In Marcus Aurelius’s time, Roman religion was a hodgepodge of different rituals and ideas, which were evident in Marcus’s own behavior. For instance, he deified his wife and his stepfather Antoninius, but at the same time spoke repeatedly about how this life we are living is all there is. It goes without saying that he also rejected the teachings of the Christians, who he thought of—as a product of his time—as threats to the authority of the empire, but it also turns out that the Stoics and the Christians held beliefs that were much closer than Marcus understood. Particularly as it related to hell.
As far as we know, the Stoics didn’t believe in hell. Their writings make only a few vague allusions to the idea of an afterlife. Similarly, the idea of “hell” is not as clear in Christianity as conventional wisdom might dictate. Nowhere in the Bible is there anything close to the hell that believers talk about today—a place where bad people and nonbelievers go after they die to be tortured and punished for their sins for all eternity. Even the word “hell,” which varies from translation to translation, appears only a few times, with different contextual meanings in each case. One of the most frequent occurrences is as the word “Gehenna,” which was an actual, literal place—though admittedly not a good one (there is some thought that it was Jerusalem’s trash dump).
What might Jesus and the Christians have been speaking of when they spoke of hell? Perhaps it was the same thing the Stoics spoke of—not a place that we go after we die, but a place far too many people are in right now, based on how they’ve chosen to live. Marcus Aurelius didn’t warn against indulging and cheating and lying and stealing because he thought you’d be punished for it later. He knew these “pleasures” would produce tortures in the here and now. As Rob Bell, the pastor and author, writes in his beautiful book Love Wins:
“People choose to live in their own hells all the time. We do it every time we isolate ourselves, give the cold shoulder to someone who has slighted us, every time we hide knives in our words, every time we harden our hearts in defiance of what we know to be the loving, good, and right thing to do.”
Whatever you believe—whether you’re closer to Marcus Aurelius or a follower of Jesus—there is something to learn from where these two schools converge. It’s a matter of faith whether hell exists after death. It is a fact that it exists here on earth—in Gehenna and in our souls. If there is hell in the after life, whether or not you go there will be God’s decision. The hell that exists for certain right here and now, you can choose to take up residence in or move as far away from as you possibly can.
So what’s it going to be?