373. answering a question about hell

[PREFACE]

A friend on facebook recently asked me this question:

So… who does go to hell if everyone is in “favor?”

And I started a reply to him and the reply started to get longer and longer and so I figured I’d just turn it into a blog post.

Which gives me an idea. If you have questions you’d like me to take on, feel free to leave them in the comments or leave me a message on facebook or email me (lonetomato808 AT gmail DOT com), and I’ll give it my best shot.

[END PREFACE]

The question of hell is a really difficult one. Honestly the best answer anyone can (should) give is that no one really knows. And if you find someone who says they know definitively what hell is and who’s going there, well, I’d love to meet them because I also have questions I’d like to ask.

Now I haven’t done much research on the topic of hell specifically, but I have been thinking a lot, lately, about the nature of God and the Bible. I’ve found that God (and the Bible that points us to this God) is radically relational – that the whole of theology and interpretation hinge on loving God and neighbor. From this idea, I do feel relatively confident to say that I believe that it isn’t in the nature of God to send anyone to a place of eternal torment, which is what most people think of when they think of hell.

But before I go into my own (speculative) thoughts on hell, let me briefly go through the traditional view first.

There are many stories in the Bible about the justice of God, and many who argue for the existence of hell base that view, at least in part, on these stories. And that makes sense. There are people out there who do bad things and there is a primal urge in all of us to cry out for justice when we’ve been wronged.

Some evil thing gets done to us and it breaks us. It makes us feel less secure, less safe, less able to extend love, basically less alive. And there’s something within us that cries out for restitution. Because we all try to do right, don’t we? And then someone comes along and kicks a dent into our lives and we want justice to restore order – for things to be made right again. And sometimes the person who perpetrates harm on us gets caught and punished. And sometimes they don’t. And it’s in this second case where some people look forward to a future reckoning, a future justice, a future hell.

Now at this point I could spin off into the various ways that hell has been described and then talk about how the way most people view hell today is influenced far more by the writings of Dante and Milton than the Bible, but again, I’m ill equipped to lead that discussion.

What I want to do instead is to ask the question, what happens when we look at the issue of justice/hell through the lens of relationship? (And I ask this question because, again, I believe that the primary message of the Bible is loving relationship.)

When read with a relational hermeneutic (I talk more about this way of reading the Bible here), I believe that whenever the Bible talks about justice and/or hell, I believe that the ultimate end result is restoration of relationship. In Matthew 18:21-35, Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive someone who sins against him. Jesus answers, “seventy-seven times.” He then goes on to tell the story of a master who forgives one of his servants a huge debt that he owes him. In turn, this servant goes to a fellow servant who owed him a much smaller debt. He demanded the debt owed him and when this other servant couldn’t pay, he got him thrown in jail. The master hears about this and goes medieval on that first servant. The story ends rather ominously, “In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.”

(Now some might argue that Jesus was alluding to hell at the end of that parable. I don’t know, maybe, but I think that might be reading too much into it. But even if Jesus did mean to allude to hell, it’s still not an eternal sentence – it’s only “until he should pay back all he owed.”)

Here, we have Jesus teaching about unending forgiveness. Not only that, but he begins the parable about the master and servants with the phrase, “the kingdom of Heaven is like…,” suggesting that this message of forgiveness is not just a message that applies to this life on earth, but also to whatever comes afterwards.

So to (finally) answer the question about who goes to hell, I guess I would say that if there is some kind of hell (I don’t have time/space here to take on whether hell is a biblical concept or not), I have no idea who is or isn’t going there – passages like Matthew 7:21-23 and Matthew 25:31-46 seem to suggest that some people will be surprised to find God’s favor (because they didn’t know they were “in”) and others will be surprised that they don’t have God’s favor (because they thought they were “in”). But regardless of who goes to hell, I don’t see how it could be a place of eternal damnation – that idea is in stark contradiction to the idea of unending forgiveness and the idea of a radically loving and relational God. Maybe there is some sort of “debt” that needs to be paid before being let out of jail/hell/whatever, but I just don’t see how it could be eternal damnation.

Now there might be one exception to this. C. S. Lewis talks about how a loving, relational God would not force God’s self onto someone who consciously chooses to reject God – that would not be loving, it would be overbearing. Maybe it’s possible for someone to choose to reject God for eternity, but that’s not on God (I believe God would always be open to reconciliation).

One last bit.

I want to reiterate that anything anyone says about what happens after death is pure speculation. The Bible just really doesn’t have that much to say about the afterlife. It does, however, have a great deal to say about life before death. Shane Claiborne points out that far too many Christians are worried about an abstract hell after death, but far too few are concerned about the actual hells on this earth that people are living in right now.

Jews have a saying – “ask two rabbis about what happens after we die and you’ll get three answers.” And I would add that they’d both admit that they were unsure about all three of them. And I wish more Christians would hold their ideas about the afterlife as loosely, because here’s the thing. Religious Jews are far more concerned about how they treat people in this life than they are about the afterlife. This life, and this world, and the people that inhabit it – these are the things that God wants us to care for. This is where we should be focusing our ideas and our efforts.

…puts a whole new spin on Matthew 6:34, doesn’t it?

So do not worry about tomorrow [life after death?], for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s [this world’s] trouble is enough for today. (NRSV)

There are more than enough problems on this planet in this time to keep the church busy. Speculation about what happens after we die? I suppose that makes for an interesting theological discussion, but we miss the point entirely if we get fixated there. Far more pressing, is discussion about how to alleviate the present-day hells on earth that people are suffering through.

[POSTSCRIPT]

So I’ve written about a different understanding of hell. I would add that N.T. Wright – in his book, Surprised By Hope – suggests that the early church’s understanding of heaven was very different than ideas that are popular today. Basically, he argues that heaven isn’t where we spend eternity – it’s just the place where the dead await the second coming of Christ when we will all be resurrected to a new heaven and a new earth. It’s a very good, very thought-provoking book. Highly recommended.

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