My last post was about “redemptive justice”: the idea that punishment must teach the offender something, or else it doesn’t work. It’s why I’m against torture and capital punishment: you’re just not in a position to correct your behavior when you’re being harmed, and especially not when you’re dead.
That is why I can’t wrap my head around a loving god who consigns nonbelievers to a fate of burning for eternity.
That’s not to say I don’t believe there’s a hell (although that belief is shaky at best). Yes, it’s a critical part of the “Christian package,” so my best answer is simply “I don’t know,” because honestly? I don’t like thinking about it. But it’s a, um, heated subject (forgive me), so I can’t afford to be neutral about it.
I don’t think God would force anyone to spend eternity with him if they don’t want to. But I’m not convinced that hell is a literal place of fire and brimstone, either. That conviction, too, is shaky, but I’m not alone in considering it. I’ve done thorough research over the last several months, with help from Gregory Boyd, Jon Sweeney, Benjamin Corey, and my Jewish annotated editions of the Old and New Testament (which I highly recommend).
I purposely selected a mix of conservative, progressive, and scholarly sources to avoid confirmation bias. With a topic like this, it would be easy to only seek out sources that are likely to confirm what I want to be true, but I’m too intellectually honest to be satisfied with that. I want the truth, no matter how disturbing it might be.
But after all that studying, I’m nowhere close to a definitive answer. I’ll be studying for the rest of my life and might not come to an answer, unless God himself shares it with me (unlikely). The best I can offer are educated guesses.
This is what we know about Gehenna, the hell that Jesus talks about: it refers to a garbage dump outside of Jerusalem, where pagans performed human sacrifices (hence the reference of “weeping and gnashing of teeth”). But more pertinent is the fact that eternal suffering isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Old Testament. Instead, we get references to annihilation: ceasing to exist, being snuffed out. That’s a fate reserved for the truly wicked and unrepentant. So at what point in history did this literal pit of fire come to be? Sin comes into the picture in the first book of the Bible, so it would have to have always been there. But the Hebrew Scriptures never mention it.
Those are logical appeals to a different definition of hell, but my biggest concern is the justice angle. Punishment, by definition, is corrective. Our justice system only implements life sentences or the death penalty when criminals are deemed too dangerous to be released back into society. With eternal life, there’s certainly ample time to be corrected and restored. So you’d think.
Blogger Benjamin Corey really put a dent in my thinking when he wrote a post about the Jordanian pilot who was burned alive by ISIS. Most of the world was appropriately horrified by this extreme barbaric act. But how many of those horrified people also believe in a god who permits that sentence to nonbelievers? Presumably, the pilot was a Muslim, and traditional Christianity would say he deserved that fate.
I believe we are sinners, but I just can’t believe that level of suffering is what we all deserve. When the Bible talks about “deserving hell,” I lean toward the idea that we don’t deserve God’s presence when our inclination is to choose sin instead. Isn’t that ultimately what hell is – separation from God?
Perhaps attempting to define “separation from God” is missing the point; I’m sure all Christians can agree that this separation is not a good thing. But using hell as a scare tactic to gain converts isn’t a good thing, either, when it so horribly contradicts the idea that “Perfect love casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18). During the Spanish Inquisition, thousands of Jews chose conversion over burning at the stake, and I don’t blame them one bit. But how genuine were these conversions, really?
I have to believe that a God of love has better ways of drawing people to him. That has to be my final answer, no matter what: that God is love, that God is just, and (to quote Jon Hollingsworth) if his grace is as big as people say it is, then we have good reason to be optimistic about eternity.