I had a conversation about Hell with a Christian recently. Her conception of Hell was that it’s the state in which you are eternally barred from a personal relationship with God. “Personal relationship” is not used, at least by her, as a term of art. Rather, a personal relationship with God is the same kind of personal relationship you might have with anybody else, and it can become deeper (or more remote) depending on how much you do to cultivate it.
The question then arises (and arose) whether those who do not currently have a personal relationship with God — presumably I and others who don’t believe God exists — are already in a state phenomenologically (if not temporally — we can, presumably, still cultivate a relationship with God if we want to) identical with being in Hell. In other words, on this account of Hell, is my life what Hell feels like? I pointed out that, if so, Hell’s not so so bad.
For non-theological reasons, this turned out to be a tactical error in the dialectic, and I was unable to further plumb this conception of Hell. But I don’t see an easy way out for somebody who accepts this conception, which is not (I don’t think) a totally idiosyncratic take.
Of course, it is possible to bite the bullet, and insist that my life — one in which I have never had a personal relationship with God — is genuinely hellacious. It’s only because I don’t know how good it is to know God that I don’t know how bad I’ve got it. But I don’t think this fits with the broader Christian conception of the good life, which includes, in addition to the cultivation of a personal relationship with God, a syndrome of other important goods that people like me can access. Not just food and other arguable preconditions for a personal relationship with God, but also a profession, a family, and so forth. It’s hard to imagine, if these other independent goods are also important, that a personal relationship with God is “off the charts” great [because if it was that great wouldn’t it be enough by itself?*].
In any event, I would be interested to know (a) whether this conception of hell is widely shared, (b) whether I’ve understood it properly, and (c) whether Christians (or other sympathetic interpreters of this conception) have any replies to my reductio.
* There are various possible responses to this undeveloped thought, but I think the ones that work do so at the expense of watering down the importance Christians attach to a personal relationship with God.