I’m sure you’ve all seen those amusing cuttings from church bulletins, like ‘What is Hell like? Come and hear our new organ’. One thing I’m fairly sure hell isn’t like is the classic view held by most evangelicals (and many others). The extreme version of this is that hell is a literal place of never-ending, conscious, punitive or retributive torment (physical and/or psychological), ordained and even delivered by God, without hope of redemption, and applying to all who have not put their faith in Christ as saviour. In my view this is nothing but an insanity-inducing nightmare, and I reject it wholeheartedly. Let’s look more closely at the main elements of this picture.
The classic view is that hell is unending, based on biblical phrases like ‘everlasting destruction’ or ‘tormented day and night for ever and ever’. But the biblical concept of eternity (or ‘everlasting’) is a complex and varied one. Most instances are not to do with endless temporal time, an unending succession of hours and days. It can sometimes refer to a very, very long time; or it can mean an intense quality of time, such as when lovers gaze into each other’s eyes (or something like that); or indeed something entirely outside our normal experience of time. In Love Wins, Rob Bell suggests that ‘everlasting punishment’ in Matthew 25 (the story of the sheep and goats) would be better translated as ‘an intense period of pruning’ (or correction). There’s also the argument that infinite and eternal punishment cannot be appropriate for finite, temporal sins. Even in the Old Testament, punishment is strictly limited and commensurate – an eye for an eye, a life for a life. Even assuming that something like this OT model of justice applies here (rather than a grace-based NT version), there must surely come a point when even a Hitler’s crimes are duly paid for. Jesus said ‘you shall not get out until you have paid the last penny’: not ‘you shall never get out’. Of course, there’s another possibility suggested by ‘everlasting destruction’ which is simply annihilation – the blotting out of the unrighteous from existence. This is everlasting in its effect; those who are annihilated cannot return. This isn’t my own preferred interpretation, which tends more towards a hopeful universalism; but it’s one I have some sympathy for.
If hell isn’t necessarily endless, it can’t be entirely hopeless either. And even if it is potentially endless, I still don’t accept that there can be no possible chance of redemption after death. According to 1 Peter, while Jesus’ body was in the tomb he went and ‘preached to the spirits in prison’, so that they might be ‘alive in the spirit’ (1 Ptr 3:18-20, 4:6). If God genuinely wills all to be saved (1 Tim 2:3-4), there seems no logical reason why physical death should be the cut-off point at which salvation becomes impossible. It may be unlikely and difficult, but I believe there must always be a chance and a hope. My favourite literary exploration of hell is C.S. Lewis’s Great Divorce. In it, the shadowy inhabitants of Grey Town (a kind of Hades/hell) are encouraged to visit the heavenly country, or at least its outlying borderlands. They also have the opportunity to stay and belong, if they can only let go of the things and ways that tie them to Grey Town – which is too hard for most, but not all. Of course this is only a story or parable, and Lewis never claimed that it represented reality. But it presents an intriguing picture of hope for those in hell, one that I’ve found helpful.
What of the view that those in hell must suffer terrible but deserved punishment for their earthly sins? There are some crimes so terrible that we feel there must be full recompense. There are some people who we simply feel must pay for the awful things they’ve done; must be made to suffer as they have made others suffer. I feel the emotional power of this argument, and I cannot say that there is no validity in it. But as I argued above, this punishment need not be limitless; it is not justice that they suffer more or for longer than their victims. And even in the most extreme cases, I believe that Jesus offers a higher way of justice, the redemption hard-won by his own suffering. Furthermore, in the standard evangelical view, there is no necessary gradation between the fate of a Hitler and a nice atheist, or someone in a rainforest tribe who’s never heard of Jesus. All suffer eternally and hopelessly in hell. And even if some might hope that the atheist or animist suffers less, I’m not sure that endless low-level suffering is ultimately a hugely preferable fate. So, if those in hell must indeed suffer, I would strongly question both the nature and the degree of these torments. I believe that they must at least be proportionate to the crimes and sins committed in life. Perfect justice surely demands this at the very least, if not something a whole lot better. Hell’s torments do not have to be the worst possible (the Bible speaks of ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ not ‘screams of agony’). Nor does hell have to be the most terrible place that we can imagine. Hell may even be merciful, a divinely-imposed limit on the extent of suffering we can place on ourselves – this was certainly C.S. Lewis’s idea, and one I’ll return to. Lewis also suggested that hell might not be without its pleasures and comforts, whether physical or psychological. We can see something of this even in this world and in our own experience. There are pleasures in this world that are hellish in the sense that they tend to harm and corrupt those who partake of them. Anyone who’s ever known an addict can testify to this, whether it’s addiction to alcohol, drugs, pornography, or indeed to vengeful hate or even religious self-righteousness. In The Great Divorce, those who are unable to enter the bright reality of heaven are the ones who cling on to and nurture their little hellish pleasures of hate, lust, vanity, pride, etc; or to their cherished but relationally destructive views of themselves as victims or martyrs or intellectual heroes or whatever.
Assuming for argument that hell does include some ‘torment’, I also question who is doing the tormenting. In the medieval picture, it was devils with toasting forks, but this is completely anti-biblical – if hell is real, the spiritual forces of evil will be its primary inmates and sufferers, not its jailors and torturers. So then, is it God or even the saints who are hell’s torturers? I cannot believe so. An idea I’ll explore another time is that hell’s ‘torments’ are essentially self-imposed, even self-devised; that the prison of hell is simply one’s self. Any suffering may be that of the self in rebellion against good, or else in regret at the ruin it has made of itself through selfish living. The metaphors of fire, pit, prison, outer darkness and exclusion don’t work together if you take them literally, but they might convey something of the inner state of a person in these circumstances. There is also perhaps a withdrawal of the light, life and love of God’s presence – an exile or estrangement, a passive not active punishment. But again I believe all this is just for a season – not for eternity without hope. For non-Christians? Finally, whatever hell is, I don’t believe that it is the automatic destination for all who haven’t heard the gospel, or who’ve heard but haven’t made a conscious decision to follow Jesus. I think the truth is far more complicated than that. God looks on the heart. The Bible includes several righteous ‘pagans’, Gentiles and non-Jews whose faith or deeds were credited to them as righteousness by God – Melchizedek, Job, Rahab, Ruth, Naaman; in the NT, a Roman centurion, a Tyro-Phoenecian woman and Cornelius in Acts (not to mention the fictional ‘Good Samaritan’). Those who seek the truth and who follow the light they have in their conscience and their own scriptures or moral codes are, in a sense, following Jesus without knowing Jesus. I don’t know how salvation works but I do know that ‘the judge of all the earth will do right’ (Gen 18:25). I’ll devote a full post to this at some point; all I’m saying for now is that I do not believe that everyone who isn’t ‘Christian’ (as we understand that) will ‘go to hell’, by any means. For those who think that the Bible teaches a neat binary message of heaven for Christians and hell for others, Jesus’ story of the sheep and the goats should give pause. Here the people singled out for heavenly reward are those who have responded with practical compassion to the needs of the poor, hungry, hurting and oppressed; the ones headed for punishment are those who have ignored these needs. In short, heaven is self-giving love; hell is closed-in self. ‘Without love, I am nothing…’