I. Some Practical Concerns [Scroll down for parts II and III]
My preoccupation with the topic of hell has been little embarrassing, really. Against my better judgment, at times, I have– over the last few years –continued to drive home the point that there is something very wrong-headed about our conventional teachings in this regard. And yet I understand perfectly well the potential downside to abandoning this doctrine–a doctrine which even Plato had recourse to, 400 years before the Christian era:
Indeed, Plato– whose Myth of Er in Book X of The Republic helped to introduce and reinforce this idea in the West –insisted that there is something about human existence (something about our sensible and appetitive nature) that requires that we be in some way compelled to turn away from illusion, towards the truth. See, for example, the cave allegory in Book VII of The Republic:
Apropos of such compulsion, it is undeniable that the doctrine of hell does get our attention and makes us willing, at least for awhile, to consider our existence from a different point of view–especially when we are exposed to the doctrine in a tight-knit religious community in which the eternal conscious torment of unbelievers is taken for granted. Indeed, how many of us would have ever read our bibles– would have ever become inspired by the God ideal –if we had not first experienced the fear of God which exposure to this doctrine instilled within us? Some perhaps, but not nearly so many–or so I imagine…
Nevertheless, as I reflect on the way in which it was taught to me (in fundamentalist and evangelical churches in Appalachia), it seems likely that this doctrine has done at least as much harm as it has good–providing, as it does, a good rationale for both religious fanaticism and anti-religious ridicule. Moreover, in this day and age, it seems to me that the doctrine (taught in this way) clearly generates more skepticism– if not out right unbelief –than it does repentance unto salvation. See, for example, this essay: A Good Time Was Had by Some. Or consider these signs, complements of the Wesboro Baptist church:
As such, it is my considered opinion that if the concept of hell must be retained as one component of an integral Christian tradition (which I am inclined to think it must), it must be presented in a more nuanced fashion so as to maximize its potential benefits while minimizing its potential harm.
II. Some Logical and Moral Considerations
Before discussing the future of this teaching– the way forward, as it were, in the 21st century –a quick overview of the problems posed by the conventional understanding of hell is in order. Please give careful consideration to the logical and moral implications of the apparently contradictory teachings that we commonly hear in church:
- God is all powerful, but he is unable to create a free human being that is not free to rebel against his creator… (fair enough–the prodigal son leaves his father’s house, but he is always free to return to his father’s open arms, is he not?).
- God is all good and all powerful, but he is also just and his justice requires that those who rebel be punished… (well, maybe—but is not the prodigal son’s experience away from his father’s house sufficient punishment? And why punish people endlessly for sins committed during their relatively brief sojourn on planet earth—especially when we are said to be suffering throughout our lives from the effects of original sin inherited from our first parents!?).
- God is all knowing, all good, and all powerful, but he prefers a creation which entails the suffering of the damned to one that does not… (i.e. he prefers option two to option one in the analogy of “having children”, discussed here; and since he need not have created in the first place, he obviously prefers the second option to the option of “not having children” at all).
- God is all knowing, all good, and all powerful, but if something about this scheme of things seems grossly unjust, we would do well to ignore our misgivings… (lest we, too, incur the wrath of almighty God—to say nothing of the ire of those Christian apologists who we are attempting to engage).
In short, it is defies any ordinary sense of reason and justice to insist that it has pleased God– who is said to be all powerful, all knowing, and all loving –to create from the beginning in such a way that the eternal conscious suffering of a significant percentage of human and celestial creatures is unavoidable (insisting, simultaneously, that creation was optional–that he need not have created at all).
Appeals to human freedom fall flat at this point—especially when we consider the weight of original sin and the necessity of God’s grace for our salvation. Who brings us into existence in the first place? Who decides that we must unavoidably suffer from the sin of our first parents? And since our salvation depends upon the grace of God, who is it that decides who will receive sufficient grace to be saved and who will not? It is usually explained, on the basis of Romans 1:20, that all of us receive enough light to be justly condemned, but we seem to read in Romans 9 that not all receive enough grace to be saved. Does this scheme of things really seem plausible?
Make no mistake, I think the concepts of sin and separation in conjunction with those of Divine judgement and saving grace– rightly understood –express very profound truths about the human condition. But superficially understood– in light of a very literal reading of Genesis and Revelation, for example –such teachings are both logically contradictory and morally hazardous. For more in this vein, see: Is the Doctrine of Hell Defensible.
III. Charting a Better Way Forward
Once the practical, logical, and moral implications of the conventional teaching about hell are grasp– firmly and in both hands, so to speak –those who would like to chart a better way forward should consider the following resources:
- The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis. Lewis does not deny eternal conscious torment, but seems to leave the door open to a more nuanced view. In any event, this is a must read for every Christian and for every critic of the conventional teaching, Christian and non-Christian alike.
- Relevant selections from Letters VIII and IV of Meditations on the Tarot, by Valentin Tomberg. Tomberg’s treatment of the subject is, without exception, the best that I have come across. Readers are strongly advised to ignore any aspects of this book that they may find off-putting, focusing rather on the many jewels which they are guaranteed to find therein.
- A brilliant essay by Ananda Coomaraswami: Who is Satan and Where is Hell. This essay is written from a very universal point of view–both metaphysically and psychologically. It is probably not for everyone, but is well worth the effort if for those who are willing and able to digest it
- A recent and very relevant lecture by David Bentley Hart: Is Everyone Saved? Universalism and the Nature of Persons… Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina, November 16th, 2018.
Keeping in mind each of these approaches, together with the factors outlined above (and in the essay, Is the Doctrine of Hell Defensible?), it is my considered opinion that we, as Christians, probably should continue to utilize the traditional imagery of hellfire– in a very general way –while emphasizing whenever possible its symbolic rather than its literal truth and making it clear, in any event, that 1) God doesn’t send anyone to hell (they choose to go there) and that, 2) God does not reject anyone who truly repents (whosoever will may come and drink of the water of life freely — the prodigal son is always free to return home).
At the same time– admitting how little we really know or understand about these matters –let us also acknowledge Conditional Immortality and Universal Reconciliation, respectively, as legitimate alternatives which should at least be considered alongside the doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment. This will leave room for us to disagree in good conscience, while at the same time preserving the possible benefits of growing up with some exposure to the imagery of hell–which, at the very least, offers a vivid reminder of the tragic suffering and ultimate despair that tends to permeate the lives and relationships of those who neglect the grace of God and persist in self-absorbed, self-destructive patterns of thought and behavior.
Above all, let us take care that Children, especially, do not become terrified of God– so consumed by fear that they fail to appreciate the message of his love –and that, as teenagers (growing into young adults), they do not feel coerced to deny their basic intuition as to that which is just and reasonable in deference to dogmatic group-think.
It will be enough if they are exposed to the general idea of God’s justice and judgment– as well as his mercy and love –while, at the same time, being exposed to the range of beliefs about hell held by their friends and neighbors (many of whom may continue to defend the doctrine of eternal conscious torment). In any event, no one should feel compelled live in denial of their natural repugnance at this doctrine in its most extreme forms (as, for example, in the aforementioned article: A Good Time Was Had by Some; or as presented in the rhetoric of Westboro Baptist Church, et al ). And no one should be discouraged from trusting that, in the end– however much we may rightly (and necessarily) suffer along the way —all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well…
With the drawing of this Love
and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
~ T.S. Eliot