Thursday, February 13, 2014

Oh, Hell.

Okay, time for some gut-wrenching honesty. I really struggle with the whole concept of hell.

And that's interesting, because hell is the first (though not the best, certainly) reason I am a Christian. What I mean by that is, when I was a young child, attending Sunday School at a Baptist Church, the fear of hell was put into me by well-meaning Sunday School teachers. (And what child in his or her right mind wouldn't be terrified by talk of eternal torment in a burning lake of fire?)

I DIDN'T want to go there, that was for sure. So, when I was 8, I received Christ as my personal Savior. I was assured that His forgiveness of my sins would allow me to live with Him forever and save me from eternal torment and remorse in hell.

I realized much later, of course, that that was not the ideal motivation for becoming a Christian. The truth is, the reason I remain a Christian today, is out of love, obedience and gratitude for what God has done in sending his one and only Son to redeem me from my sin (at terrible cost to Himself). Who couldn't love a God like that? He created me and loves me so unfathomably that He would go to such great lengths to have me. So, submitting myself to His Lordship is a natural response.

But, the concept of hell now gives me a lot of pause. This is mostly true when people depict the Scriptural position for hell as: "God is just. He loves people, but if they won't accept His sacrifice for their sin, because of His justice He must punish them eternally, by torturing them in a lake of fire."

This whole concept of the God I know who loves me so deeply, actually and actively torturing people for all eternity in a lake of fire, is one I really have a hard time swallowing. It seems to run contrary to everything I know to be true about God. How could a loving God live with Himself as the eternal torturer? That sounds more like Satan to me.

I realize I'm not the only one who has trouble with this. My favorite author, that brilliant Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, depicts hell (in The Great Divorce and many of his other writings) quite differently than I described above.

He admits that there are many who will reject God's grace and therefore will not submit to live in obedience to God for all of eternity. The only logical choice, therefore (since our souls are eternal) will be for them to live in a state separated from God. And any place where God's presence is not, will be a dismal, drab, and dull place, filled with all kinds of self-important sinfulness, dread, loathing, boredom, etc.

In the Great Divorce, this (admitted metaphorical) town increases always in size, as people (who in reality all hate each other, since the absence of God is the absence of true love) keep "spreading out" in an effort to get further and further away from each other. So it is an incredibly lonely and desolate state of being. C. S. Lewis would probably hold that the "eternal burning" of consuming hellfire was a metaphor for the smallness of self apart from God, continually collapsing in upon itself and becoming continually less and less relevant to the "real" universe ruled by its Creator.

Other writers take a different tack. Right now I am reading Pastor Rob Bell's much-criticized book, "Love Wins," trying to determine whether the accusations of him taking a "universalist" position (which says that in the end, every knee will bow and all will submit themselves to the Lordship of Christ) are accurate, or not. But his belief that the all-consuming love of Christ will win out over the consuming fires of hell, in some manner, is already clear.

Scripturally I have some trouble with the universalist position (as romantic as it sounds), primarily because I agree with both John Bunyan and C. S. Lewis that our trajectory as we go through life is either to grow closer to God, or to draw further away from Him; and I don't see any reason to believe this principle will change in the "next life." Scripture does seem to indicate that there are sheep and there are goats, those who will be separated (or separate themselves) from the love of God, by their own choice, through all eternity. To state otherwise really is a challenge to freedom of human will.

It's also interesting to note that even those who question the concept of Hell have less trouble with the idea when it comes to certain people (or angelic beings, such as Satan and demons) who are truly and thoroughly "evil," mean or destructive, and therefore seemingly deserving. How many people (other than Rob Bell, perhaps) are comfortable with the idea that Adolf Hitler or Idi Amin or Joseph Kony or Josef Stalin will be roaming the halls of heaven? This idea is predicated on the assumption that when it comes to sinful beings, some people (or angels) are significantly "worse off" than others (e.g., me!).

But of course there is significant scriptural teaching to argue against this line of thinking. "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God," the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome. "There is none righteous. No, not one!" From a biblical perspective, we have all chosen our own way. Perhaps because of the personal gifts and circumstances surrounding Adolf Hitler's life and rise to power, the effects of his depravity are more far-reaching than the effects of my depravity. But, we are both depraved (and an argument could be made for saying we were "equally depraved") and in need of a Savior.

By this logic, if Adolf Hitler deserves to burn eternally in hell, then so do I. I am not God's standard of goodness, after all. Jesus is.

"So," you are probably thinking about now, "What are you saying? Where do you land on all this?"

And you should know that I'm not really going to answer your questions ... at least not yet. I am processing. The first thing that I need to do is sit at the feet of God and really study what He has to say on the topic of Hell. Christ spoke a lot about Hell. I'm certainly not comfortable with everything that I know He's said, but I recognize that my comfort is not the issue, and I think I need to dig in a little bit more and really get the full perspective of a Scriptural view of Hell. After all, God's ways are not our ways. He is incomprehensibly holy and far above my understanding. Before rendering judgment I feel I really need to become better (and more objectively) acquainted with the truth that Scripture reveals on the topic of hell.

My second step really aligns with the first: In order to more effectively align my thinking with Christ's, I need to spend a lot of time in prayer over this. I need to be absolutely sure I'm reflecting the mind of Christ and not the mind of my culture.

So I would like to finish reading Bell's book (so many have jumped all over him without even reading the book itself, I do wonder whether he's getting a fair hearing). And of course walk through the discipline of aligning its message with the pages of Scripture. (The same holds true for anything C. S. Lewis has written.) My theology says there are no modern-day biblical scribes writing down the words of God. Instead what we have is a lot of people giving their opinions — hopefully well-informed, but their opinions nonetheless.

And, I don't want to be just one more of those!

One final note: I don't anticipate that any of this thinking will change anything, practically speaking. The right reason for aligning oneself with God's will for your life is clearly not fear of hell, but the glory of God and the beauty of being in His presence eternally. If you know anything at all about sin (and it's clear God knows more about it than we do), then you are aware that it has to be defeated, cleansed, purged. And if Hell is the only way to do that, then so be it.

Regardless of what hell is, or whether or not it even exists as more than a metaphor, I know one thing for sure: God created us as eternal beings, and I want to spend my eternity living as close to Him as possible!

1 comment:

kc bob said...

Hey Larry! Thanks for commenting on my blog. Regarding:

"since our souls are eternal"

Consider the idea that we are not born immortal but become immortal (i.e. born from above or spiritually born) some time after we are born. Anyone who is not born of the Spirit simply dies and returns to the earth because they have nothing to survive death.