There is no getting around it: Hell is the most serious of all Christian beliefs.
It is more serious than “dead serious”. Yet I know of no one (Christian or not) who believes it. Aside from Ray Comfort and his protege, Kirk Cameron, I know of no Christian who lives, talks, thinks as though the stranger they just passed might go to Hell, or their family member with differing–or undefined–beliefs is going to Hell. There is no more solemn belief in any belief system. Perhaps we ought to face it. What do we make of it? Do Christians believe what their actions speak: “I’ve got my free pass out of Eternal Torture; that’s all that matters.”?
One catalyst for my inner debate on the subject has been this: according to Christian belief, God has left keeping souls out of hell to a surprising few number of people. And those people ain’t getting the job done. Consider all the Christians you know; how many people have they “led to the Lord” in the past year? In their lifetime? Either God doesn’t mind that billions go to hell, or he has been unpleasantly surprised by how Christians have dropped the ball with this most-important task. The argument that “God doesn’t send people to hell… they all have a chance to believe the exact belief to which I hold” is, to put it mildly, insane. Even in theory, the logistics alone make it impossible to reach–much less convince–every person on the planet.
People who do claim to accept the Christian idea of Hell, do so not because it is sensible or aligns with the rest of their beliefs or because it has been proven, but because it’s in the Bible. That is enough for many people. And that is fine. But many people have questioned their own beliefs.
Questioning doctrines is the reason there are different faiths. Questioning doctrines is the reason some of you are Presbyterian, and some are Catholic, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Assemblies of God, Four Square, Methodists, Seventh-Day Adventists, Amish, Latter Day Saints, Jehovah’s Witness, etc. Going further, Wikipedia lists 22 types of Catholics, 45 types of Presbyterians, 64 types of Lutherans, and an embarrassing number of Pentecostals and Baptists. They likely all have the same belief regarding Hell, but some question has caused them to fracture. The numbers alone say, clearly, that there is little-to-no agreement on doctrine.
The disagreement–strong, violent disagreement–reminds of the wish of the Muslim poet and theologian Rumi:
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.”
All Western religions, however, insist they alone are right. So they likely won’t make the meeting out in Rumi’s field. Only the six Eastern religions will be there. For whatever reasons, Western religions do not tolerate any other beliefs.
* Side point: there has never been a Buddhist (or any Eastern religion) war.
In trying to resolve the difficulty of Hell, people have arrived at all types of ideas. One idea popular in some beliefs (and what Rob Bell suggests in his latest book, if I understand him correctly) is the idea that Heaven and Hell refer to our state, Here and Now. This belief satisfies a great many questions. But, understandably, it is too different from some doctrines for those adherents to accept. Or even listen to. To their credit, Christians stop short of crying, “Jihad!” when someone presents a differing belief. The Christian response I encounter is to end the dialogue; usually with some form of, “Shame on you for asking questions!” Many people do not question their beliefs. And that is fine.
I, however, have questioned what I believe countless times. And Hell is the belief I have spent the most time wrestling with. My first (philosophically) problem with Hell is that it seems to be in opposition to the foundation religious doctrine of a loving God. Hell leaves us with this:
“God loves you. And if you don’t believe that, he’s gonna torture you forever.”
Hell reduces God to a terrorist who only gets what he wants via terrible ultimatums. Furthermore, for many believers (in many faiths) the threat of hell is the sole impetus for good behavior: “I’d better obey the rules (at least publicly), so I don’t go to hell.”
Which reminds of part of the opening to Rob Bell’s book:
Renee Altson begins her book Stumbling Toward Faith with these words:
“I grew up in an abusive household. Much of my abuse was spiritual—and when I say spiritual, I don’t mean new age, esoteric, random mumblings from half-Wiccan, hippie parents…I mean that my father raped me while reciting the Lord’s Prayer. I mean that my father molested me while singing Christian hymns.”
Immanuel Kant pointed out that whatever benefit religion may have, it is not as Moral Police. Moral behavior must take place outside of religion, otherwise it is not moral behavior; it is following rules–doing right because it is a code, not because it’s the right thing to do. (My paraphrase likely does not do his thought justice.)
My second problem with Hell is that it ends up making God worse than the worst of us because Hell is in gross excess of the “crime” in both duration and severity.
Torturing someone forever because they didn’t believe a specific belief is less “just” than chopping off the hand of the thief or stoning the adulterer.
* Side point: many people have intelligently argued that the Old Testament/Koran form of justice is more just and humane than the American form of interminable court proceedings and incarceration.
Perhaps it is as simple as it seems: human doctrines are tainted with humanity. We are often cruel, so our beliefs are often cruel.
Can we examine our beliefs? Do we dare? We update literally everything else, including our morals and science. Can we acknowledge that our beliefs have evolved? No one has studied religions and mythology as much or as seriously as Joseph Campbell. Listen to what he says:
“We’ve lost the symbols. Meanwhile, we need the symbols… But the culture has rejected them. The culture has gone into an economic and political phase where the spiritual principles are completely disregarded. The religious life now is ethical; it is not mystical. That is gone. And the society is disintegrating because of it. Will there ever be a recovery of the mythical realization of the miracle of life?
There is no conflict between mysticism and science. But there is a conflict between the science of 2000BC and the science of 2000AD. And that’s the mess in our religions. We’ve got stuck with an image of the universe that is about as simple and childish as you can imagine. It’s of no use to us. We have to have current poets; we have to have current seers, who will render to us the experience of the transcendent through the world in which we’re living.
Life throws up around us these temptations, these distractions. And the problem is to find the immovable center, and then you can survive anything. And the myths will help you to do that. And this is the quest for the inner life that will enable you to float down the stream like a human being instead of just some babbitt or robot in the hands of a political institution.”
* Side point: I had to look up the word “babbitt”, and it is terrifying to me.
However, as I have wrestled the topic, I have also arrived at, and been satisfied with, these points:
1) Whether or not hell is exactly as Christians believe, I have committed sin.
Everyone is guilty of breaking God’s law (or moral law, if you aren’t yet ready to say “God”). And, everyone will, in their lifetime, commit a lot of sins. Even good people break the law. If you commit only four each day, and you live for 70 years, that’s over 100,000 sins. Enough to warrant a severe penalty. Perhaps not an eternity of torment, but some great consequence. Which brings me to Point 2:
2) Physical negligence, error, and harmful behavior produce physical consequences. It is possible (easy, even) to harm the body, and that harm often lasts the duration of the physical body. Scars, pain, disfigurement are permanent.
Why wouldn’t the consequences of injury to the soul last the duration of the soul?
3) Hell and Free Will are compatible. God is not a terrorist or tyrant for making breathing necessary for living. The fact that we must breathe in no way means Someone has secretly stripped us of free will. There is a rather stiff penalty for not breathing. Perhaps hell is more reasonable than it appears.
4) Who says we have free will? Maybe Free Will–and not Hell–is a human creation. Perhaps there are many ways in which we are not free to choose. Perhaps we have defiantly, arrogantly created the idea of free will. Perhaps the ultimate act of free will is to surrender that will; just as the ultimate act of living is to give up that life for someone else or a greater cause.
As you can see or guess, I remain at a personal impasse. I am not in crisis or distraught but am simply still in process. Still learning and journeying.