Or to give it a more accurate but less snappy title, Why I might still very reluctantly just about believe in some qualified form of what we might call ‘hell’, though nothing like the traditional fiery version.
Recently I talked about why I could still call myself a ‘sinner’ without signing up to particular theological interpretations of that term that I no longer find helpful. This post follows the same theme, looking at the related idea of hell.
These days I’m a ‘hopeful universalist’ – I desperately hope that all people will ultimately be redeemed and included in God’s good and eternal Kingdom of love and joy and peace. And I think God desperately hopes that too, and works his darnedest to achieve that. But I’m not 100% sure that it can be guaranteed.
Love can’t coerce
You see, the bottom line for me is that God is love. And love cannot coerce or be coerced, but can only woo. Love cannot force anyone to accept it, or to reciprocate it. The offer is always there, and I believe it is overwhelmingly appealing and persuasive – but it surely can be rejected.
There are two classic English proverbs (okay, clichés) that put it well. One is ‘You can lead a horse to water but you can’t force it to drink’. God can show people his love, his mercy, his goodness in every way possible. But he can’t force them to accept or receive him, to love him in return. It has to be a free choice, otherwise it wouldn’t be love.
None so blind…
But why would anyone deliberately reject God’s love and grace? That’s the other proverb: ‘There’s none so blind as them that will not see’. It’s the problem of human stubbornness and self-destructive self-blindness. We’re terribly, tragically good at shutting our eyes to things we don’t want to see, at blocking out or explaining away things we don’t want to accept – even things that would bring us life and freedom.
“Sons of Adam, how cleverly you defend yourselves against all that would do you good” as Aslan says sadly to Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew.
So I believe that God does all in his power to show us his goodness, but sometimes we just don’t want to see. And I don’t think God can force us to open our eyes or our hearts if we’re ultimately unwilling.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I longed to gather you as a hen gathers her chicks, but you were not willing.” God calls and calls, longing to save us from the things that trap us and destroy us, but sometimes we don’t want to hear.
But why do we shut out the light? Perhaps we fear that truly letting God in would destroy any control we have over our lives, or would threaten our status and security. Perhaps we don’t want our prejudices or lifestyles to be challenged, or to have to give up the dear, sweet, deadly things that we cling onto for comfort and pleasure, or to have to forgive people who have hurt us. Perhaps we don’t want to change, or the path to salvation just doesn’t look very appealing.
So the version of ‘hell’ I just might believe in is something along the lines of a state of self-imposed exile from God’s Kingdom – not a divinely imposed punishment, and not physical torment.
At the end of C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle, the treacherous dwarves have become so mistrustful of everyone else that they have made themselves unable to receive – or even see – the good things Aslan (Christ) offers them. He leads them out of captivity into wide spaces, but they think they’re still locked up in a dark stable. He offers them rich food, but they taste it as animal fodder. It’s a great image of the kind of ‘hell’ I’m talking about – not a divine punishment, but something we do to ourselves by our choice not to open ourselves in love and trust.
So far I’ve only been talking about our acceptance or rejection of God’s love and goodness, but I think there’s more to it than that. We have to accept others (and also fundamentally ourselves). The kingdom is not about isolated individuals in relationship with God; it’s a community of love.
So to enter the kingdom, to belong there, we have to lay aside what we have against other people. We have to let go of dear grudges and nurtured resentments, of feelings of superiority or inferiority and all our human jockeying for power and position.
So again, I think it’s not that God shuts us out of heaven, out of his kingdom. It’s that we shut ourselves out by refusing to forgive and accept forgiveness, refusing to have mercy, to love and accept others who we deem bad or unworthy.
I don’t think the kingdom of heaven is a place with a door, with bouncers only allowing in people with the right tickets. I think it’s more like a state or condition that you find yourself in when you love and forgive, and when you accept love and forgiveness.
Letting go of what holds us
Similarly, I believe that there are ways and traits in us that need to be overcome or let go of in order for us to ‘enter’ or be part of heaven. This is not because heaven won’t let us in, but because these things make us unable to be at peace (shalom), to be in full loving relationship, which is the nature and basis of the kingdom.
So I believe we all have to go through a journey of spiritual growth, of facing and dealing with the parts of us or ways in us that militate against us being truly ourselves and truly Christlike. Until then, we are simply not fully able to enter into and experience Reality (aka the kingdom of heaven, aka God’s full presence). (Again, C.S. Lewis offers a compelling picture of this idea, in The Great Divorce.)
So it’s not that God condemns us to hell for our misdeeds, but rather that self-destructive and toxic ways in us have to be overcome before we can be whole and ‘real’ enough for the community of heaven. And I believe we need Christ dwelling in us for this (whether we know he’s there or not); we can’t do it entirely by ourselves, though I think we do need to participate actively in our redemption.
Please don’t think I’m saying that only professing Christians can be ‘saved’, or that anyone definitely ends up in ‘hell’. I’m not. I simply believe that one way or another we all need to be transformed by Christ’s love, and (though I hope not) it may be that we can steadfastly resist that and remain as we are, rather than entering into all his fullness and life.
God’s wake-up call?
Finally, if there is any such thing as hell, whatever it might be, I just wonder if it might not actually be God’s final desperate attempt to call us back to our senses and drive us back to him. I believe God is always seeking to draw us to himself in love, but if we finally reject him then perhaps (just perhaps) for our sake he changes tactic and uses our (self-imposed) pain as a wake-up call to drive us to the light. In which case, hell would not be a punishment but our salvation. Perhaps.