Since the late 80s, when I lived in South Africa at the time of the dirty war waged by the apartheid state (then called ‘low intensity conflict’ by those lovely military theorists), I have from time to time wondered about hell. We used to say, half jokingly, half seriously, that there has to be a special hell for some people…
But seriously, what do I do with this theologically? On the one hand, there is the abundant grace and forgiveness of God. On the other hand, the (almost) equally abundant capacity for evil we see every day in human life across the globe. It is, most of all, the ‘banality of evil’, as Hannah Arendt called it, that is most sickening – for me, at least. It is the callousness of evil that makes me speechless; in German, there is the adjective menschenverachtend which describes this nicely: impossible to render in English, but perhaps ‘the character of an act or person who acts in such a way that it demonstrates an attitude that despises the humanity of us all’.
I suppose the best thing I can do is to be grateful that judgment is not my call. The urge for retaliation is hard to fight for most of us; heck, we have way too many countries that still practise the death penalty, for crying out loud, and if that is not (also) about revenge, I don’t know what is. Retaliation and revenge turn us into copies, at least in part, of the very evil that enrages us. I certainly know that the seething anger I experience has the potential to do so in my case.
That is the context within which I see the witness of the Scriptures which turns over judgment to God, and not to us (Mt 7:1-5; Rom 12:19-21; etc.): it is a liberating thing because we are freed from acting out the impulse to take revenge.