Hell is Unjust

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If you were neck-deep in Christian subculture in the 70s and 80s, you would have probably been aware of a series of short cartoon tracts that were passed around by evangelicals in their efforts to sway unbelievers to repent of their sins and be saved from eternal damnation. One in particular comes to mind when I think of the topic of hell. It was called Back from the Dead, and featured a story of a man who died and saw hell, but was then resuscitated and instantly concerned about ensuring that he didn’t end up there. He described the scene in the traditional way, with a few horrific creatures gnawing at him for effect.

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Back from the Dead, ©1982 (Image: Jack T. Chick LLC)

I was 11 or 12 when I first saw this and I can tell you that it had its intended effect: anxiety and fear. History has shown that fear can be a great way to manipulate people into taking action. Actions based on fear come from a primal survival mechanism, so there typically isn’t a lot of depth behind such things. For me, I was stricken with an intense determination to avoid hell and help others do the same. Call it anxiety-driven evangelism.

In my 30s, I began to quietly question the theology of hell that was such a driving force in my early belief system. I couldn’t shake the dissonance I saw between the messages and actions of Jesus and the well-developed theology of hell that is so entrenched in evangelical circles.

The concept of hell understandably creates a lot of anxiety for Christian believers (shouldn’t it?) and it is often a theological fork in the road, as it has been for me. I think one of three things happen when someone begins wresting with this idea:

  1. They shore up their theology and batten down the hatches, damn the consequences or the implications.
  2. They remain Christian, but alter their beliefs about hell to account for the philosophical problems it presents.
  3. They abandon Christianity and religion completely.

I easily identify with that second group. I could not continue with the traditional view of hell, and believe that it should be reconsidered and abandoned.

In the 14th century, Dante Alighieri, an Italian poet, composed a long narrative poem called The Divine Comedy that took a detailed, yet poetic approach to teach a theology of the afterlife.  The first part of the poem describes a journey through the “levels” of Hell, where people are punished for their specific sins.  The lower you went, the more extreme the punishment became.  It featured demons ripping people apart, burning rain falling from above, and bushes that gushed blood when their branches were broken.

Dante’s vision of hell influenced the way the church conceived of hell and its horrors (probably to this very day), convincing many that even if hell is a remote possibility, that possibility was to be feared and avoided at all costs.

So what exactly do I mean by “hell”?  I know there are alternative interpretations of the concept of hell, but I am referencing the traditional Christian doctrine of hell, which teaches that people who do not believe in Jesus Christ will experience a never-ending afterlife of conscious suffering and torment.

Consider that description: never-ending, conscious torment.  If you say you believe this, do you simultaneously hope that it isn’t true?   Whatever your beliefs are, I hope we can all agree on the hope that such a thing does not exist.

The most disturbing part of the idea of is that it casts serious doubt on our idea of what “goodness” is.  If we are to understand what it means to say that “the LORD is good to all” and “has compassion on all he has made” (Psalm 145:9), then God’s goodness must be in some way analogous to our own understanding of what is good.

The same applies to the concept of justice.  The idea that someone will suffer an unending, conscious punishment of torment because they did not think the right thoughts about God is heavy with implications regarding who God is and what the word “justice” even means. The punishment simply doesn’t fit the crime.

Is it just for a person to suffer endlessly because they didn’t think the “correct” theological thoughts while they lived their short life?

Is it just for a person to suffer endlessly because they were offered an alternative religious path from birth and lived that life with honor and faithfulness?

Is it just for a person to suffer endlessly because they were good to their family and friends, but struggled intellectually with any ideas that didn’t come with concrete scientific proofs?

Even if I were at my worst, you would never imagine that I would punish someone who had wronged me by burning them alive while they are still conscious. We would only imagine the worst kind of person doing that, yet we allow it for God. Somehow the most heinous act of punishment is acceptable for a God who we will also describe as “compassionate and just.”

If there were such a thing as hell where people would consciously suffer forever, it would certainly be unjust. Yet I have had other Christians argue with me that this idea of hell is acceptable, simply because it is God’s idea.

If that’s true, then the whole idea of justice has been flipped onto its head.

If that’s true, then we can abandon the idea that we can use God as a model for human goodness and morality.

And finally, if that’s true, then it may be time to question our own sense of “eternal security” if we think that is based in some way on God’s love, goodness or justice, since our understanding of such things would clearly be under fire if we accept a theology of hell as described above.

Of the many alternatives to a belief in hell, consider ones that reveal God’s love poured out onto the world he created, especially as was personified in Jesus Christ.  This kind of message transcends culture, yet can be seen even in the imperfect parent who loves their child.

If a loving God exists, that God certainly doesn’t prepare a place of never-ending torment for those who don’t “get it right” on this earth.  Instead, he embraces his creation with nurture and love, like a mother to her child.

2 responses to “Hell is Unjust

  1. Hey Jason,

    I’ve read your blog titled “Hell is Unjust.” Let me preface my response by saying that I have a very simple faith in Jesus. I have no interest in being an intellect. Some of my heroes in the faith have godly folks with no college education but loved and knew God’s Word…and oh what a joyous life they had even though they were ignorant of higher criticism. Yes, as you know I possess the academic credentials but I am so comfortable in my simple faith persona.

    And yes, I believe in a literal Hell, but my starting point is not whether a just God could send anyone to Hell. My starting point is a simple faith in a Creator, Redeemer, Absolute Sovereign God and a absolute trust in His Word. Because of that Faith in His Word, I must accept the reality of Hell. I can assure you that my concept of Hell has absolutely nothing to do with Dante’s The Divine Comedy, but the fact that the Bible speaks more of Hell than it does of Heaven.

    To say that Dante has influenced the church’s concept of Hell without any evidence of such influence is unscholarly. In fact, in all of my theological studies, I have never heard of any evangelistic, conservative scholar subscribe to a concept of levels of Hell.

    By the way, I wish I had known that you had been influenced by Jack Chick’s cartoon writing. (As an aside, Chick died a few months ago.) I have always been put off by his comic strip because they were not evangelistic in nature but very, very, fundamentalist in thinking. But don’t let that negative childhood experience chase you away from one of the fundamental theological tenets of the Bible.

    Back, to my starting point regarding Hell. I do not have to understand all of the complexities of Hell to accept its existence. In fact, to do so brings me into the realm of God and I will not do that. Because I have complete faith in God, I know that however Hell is operated, it is just. In other words, I am coming to my concept of Hell from the opposite direction as you do. I start with my faith in God. You seem to start with your concept of Hell and develop your concept of God.

    Your blog raises numerous questions. What happens at death for the world’s wicked people? Do they simply cease to exist? What about the horrific death of Christ on the cross? Who was it for? Do believers go to Heaven and all others die away? Probably your most disturbing statement about “alternative religious path” seems to allude to an acceptance of universalism. If that were true, let’s recall thousands of missionaries and allow churches to save millions of dollars on missions.

    For me, I believe that Jesus is the only way. I believe my assignment is to do all within my power to point men and women to a cross and leave the rest to God.

    Jason, because of our long standing relationship, I will never cease praying that you will rediscover that “old time religion.” You may scoff at that, but you can’t prevent me from praying for you and your great family.

    Love
    Don

  2. Thank you, Don, for your thoughtful response.

    I won’t respond to each of your questions because I think the point of divergence is in our view of the Bible and its role in our theology. I know how you view the Bible because I grew up with that same perspective. And I don’t disparage your perspective on that. But my view of the Bible has changed as a few things have happened:

    1. I realized I was banking a lot on a one particular interpretation on many theological topics, even in light of the fact that there are often many reasonable ways to interpret a particular passage or set of passages.

    2. I became more aware of the cultural language of the Bible and how tied it was to the original listener/reader. I became concerned that we have allowed our own theology to be completely unattached to our own culture even though the theology of Bible itself was born in and with a particular culture and was partially defined by the issues and concerns of that culture.

    3. I was no longer able to maintain the cognitive dissonance that accompanied a reading of the Bible as a whole. Without changing my view of the Bible, I would have to abandon it completely. I had to recognize the human and culturally-bound element of the Bible (which accounts for the frequent language of violence, for example) and begin to relate to the Bible as a partner in our journey to know God, since it is an account of humanity’s journey to do the same.

    So the concept of hell as a place of never-ending, conscious torment was a casualty of all of the above.

    As I mentioned in my article, I am unable to resolve the question of how to hold onto a believe in hell while also holding on to the believe in the love and justice of God. I don’t see any way that a never-ending, internal state of torment could be a punishment that fits the crime for people who have lived generally good lives, taken care of their families, but have taken a more agnostic approach to the idea of God.

    You mentioned a question about alternative understandings of salvation. Every view regarding the afterlife carries with it certain unanswered questions including the traditional, evangelical view.

    At this point, I am much more able to except the unanswered questions around the idea of universal salvation than the unanswered questions around the idea of a certain group of people being allowed into heaven while others suffer a horrific existence in torment.

    So, yes, I can live with the implications of every single person being saved in the end because that theology contains an expansive view of God’s grace, mercy and love. While I do understand why you don’t believe that, a limited view of salvation present an understanding of God that is inconsistent and confusing to me. An allowance for God-sanctioned, never-ending punishment for choices made in an temporary life on earth leaves me with an incoherent definition of God’s love and incoherent definition of God’s justice.

    Thank you for reading what I wrote here and thoughtfully considering it. I appreciate the effort and time you put into a response, and I am always glad to know of your prayers.

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