Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Brighter Side of Hell

During my four part series on hell, eternal punishment has taken quite a beating from myself and the other bloggers who visit here (yes, pun intended). So now it's time to reflect. Is there any type of hell that you wouldn't object to? Or even a hell you would like to see remain in the picture? It certainly has staying power. And many continue to hold on tightly. Maybe there are good reasons. Especially if entrance into hell has to do with works, it can give us a sense of ultimate justice in this world. And I for one do long for justice when I see some of the horrific ways human beings treat each other. So maybe there's actually a place in my mind for some sort of works based judgement system that extends punishment commensurate with the crime. However, this does make me nervous when I reflect on my own imperfections. It's so hard to construct a system of punishment I'd actually want to apply to myself.

I think hell has been used to corral and control the masses to greater and lesser extents by the church. The ultimate behavior modification system. We may use the threat of hell on ourselves, worrying we need such external controls to keep ourselves in line. Perhaps at times it does make a difference? 

And what if Christianity dropped hell from its doctrine? Would Christianity suffer in any way? Why does Christianity hold on so tightly to hell? When I began to question hell, I also had to question the need for a savior. If Jesus' death doesn't save us from hell, then what is it's purpose? Does Jesus' importance or value diminish if there is no eternal torment from which to save us?  Does Christianity actually turn on the gates of hell?


  1. I think Christianity would benfit greatly by dropping Hell as a place of eternal punishment. Universal Salvation is a much more palatable doctrine. And if instead of a savior Jesus was viewed as an example, I think it would go over better as well. According to this way of thinking, Jesus' death would have been an example of someone so dedicated to serving his God and his brothers and sisters that he made it his entire mission, even to dying for his cause.

    That makes, in my opinion, a nicer and more sane narrative. But it does nothing to make the entire scheme more preferable to, say, Buddha's way of doing business or good old-fashoned Stoicism, two name just two alternatives.

    The problem with Universalist Christianity is that it is fighting against centuries of orthodoxy. That makes it vulnerable to the charge of heresy or of being an entirely different religion than biblical Christianity.

    It just seemed better to me to strike out in my own direction.

  2. DoOrDoNot: Is there any type of hell that you wouldn't object to?

    Sure. The one that actually exists (or does not exist, as the case may be.) For me it is not a question of “what do I want?” but rather, “what actually is?” Sure, it is nice to speculate what afterlife would be palatable—like it is fun to speculate what would happen if you won $250 Million Dollars. But after the brief daydream, we get back to work, living on our actual income.

    If there a hell and/or heaven with certain requirements, then all I want to know is what those requirements are. I want to be informed. Let me make the best decision I can make with as much information as possible.

    The same way, upon looking at the odds, I decide to not even invest $1 on the fantasy chance of winning $250 Million.

  3. I think Christianity hinges on Hell, even in its more metaphorical forms. The fact that Jesus is known first and foremost as the Savior as opposed to the Redeemer. Savior. Save from what? The obvious answer is Hell, which is really only a dispossessed form of God's wrath. So Jesus is saving you from God, in a way.

    Now if Savior got third or fourth billing, while Redeemer was the adjective of choice, maybe we could quietly sweep away the notion of Hell.

  4. Doug,
    Yes, there are a variety of narratives available in understanding the life of Jesus. Some seem to gain more traction than others.

    I like the speculation about hell in that it can help illuminate why it might be hard for individuals or churches to give up the doctrine.

    One of the reasons I have a hard time believing in hell is that you'd think if it were true God would make it abundantly clear what the requirements were for avoiding it.

    Yes, I tend to agree.

  5. While looking for something else in a book of Henri Nouwen's writings, I came across this:

    The Good News of Hell

    Is there a hell? The concepts of heaven and hell are as intimately connected as those of good and evil. When we are free to do good, we are also free to do evil. When we can say yes to God's love, the possibility of saying no also exists. Consequently, when there is heaven there must also be hell.

    All these distinctions are made to safeguard the mystery that God wants to be loved by us in freedom. In this sense, strange as it may sound, the idea of hell is good news. Human beings are not robots or automatons who have no choices and who, whatever they do in life, end up in God's Kingdom. No, God loves us so much that God wants to be loved by us in return. And love cannot be forced; it has to be freely given. Hell is the bitter fruit of a final no to God.

    (That's the end of the Nouwen quote.) I still think Lewis' The Great Divorce is one of the best things written about heaven and hell. We often don't consider the possibility that people who don't want to know God during their earthly life, or want to live in ways congruent with faith in God, would not be likely to enjoy being in the presence of God, or, as Lewis so creatively depictts, even be able to bear it. In a sad way, they are "happier" being away from God's presence and with other people who think and act in the ways they prefer.

    I realize that doesn't answer all the questions, like what about people who never get to learn about God via scripture...but I think it's worth thinking about.

  6. Sheila,
    Yes, if hell is more of a CS Lewis type of hell, which is truly a self created place designed by people who absolutely do not want to be in God's presence, then I can accept it. I'm not sure that's what I see painted in scripture, but I need to revisit via The Great Divorce. I keep having other things to read, but I need to put that book near the top. Maybe I can suggest it for book club :)

  7. Not sure I can add much as the two things I wanted to say have been said. "Is there a hell?" seems to be much more important than "is Hell a helpful marketing tool?" In other words, I believe that our life on the planet includes, inherently, an answer to the question, "where do I want to go?"

    That said, I think Hell as a state of being is a better understanding than Hell as a physical location. My take on it is heaven and hell are the same location, the inner state of the person leads them to experience it as agony or bliss. I have actually experienced this, being in situations where someone thought it was 'awesome' while another thought it 'awful.' My guess is if you do not like obedience, worship, self sacrifice, and the other godly virtues, you will think the afterlife is Hell.

    I think the Great Divorce and the last book of the Chronicles of Narnia were most influential in my own understanding. I would add, that the SS does seem to include (at least in many places) the idea that God has a say. There is the whole judgment thing. I do not struggle with the idea that God could love someone yet condemn them. Real Love, after all, is not blind at all. The beauty and truth of God would mean, as you point out, that the ugliness and lies of humanity are not welcome. And that is why I think there must be a time of transition (sorry, Purgatory alert). Until we are made into the image and likeness more thoroughly, heaven will be populated with people like us, which means it will be like earth. Sinlessness comes at a cost: the cross of Jesus is not His alone. We must die a death like His. I think that is worth thinking about.
    Great questions.

  8. The thing I don't get about hell is this .. Its my understanding Hell is opposite to Heaven. Hell being all bad, Heaven all good and bearing in mind god is the creator of everything why would one of such good and profound greatness even consider creating a Hell as it were.. I`M NOT SURE either Heaven or Hell exists as physical places i`m more inclined to think that they are both states of Inner well being .. Heaven = at peace content with one`s self and existence Hell being the opposite . Just my thoughts really

  9. Well lankybritt, I think you might sound a bit like CS Lewis there. I can go for the self created inner states of heaven and hell like you describe. Thanks for stopping by!

  10. Another late comment ......

    1. I am a great CS Lewis fan, but I reckon hell is one thing he got wrong. The whole idea of an immortal soul that has to go somewhere, and if we refuse God it goes someplace else, is not a New Testament concept. We are dust, to dust we will return unless we are by grace resurrected with Jesus.

    2. Paul never spoke about hell, never used it in his evangelism. That ought to tell us something. Jesus was the one who talked about it, but he taught it was "destruction" in the age to come - i.e. God gives us all this life, but only those who follow him and obey God will receive life in the age to come (that is what eternal life means).

    I have looked at all the Biblical evidence in Hell - what does the Bible say? and I think it is quite clear cut. So I believe there is both good news and bad news. No-one gets punished forever, but some people only get this life.

    I can live with that.