1. What is hell? Hell cannot be known in and of itself. As a negative to a positive, hell can only be known as the antithesis of heaven. Heaven is life with God, hell is existence without God.
2. Or, again - because God is love - hell is lovelessness. At its centre, hell is not hot, hell (as Dante saw) is cold - ice-cold. Or if, with most of Christian tradition, hell be aflame, “Yet from those flames / No light, but rather darkness visible” (Milton, Paradise Lost, I/62-63).
3. The opposite of love is not so much hatred as fear. The wilted tree of hatred has terror for its roots. Hell is is the war of terror.
4. And hell is despair, utter despair. Dante again: “Abandon hope, all you who enter here.”
5. And hell is power, absolute power - potestas absoluta. “The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, ‘All these things I will give you . . .’” (Matthew 4:8f.).
6. Heaven is communion, hell is isolation. Sartre was wrong: hell is not other people, hell is me, myself and I. Milton’s Satan: “Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell” (IV/75).
7. But more: “I can speak of hell only in relation to myself, precisely because I can never imagine the possible damnation of another as more likely than my own” (Hans Urs von Balthasar). Of one thing we can be sure about anyone who knows the population of hell: he himself will be in the census.
8. Hell is not about what God does, hell is about what we do, about the horrendous evils that humans commit. We trivialise these evils and betray the world’s victims if we deny the reality of hell.
9. Yet hell is not a datum of faith in the creeds. “I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting” (The Apostles’ Creed). “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come” (The Nicene Creed). We do not believe in hell.
10. Therefore while hell is real, we may pray and hope that hell will finally be empty. “This much is certain, that we have no theological right to set any sort of limits to the loving-kindness of God which has appeared in Jesus Christ” - who experienced hell, and harrowed hell. Thus the church will not preach hell - “the gospel at gunpoint” - “it will preach the overwhelming power of grace and the weakness of human wickedness in the face of it” (Karl Barth). “For the Lord will not reject for ever” (Lamentations 3:31).