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.”