I’ve often said that the idea of hell was the lynchpin that once removed, led to the final undoing of what had been a slowly and steadily eroding faith, one that truly had died a thousand deaths. Having been intelligently challenged on hell over a two-day discussion was only the last straw. It’s a frightening prospect to consider that if it was all true even the act of questioning this particular thing and all that’s attached to it could lead to the very thing itself! I think most evangelicals understand that, and out of fear alone hold on to their acceptance of hell with a death grip because, you know, Pascal! I offer this example from a Christian music DJ named Bill Moore, who somewhere along the way unceremoniously cut all online ties with me, presumably for the sin of believing incorrectly:
I’ll answer for Ojo, although i’m sure hell (sic) have something to say about it. Ojo, who used to be a Bible believing and teaching Christian, now wants a world free of “religion”. He used to be fervent evangelist of the Gospel but now, is just as fervent against it. He will strongly disagree with my assertion, but it is true. I fear for his soul.
Bill knows my motivations and heart better than I apparently, but there it is, and I hear it frequently – “I fear for his soul.”
I was born and socialized as a Catholic. I went to Catholic school, was an altar boy when the Mass was in Latin, learned the Baltimore Catechism and even had two first Holy Communions (another story). Catholics know their hell and make sure all adherents know it as well. We are taught it as part of our spiritual formation as children. I had my first Confession and First Holy Communions in second grade at age 7, and by that age we had to be crisp on the meaning of what it was we were actually doing when we received the Sacraments. But it was much earlier than even that young age that I became aware of Hell. There are Catholic prayer books and bibles for children, vivid artwork, imagery and terminology in prayers and the language of the Mass, in adult bibles, (“Mom, what’s a Devil, and who is he, and is that what he looks like?”), and ceremonies such as baptism (“Do you renounce Satan?”). When a family’s faith is pervasive, these stories and images are more or less at the surface all the time. They are vivid and run deep.
Besides eternal torment, Catholics also have Purgatory, a temporal place of punishment and purification. They have venial sins which, if I die with one imprinted on my soul will not be enough to condemn me to hell, but will require a trip to purgatory. There are mortal sins, which are sufficient to condemn one to Hell – even one (and simply missing Mass without good reason is still considered a mortal sin. I asked.) The Sacrament of Confession or Penance, as we called it then (the name has changed over the years; now it is called Reconciliation), is supposed to remove all “stain” of venial and mortal sin. There are also indulgences (scroll down to 1471), essentially forgiveness of sin for the living or the dead for sale by currency or behavior, the granting of which was so abused in the Middle Ages that it drove Luther to schism. Hell is big stuff and big business, and theologically complex and complicated!
Children are not as naïve as we think when it comes to trying to reason through what they are being told about the reality of this world and the next with the cognitive tools they have at their disposal. I remember so clearly my own sense of fear, anxiety, dismay, a sense of injustice and unfairness, inequity and terror as I tried to make sense of all this. Even at such a young age I realized it was an impossible and inescapable bind. I had been born without my prior consent, and was faced with the possibility of conducting myself throughout the course of my life in my thoughts, behavior and motivations in such a way that could warrant unimaginable, irreversible eternal torment of the highest order with no possibility of relief or reprieve. Ever. Instill that idea into a young child’s mind and imagine the possibilities.
Actually, it’s even worse than all this. We are all actually consigned to hell as a default position no matter how we conduct ourselves in the course of our lives by virtue of Original Sin, that is the “original” sin of Adam which we are all held responsible for. Original sin is what resulted in mankind’s supposed fallen nature, and supposed natural enmity with God. The Abrahamic God in the three monotheisms holds the sins of the fathers against the children for generation after generation. These are the teachings of orthodox Christianity, but thankfully they are ideas for which there is not the slightest shred of any evidence and should be treated accordingly.
Remarkably, as important as hell is, very few sects agree on what it actually is, what it’s like, how it works, how anyone really ends up there or not, or for that matter, whether or not it really and literally exists at all! This doesn’t seem to bother many people. Catholics are lucky in that they don’t really have to think it through, being able (required, actually) to simply assent to papal authority and tradition of the one true, Apostolic Church. They need not worry about the various hells of Calvin, Luther, Wesley, or any of their ecclesiastical spawn or mutations. Even so, hell is important to all these and is an ugly and pernicious idea no matter the sect (and in many it was taught that one of the joys of heaven would be the contemplation of the torments of the damned).
And so they all try to wrestle with and reconcile hell and its associated doctrines with modern thinking and what we know about the universe. Pastor Rob Bell wrote Love Wins, a best-seller that takes on hell and has generated all kinds of discussion. Bell ends up suggesting nobody is really condemned, a doctrine of the more Universalist wing of Christianity. Divine love and the “good news” of the gospels are inconsistent with hell, says he, and the final fate of billions of souls in hell cannot be an acceptable outcome to God. This takes hell further away from its orthodox and historical roots and has not been met with unqualified enthusiasm by the faithful.
Francis Chan, who also believes that “We cannot afford to be wrong on this issue,” wrote Erasing Hell partly as a response and counterpoint to Bell. There is no solace or clarity to be found in any authoritative consensus on such an important issue outside of simple deference to religious authority and tradition. That’s the best anyone’s got other than their own big theological ideas, no more verifiable or refutable than any other theological claim about reality, which is to say not at all. It’s unfortunate but common practice that Bell feels compelled to take the patently bad and vile idea of hell, reframe it and justify its reinterpretation with scripture which gave us the bad idea and its defense in the first place. It gives sola scriptura believers a sense, however false and indefensible, of a doctrinal statement supposedly grounded in scripture at least.
I tried for as long as I can remember to get my head and heart around reconciling hell with the proposition of an all-loving and omni-benevolent god. Even when I held fundamentalist views I didn’t really believe that there were literal flames and worms that never die. If not that, then what? We are told from the pulpit and in evangelical theology and popular religious books and Christian song lyrics that hell is separation from God. By extension then, hell is simply any place where God is not. This seemed to answer another dilemma. For those who choose to live without God here in this life, hell must simply be the extension of that state into eternity. God doesn’t really send anyone to hell, we choose it of our own accord and God cannot be held responsible for our own free choice.
Popular as it may be, this is not what the church has traditionally taught, it’s not what the bible explicitly teaches, and it still doesn’t square with the idea of an all-loving God. It also sidesteps many substantial questions and problems with the idea of free will in the first place on which the argument depends. When finally challenged on what I had come to believe, the light was shined on my own inner rationalizations, and there were many. I finally had to admit to myself that I couldn’t defend any of it and if I was intellectually honest with myself I would have to discard hell and its host and doctrines no matter how unsettling that might be at first (and it gets much easier quickly). It was not just because I didn’t like it, as some have supposed. I could no longer believe it because it is completely indefensible at every possible level. I finally decided to treat God like an adult and expose the whole line of thinking to scrutiny.
Here is an excerpt from an exchange I had with my friend Jon Trott of JPUSA and Wilson Station that illustrates:
Yes, God is infinite. God created us. God could have created us in a way that made sure we’d always say “yes” to him, love him, follow him, obey him. But instead he made us in his own image, though small and contingent rather than infinite. He gave us, however, the ability to truly choose, as moral beings, love.
The location of God and location of love are ultimately synonymous. It would figure then that if we do not want love — and apparently many people don’t; the evidence is everywhere! — we would not have to take love. Would we then be able to construct an alternative reality to the one where love (God) lies at the center? Only if we ourselves were infinite would that be possible.
God is Love, and that outside of Him there is only hell. Hell is separation from God. How could it not exist, if in fact we are actually moral agents rather than wind-up robots? There must in fact be a place where those who do not want love can go.
So fundamentalist constructs of fiery furnaces and Dantesque tortures aside, how would free will on this planet unfold without the possibility of hell for those who do not want love? I think to ignore hell is also to ignore our own nature — both in its pre-fall and post-fall state. We are unlike all created things in this singular aspect: We are moral beings who choose.
While there is so much that could be written to address the many issues this little paragraph presents, I want to meet his challenge. How could hell not exist, if in fact we are actually moral agents? Must there be such a place, a “location” for those who reject theism? First we have to quickly deal with some of the common assumptions and defenses about hell, weak as they are.
We can easily dismiss hell as a means of punishment because there is no possible crime in a finite lifetime that can justify such a sentence.
Many evangelicals will suggest that God’s ways are higher than ours and that we cannot understand the mind of God and His purposes. This is nothing more than a way of avoiding responsibility for one’s beliefs. Keith Parsons for example, quotes Kreeft and Tacelli: “To refuse to believe [in hell] is to measure God’s thoughts by ours.” Parsons replies.
Allow me at once to plead guilty to ‘measuring God’s thoughts’ by my own! As I see it, I have no other choice. If my intellect and my deepest moral convictions tell me that hell is a monstrous dogma, unworthy of belief by decent human beings, then I can think of no greater sin I could commit than to accept such a doctrine.
Everything I write is in language and terms we use and understand as mere human beings. I assume no supernatural or spiritual logic, otherworldly meanings of words, workings of the spirit or any such thing. I write that way because it’s all we have and it is clear that the scriptures do the same thing. They appeal to us using concepts and terms we commonly understand using logical arguments, for better or worse.
I am not aware of any possible reality where “many people don’t want love,” except in cases of some social, psychological or neurological impairment or pathology. Instead, I believe we all crave it deeply, need it, seek for it, pursue it, and cultivate it. If anyone reading this truly does not want love, please write and let me know.
God and Love
According to this exchange with Jon, God is synonymous with love. That must mean one of two things. Either it is possible to embrace any or no theology and still be at peace with God as long as love is a deliberate practice, or that love is only possible by embracing a certain specific theology. I don’t want to believe that there are people who hold that latter view but I know from some of our other conversations that he ultimately believes theology trumps all. Consider the implications. It’s outrageous and wronger than wrong to conclude that because one does not accept his theology (or any other) that one does not want love.
Having addressed those assumptions, here are seven alternative realities where God does not lie at the center or where are we infinite, ways that God could have dispensed with those intransigent souls and avoided the problem of hell without violating love or our moral responsibility. Any of these would be preferable to hell if God is interested at all in minimizing human suffering rather than maximizing it in some eternal furnace.
1. Non-Existence of God
The simplest alternative is the non-existence of a personal god at all, with the universe and any multi-verses the result of strictly natural processes. It is a possible reality that meets the criteria; we are still finite moral agents accountable to each other and no god at the center.
“I see only with deep regret that God punishes so many of His children for their numerous stupidities, for which only He Himself can be held responsible; in my opinion, only His nonexistence could excuse Him.” – A. Einstein
2. No After-Life
It is possible that there is no after-life at all and thus no hell. At least God could have designed it that way. This is not a new or radical idea. Many Jews do not and have not ever believed in an afterlife. Again, we would still be finite moral agents but wouldn’t have to “go” anywhere.
God could have chosen annihilation rather than eternal torment. That would be much more humane. If God was going to design an afterlife then those who choose love could go to heaven and those who don’t could simply cease to exist. Why not? God could have made it that way. There are a number of mainstream theologians including N.T. Wright who seem friendly towards this possibility.
4. The Big Picture
God could have created a mechanism whereby we die and then are given a chance to freely or truly choose based on perfect clarity afterwards. Why not? Presumably we will all have free will in the afterlife too. There are many who make their best efforts to understand, to love to their highest and best ability but who will occasionally or even consistently fall short. There are those who will not choose the right doctrine because they were born in the wrong country to the wrong family in the wrong time under the wrong conditions to assent to the right theology, and God has been unclear and confusing on so many important things. Doubt is perfectly reasonable and he could have made an allowance for that in his plan.
5. Love is Blind
Rather than condemn his creation to hell, he could simply overlook the choices people make not to love in this life. That would be the supremely loving and merciful thing to do, especially if sin is no longer possible in heaven. What I hear from Christians though is that God is perfect and that perfection trumps his love and mercy. As a parent I can imagine no condition where I would consign any of my children to eternal torment as a first resort. There is again, no worthy offense. There is no apparent reason why it should be that the choice has to be made here on earth in this lifetime.
6. Complete Information
God could have designed things so that they were completely unambiguous to all people in this lifetime. Everyone would have the same type of convincing personal transcendent, ecstatic religious experience and resulting strength of conviction that the greatest mystics have had. Or perhaps there would be such overwhelming and convincing evidence that we would all freely and truly choose love. That’s also possible.
7. Back to the Drawing Board.
God could have said, “Billions of human souls sent to hell in eternal torment because they chose not to love or chose the wrong creed? Bad idea. Better for me simply to exist alone than undertake creation and consign billions to hell.” Now that would be a love more worthy of a Supreme Being than what we are left with.
I believe just these few possibilities more than meet the criteria of avoiding the violation of love and free choice (to the extent that we have it in the first place), and in some cases enhance both. They are all more desirable from a human perspective than the one we are faced with in the New Testament scriptures (The Old Testament is virtually silent on the matter). While believers may prefer putting aside primitive notions of furnaces and torments, those are exactly the images we get out of Jesus’ own mouth and clearly reflect the teachings of the historical church. Parsons writes;
If God does not endorse a view of hell as eternal and punitive, then, having foreseen with his omniscience the terrible consequences of such a doctrine (and they have been terrible), he should have expressed in scripture a forthright and unequivocal repudiation of that doctrine. Scripture contains no such repudiation.
What are we to do with this? One must either simply accept the furnaces and torments at face value as many believers do, or cherry-pick the preferred teachings of Jesus, discarding the unsavory using some kind of reasoning, probably based on human secular ethics (in which case one wonders why the need for scripture at all. Rob Bell’s use of scriptural filters to redefine hell is contrived, contorted and completely unnecessary), or finally, to simply see Jesus as a historical or mythological figure, more enlightened than most for his time perhaps, but clearly not perfect or divine.