Hell is pretty much the 400-pound gorilla in the middle of the room known as Christianity. It’s impossible to ignore and sometimes even more difficult to explain. On the one hand, we have a supposedly loving God the Father and a forgiving son of God—and yet, there is this place of eternal torment that both are willing to send folks if they don’t accept Jesus’ sacrifice and God’s dominion.
Yeah, I know, it seems pretty weird doesn’t it, when I put it like that? But I do believe that Hell exists and I do believe that there are people who end up there. Now, this post, for those of you who aren’t regular readers or didn’t read comments a couple days ago on one of my other posts, is something inspired by one of my readers, WNG. I had been intending to do a detailed and specific post about the nature and necessity of Hell anyway, but her comment got me off my ass finally, and here’s what she had said in my post Opinions are Like Assholes just for context:
I wanted to ask you a question – sorry it’s comepletely unrelated to this post…I overheard a discussion this weekend about whether or not hell is actually empty. The two gentlemen discussing the matter weren’t close enough for me to eavesdrop completely but the gist that I got was that God’s love and forgiveness are all encompassing and offered forever, so bascially you’d have to CHOOSE to go to hell. I thought hmmm… they were quoting scripture at each other rapid fire and I didn’t have a pen so I’m coming to you with???? What do you think? And where should I be looking in the Bible for answers? I think this is a really interesting question (especially since I’m been having some trouble forgiving lately). If you’re not interested no harm, no foul and sorry for taking over your blog!
Now, WNG hits on some of the major sticking points about Hell, which is why I wanted to repost her comment above. It might also be useful if you read the following posts by me about Hell (the last two of the three are really a two-part discussion and are even more speculative than the first of the three): End of the Line?, The Party that Never Ends?, and It’s a Trap! I really recommend that you at least read End of the Line because it impacts directly on some of what I will discuss about the permanence of Hell (or lack thereof).
Something that is pretty clear from all three posts above, though, is that there aren’t a lot of clear answers about precisely what Hell is or how it all works. But there are reasonable assumptions one can make based on human nature and God’s nature.
First, let’s get God’s love out of the way. God does love us. This doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have rules, though. And consequences for that matter. If you look back at the Garden of Eden (which I talked about here and a little bit here, too), what God wanted was children (us humans) who would choose to love him. The goal was to create a spiritual family, something God didn’t have in the angels, who were created to serve. Now, that free will to choose God or not, to love Him or not—well, it’s pretty meaningless if there is only one choice. If God is the only choice and obedience is the only option, free will is entirely a sham.
So, God had to provide a way to rebel; a way to reject him. When Lucifer rebelled and was ultimately cast down to Earth as Satan, that provided a being who could be a counterpoint to God. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil provided the initial means to disobey (other rules would follow as both means to show our obedience and as reminders to us of how the vast majority of us cannot motivate ourselves to obey anything God tells us to do). Sadly, Adam and Eve made the choice for all of us by being the first to disobey and to choose Satan’s way over God’s. Instead of being an ongoing option for humanity, Adam and Even polluted the whole situation from the get-go and made all of us, essentially, Satan’s pawns instead of God’s children.
This is why in the Old Testament the Hebrews refer to God as Lord and why in the New Testament, the shift is to call Him Father, with Jesus as our Lord and our heavenly sibling.
God loved us enough to put a plan in place whereby we could be washed clean of our sins, and that was the placing of people and events that would ultimately lead to the birth of Jesus and then his sacrificial death for us as a symbolic lamb in the same vein as the actual lambs that Jews had sacrificed to God before (Satan thought he had God beat in the Garden of Eden, but God wasn’t about to let us go without fighting for us). Essentially, we gain entrance to Heaven not by our deeds, because too often, our deeds are in conflict with God’s law, but rather through the good credit that Jesus possesses. The juxtaposition of prison/damnation/punishment with good credit/bad credit is odd, I know. It a mixed metaphor, really. But the fact is that Jesus co-signs for our eternal reward. His credit is that good. But God the Father isn’t going to let you cash in on His son’s credit unless you actually acknowledge that (a) there is a God in Heaven who is in charge and (b) you accept his son as Lord and Savior with a recognition of Jesus’ divine nature and an appreciation for the horrible sacrifices Jesus made for us out of love for us (suffering persecution; enduring crucifixion; taking on the spiritual pain of all sins committed in the past, present and future; being cut off from contact with God for a time; and going to Hell for three days to preach to the lost souls there even though Jesus had done nothing worthy of setting a single foot in Hell).
Whoa, I see this post is already getting long, and I’m beginning to think I’ll have to finish this tomorrow, as there is so much set-up before I can even get to the issue of how people choose Hell. So let me finish up a bit on love I guess, and then we’ll get to the rest of it tomorrow.
God is indeed love. It brings Him no pleasure whatsoever to see anyone go to Hell. But He isn’t going to give people a pass just because. Giving us free will means that there must be consequences as well. The fact is, I don’t think God keeps anyone in Hell. The damned have kept themselves there—or in many cases will keep themselves there when the chance comes to leave Hell. Because God is just, I believe that no one is going to stay in Hell without having been fully informed of what the deal is and how they can get out.
I know many preachers will say that there is no excuse for not hearing about and learning about Jesus in this day and age but I think that’s a cop-out for people who don’t want to really evangelize and want to feel better about not doing their part. If a person is raised a certain way, they typically aren’t going to be in a position to think of Jesus as anything other than a fanciful notion or a direct competition to the faith in which they were raised and continue to be devout. For God to hold that against a person and not give them a chance to truly know about Jesus and accept him seems indeed to be cruel and petty, and that’s not the kind of God I can envision if God really loves us.
Also, I know there are those in the predestination camp who argue that God has already picked out everyone who is going to Heaven and everyone who is going to Hell and I think that is bullshit because it flies in the face of us actually having free will to choose God’s way or not.
Love is at the center of what God does. But just like with any good parent, we as children often don’t recognize the love that lies behind the rules, the correction and even the punishment. And our failure to accept the love and to continue to cling to our own conceptions and our own desires is what ultimately dooms many of us to Hell.
More on that tomorrow in my post Hell? Yes!.