In discussion between Christians of differing denominations, or between believing Christians and those who don't espouse it, one question that comes up reliably is the problem of reconciling the concept of Hell with the concept of God as unconditional love. When we face these theological challenges it is no good to back off from the plain interpretation of the question; therefore we must ask how unconditional love consents to the vast overkill of an eternity of torture as retribution for a few years in the adult life of a human being.
That is how most people think of Hell, I believe: as a place of punishment at worst or justice at best. I also notice that there seems to have been no evolution or development in the concept of Hell, in that there is a hodge-podge of ideas about it in the Old Testament and the New Testament both. We can't point to a definitive idea and say that it is what we believe in. An analysis of the idea of Hell is a personal journey.
It is a journey that we don't even have to make. Some people who value certainty more than faith (and if you are certain you are not exercising faith at all) will pick and choose the doctrine of Hell that suits them and adopt it. In that context it is not at all surprising that those with anger issues will pine for their targeted victims to spend eternity suffering, while those who are compassionate may minimize the teachings or point out the inconsistencies in belief about it.
The idea of a burning lake of fire with hapless victims thrashing about in torment forever is an invention of Nineteenth-Century fundamentalism. In the story of Lazarus the beggar and the rich man, Jesus mentions nothing about lakes of fire. So we are really on our own to try to make sense of justice after death and what agrees with the New Testament concept of God as the loving Father of us all.
But what I have thought up is the idea of Hell as a place of quarantine for those who leave this world and are unable, for some reason, to cross over into the Light at the end of what King David calls the Valley of the Shadow of Death. At some point, when our earthly body has died and we are irrevocably on the other side, it does seem that some human spirits do not move on.
These former human beings are sometimes called Earthbound Spirits, and the television program called Ghost Whisperer tried to deal with the concept based on the theology of its writers and producers. I watch it quite often myself and it seems to me that it is quite possible that what we call Hell is simply a holding ground for spirits who cannot leave their earthly baggage behind.
Some earthbound spirits hang around the places in which they lived, while other spirits who cannot cross over into the Light at the end of the Valley seem to have this other place to go, a place that we don't understand (in my opinion) because it is not a place of punishment but rather a refuge to recover from the death experience and sort out emotions and intent.
Witness accounts of spirit encounters indicate that sometimes they seem to want earthly justice, sometimes they are possessed by anger over the circumstances of their lives, and sometimes they don't want to leave their families. There may be other issues. But there is also a difference between human spirits and the incomplete decaying psychic energy that is at the core of "hauntings," in which bits and pieces of old events seem to be imprinted on a certain location.
One of the most famous is the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where spirit troops seem to be marching in drill formation at times when the park rangers know for sure that no real, human re-enactors are not practicing in their reproductions of Civil War uniforms. They have been seen by Congressmen touring the park.
Guam, where I used to live, is imprinted with all kinds of psychic energy left over from the battles that took place there during the Second World War. I don't know how many people told me that they saw weird apparitions of soldiers during their night drives in the area of the village called Agat, where there was a major beach landing of American troops.
So the actual human spirits who leave their bodies in some kind of unsatisfied psychic state may find themselves in a place that allows them some kind of post-death time to decide what to do next. This is my idea of Hell, and I also believe that those who are there may decide at any time that they want to cross into the Light, and do so. Such is my idea of the concept of God as unconditional love.
I also think of the next life as a place to make amends in some way for wrongdoing before death; it comforts me to think of someone like a Hitler spending eternity somehow making atonement for his responsibility for so much human suffering. In a smaller way, we may perhaps have the opportunity to do good ourselves when we are no longer confined to the time frame in which we lived our lives.
It comforts many people to be sure--they think--that they know what will happen to them after they die. But for others, like me, it is better to face the fact that we do not really know what will happen. In that case we can hope that, believing as we do that human death is not the end of human life, we can go on into the next life with hopes and ambitions that there is a future although we cannot know what it is.