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.
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:
- They shore up their theology and batten down the hatches, damn the consequences or the implications.
- They remain Christian, but alter their beliefs about hell to account for the philosophical problems it presents.
- 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.