Questioning Hell

Questioning Hell

Lately, I’ve been thinking about hell.

You know, everyone’s favorite topic: fire and brimstone and unending torment.

And I haven’t just been thinking about it occasionally or in passing. My brain has been gripped with questions surrounding it, obsessively, to the point where I toss and turn at night.

I pass a billboard on the highway that asks Where will you go when you die? Heaven or HELL? Sinister orange flames lick the bottom of the sign, which is fixed against a cornflower blue sky. Drivers who pass below are supposed to contemplate their eternal destiny, but mostly I imagine they just roll their eyes. Perhaps some people might experience a pang of fear that motivates them to attend church more often. Or at least not to stop texting on the turnpike. But I doubt the sign creates many converts.

My obsessive thoughts on hell are not based in a fear of going there. They used to be, when I was a little kid. I remember being absolutely terrified on the car ride home from a Christian youth event that featured a skit on hell. It had started out right along the lines of any school-funded PSA about the dangers of drugs and alcohol: a freshman girl gives into peer pressure by drinking beer at a party. She and her friends get into a fatal car accident on the way home. Immediately after the crash, we see her walk on onto a dark stage clouded by fog machines, cowering in an eerie red spotlight. She’s soon surrounded by demonic teenagers wearing black leotards and pulling her backstage through a portal of paper flames. Her cries of “Help, get me out of here!” and “I’m sorry!” fall on deaf ears: shes already dead, it’s too late.

What bothers me now is this gnawing question: Is this really what we believe?  

And if it is, what does it say about the character of God?

As it turns out, I’m not the only one dealing with these types of questions. Rachel Held Evans describes her experience wrestling with the concept of hell in her book, Faith Unraveled. As I read it, it was almost uncanny how her words echoed my own struggles.

“In Sunday school, they always make hell out to be a place for people like Hitler, not a place for his victims. But if my Sunday school teachers and college professors were right, then hell will be populated not only by people like Hitler and Stalin, Hussein and Milosevic but by the people that they persecuted. If only born-again Christians go to heaven, then the piles of suitcases and bags of human hair displayed at the Holocaust Museum represent thousands upon thousands of men, women, and children suffering eternal agony and the hands of angry God.”


So what do we believe about Anne Frank?

Is she currently enduring unending conscious torment in hell because she was not a born-again Christian?

Because she was born into a Jewish family instead of a Christian one, and believed the things she was brought up to believe?

Most Christians think that children are shown mercy. They talk about an “age of accountability”in which kids are given a free pass to heaven until they’re old enough to make a decision about their faith. This idea isn’t found in the bible, but it’s what we assume. Once a child reaches around age 12, we say, they can be held accountable for their decision to either accept or deny Jesus as their personal savior, thereby securing an eternal fate in one of two places.

At thirteen, is it too late?

A thirteen year old’s brain is still twelve years away from its full physical development in areas associated with decision making. Should we bump the age of accountability up a few years? Maybe to 25?

And in the grand scheme of things, when it comes to the great mysteries of life, aren’t we all something of adolescents, grasping at things we can never fully understand?

If we are honest, we know our religion and our worldview is largely influenced by, if not entirely dependent on, where we live, when we live, and what we are taught. Statistically, if I had been born

Are we all just victims of our circumstance?

And what about the unevangelized? What about the billions of people who lived and died with little to no exposure to the Christian faith? Are the majority of humans throughout history in hell because they weren’t Christians?

The more I investigate these questions, the more I read and inquire, the more I have come to suspect that we may have gotten this theology wrong. It has been enlightening to realize that within the Christian faith, there is great diversity of thought on this and many other topics.

Still, it isn’t always safe to question the doctrine of hell. A few years ago, Rob Bell wrote a book called Love Wins in which he questioned the traditional view of hell. In response, Mega Church pastor John Piper issued a dismissive “Farewell, Rob Bell” Tweet.

Farewell? As in, you ask the wrong questions, or you have the wrong theology, and you’re out?

When I bring these “hell” questions up with other Christians, I’ve received all the textbook answers. They’re responses I might have given myself years ago. Now, I’m reevaluating what they mean:



“Remember: we all deserve hell. None of us is worthy to be saved. Our sin makes us enemies with God, and our sin is offensive to him.”

I want to be careful when I talk about this. Because human sin is serious. It wreaks havoc in insurmountable ways. If God is good, he can’t just shrug off child molestation and genocide and murder and hatred. If God is just, then he must have an answer for human evil. There is no room for that stuff in the good and perfect kingdom he has promised to build.

We are accountable for our sins, even the little ones. We choose them.

But at the same time, sin is a part of human nature. We can’t control that. We choose to sin, yes, but on the other hand, we are bound to, just by being alive. Even though we choose to do what’s wrong, we also literally can’t help it: no one is perfect. Are we punished for being born with a sin nature?

God will The idea that people are fundamentally repulsive and abhorrent in God’s eyes because of their sins doesn’t seem compatible with a guy who spent his time hanging out with criminals, touching contagious lepers, and having dinner with prostitutes. Jesus talked about God who so loved the world, even in its broken state, that he sent his son, not to condemn it, but to save it. (John 3:16-17)


“God shows mercy to those he chooses to.  It’s not our place to question him.”

“Reformed” theology offers a doctrine that embraces the circumstantial nature of salvation: the Elect were chosen before birth for redemption, and others were destined for hell before they ever even took a breath or spoke a word. These “other” people are simply beyond hope.

But this doctrine troubles me deeply. A God who makes some people utterly disposable is a God who is foreign to me; a God I do not see when I look at Jesus.


“It’s not a good idea to let your emotions and desire affect the way you interpret scripture.”

Fair enough. But I think it is a good idea to allow what I know about the character of God as revealed in Jesus inform the way I read difficult passages of scripture.

And, as it turns out, many Christians thinkers do not agree that our Western picture of hell accurately reflects what the bible actually teaches. Which leads me to the really important question…


Does the bible really say what we think it says about hell?


I’m not a biblical scholar. But NT Wright is. In fact, he’s largely considered to be the leading New Testament scholar alive today.

In his book, Surprised by Hope, he writes briefly about Hell and suggests that we take a fresh look at it. Hell is not a major topic in the letters of the New Testament, and was never meant to be the point of our theology. The middle ages was responsible for much of the emphasis we place on eternal torment after death. In fact, much of the imagery  we typically associate with hell comes from medieval folklore rather than early Christianity.

Often, we have so distanced ourselves from the original meaning of the words used in the New Testament that we misinterpret the meaning of the passages. Hell, for example, is often translated from Gehenna, which an actual place: a trash heap outside of Jerusalem.

“When Jesus was warning his hearers about Gehenna, he was not, as a general rule, telling them that unless they repented in this life they would burn in the next one. As with God’s Kingdom, so with it’s opposite: it is on earth that these things really matter, not somewhere else.”

While Wright agrees that there is some sort of final judgement, some sort of answer for injustice and evil, he also believes that “There is no concentration camp in the beautiful countryside, no torture chamber in the palace of earthly delight.”

Instead, Wright says he believes in something between the traditional view that of annihilation. He says that humans are free to reject their humanity, and in so doing, become something less than the image baring creatures they were intended to be. At a certain point, God says to some people “Thy will be done,” as they reject his goodness and ultimate reconciliation.

“And that is such a shocking and horrible thing that it is not surprising that the biblical writers have used very vivid and terrifying language about it. But many people have picked that up and said, ‘this is a literal description of reality, and somewhere down there, there is a lake of fire and it’s got worms in it and serpents and demons and they’re coming to get you.’ …actually, the reality is more sober and sad than that…which is this progressive shrinking of human life.”


I’m not writing this with any concrete answers in mind. I’m writing and because I want to process it, and I think it’s important for Christians to be able to talk about hell without it being taboo or heretical. 

Here’s where I’m at now: When it comes down to it, I know Jesus is more compassionate than I am. And not in a lofty, theoretical way. As in, when he was being murdered, he prayed for his murderers to be forgiven.

I believe his mercy is wider and more far reaching than we dare to assume. He came to right the wrongs we couldn’t. He came that ALL might be redeemed, he conquered death.

He says he will abundantly pardon, restore and redeem, and I think he is capable of doing so for more of his creation than we have boxed in as “saved.”

I’ll leave you with an invitation to join in the conversation, and a quote from CS Lewis in Mere Christianity:

“Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in him? But the truth is God has not told us what his arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.”

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Prayer in Action

Prayer in Action

I’m eating breakfast and I’m reading a headline that says five people have been shot at a “Black Lives Matter” protest in Minneapolis.

A couple days later, My newsfeed is filled with the crazed face of a gunman who stormed a Planned Parenthood in Colorado, killing three people and injuring nine.

By Wednesday, news breaks that 17 people have been killed in a mass shooting in San Bernardino.

Each time, my stomach turns and sinks within me. I feel helpless and desperate. What is going on?

Recently he news has become increasingly hard for me to stomach. From the horrific attacks in Paris and Beirut, to the ongoing Syrian Civil War, to abject debates over refugees, to gun violence at rallies and clinics and schools, I feel overwhelmed, perplexed and  heartbroken.

In America, there have been more mass shootings in 2015 than there have been days in the year. People are at a loss for what to do, and they’re fed up with a lack of solutions. The Daily News delivered this shocking cover page two days ago:

God not fixing this

Now, before we Christians jump headlong into defense mode, let me establish that I’m fairly certain this statement isn’t meant to criticize prayer or God specifically. It’s not even about the existence of God, as some have suggested. It’s a call to action directed at people in power. It’s a criticism of politicians who say via Twitter that they are praying for the victims of gun violence- politicians who have the very real power to act on behalf of victims- and yet are not taking steps towards stricter gun laws. Daily News isn’t bashing Christianity, they’re asking that #thoughtsandprayers be accompanied by practical steps towards a solution to this very real crisis.

Because without the willingness to act, the promise to say a prayer just seems like an empty platitude.

Lets put aside political differences for a moment. Regardless of what we believe about gun control, I think this newspaper brings an important question to light for Christians. Namely, what is the Christian response to evil? How are we to react in the face of terror, suffering and violence? Are our prayers spurring us on towards better works and changed hearts? Or do we allow well-wishes replace our urgency to work for change?

James 2:15-17 says “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things they need for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

Jesus doesn’t want us relying on empty platitudes. Wishing someone well is not enough- we are called to action for the sake of others.

When it comes to injustice, Jesus tell us not to look the other way. Incredibly, we are called to love our enemies, mourn with those who are mourning, and turn the other cheek when we are stricken. We’re told to sacrifice our stuff, comfort, money, time and space for the sake of the needy, regardless of whether or not we think they deserve it. We are to speak up for the rights of the oppressed and do something about cruelty and violence.

Deny yourself for the sake of the poor and the suffering. Care for the orphan and the widow. Love mercy, act justly, and walk humbly. Do not meet evil with evil; overcome it with good.

 All the while, we pray.

Most of us are not politicians with immediate influence on this issues. Most of us are grappling with how to deal with the news of these tragedies from a strange distance. Sometimes, there literally isn’t anything we can do in the moment except cry out to God.

When I kneel in prayer, I’m not necessarily asking God to fix something or grant something. I’m quieting my heart, stopping everything else I’m doing, and inviting God into the moment with me- a moment that may very well be shrouded with confusion and sadness.

I kneel in prayer believing that there is efficacy in prayer. I trust that God is listening, that he is real, and that his spirit is moving and working in the world, even when I don’t understand it.

I kneel in prayer recognizing that I’m incapable of solving the world’s massive problems. Prayer is humbling: it reminds us that we are not all powerful, that our opinions are not always right, and that we are not infinite. A strange comfort overwhelms us as we whisper to a God who is. 

I kneel asking for those who are hurting to be comforted, and I remember his great love for them.

I kneel in prayer asking to God to ready my feet for action, asking I would not just be a hearer of his word but a doer also.

I kneel in prayer before God and I am filled with his love for people.

Prayer and action are never mutually elusive, they rely on one another.

I am reminded what CS Lewis said about prayer: that “it doesn’t change God, it changes me.”


 

As I sit at my kitchen table and type these words, my heart still aches. Sometimes violence seems unconquerable: all attempts to correct it feel like putting band aids on a gushing wound.

But in the Christian faith, I see a rare and undying hope break through the face of this darkness- a hope which is more substantial than anything I have found elsewhere.

Christians dare to believe that something lies beyond this chaos and disarray. The saints have long prayed for a day when this world, which is presently flooded with darkness, will be met with justice and mercy. All is not as it should be, but God is utterly committed to redeeming the earth and setting all things right. He calls each of us to participate in that restoration here and now; to be bringers of justice and mercy and love.

Pope Francis  said “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.”

Jesus said we should pray these words: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Amen.