We’ve all encountered them at some point: the evangelists who preach that “unsaved” people will be cast into a lake of fire after death, without so much as a blink. I’m not sure which disturbs me more: the lake of fire part, or the people who accept this teaching without any churning in their stomachs at all.
I’m not saying the hell doctrine is wrong or incompatible with the character of a loving, merciful God, much as I would like to. The reality, I don’t know, and anyone who thinks they know is making that statement out of faith, not fact. But whether hell is real or “loving” is not what I want to talk about, so much as the kinds of people who accept it without a second thought. I think we’re supposed to be disturbed by this. I think we are supposed to be disturbed enough to make a call to action.
For some people, that call to action is to evangelize more. For me, that call to action is to study. I’ve collected so many books about the afterlife lately: Christian and Jewish books alike, and I wish I could say I am closer to reaching some kind of verdict, but I’m not. I have theories, and while I can support these theories with Scripture (hopefully without any misuse of context) I can’t prove them. No one can prove that which can’t be seen in this realm of existence.
Until then, I wish more Christians would let themselves feel disturbed. I wish more Christians were brave and willing enough to admit that this idea of eternal conscious torment does not sit well with what they have been taught about justice. I would love to be part of a group that openly shares these doubts and concerns without fear of judgment or condemnation. Sometimes I think Scripture is purposefully vague for that reason: to motivate fellowship and community. There’s nothing quite like a bond of friendship that starts when one person says to another, “Me too!” or “I thought I was the only one.”
In that sense, I’m less concerned about finding answers than I am about being part of a community where questions and concerns are embraced like this. The ones that condemn doubt as heresy choke my growth and push me away. I’m slightly terrified of that level of certainty.
So what can I be certain about? For the sake of my sanity, I have to be certain that the God I serve is one of grace, mercy, and compassion. I’m quite certain that godly grace, mercy, and compassion look nothing like my own sense of those virtues, because my innate self-centeredness and judgment occasionally blinds me to moments when those virtues are needed. And if I accept by virtue of faith that God is good, then I have to believe that his final judgment proclamations are in fact the right ones. That thought still unsettles me, but if I don’t try to believe it, there’s not enough Lexapro in the world to ease that anxiety.
But then, we run into the issue of what, specifically, hell is. Again, I take it on faith after a period of study that hell may not be a place of literal, conscious torment. But that’s a topic for another post.