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.