Hell is the Absence of God (Chiang)

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Hell is the Absence of God
Summary of the Short Story
Microsummary: A grieving man strove to love an unpredictable, unloving God to join his deceased wife in Heaven, but after being bestowed a divine revelation, he was still condemned to Hell.

Neil Fisk, a man born with a congenital abnormality which caused his left thigh to be externally rotated and shorter than his right, experiences the loss of his wife Sarah during an angelic visitation, a prime catalyst in his life that spurs him to re-evaluate his relationship with God.

Neil Fisk — narrator; born with a congenital abnormality, lost his wife in a visitation; grief-stricken, desperate.
Sarah Fisk — Neil's deceased wife; devout with silent faith; kind, understanding.

Consumed by grief, Neil finds comfort in associating with a support group, intended for those struggling with their relationship with God after losing their loved ones during divine visitations.

Now that Sarah was in Heaven, his situation had changed. Neil wanted more than anything to be reunited with her, and the only way to get to Heaven was to love God with all his heart.

Neil learns about Janice Reilly, a woman born legless due to an angelic visitation during her mother's pregnancy. Janice grew up motivating people with disabilities to find strength and purpose in their conditions.

Janice Reilly — Evangalist born without legs, later restored during a divine visitation; charismatic, inspiring.

However, after Janice miraculously regains her legs during another visitation, she tries to return them, feeling guilty for receiving a gift she didn't need while others suffered.

Neil, hoping for a divine conversion to make him love God and be reunited with his deceased wife, becomes a light-seeker, purposely chasing angelic visitations to witness Heaven's light – a sure sign of being accepted into Heaven. During this pursuit, Neil crashes his vehicle and bleeds to death, experiencing a transformation where he feels boundless love for God. However, despite achieving this divine love, Neil's soul descends to Hell after death.

Everything Neil sees, hears, or touches causes him distress, and unlike in the mortal plane this pain is not a form of God's love, but a consequence of His absence. Neil is experiencing more anguish than was possible when he was alive, but his only response is to love God.

This experience births a new understanding of devotion, which doesn't expect reciprocation, even from God. Neil’s story serves as a lesson in unconditional and selfless love, understanding the capricious nature of divine miracles and accepting that divine justice differs from human justice.