Upon reading an article which my mom emailed a while back (about a month ago), I thought that it might be appropriate to comment on something. It occurred to me likely that some people who read this particular article could have a particular set of mixed feelings about it. They might wholeheartedly agree with the article’s cultural analysis, and concur with its condemnation of the harmful actions and lifestyles which are finding more and more acceptance and protection in our nation’s laws, but they may also experience a measure of recoil from the unabashed tone that the writer of the article uses in reference to hell. They might agree with the condemnation of sin, but feel also (perhaps without articulating it) that the language of “a day of reckoning that never ends” and “eternal damnation” represents an outdated view of divine justice more suitable to the unenlightened minds of ancient and medieval priests and peasants.
It therefore seemed appropriate that I should comment on the much neglected and much misunderstood doctrine of hell.
I will begin by saying that the doctrine of hell really is a terrible doctrine. I do not mean by this that it is a false teaching, but I mean it in the simple sense that hell is a teaching that inspires terror. The very thought that an all-powerful God of love would condemn any of his creatures to such a fate is mind-boggling and terrifying. This consideration I take as a given. And so I neither intend nor expect that anything I say in favor of the teaching dispel such terror. What I do intend (and hope) by these comments is to clear the way for the intellectual acceptance of the doctrine of hell despite this quite natural terror and its pervading mysteriousness. I will attempt this in two main ways: (1) By appealing to the authority of the one who taught it (Jesus), and (2) by explaining something of how it fits into the wider context of the Christian teachings about God and His love for us manifest in Jesus Christ. The mature Christian must hold the terribleness and the truth of the doctrine of hell together in tension.
Before I begin with my two main arguments, let me clear up some common misunderstandings and concerns. First of all, it is not only crude but simply wrong to refer to or think of hell as a kind of “divine torture chamber.” A hell of purely extrinsic punishment does not do full justice to the reality expressed in the scriptures. The references that Christ makes of hell in the Gospels and those in the New Testament as a whole are vivid in their imagery but mysterious as to their full meaning. Hell is often, though not always, depicted in terms of fire. Hell is referred to, among others, as “the outer darkness,” “eternal death,” “the second death,” “destruction,” “gehenna” (which was, as I understand, a valley where an idolatrous cult performed human sacrifice to their gods). There is a large degree of mystery as to its exact nature (for example, in what senses and to what degrees are its punishments extrinsic or intrinsic to a soul) and many Christians in different times have attempted speculation and/or depiction of it–From Origen to Dante to Nicholas of Cusa to C.S. Lewis and others, yielding diverse conceptions of the one doctrine.
Also, hell is not something that God “holds over our heads” to threaten us and scare us into doing good. It is rather a grave warning of what are the consequences of obstinate selfishness. If God holds anything “over our heads” it is his constant mercy in Jesus Christ calling us to repentance. He does not threaten us like some tyrant, though his offer of mercy is often felt to be a threat by those who wish to cling to full control of their lives, those for whom God’s kind of love feels like an imposition.
Another sticking point for many is the eternity of hell. They often think that God would do better to totally destroy a soul rather than to allow it an eternity of suffering. Here is, I think, a time when we run into the mystery of this doctrine. Are we really sure that it would be a better thing to not exist than to exist in such a miserable state? In accordance with the mysterious images “second death,” and “outer darkness” (among others) applied to hell in the scriptures, images which seem to indicate that hell is further down than suffering and death on the scale towards nothingness, can we simplistically ascribe our own current kind of existence (and hence also consciousness) to a soul in hell?
Furthermore, in trying to conceive of a soul in eternal hell (or heaven for that matter), might we sometimes make the mistake of thinking of “the other side of the grave” as a continuation of our personal and social histories rather than their fulfillment?
While I do not think that these reflections give exhaustive answers to the problems that the doctrine of hell poses to our minds (in fact, they raise even more questions), I do think that they can make us aware that what we are dealing with is a mystery, and help us to turn more easily to the authority of the One who revealed it for our acceptance of it. Which brings me to my first main argument.
(1) My argument is that it is from the mouth of Jesus himself that we receive the teaching of hell in the Bible. And of all the people in the Bible, it is Jesus himself who speaks about it most openly and boldly.
There is a tendency of many to forget this fact. The image which they depict when they speak of Jesus is one derived from a very selective reading of the Gospels, focusing on love and mercy and kindness and acceptance of the outcast and despised and poor, but neglecting grave words about divine punishment and harsh condemnation of obstinate yet knowing sinners (unless a particular type of sin which Jesus condemns happens to be one that a person prides himself in not partaking in–then he tends to include that in his idea of Jesus). This is more than a matter of selective vision. In so narrowing down the person and message of Jesus, the clear and coherent person shining out in the Gospels is unraveled into a nebulous and deflated idea of love as mere tolerance (an idea which is in turn used to justify all kinds of things)–here the full ideas of infinite love, mercy, and acceptance of the poor and despised are emptied of most of their meaning and cheapened. Here also the radicality of holiness is compromised–moral mediocrity reigns supreme when phrases like “do not judge” and “Jesus accepts everyone” are understood without reference to the whole person and teaching of Jesus as He is revealed in the Gospels. Likewise, this way of thinking renders Jesus’ redemptive suffering and death on the cross emptied of most of its meaning. This leads me to my second argument.
(2) Divine mercy and divine wrath are two sides to the same coin, and the coin is called divine Love. When I say this, what I mean is that since evil is directly contrary to love, God pours out His destroying power upon anything (or anyone) that keeps His Love from having full sway in the universe. With His just wrath He protects His poor from the unjust wrath of evil people.
Yet God loves us, His creatures (both the good and the evil) so much so that even when we sin and are unfaithful to Him he still pours out His love upon us.
How does he do this?
He united Himself to mankind by sending His eternal Son to take upon our flesh, to become one of us. Then, His Incarnate Son, the Sinless One, took upon Himself and accepted the punishment due to our sin. He suffered the pain of mockery, torture, and the guilt of all sin, and He was killed by crucifixion. He thus felt “abandoned” by His God and Father (the same type of abandonment that all of us feel in our darkest moments–to its farthest limit), and finally He Himself, the eternal and All-Holy One, who from all eternity is one and coequal with the Father, was consigned to hell.
Jesus went to hell!—Those who scoff at the idea of hell have not sufficiently reflected on what they affirm each time they recite the Apostles Creed. “…He was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose…”
Recently, in some quarters, there has been an increase of reflection on what it means when we say that Jesus descended into hell, and new aspects have been contemplated. This is not the place to go into them. One thing is clear, however. God had not truly abandoned Him–hell could not hold the Lord of Glory. Jesus brought out from the depths of hell all those who had been consigned there because of their sins and yet had responded to His grace in their life, the grace that flowed from His cross onto all history and all cultures. He brought them to the salvation that they had yearned for in life, which inspired goodness in them, but that they never saw.
Today the same reality applies. In Jesus Christ, God has given everything to mankind. He has not held back anything from us. In Christ He has poured out upon the whole world and all of history the mercy that leads us to yearn for salvation and to live lives of goodness. In Christ’s cross, God’s wrath has been united to His love, so that we who suffer His wrath might be forgiven and transformed through it. This is what He offers universally, to everyone.
And so the question may be asked: What if we reject this universally granted mercy? The fact that we were created with free will means that this is a possibility. If we did not have free will, we could not culpably reject God’s love. But nor could we “culpably” accept it, either–nor could we reach the divine heights of love. There is no love with no freedom.
I ask it again–What if we reject this universally given mercy?… But there is a deeper and graver question, for the Lord not only has poured his Love invisibly into the world, but has sent Apostles and prophets in His Spirit to preach His love so that many whom He chooses may know His salvation now and cooperate in His work. The graver question: What if we reject Him who is that Mercy, when we ourselves are given this gift of seeing God Our Savior whom so many longed for and never saw, because we prefer some transitory created thing to the Eternal One? What if we refuse to believe Him when He has manifested Himself to us present in His Church, when He offers us His Love so that we can share in the divine nature? What if we reject Him again and again until our dying breath? As Jesus says in the Gospel, “What if salt loses its taste? With what will it then be salted? There is nothing left for it but to be thrown down and trampled underfoot.”
This, to me, is the meaning of the doctrine of hell.