The reason why many people find the concept of Hell so unacceptable is because they have an unbibilical and untraditional understanding of what Hell is. I have commented in more detail on how first century Judaism, akin to Orthodox Christianity, imagines Hell and Heaven to be on a spectrum. What this spectrum precisely is the “face of God.” In short, God created all things “good” (Gen 1) and to posit Hell as somewhere God created to be explicitly bad makes God an author of an evil creation. Rather, we Orthodox understand the literal rendering of the Scriptures and the teaching of the saints that Heaven and Hell are an experience of God’s eternal goodness and it is, in fact, the will of those that are damned that turns what is good into something evil.
The obstinacy of such a will for eternity is what literally constitutes eternal damnation. The sharing of this experience with other created people and fallen angels with likewise obstinate wills, I speculate, makes Hell even worse. Yet, as we can see, none of these things are God being a direct cause of man’s punishment and evils. Rather, God permits the eternity of those who by their own will cause their suffering, and I speculate, increased suffering between each other. While this might not exactly be devils with pitchforks, it is still a valid picture. The devil is no happier sticking you with his pitchfork or lashing out at you, as you would be in receiving his blows.
Hell, in a sense, is like a jailhouse. The people make it bad. The amenities in a modern jail would, in fact, make it much better than the abode of great kings in ages past. What makes it terrible is the twisted wills of those inside.
So, all of this aside, where does Augustine fit into this conversation? Augustine takes for granted that the experience of Hell exists in gradations. This concept may make more sense if one clicks on the links above. Presuming you read those links, these gradations between “really bad” and “not so bad” may be so not bad that being damned is being better than never existing! Look at what Saint Augustine says:
I do not say that children who die without baptism of Christ will undergo such grievous punishment that it were better for them never to have been born, since our Lord did not say these words of any sinner you please, but only the most base and ungodly…who can doubt that non-baptized infants, having only original sin and no burden of personal sins, will suffer the lightest condemnation of all? I cannot define the amount and kind of their punishment, but I dare not say that it were better for them to never have existed than to exist there (Against Julian, Book V, Par 44).
There are two ways to interpret the preceding. The first is the typical Calvinist approach that would say it is best the infants be damned because it shows the glory of God, or benefits those who are saved–or both. While this reading is theoretically possible, I do not think this is what Augustine is getting at.
Rather, Augustine is commenting that it is better for the infants to have “the lightest condemnation of all” than for them “to never have existed.” If the the Calvinist reading was correct, the logic would require us to say that it could have not been better for the most grievous sinners to never be born, as their punishment glorifies God and benefits the saved. So, such a reading must be wrong.
Augustine refrains from speculating precisely what such a condemnation is, but he “dare[s] not say” that to no exist would be preferable than to be in Hell!
I will conclude this post with my own speculation. Hell, quite simply, is eternal separation from God. The unbaptized, normally, are not united to Christ and therefore cannot attain to deification–hence, they do not grow closer to God for eternity. They will never look into the depths of the Light and feel the intensity of His love for eternity. This is, indeed, Hell. However, they are not going to feel the Light as harsh burning rays, brilliant and at the same time terrible. Rather, that light may bathe them and they feel quite comfortable with it. Being infants, they will not even sigh like those in the first ring of Hell in Dante’s Inferno knowing that they are missing out on salvation. Simply, they will be in a pleasant state, which is not Heavenly because there is no growing sanctification in Christ.
So, while none of this can be taken as license for wanting to go to Hell (because if you are reading this, the preceding will not apply to you), it does give us a good view of what a Saint obliquely understood what Hell is and what Hell is not.