Hell Under Fire
Some time ago (it’s been said), a man brought forward his strong argument against the Bible, declaring, “I am seventy years of age, and have never seen such a place as hell, after all that has been said about it.” His little grandson, of about seven years of age, who was all the while listening, asked him, “Granddaddy, have you ever been dead yet?”
Hell has never been a popular topic, at least not in my lifetime. Dante’s Divine Comedy wouldn’t have sold well if he’d written it in our generation. The topic of hell is coming under special fire these days, though, with the Pope’s reported statement a few weeks ago implying it doesn’t exist. Whether he actually said that is uncertain, but the report brought the issue to the fore once again.
Skeptics will deny hell’s reality, naturally. Richard Dawkins took it one step further, calling it “child abuse” to tell children there’s such a thing as hell. Dawkins, a scientist, should know better than to reveal his scientific ignorance as he did there. The best science on the matter tells us kids come out much better when raised in religious homes.
Of course atheist critiques of Christian doctrines are much like a stay-at-home’s opinion on Mount Kilimanjaro. It’s perfectly safe to ignore what they say about it. It’s not so safe to ignore criticisms from within our ranks. That criticism certainly exists.
And why not? Who wants there to be a hell? Who wouldn’t rather find a way out of believing in it? The best Christian critiques I know of say that the saved live eternally with God in heaven, but the lives of the unsaved simply end at the time of their physical death (or maybe shortly thereafter). No soul is immortal unless saved in Christ, so this view is often called “conditional immortality.” A variant called “annihilationism” says the souls of the unsaved are annihilated. “The smoke of their torment goes up forever,” says the Bible. It’s the smoke that lasts forever, they say, not the torment.
I wish I could believe that. Hell seems wrong to me, as I know it does to many others. But I’ve learned that when I think the Bible needs correcting, further reflection always shows me I’m the one who needs it instead.
That further reflection for me has come by way of insights from Timothy Keller, C. S. Lewis, Louis Markos, and of course the Scriptures.
The Bible tells us God is a good God. We like to think of “good” as being “nice,” “kind,” “wouldn’t hurt a flea.” We forget that goodness includes treating evil as it deserves. Would I rather Hitler, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Mao Zedong and Stalin get off lightly for their atrocities?
We who long for justice know it doesn’t always happen on earth. Therefore if there’s justice in the universe at all, it must come after death. Read the Psalms and Revelation, and you’ll find that is part of the hope of the saints. And it’s not from vindictiveness, but from the need for justice to be done.
Still, though, isn’t it awful for God to send anyone to hell? C. S. Lewis’s oft-quoted answer is that He doesn’t. “In the end,” he says, “there are two kinds of people: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘Thy will be done.’” Hell is the natural outcome of a life spent choosing not to associate with God.
Timothy Keller, in The Reason for God, extends this reasoning. We spend a lifetime becoming who we will be, he says. We develop our identities, either as lovers and worshipers of God or as living independently of Him. God refuses to strip that from us. He lets us carry our identities into our futures after death. And it makes no sense for one who has made himself a God-independent identity to spend eternity with God in heaven. God lets them continue independent of Him.
Which means they go on independently of all of Him, including His provident love, His beauty, His care, His goodness. Hell isn’t literally fire. It’s probably more like another metaphor Jesus used, “the outer darkness, where men weep and gnash their teeth.” This is the effect of divorcing one’s identity from the goodness of God.
I think that makes sense. It may seem unjust to some, for its unequal treatment, but “equal treatment” doesn’t equal justice — not even in America, where we give the doctrine of equality near-biblical authority. Different deeds and different lives deserve different outcomes.
The Justice and Love of God
And yet, and yet … we all deserve but one outcome. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” says Romans 3:23. Justice for all means we all get an equal outcome, which is eternal separation from God. But God offers mercy — mercy you can receive right now. Jesus died for us so that we need not die our own eternally-lasting deaths. He offers us forgiveness from sin. We can receive it simply by telling Him we know we need that forgiveness, and we trust Him to provide it through His grace. It is heaven, not hell, where God’s justice is most challenged; except He met that challenge through Christ’s death on the cross.
I’m still not comfortable with the idea of hell. I don’t think I ought to be. It ought to motivate me to do all I can to rescue people from it, by showing and telling them the truth of God’s forgiveness in Christ — and their chance to build their identity now as lovers and worshipers of the great and loving God who created them.
“It’s been said” — Source: P.L. Tan’s Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations.