The idea that some of us are destined for eternal damnation is tough to swallow. The possibility that people might suffer eternal torment simply based on an accident of birth such as geography or history (the place and time that they were born) or experiences (only encountering hypocritical or even abusive Christians instead of reliable witnesses of God’s glory) makes this very hard to swallow.
Denying the reality of Hell, on the other hand, means failing to take the Bible seriously. It means down playing the seriousness of evil. It means wandering into a New Age-ish territority where faiths are formulated like a lunch at a buffet: (“I’d like an entree of karma with a side order of Jesus’ wisdom, please.”)
After spending some time wrestling with the issue I’ve found some measure of peace. There are a few different ways I’ve learned to think about Hell. I’m going to share them below. I can’t take credit for any of these, really. I’ll quote the sources as I list these ways of thinking about Hell. I’ll admit at the outset that the originators of these views are often identified as post-modern, emergent, liberal, etc.
I am not suggesting that any of these views are literally true. I am not advocating that we abondon what scripture says. The fullness of reality is always well beyond our puny little brains. These are images that have helped me to wrap my brain around the issue, ways to envision why Hell has to be the case.
One of the reasons that I’m sharing these is because Jenn of the blog Jenn with 2 n’s (see the link in the blog role… could somebody, please, remind me, by the way, how to do a link inside a post… I’ve forgotten what to do after I highlight a word to get the little window with the chain links to pop up… anyway, Jenn with 2 n’s…) posted a summary of a communication she’s involved with. She’s trying to help make Hell make sense to a non-Christian. I was about to share these thoughts over there, in a comment. But it occurs to me that I’ve actually done this already on a number of others’ blogs. I thought if I had this post over here, as I need to reference these ideas I could simply post a link rather than re-writing these ideas over and over. Anyway…
View of Hell #1: Nothing left of us.
Close to the end of the New Kind of Christian trilogy, Brian McLaren has his (mostly) fictional characters debate a view of Hell that goes roughly like this:
In Heaven, we will be the best we can ever be. God builds us up from our whole lives. Perhaps we were at our most courageous at the age of 18. Perhaps we were at wisest at the age of 30. Perhaps we were at our most optimistic at the age of 40. The person we will be in heaven is sort of like a greatest hits C.D. The courage of being 18 combined with the wisdom of being 30 and the optimism of being 40.
The deal is this: every decision we make either diminishes us or makes us greater. Whoever, whatever we are at the time of our death is sort of like the root, the base, of the person we will be in the afterlife. Courage, optimism, all the rest, these are added on, hopefully.
Sometimes, though, we are so diminished by the decisions that we have made that God has nothing to work with. We have reduced ourselves to the point of virtual nothingness. God might make a sort-of clone of the person we would have been if we’d done right, but this being doesn’t really have continuity with who we are. It’d be quite irrelevant to the fact that if God built us back up, he’s had to do so much repair work that there is really nothing left of who and what we began as. God weeps when we have left Him nothing of ourselves to work with, when we are in this state we are seperate from God; we are damned.
View #2: Are we ready for Heaven
In a recent series of sermons, Rob Bell explored the idea of Heaven crashing into Earth. He asked us how we would fair if such a thing happened.
He said imagine a heavenly table where people of all races sit and eat together. What would the experience of being at this table be like for someone who is a racist.
He challenged us to imagine a person consumed with violence. How would it be, he wondered, to be so violence-filled and to be confronted, utterly with the Prince of Peace?
There are all sorts of other qualities of Jesus we can imagine… These are self-sufficient, complete, perfect. In our cowardice, how would we feel before His bravery? In our ignorance, what would it be like to stand before His wisdom? In our hatred, how would it be to stand beneath His Love?
I want to be clear, Bell never, ever, ever, ever said that any of the above circumstances would in fact be Hell. I wonder if he meant to imply it. Regardless of what he was thinking, I certainly think a case can be made that it’s a powerful view of Hell.
Are there problems with these views of Hell if taken in isolation? Of course there are. But there’s problems with taking any metaphor to seriously. I’m not advocating that these images replace the idea of Hell. I’m thinking, though, that they are good images to start the process of wrapping our brains around the reality of Hell. They are much more palatable to someone outside a Christian world view, in particular.
As I’ve grown in my faith (and God quite literally knows that I’ve got so very to go!) I’ve increased my trust in Him; I know whatever the truth and reality are, that God is love and reality is fair. The specifics matter a lot less to me now. Earlier in my faith walk, particularly, it was helpful for me to lean a little more on conceptions of Hell that didn’t seem so hate-filled because back then I needed a little more assurance that God can be trusted.