Friday, December 18, 2009

Why Christians Should Rethink Hell...

If you had to explain to someone what being a Christian meant to you, would you include the concept of Hell? Clearly for some people, this is an important reason for being a Christian - perhaps even the most important reason? However, I think that there are two key difficulties that become quickly apparent when talking about Hell today.

The first is that most people simply don't believe in Hell. I suspect that this includes most Christians if you really push them on the subject. Certainly they don't believe in Hell as the literal place of eternal fire that is pictured in classical literature and art. There's all sorts of reasons for this - a better scientific understanding of the world we live in and the historical context of the Bible among them - but this isn't even the main problem as I see it.

Believing in Hell says something very important about what you believe about God. What kind of God creates Hell and condemns people to eternal suffering in it?

For me, the central components of Christianity are the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus. The Cross says something equally important about the nature of God to me: it says that God is non-violent. When the non-violent Incarnation of God comes into conflict with humanity bent on power and control, the Cross is the inevitable result. The Resurrection is a proclamation that ultimately violence cannot win.

Hell, however you conceive of it, is a violent concept. Therefore, to threaten people with Hell is to inflict spiritual violence upon them. Such wrongly conceived evangelism is, as I understand it, a deeply unChristian act. Can we really expect to have it both ways? Either God is wholly violent and condemns His own creation to damnation or God is holy, unviolent, the source of love, mercy and compassion.


Anonymous said...

I'll go for the latter. May hope guide us! Sandy

Jack said...

The question of the existence of hell, and the resulting issues that arise from that, are the biggest things that have contributed to my gradual move away from Christianity (at least in a form that you would call traditional evangelical and/or Salvationist). For me a few of the issues are -
- Christianity puts so much emphasis on the great love of God for all mankind, yet if hell exists (as a traditionally understood eternal punishment) then at the point of death that great love turns to infinite hate for those that have not 'repented and believed'. It doesn't make sense.
- The idea that we all deserve hell because of our sinfulness. No one deserves infinite punishment.
- Suppose one of your daughters steals a pencil from your desk, and fails to say sorry for it. If your response to that was to lock her in a room for the rest of her life and administer severe beatings every one of those days, you would still be far more compassionate and merciful than a God who sends people to eternal hell.
- How are you possibly going to be happy in heaven when people you know are burning forever? Unless of course your state of bliss makes it so easy to forget your family and friends. Heaven sounds pretty selfish to me.
- Why doesn't Paul talk about hell as eternal punishment in his writings. He thought it important enough to tell women what to put on their head in church, yet didn't think hell was worth mentioning?
Perhaps hell was a good concept to put into the gospel stories to keep people in line.

But the problem for Christianity if hell doesn't exist is what then is Jesus saving us from? Are we just being saved from our current circumstances into a 'better' life here on earth? That might work for the homeless, the addicted, the abused, but for your average middle class Australian, do they really need Jesus to 'save' them?

So what makes sense when it comes to heaven and hell? Universalism sounds nice, but surely Hitler needs a bit of punishment? Perhaps a few years of hell and then God lets him into heaven.

For me it really only makes sense that we live and we die and that's it. No afterlife one way or the other. How we live the bit in between is up to us, and perhaps Christianity (or at least the good parts of it) is just a reasonable collection of ideas to guide us. But I could be wrong (I'm no theologian or philosopher) and will someday burn in hell forever.

Sorry for the length of this comment, but this is a topic that I could take down all manner of paths.

JDK said...

Thanks for your comments. Jack, if you live close to Melbourne the Common Dreams conference next year may present some viable alternatives for you.

Spazmodious said...

What about the various references to individuals and entire peoples being wiped out by God's often quite violent wrath? It would be hypocritical to discount one element of scripture based on another. Scripture is meant to clarify, not contradict. And if there is no 'hell,' no punishment, then what is the point of obeying the rules? If there are no consequences there are no rules, if there are no rules there is no right and wrong, good and evil. And why would a god bother to intervene in a creation if it does not matter to him what we do.

JDK said...

Hi Spazmodious,

I think Christians prioritise some scriptures over others all the time. In practice I think this is inevitable rather than hypocritical, as long as we are prepared to admit that this is what we are doing. I find that the violence in Scripture speaks to me more of human inclination than divine retribution. Perhaps those who see God as a violent judge are revealing more about themselves than they are about God?

I would think that living a good life just because you want to avoid Hell is barely moral, but the absence of Hell on the other hand surely doesn't imply anarchy. There is a basic desire that I think we all have at times for the wicked to be punished and the good to prosper - it's echoed in the Bible again and again. However, we also recognise that this doesn't always happen - also witnessed in our Scriptures repeatedly. Perhaps putting punishment off to the next life is a way of resolving this quandary? At the end of the day, I can't claim to have any special knowledge about what happens after death but I do know something about suffering in this life and will do what I can to help those experiencing it.

Regards, JDK

mdb said...

Perhaps hell is the inevitable destination for humanity without the compassion and love of God? Maybe the point of the cross is that we're saved from ourselves (which is saving us from eternal suffering as the master of our own destiny). Of course I'm no theologian!