Reconciling hell

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One week before my father died of cancer, I received an email from a family friend— we’ll call her G—wanting to know if he had been “saved” yet; the implication being there wasn’t much time left before it would be too late. By that point, Dad had succumbed to a comatose-like state, with occasional hallucinations and unintelligible ramblings. In other words, though technically still alive, he had already left us—and if this “friend” knew him at all, she’d have known he was never comfortable talking about religion.

That email sent me down a rabbit hole of anxiety, which I’m still wandering through, years later. Having been involved in evangelical church groups for years, I knew G probably had good intentions. In her view, the most loving thing a Christian could do was warn nonbelievers about their eternal fate, but her timing could not have been worse. As far as I know, my father died as the agnostic I always knew him to be.

Considering my entire family is Jewish, you would think the doctrine of hell would have kept me from becoming a Christian altogether. Indeed, it is one of the most exclusive, horrifying, and offensive aspects of the Christian faith from an outsider’s perspective, yet I never allowed myself to think about it. I was instead drawn to the person of Jesus, the radical Jewish teacher who flipped tables and pissed off the righteous gatekeepers of religiosity. He was a feisty mensch, like me. By my sophomore year of college, I had made the decision to count myself among his followers.

The next several months post-conversion were a whirlwind of learning new prayers, new doctrines, and new lingo. When my new Campus Crusade friends learned of my background, and when I offered up prayer requests when Dad’s cancer returned (as it tended to do on a regular basis ever since I was twelve), they asked me if I’d “shared the gospel” with him yet. Like G, they pressed me with a sense of urgency: “You don’t know how much time he has left.”

In hindsight, I’m not sure why I wasn’t scared away right then and there. Christianity as a whole was still new to me, so perhaps I wasn’t ready to take hell seriously. It still seemed to me like a place from a dark fairy tale.

Today I no longer have the luxury of ignorance. Today, I’m easily triggered when someone mentions the passing of a relative, how “he has gone to be with the Lord.” I’ve had acquaintances ask me if my father was a “believer.” My curt answer—if I don’t immediately choke up with anxiety and panic—is, “He had beliefs.”

I can’t hide the doubt anymore. Everything I know about Jesus, everything that led me to want to follow him in the first place, cannot be reconciled with this idea of eternal, conscious torment. Everything Jesus ever taught about grace, about loving one’s enemies and forgiving them seventy times seven times, seems contradictory to fire and brimstone on every rational level.

And yet, those verses referencing hell are there in Scripture, and I don’t know what to do with them. I don’t know what will become of my faith if I can’t make sense of them. I don’t know how I can hold on to all the good things about Jesus that radically changed my life if I cannot make sense of this other critical piece that is part of the Christian “package.”

As a bookworm and theology nerd, I did the only thing that made sense, short of giving up altogether: I studied. I bought books from various theologians of all stripes—Gregory Boyd, Benjamin Corey, Jonathan Sweeney, C. S. Lewis, to name a few—and studied their thoughts and interpretations of hell. I studied the hell doctrines of several denominations and traditions. I learned fire and brimstone is just one interpretation: some Christians and scholars believe in annihilation, or ceasing to exist, which is the traditional Jewish teaching about the fate of people who “reject” the God of Israel.

Considering Christianity was born from Judaism, this teaching—with scriptural references from the Old Testament talking about “destruction” in the Psalms and “ceasing to exist” in Ecclesiastes—gives me some hope, but the agony of not knowing for certain still keeps me up at night.

For all my doubts about Christianity, I have never doubted whether or not there is a God. And if there is anything keeping my faith grounded, it’s the fact of God’s goodness. The God who created the earth and everything in it, who gives and sustains life, has to be good. I have to trust that, because if I can’t, then it is the final straw that will break my faith. And if God is good, and has grace as big as the Scriptures promise, then surely this is reason enough to be optimistic about eternity.

Related posts:

Let’s talk about hell!

Hell, Judaism, mission trips, and why I still bother with this whole Jesus thing

Hell or cheeseburgers?

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10 thoughts on “Reconciling hell

  1. hannah out loud says:

    Hi

    Most of Christian thinking accepts “original sin” in addition to an individual’s capacity to sin or to do good ,which in my understanding means “missing the mark”. Added to that I understand Christianity teaches “good works” aren’t the deciding factor on the afterlife, but acknowledging Jesus as “Lord and saviour “. Hence the logic that a decent person who isn’t a Christian is apparently not going to heaven, but a despicable person who has a death bed conversion gets to go there.

    I do of course reject this belief. My parents passed over when I was very young and my grandparents are with them now. In any case in the Hebrew bible ( Jesus bible) there’s only a handful of references to the afterlife and therefore there’s no set dogma about it in Judaism. I think there’s a variety of reasons for this, but I think it is because Judaism emphasises life and not death. In my personal view I think really evil or wicked people’s souls get destroyed and unless we are exceptional we spend time in an intermediate place -Gehinnom -in which our souls are put in a “spiritual shower” , wherein we review our life objectively any harm done that we’d not realised and remorse over our sins, to get clean and before we go to meet our loved ones in the garden of Eden (heaven) . You also don’t have to be Jewish to get to heaven and in my personal understanding believe in God . Other Jews do believe in a form of reincarnation. I think most Jews hold to the resurrection of the dead during the messianic age.

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  2. David says:

    Hi, the pastor of my parish, who was a biblical scholar and professor of scripture in the diocesan seminary, believed in annihilation. In that he went against standard Church teaching.

    A lot of traditional Catholics try to deny there is a problem by interpreting God’s “goodness” in ways that vary from what people generally understand as entailed by being “good.” You probably are familiar with their doctrines that words predicated of God don’t have the same value as they do when predicated of creatures, and that God has no “moral duties” toward us because God is not one agent among a set of agents – so God is not a moral agent.

    I don’t see why anyone would want to sign on to such a religion, though the above are rationales that satisfy some people who are part of the religion.

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    • Sarahbeth Caplin says:

      I always saw the intense focus on God’s wrath and desire to punish as a kind of “Alt Christianity,” to be honest. Not that God doesn’t have wrath, but for the Christians who seem unusually obsessed with hell, you almost never hear about his grace. There’s a balance of both, but I believe grace wins out over anger.

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  3. Jon Wilson says:

    I spent many years struggling with the same anxiety, as I’m sure many people have, so know that you’re not alone. In my case, I grew up believing in hell, and at some point in my thirties began questioning everything I’d been taught.
    Also, like you, my anxiety and the incompatibility of the hell doctrine with God’s goodness, led me to do many years of intensive research and seeking. Somewhere I came across the idea that the doctrine of hell seemed to evolve in Christianity along the same path as the Greek belief, and that Jesus never actually endorsed the belief that has come to be favored today.
    For me, it was a stronger argument that I eventually settled on, that Jesus often dealt in metaphors, and that human understanding and interpretations often understood literally what was meant to be taken metaphorically. Understanding the metaphorical interpretation of many of the Bible’s teachings, for me, helped illuminate the mystery in a way I hadn’t imagined before.
    For you, the path and what you eventually settle on may be very different, and I can’t say that I am confident that I have figured it all out. I wish you all the best.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sarahbeth Caplin says:

      Thank you for your comment! My views now favor the annihilation teaching (more on that in my Statement of Faith, under the “about” tab). Also worth noting that literal fire and brimstone hell is a completely foreign concept to traditional Judaism.

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  4. bobcabkings says:

    I’m not a Biblical scholar or a believer in a hell other than those we create for ourselves in this life, or are imposed through violence and deprivation by others. That said, I had occasionally encountered a story of Jesus visiting Hell to bestow his forgiveness and salvation on souls born before his incarnation. I don’t know where it might be in the Bible or other writings, but I do agree that everything reported of His direct teaching leads to any such posthumous punishment being based on a judgment of irredeemable sin, not specific following of Him or lack of it.

    Liked by 1 person

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