“Hell is other people.”
I first heard this quotation in philosophy class as an introduction to writer, philosopher and atheist Jean-Paul Sartre.
At first I thought it was amusing, and if you’re an introvert like me, I thought there was truth in it. Some might even go parading these four words as their mantra, proud of preferring solitude over gathering, staying aloof and aloft over getting involved in a social environment.
But this statement is one of life’s many great lies.
We were built for community, made for fellowship with one another. God Himself is a community, a trinity.
How do I know this?
When you were a kid, why were timeouts so bad? Being away from all the fun with the other kids, you were forced to stay inside, to watch, to be alone and away from your friends.
When you were a teenager playing sports, why were penalty boxes, red cards, benches, the worst place to be? You didn’t contribute to the team, they played on without you while you sat by yourself, waiting. Waiting to get back in, staring at the clock.
When you are an adult, why is jail a punishment? Being away from society, confined in solitude, with minimal human contact. Why is exile and deportation a severe consequence?
Rejection from a group (rejection in general actually), fear of it, and fear of it happening again, is why. We may not admit it, or we may ignore it, or harden ourselves against it, but these are soul shattering experiences that we love to bury. It could be under wit, or drugs, alcohol, lust, unhealthy relationships, anything to keep our minds off it.
We long to belong, to be with other people, to share the life we’ve been given. We always have.
Genesis 1:27 ESV
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
Male and female he created THEM.
1 John 1:3 says “that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”
The Bible, though written across hundreds of years, by dozens of authors, in different media of litterature, featuring thousands of people including prophets, kings, servants, the wicked, the righteous, shepherds, warriors, peacekeepers, and radicals… All tell and point to one person and one story. Jesus Christ, and His burning desire to reconcile and fellowship with His wayward and unfaithful people.
HOWEVER, this is not to say that solitude in itself is a bad thing. I’m an introvert, I like my alone time (how else would I have blog material???). Having time away from the craziness of life and resting is in fact essential for growth, especially spiritual growth. Private meditation, prayer, whatever it is you do, fills your cup again to be poured out. Even Jesus did it.
Matthew 26:36 ESV
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.”
He also commands us to do the same.
Matthew 6:6 ESV
But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
But even in those instances, you are not alone, because God, who is ever present is WITH YOU. Which I believe is really encouraging.
Solitude, true solitude, is when and where even God is not. Hell, eternal separation from that which is holy.
Someone, I believe it was C.S. Lewis in his book The Great Divorce, depicted one version (not necessarily biblical) of Hell as a huge expanse of darkness, where every individual was millions of miles away from the closest person in any direction.
Another way to put that, is if two people managed to walk directly toward each other, and maintain a straight line, they could walk for eternity and never meet.
Could you imagine that? You can’t see, it’s cold, it’s mostly silent except for the distant calls and cries of your neighbours. You have no one to talk to, your thoughts louder than anything else. You wait, you walk, with only your hopes and fears exaggerated by your imagination for company.
I imagine Gollum went through something similar.
But if everyone is so far, it must be a pretty big place right? And yet Lewis also describes it as so infinitely small compared to reality and heaven. I think at one point, the residents of his allegory to Hell felt shrunken and minuscule next to those of the “heavenly” counterpart. They were so close, and yet so far.
So close and yet so far. That’s the tie breaker a split second after the buzzer, the split second on the clock between gold and silver, the half mark away from 100%, the single percentile from top in class, from the really big scholarship, the last minute decision that took your big break away.
People, are complicated, and frankly sometimes a pain to be around. But without them, what would we do? What would we become? How would we function? We are in each other’s lives for a reason, maybe even multiple ones.
Hell is other people? The exact opposite is true.