Among the things you aren’t supposed to say as an evangelical is that you really, really hope there is not a hell. But I really, really hope there is not, if I’m being honest.
Hell is the centerpiece of evangelical faith. It’s why you become a Christian, to get out of hell. It’s why Jesus came, to die for our sins so we get out of hell. It’s why my family moved half way around the world, to tell people about Jesus so they don’t go to hell.
(Of course, as was pretty obvious to me as a child, there were and are as many, if not more non-Christians in the US as in Kenya. But that’s a whole other issue that I’ll save for another day.)
Getting out of hell free via faith in Jesus is supposedly very Good News, but that papers over some pretty awful, terribly Bad News–that most of humanity now and throughout history, billions and billions of precious souls, made in the image of God, most of whom were and are probably pretty nice and capable of great love, some of whom were and are truly spectacular human beings–that all those lovely people are going to burn in hell for all eternity. They will live the worst nightmare imaginable forever and ever without escape. I grew up hearing this stated fairly glibly, even about people we really loved, without a trace of anger at this God who was supposedly both all-loving and all-powerful and yet consigns the majority of his creation to excruciating, never-ending pain and utter, irrevocable destruction.
The explanation offered was simple, you see, clear as a bell and plainly acceptable to anyone. It went like this:
God is holy.
We are sinful.
Holy can’t abide with sinful. There has to be some kind of accommodation or atonement.
So, God sent his holy Son, Jesus, to die here on earth in our place. His death and resurrection conquered sin and allows us to be with God.
But you have to confess your sins and accept that all this is true.
If you do, you go to heaven. If you don’t, you go to hell. Because God can’t abide with anything that isn’t holy.
Frankly, it isn’t as clear as a bell to me, then or now. I had and still have a few questions, none of which I felt I could ask then. I’m 46 years old now and have exactly zero Fs to give about what anyone thinks of my faith or lack there of. Here are my questions (and not to be mean, but I’ve already heard all the supposed answers, for decades actually I’ve heard them, and I find them lacking, so just save yourself the trouble of repeating them):
If God is all-powerful and all-loving, why can’t he find a way to save everyone, regardless of their faith?
If holy can’t abide with sinful, how did Jesus live among us on earth for 33 years?
What about all the people who predated Jesus? The usual evangelical answer is that God made a way for the Jews through observance of the law. Well, how is that fair to everyone else? Also, are you telling me that not eating shellfish and sacrificing an animal now and then was sufficient to bridge the holy-sinful gap, but everyone post-Jesus has to believe just the right thing or else they’re hosed?
It’s easy enough to believe in this whole deal if you have grown up being literally brainwashed with it, but frankly, doesn’t it seem unreasonable to expect someone who isn’t to believe all this? Or to figure it out intuitively? It’s really a pretty elaborate, fantastical story.
And if you happen to guess wrong about things that are essentially unknowable, you burn in hell for eternity?
I did find the courage to ask my elders about people who never hear about Jesus at all before they die. Do they go to hell? I asked. The truly hardcore and frankly most theologically consistent said, Yep, it’s terrible, it’s sad, but God just can’t help them. And ultimately, their eternal damnation is on us. We should have found a way to reach them. That sounded just really depressing and cruel to me. Not to mention the crushing guilt of sending a bunch of people to hell because we didn’t slash our way deep enough into the Amazon rain forest. I mean, we’re the frail human ones, right? Can’t God slash his way through the Amazon rain forest a lot easier? Why is it on us to save people?
The more compassionate among my elders conceded that if someone had truly never heard about Jesus or the Bible or any of it before, God in his mercy would probably let them off the hook. This sounded much better but actually raised more questions. Such as, if God could find a way for people like this, why couldn’t he find a way for everyone? If holy really can’t abide with sinful, like they literally can’t mix, how would it in some cases be like, Well, OK, maybe we can work something out. And–if God can find away for people who had never heard the Gospel, but not for those who did hear it but rejected it–wouldn’t the most loving thing be to NOT tell anyone about Jesus? That way, you’d never give them the chance of rejecting him, and they would be saved. But if you told them about Jesus, and they somehow found it implausible that God would impregnate a virgin, live for 30 years as an itinerant preacher, die as a criminal, rise from the dead, go back into heaven, and leave the whole fate of humanity resting on the ability of his few dozen followers to convince everyone everywhere and for all time of what had happened, otherwise everyone goes to hell–if they found that a bit far-fetched and said, “I don’t think so,” then they go to hell. Maybe better to keep this to ourselves in that case?
Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (the evangelical/PCA wing) in NYC, recently tweeted this:
If the resurrection is true, then everything’s going to be alright.
Which brought to mind all these questions again and the central problem I have always had with the evangelical Gospel. And that is this–Isn’t it honestly better if it’s NOT true? Not the resurrection per se, but its place within a framework of heaven and hell (which I read as implicit in Keller’s tweet, given my knowledge of his conservative theology).
If the resurrection as framed by evangelical theology is true, then things are definitely NOT going to be alright for a helluva lot of people. Including Abraham Lincoln. Including Gandhi. Including, according to some, Mother F-ing Teresa. Including all the victims of the Holocaust. That last one just crushed me as a child, imagining these poor people tortured and murdered, only to wake up in hell. I didn’t want to believe it.
If the evangelical Gospel is NOT true, however, I see a few possibilities with regard to eternity:
1) God exists, but made no pathway for human souls to reach him. This I reject out of hand, because God, by definition, is love, as evidenced by the love and goodness in the universe. A God of love would not create humanity only to send all of us to hell. I don’t buy it.
2) God exists and made some other allowance for humanity apart from the evangelical Gospel. Whatever that would be, it would have to allow for human sinfulness, because that’s just a glaringly obvious fact and without that allowance, we’re back to #1. I also gotta figure whatever that path is has got to be more expansive, because the evangelical path to God is about as narrow as it gets.
3) God maybe exists, or not, but either way, when we die, we simply cease to be conscious. Perhaps our spiritual essence goes back into the universe in some other, non-conscious form, or maybe that’s it. As a child, this was presented to be as an absolutely hopeless nightmare that would render all life meaningless. Now, I don’t find it fearsome at all, and I don’t find its implications despairing at all. Life seems beautiful and meaningful to me regardless of what happens and in the face of not knowing what happens. Certainly it seems more meaningful to me now that I don’t spend much of it terrified of hell and approaching every person I encounter with the agenda of converting them. But that’s me. I don’t remember what things were like before I was born, and going back to that state doesn’t terrify me. Sure, I’d like to see loved ones again and fully experience what I imagine God to be, but the pain of grief and any existential yearning would end along with my existence. I’d be fine.
If either option 2 or 3 is true, then a whole lot more people are going to be spared from hell. Maybe even all of them.
So, what do you do when being right about what you believe means that billions more beautiful, precious souls are going to burn in agony forever than if you are wrong? Isn’t it loving to hope you are wrong? What do you even do with this? I never could figure it out.
Don’t get me wrong (ha ha I’m sure it’s way too late for that). I believe in the divinity of Christ, his death, and his resurrection as a revelation from God about his love for us, his redemption of all things, and his grace for humanity. The resurrection is deeply meaningful to me. The Christian walk is deeply meaningful to me, and I hope the love it instills in my heart pours out to others and is something to which they are drawn.
But is there a hell? The hell if I know.
I hope not. I absolutely hope not. For me, belief in hell impedes belief in an all-powerful, all-loving God. Belief in hell perverts my ability to fully love and accept other people as equal, precious souls.
If your faith requires you to believe in hell, who am I to judge. If you life’s calling is dependent on a belief in hell, please know that I believe in and affirm your good intentions and loving motivations (well, some of you. Frankly, some of you are jerks) and will continue to financially support you if I already do. Perhaps you are right, and I am the worst of misguided fools, one who is perhaps taking many others with me on a path right down to it.
Perhaps my faith is too weak to believe in hell. Then again, perhaps it is too strong.
God only knows.
For more on the theological/biblical basis for universalism, see Rob Bell, Love Wins and this article by Keith DeRose. Thanks to my friend Scot Miller for the DeRose article.