voice of Reason

    Harry, how ironic that you discredit C.S. Lewis for being fiction. Your version of hell comes from another work of fiction: the Bible. Anecdotal “evidence” of people’s delusions isn’t evidence of Hell at all. There are people who claim to have seen unicorns and leprechauns, but you’d be quick to judge those people as insane. And seriously, “Listen to God”? One of the bigger evidences of his nonexistence is the fact that no one has ever heard him (Besides a few delusionals and their hallucinations of course).

    There isn’t a SINGLE bit of evidence of the existence of God. Science has made religion obsolete with its explanations for our origins based on actual evidence.

    Now I understand trying to argue with a theist about this is completely futile as the amount of ignorance and small mindedness required to be a theist in the first place will prevent you from accepting the truth. So don’t bother replying to my post. All I ask is that you start questioning what you “know” to be true.

    “All thinking men are atheists” -Ernest Hemingway

  • virtueorvice