Friday, December 26, 2008

Hell in a Handbasket

Hell has been on my mind lately.

What brought it up this time is that I was listening to the Albet Mohler Program and he was talking about how upset he was that the majority of American Christians don't believe that non-believers are going to burn in Hell. For Mr. Mohler, this sounds like a serious problem. He's afraid that believers aren't willing to tell people that their non-Christian loved ones are burnig in Hell right now. Yes, he said that.

I understand that his beliefs are not unusual. I wish he understood that they were never, historically, universal, but oh well. What bothers me is that this bothers people. It bothers people that there aren't a billion souls burning and screaming in Hell for eternity.

Here's an example of one of the many ways this makes no sense. Here's a story from a couple days ago in the Marin Independent Journal: it is about a "horrific" tale of a teenager being held captive for more than a year and tortured in someone's basement. He finally escaped, showing up with nothing but boxer shorts and a padlock around his ankle. The horrorific nature of the crimes against him inspired a girl at the local high school to start fundraising to help him. Many Marin families have offered to adopt the boy (he was in the foster system).

Now, people rightly identify this story as horrific, and I think the outpouring of compassion for this kid was, in its own way, beautiful. But compared to what some people believe about God, this whole story is pretty tame. The kid was only held captive and tortured for a year, not for eternity. He was able to escape - but no one escapes Hell, right? Once you're in, that's it.

Maybe I'm crazy, but I believe that God has to be, at minimum, more merciful and loving than whoever it is that tortured this teenage boy in their basement for over a year - because what happened to this kid is horrifying and disgusting and disgraceful.

But imagine if the kid could never escape. Imagine if there was no hope the torture would ever end. Imagine if we told that kid's family that he deserved to be tortured in that way because he never had the right kind of faith in the right kind of Jesus.

That would be pretty cold-hearted, right?

So how can we say that about God?

What I'm not saying is that Hell has no meaning, or that we should toss out the few scriptural verses that talk about Hell. What I'm saying is that under no circumstances will I worship a monster. That is a preconception that I bring to theology - that God is not a horrific monster who is willing to commit moral crimes beyond human imagination. Call me crazy, but I'm just not willing to go there.

Ok, open fire.


Drew Tatusko said...

What bothers me is how patently unscriptural the view that people either go to heaven or hell (or purgatory) when they die. And this, coming from a fundamentalist.

I have posted this before with really no response. What we know from scripture is that there will be a general resurrection of the dead and a judgment. Jesus was vivid about this as is the book of Revelation. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, to suggest that a contingent life will lead, even unknowingly, to heaven or hell without that eschatological event taking place.

Pastorally, it's nice to tell people out of comforting the restless soul that their loved ones are "with God". But in reality we just don't know. We cannot know. Only God knows. What is most likely is that the soul remains in stasis until the general resurrection of the dead. Now do the dead, that would happen right after they die. Like waking up after a deep sleep where you can't remember you dreams. So the comfort that we can give is that we will be with our loved ones at the last judgment where we would be stupid not to accept the robe that Christ gives us to come to the great feast that he talks about in Matt. 22. But of course even all this is metaphorical.

So why doesn't someone asks Mohler where he gets this crap? It is as Scriptural as the rapture and inerrancy. Those ideas are as Scriptural as the flying spaghetti monster. And that's all before we discuss the ethics of judgment here which again Jesus and Paul are only very explicit that this sort of crap is NOT what Christians should do and is actually destructive to the church.

Doug Hagler said...

Amen. The fact that it lacks solid scriptural backing is one of the reasons I am still a Christian despite hearing this kind of hellish theology from Christians.

Grace said...

I personally think that eternal seperation from God, what we call Hell, is self-chosen. It seems to me a part of God's love that He doesn't arbitrarily force people into the kingdom.

There needs to be a balance. The gospel should never be presented as simply a "fire escape." And, I think people should be responding to the "good news," primarily out of love, and desire to know truth, rather than from a place of fear.

On the other hand, Jesus certainly spoke also of the reality of God's righteous judgement, and we can't ignore this aspect of God either, and still be faithful to share the whole counsel of God, IMO.

Aric Clark said...

In my estimation there are really 2 separate issues here.

1 is the theological issue, which is easily resolved. The doctrine of Hell is neither necessary nor useful and since it is plainly evil we can get rid of it very easily. In fact, it has never, NEVER, been universally accepted as true among Christians. There are many many ways to approach biblical themes of judgment, justice, grace, and eternal life without needing to fabricate a fanciful imaginary realm of torture.

2- the second issue, which is more difficult, is the human psychological one, which is that many people seem unable or unwilling to reconcile their idea of God without something like Hell in the picture. This can be the bizarre vindictive need to see others suffer like Mohler, or the milder, but still present, psychological need to explain what happens with all the people who don't fit our idea of the elect.

CS Lewis also held that Hell was self-chosen, and frankly it doesn't do it for me. Any all-powerful God worth his salt can find some way to persuade people. It is only sin after all which causes us to turn away from God since our "natural" inclination is to seek God and God is perfectly capable of purging us of sin and making us see the truth clearly. Or is Sin more powerful than God?

Grace said...

What about free will? We are more than puppets on a string.

But, I agree that this is an issue that Christians have disagreed about through the centuries. My own husband is an universalist, although he does feel strongly that all "salvation" is in Christ.

He does believe that eventually all will be found in Him. (Jesus)

Hey, we're definitely going to find out for certain eventually. In the meantime, the "judge of all the earth will do right." We can so trust Him.

Doug Hagler said...

That's another thing that steams my clams. The stance which amounts to:

"I can only trust God if I know for a fact that some of you are going to burn."

For me, I can only trust God if I believe that God would never allow eternal torment, much less *design* it. Its...the polar opposite position. And its honestly hard to understand. As someone who really enjoys understanding other people, who wants to see things from other people's point of view, its honestly troublesome.

Part of it is how I frame the issue - but I think that it is, at core, an honest way to frame it. Hell, as described in pop-Christianity and by some Christians, is morally untenable no matter how much you dress it up.

I can't even really feel like I understand how much some people are suffering while they are alive. I've definitely encountered limited, embodied, temporal suffering which is incomprehensible both in its injustice and in its severity. Who needs Hell? Who wants Hell?

Its too easy to find, and too painful once found, right here on Earth.

Aric Clark said...

The doctrine of hell and universalism are not the only options. Rejecting hell doesn't automatically mean one presumes universal salvation. For many Christians (and I think scripture) salvation doesn't really have anything to do with heaven or hell. Rather it's about the resurrection of the dead and the coming of God's Kingdom to earth. What the heck that looks like - idk, some mustard seed or something.

Second of all, what about Free will? Even if such a thing exists (certainly debatable) Do you really think an infinitely creative and wise God is incapable of finding sufficiently clever ways of persuading everyone? Would God really be forced into coercion? Isn't it pretty likely that a God of love and grace is simply too appealing to resist absent sin?

We can definitely trust God, as you say. God will do right. And "right" under no circumstances can include eternal torture. for anyone.

Grace said...

Doug, rushing off to work, so I'll have to think about this more deeply when I get back.

But, you're misunderstanding. I've seen God's love, mercy, and wisdom in the face of Christ. That's why I know we can trust Him. Hell has nothing to do with it for me.

But, I'm just not persuaded from the teaching of Jesus that in the end everyone will be in the kingdom. What about the parable of the sheep, and the goats, for instance?

I'm also thinking that if there are folks in this life who want nothing to do with the God who is actually there, deliberately reject and scorn the cross of Christ, and may even intentially chose evil..If they are not persuaded in this life, how can we be certain they will be changed in the next.

And, in a deeper sense we could all make a Hell out of heaven, metaphorically speaking, unless radically changed by our union with Christ.

My thought is we should just faithfully share the "good news" in word and deed with everyone who is able to hear, and let who will eventually be "saved," or "lost" to the Lord. He is merciful, and just, and will do right.

Jodie said...

The whole thing stems from our rewards and punishment Cosmology.

In the OT we have a clear doctrine of rewards and punishment. Paradise is lost as a punishment. Moses tells the people of God to choose between life and death, reward and punishment. The sacrificial system is predicated on it (as a reparation cost for sins. The death of the animal is only a cost to its owner).

But we also see the beginning of a substitutionary atonement system. The goat that is burdened with the sins of the people and takes them away into the wilderness.

(Interesting to note that the goat is not a sacrificial goat but a vehicle. John combines the two when he calls Jesus the lamb who takes away the sin of the world).

Still it was a system based on rewards and punishment. Heaven is a reward and Hell is a punishment. One cannot exist without the other and only a priest and/or a sacrifice can avert punishment.

To do away with Hell as punishment we also have to do away with Heaven as reward.

It's doable.

But we have to get rid of sin to do it. At least sin against God. We have to believe that Jesus really took away the sin of the World as John says, or even as Paul says. Paul says that if you believe that sin could have come into existence through the work of one man, then you should have no problem with one man taking it away. So it no longer exists.


He says that being set right with God is not a matter of reward and punishment, it's for free for everyone.

But then you have to test the idea at the furthest imaginable boundaries. You have to pass the Hitler test. What Hitler did against the Jews was not a sin against God (because "sin" has been taken away). But it was still a crime against humanity. A crime that was not punished in any equitable way in this life. And it was a crime that will not be punished at all in the after life. The statute of limitations ran out the moment he died. (or is there a purgatory?)

Can we accept this? Does God accept this? Isn't a God who allows such evil to go unpunished just as unacceptable as a God who punishes evil? The silence of God in the face of the cries of the innocent is a barrier no living person can really overcome.

Evil dictators, pestilence, war, famine, death, oppression, persecution, mother nature run amok, the silence of heaven, all conspire to lock us out, to keep us from accepting this God who is either too forgiving or too cruel to be real.

It is easy to imagine rejecting God altogether.

(although I have to say in Doug's defense that once you have felt embraced by a certain magnitude of God's love one gets a feeling that it is bigger than any big you can imagine)

On the other hand, if the soul is really an immortal essence of our being, or if we are to come back to life in a corporal existence after our bodies have been recycled many times over, if such wonders really do exist, then all bets are off.

We can have no idea what we are talking about in discussing such matters.

But if any of this is true, then at least one thing follows. Jesus calls us to repent from our own reward and punishment Cosmology, our own cult of power, and violence, and vengeance, and death, and he calls us to live out our fantasy of what a Kingdom of God might be, full of love and forgiveness and fairness, right here and right now, because at least for now, it's all we have.

After all, God did not wait for us to die for us to be with Him in Heaven. He came to us, to be with us here and now, Immanuel.

Grace said...

Wow, guys, this is an awesome discussion. I'll have to drop by more often.

I love your last sentence, Jodie.

"He came to us, to be with us here and now, Immanuel."


Doug Hagler said...

Grace :)

All due respect, but how can I be misunderstanding? I'm telling you what I believe and why.

There are also options wherein not everyone in is in the kingdom, but where there is no hell. Sheep and goats, so to speak.

The fact is - the Bible contradicts itself on whether everyone is "saved" or not. You can find passages that say "definitely, yes" and passages that say "definitely, no".

Its a conundrum.

But for me, regardless of Christ (which is also a reason I trust, just like it is for you), if there is Hell on the other side of life, I can't trust. No matter how much option A loves and entices and inspires me, if option B is still screaming for eternity in torment - no deal.

Doug Hagler said...


Actually, Hell basically isn't in the OT at all. Sacrifices were to keep in covenental relationship with God - the punishment was getting handed to the Persians. There was no Hell as a threat - the threat was your butt getting kicked because God wasn't going to protect you from the big, nasty superpowers on your northern and southern border.

And then, of course, God doesn't ultimately protect Israel. Israel gets conquered by Rome, and then the Temple is destroyed, never to be rebuilt. The worst thing, the threatened thing, happened, and I think that Judaism since then has been the collective response to that catastrophe and, from one point of view, betrayal.

The closest thing to our neo-Gnostic-Hellenic-pop-theological idea of Hell the Hebrews actually had was "the grave", which was sometimes depicted as where God wasn't - though there are other times when God is depicted as going even there.

So, basically, in short - Hell is our invention, apart from the Bible. The problem of evil is WAY stickier than Heaven vs. Hell.

Jodie said...


You are quite right about Hell not being in the OT, but neither is Heaven or even an afterlife per se. The two go hand in hand, and yes, it is probably a Hellenistic dualism thing. Light and dark, good and evil, heaven and hell.

I do like David's extreme metaphor that even if I make my bed in Sheol, the land of the dead, God is there.

I still think the notion of Heaven and Hell just kind of creeped up, to answer the question of good and evil, punishment and reward. In the time of Jesus it was undecided. But God is quoted in the OT as saying "Vengeance is mine, I will repay" If he doesn't repay in this life, then it must be in the next. Or else he was lying.

And theoretically he agreed to take it upon himself >>so that<< we would not.

Hell is there to solve a problem. You can get rid of it, but then you have to come up with a better solution. And that is good. I really do believe there is a better solution.

Grace said...

Not to clobber this to death, guys.. But, is it possible that for some folks to be in the eternal presence of a holy, and just God would be the greater torment??

Doug it's not easy to communicate, and understand via the internet.

What I thought I heard you saying awhile back was that you were feeling that my personal trust in God was connected to a belief that some people could be eternally lost.

That's not where I'm at. My conviction is that regardless of what happens after death.. whether there is Hell or not, God is loving, and just. We can trust Him to "do right," no matter what.

I think God is loving even in judgement because I know Him in the reality of the incarnation, the face of Jesus Christ.

Doug Hagler said...


Yeah, this still isn't the best communication medium - ironically. My comment wasn't directed at you, but rather at, for example, Albert Mohler, mentioned in the post, who said proudly and in as many words that if there is no Hell to torment non-Christians, then there is no reason whatsoever to trust God or be a Christian, etc.

As for being in the presence of a holy and just God might be torment - if it was not also the presence of a loving God. To be loving, you need to be so all the time, and love seeks the greatest good for that which is loved at all times. I would say that love and torment of the one loved cannot coincide. (I would also say that torment always violates the demands of justice, but that's already been talked about)

Aric Clark said...


I don't think you're clobbering it to death. Glad you keep coming back.

As for your statement "whether there is Hell or not, God is loving, and just" we'll just have to disagree here. For me words like "love" and "good" have definite content that prohibit eternal torment. God definitely cannot, in my opinion, permit torture AND be good.

As for God being loving even in judgment - of course. Indeed, I think Christ reveals God's judgment IS love. God chooses to be for us despite our sin, again and again. Judgment and Hell are not at all the same thing. Hell is a violation of justice, not the result of it.

Jodie said...

What if you had won 10 million dollars on a lottery ticket, then lost the ticket.

Maybe "weeping and gnashing of teeth" isn't about torture.

Doug Hagler said...

"For never hearing of my Son, Christ the Redeemer, I, the Holy One of Israel, hereby sentence you eternity of extreme disappointment!"

I dunno. It doesn't have that epic ring to it :)

Eddie Louise said...

There is an interesting psychological angle that no-one has mentioned here... Namely the torture of forgiveness.

I believe that Hitler (and others of his ilk) receive judgment in full, but there is no sentencing. They stand before the Lord and all illusion is stripped away - the full pathetic nature of their character is revealed. They will see themselves as the monsters they are. They will feel the need of the absolution that comes from punishment - an expatiation of guilt by suffering. But they are not granted that, because forgiveness is preemptive. Their only task at that point is to accept the forgiveness.

Acceptance of God's forgiveness and forgiving yourself are the two steps needed to remove guilt and cleanse away the evil. The burning, I believe is the burn of shame, the feeling of unworthiness. All of us will feel this to some extent. The greater the our crimes the more this will effect us.

Those that refuse God's forgiveness, those that wallow in guilt and avoid the painful step of acceptance will remain 'outside' of God's Kingdom.

The Chinese have the notion of Hungry Ghosts - those doomed to wander the afterlife in limbo - not moving on. Guilt and shame are a trap, but they are a trap of our own making. For what it is worth, I think Hell is being a Hungry Ghost.