Hell

I don’t believe in hell any more. In fact, I never did believe in it even when I thought I believed in it. No sane human being can live with Dante’s image of endless torment, not only for a Hitler or a Bin Laden, but for every aunt and cousin and friend who has not said the Sinner’s Prayer. Nevertheless, so many churches still embrace the doctrine that to avoid a heretic’s fate, I resorted to two popular coping mechanisms:

First (and probably the most popular) was to simply not think about hell. Tucked safely in some dark closet of my mind, the idea was brought out only under interrogation, or when some heathen badly offended me and I sought comfort in the anticipated vengeance of the Lord.

Second was to embrace a sort of Calvinist theology. Here I found a venerable bulwark of thought that defused the horror of hell by casting it as part of God’s perfect plan for the world. Calvin taught that God predestined some to destruction; who am I to question his choice? If God is good (all the time) then it must be a good thing for him to send some to hell. In the rarefied intellectual atmosphere of Calvinism, I easily dismissed my doubts as naivety. It would all make sense someday.

While these schemes seemed to handle the problem on the surface, they did nothing to restrain the cancer from its internal destruction. The dark specter of a vengeful God tarnished for me every glimmer of his love. My mind might be sure of my election, but my heart found no comfort in the hope of heaven, for it did not know the sweetness of the God of heaven.

It might seem that I had to change my mind about hell before I could believe in my heart that God was truly good, but it was actually the other way round. His love pursued me, overtook me that day in Virginia, and turned me onto a new path to his heart. Eventually, on this journey of discovering the God I never knew, the subject of hell had to be revisited.

One tranquil sunny afternoon, as I reflected on things changed, he opened that closet. In broad daylight, I faced the rickety skeleton of my theology: “I believe that we must accept Christ before we die, or be damned to endless agony and torment in hell. Satan reigns there, rubbing his hands in anticipation, for most of us will go to him. The way is narrow and few will find it, only those lucky enough to hear a decent presentation of the gospel. The ones who are repelled by Christian pharisees or brimstone zealots will get their due. It’s iffy for the proselytes of cults and churches with bad doctrine, or for the savage, the comatose, the insane. Basically, the devil wins.”

Startled and staring at this mess, I thought “This cannot all be true.” It was a moment of epiphany. The wave of peace that washed over me brought the Father’s answer “It’s not.”

Not yet altogether trusting waves of peace, and wanting to be a good Berean, I set about studying the Scriptures. I found support for the traditional hell notion pretty weak. I could more easily prove that God will “destroy the wicked” or that Christ’s death “leads to justification and life for all men.”

I did not find a new theological model to explain it all. Perhaps God does not intend that we find that in the Bible. It is enough that he has dismantled my old model and given me a new joy and hope in his love and mercy. God’s love for his children, and his suffering on our behalf, are immeasurable. It will indeed all make sense someday.

5 thoughts on “Hell”

  1. Is this the fulfillment of the dream:

    Rickety tower, people falling off, shouting for people to get off, collapse….

    Hospital imparting, healing….

    Seems may be a partial fulfillment of both!

  2. Maybe the dream was about your fears, that somehow the rickety tower mattered…

    Maybe the dream was about the role of a teacher, and your calling…

  3. I have always had the most problem with hell as a doctrine. Not the hell with the devil and pitchfork or even Dante’s more elaborate circles. Those obviously are unscriptural and really unworthy of any honest description of the character of God. Still, the Bible talks of judgment, wrath, and gnashing of teeth. It does seem clear that there is a separation of those who have believed and those who have not. And that those who have not will reap misery of some sort for some amount of time – possibly forever. It does not bother me in terms of its fairness. It seems quite obvious that were justice done we all deserve all that God could dish out. What bothers me about it is that it seems opposed to the nature of God. He is love. How could love pardon some and condemn others? Or, to put it another way, everything the Father does flows from love and is directed towards redemption, restoration. How is hell redemptive? Does God just finally lose patience with us and say, “enough”. I cannot buy that. So hell always has bothered me. The closest I can come to understanding it stems from something C.S. Lewis said, somewhere, that had to do with the gift of freewill necessarily conferring on us the ability to reject God and His love. If we do this we separate ourselves from Him. Total separation from God would be hell enough for anyone. Does there come a point when we have rejected Him so long and so hard that our decision is permanent, eternal? Don’t know. How will He deal with the fairness of opportunity to all. Don’t know, but it will be according to His standard of love. Does that mean we should not warn others of hell’s fire. Don’t know that either. I do know that I prefer to tell them of God’s love than scare them with the consequences of rejecting Him. Lastly, we always feel so sure of ourselves in knowing more than God has said. If our spirits are by necessity eternal and hell, the place of absolute separation, is eternal, still might it not be that God has a plan to redeem that as well? What He has told us relates to the here and now, not all that much about the future.

  4. Will,
    Thanks for your comments. The nature of God’s love is certainly the thing that has changed my view. I can hear in my head the arguments of Christians about ‘fairness’ but it’s really not about him being fair at all. And it’s not about him overlooking sin, for the wages of sin have been paid by Jesus. It’s really a question of his devotion to redeeming mankind – what length will he go to in order to accomplish that? The cross is an answer to that question.

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