The idea of hell has a strong hold on the human imagination. Virtually every religious tradition has some version of it. In the West, even people who have never been inside a church are familiar with the traditional image of hell as a fiery, underground abode where horned devils with pitchforks torment the damned for eternity. But does it really exist?
Most educated people in the West no longer think so, but there are exceptions. Fundamentalist Christians believe that hell is quite real indeed-the literal lake of fire into which anyone who does not accept Jesus Christ as his or her Lord and Savior is thrown. And I read an article about a sermon given by the former pope, Benedict XVI, in which he declared that hell “really exists and is eternal, even if nobody talks about it much any more.” Speaking to a local church in Rome, he warned that those who don’t repent of their sins are in danger of falling into “eternal damnation—the inferno.” Vatican officials later clarified that while hell is real and eternal, the Pope was not claiming that it is a physical place. Rather, he was expressing the view of the Catholic catechism that hell is a “state of eternal separation from God,” to be understood “symbolically rather than physically.”
What does A Course in Miracles say about hell? There are a number of references, the gist of which can be boiled down to three broad points. First, hell is the afterlife abode the ego tells us is our inevitable destination: that place of eternal separation from God and everlasting punishment that has had such a grip on our imagination. “The ego teaches that hell is in the future” (T-15.I.4:3); “it offers you immortality in hell” (T-15.I.3:5). The ego is constantly whispering in our ear that we are guilty sinners who deserve everlasting punishment, so hell is the only appropriate eternal residence for us. Strikingly, the Course tells us that we have internalized the ego’s message so well that, whatever our conscious beliefs, deep down all of us really do believe hell exists and we’re headed there. “The belief in hell is inescapable to those who identify with the ego” (T-15.I.4:1) and accept its verdict of guilt (see T-15.I.6:5). This is the underlying source of our fear of the future.
Second, hell is this world. “Hell is only what the ego has made of the present” (T-15.I.7:2). This statement may sound surprising at first blush, but it makes a lot of sense if you think about it. After all, hell is a state of separation from God and a place of punishment for sin. Doesn’t that describe this world very well? We do feel very separate from God here, do we not? And does it not seem that we’re constantly being punished for some nameless crime, punishment that takes the form of all the suffering we experience in this world? We may proclaim with Louis Armstrong “What a wonderful world,” but underneath our affirmations, who among us hasn’t looked at life on earth-both the horrors of the world at large and his or her own personal sufferings—and secretly (or not so secretly) concluded that this must be hell? In fact, one of those Vatican officials commenting on the Pope’s sermon said that one reason the afterlife version of hell doesn’t hold the terror it once did is that “the world wars and totalitarianisms of the 20th century created a hell on earth as bad as anything we can imagine in the afterlife.” That may be so, but from the Course’s standpoint, things like the Holocaust and the Soviet Gulag are simply extreme examples of the hell that is everyday life.
Finally, the Course gives us good news that is cause for joyous celebration, given what we’ve seen in the first two points: “There is no hell” (T-15.I.7:1). Neither the afterlife version nor the earthly version of hell is real at all. Hell is purely a figment of our tormented imagination, the projected nightmare of our own guilt for the sins we think we have committed against God and our brothers. Hell cannot truly exist in any form, because we have never been separate from God, have not sinned, and therefore do not deserve punishment of any kind.
Therefore, the Course both agrees and disagrees with the fundamentalists and the Pope. It agrees with them that hell is separation from God. However, it disagrees with them on a major point: In its view, hell is not real or eternal. Thank God! We will feel like we’re in hell here as long as we keep listening to the ego and accepting its verdict of guilt. But we can make a different choice right here and right now: We can listen to the Voice for God instead, Who overturns the ego’s verdict and affirms our perfect innocence. When we accept the Holy Spirit’s verdict, this world will be transformed from hell to a reflection of Heaven. And when this transformation is complete, we will not merely go to Heaven, but will realize that we never actually left Heaven. Only Heaven is real and eternal. To leave the nightmare of hell forever, all we need do is wake up.