A common image of hell in the Bible is that of fire. Fire disintegrates. Even in this life we can see the kind of soul disintegration that self-centeredness creates. We know how selfishness and self absorption leads to piercing bitterness, nauseating envy, paralyzing anxiety, paranoid thoughts, and the mental denials and distortions that accompany them. Now ask the question: "What if when we die we don't end, but spiritually our life extends into eternity?"
Hell, then, is the trajectory of a soul, living a self-absorbed, self-centered life, going on and on forever.
Jesus' parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16 supports this view of hell. Lazarus is a poor man who begs at the gate of a cruel rich man. They both die and Lazarus goes to heaven while the rich man goes to hell. There he looks up and sees Lazarus in heaven 'in Abraham's bosom':
--So he called to him "Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire." But Abraham replied "Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross from over there to us." He answered, "Then I beg you father, send Lazarus to my father's house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment!" Abraham replied, "They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them." "No father Abraham," he said. "but if someone from the dead goes to them they will repent." He said to him, "If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead."--
What is astonishing is that though their status's have now been reversed, the rich man seems to be blind to what has happened. He still expects Lazarus to be his servant and treats him as his water boy. He does not ask to get out of hell, but strongly implies that God never gave him or his family enough information about the afterlife. Commentators have noted the astonishing amount of denial, blame shifting, and spiritual blindness in this soul in hell. They have also noted that the rich man, unlike Lazarus, is never given a personal name. He is only called "a rich man", strongly hinting that since he had built his identity on his wealth rather than on God, once he lost his wealth he lost any sense of a self.
In short, hell is simply one's freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity.
We see this process 'writ small' in addictions to drugs, alcohol, gambling, and pornography. First, there is disintegration, because as time goes on you need more and more of the addictive substance to get an equal kick, which leads to less and less satisfaction. Second, there is isolation, as you increasingly blame others and circumstances in order to justify your behavior. "No one understands! Everyone is against me!" is muttered in greater and greater self-pity and self absorption. When we build our lives on anything but God, that thing - though a good thing - becomes an enslaving addiction, something we have to have to be happy. When you lose all humility you become out of touch with reality.
No one ever asks to leave hell. The very idea of heaven seems to them a sham.
In his fantasy, The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis describes a busload of people from hell who come to the outskirts of heaven. They are urged to leave behind the sins that trapped them in hell - but they refuse. Lewis' description of these people are striking because we recognize in them the self delusion and self absorption that are 'writ small' in our own addictions. Lewis writes:
"Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others...but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. There will be no YOU left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God 'sending us' to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE HELL unless it is nipped in the bud."
The people in hell are miserable, but Lewis shows us why. We see raging like unchecked flames their pride, their paranoia, their self pity, their certainty that everyone else is wrong, that everyone else is an idiot! All their humility is gone, and thus so is their sanity. They are utterly, finally locked in a prison of their own self centeredness, and their pride progressively expands into a bigger and bigger mushroom cloud. They continue to go to pieces forever, blaming everyone but themselves. Hell is that, writ large.
That is why it is a travesty to picture God casting people into a pit who are crying "I'm sorry! Let me out!" The people on the bus from Lewis' parable would rather have their 'freedom', as they define it, than salvation. Their delusion is that, if they glorified God, they would somehow lose power and freedom, but in a supreme and tragic irony, their choice has ruined their own potential for greatness.
Hell is, as Lewis says "the greatest monument to human freedom." As Romans 1:24 says God "gave them up to...their desires." All God does in the end with people is give them what they most want, including freedom from himself. What could be more fair than that? Lewis writes:
"There are only two kinds of people - those who say 'Thy will be done' to God or those to whom God in the end says 'Thy will be done.' All that are in Hell choose it.
Without that self choice, it wouldn't be Hell.
Without that self choice, it wouldn't be Hell.