I haven't posted in a few days, as I have taken the time to visit and comment (here and here) on other blogs. While I recently wrote on heaven, one of the blogs got me thinking about the doctrine of hell (see the first link). After wrestling with the concept for a few days, these are my thoughts.
Theologians note that there are more important doctrines to the Christian faith than hell. However, critics hold the idea of hell up as one of the main objections to our faith. One Christian writer said, "Of all the doctrines in Christianity, hell is probably the most difficult to defend and the most burdensome to believe..." Given these issues, it is important to more fully understand what the Bible says about hell. Some of the bigger objections I have come across include:
- Hell is contrary to the love of God -- it is hypocrisy and immoral.
- Infinite punishment for a finite sin is contrary to justice -- it is cruel.
There are other objections, but I will focus on these two for relative brevity.
We often think of hell as a place of everlasting fire and torture, as this picture portrays (William-Adolphe Bouguereau - Dante And Virgil In Hell, 1850). But is this really what hell is like? Jesus spoke about it often and used images of fire, destruction, torment, and gnashing of teeth.
I do not believe that Hell is a place of eternal physical torture, as if we are being whipped and beaten on a daily basis while God watches in with a vengeful eye. The Bible uses analogy, allegory and figures of speech. It uses fire, gnashing of teeth, etc. as an analogy for what it is like away from God's presence, which is what hell is - separation/banishment from God's presence. As such, there is suffering because one is away from God. I am not downplaying hell, only putting it in perspective. From all accounts, it will be a nasty place. Just not in the way we might expect, like the picture. (For example, God's love may be the fire - if one hates God, then His love will feel like fire and torment. I don't know if I agree with this description, but it is one that has been put forth.)
One blogger I encountered asked a very insightful question relating to hell being separation from God: If God is omnipresent, how is it that we can be separated from His presence? I see a difference between an active and passive presence of God. Those in Hell will not receive the full benefit of His active presence as those in heaven. Further, some theologians believe that there will be degrees of isolation and separation in Hell. If God’s judgment is proportional, Hitler will be judged harsher than a person who might have been a relatively “good” person whose sin is rejection of the Gospel.
It is important to note that hell is not the analogy, only the descriptions used in the Bible. If you have never tasted beef and had to explain its taste to a person who has never even seen a cow, you would say, “Beef is like…” This is exactly what the Bible does. Hell is described as utter darkness, yet with flames. Both are obviously not possible and can be viewed as figurative language.
Hell is contrary to the love of God
Taken at face value, I would not disagree with this statement -- with the caveat that hell was not part of God's initial plan for humanity. He does not want his creation to go there anymore than we want to be there. So in that sense it is contrary. However, given our rebellion, it becomes necessary. God's love gives us freedom -- including the freedom to reject Him.
But if God is so merciful and loving, God should forgive the rebel for rejecting Him, right?. I think that this is a misunderstanding of justice. Mercy cannot contradict justice. By accepting Christ's sacrifice, we have the ability to have our sins forgiven. This is mercy and grace. It is offered to us for free, but it came at a price. By rejecting Christ and never seeking forgiveness for our actions, we are refusing to disassociate with our sins. Sin cannot enter heaven. Our sins are either excluded through Christ, or they stay part of us. Justice says that the price of sin must be paid. We have two options and the ball is in our court.
It is important to keep in mind that if God truly loves us, He will allow us to make our own decisions. As such, God would not pull someone into heaven kicking and screaming. If we are free, rejection of God is possible. Thus, Hell is possible. We have the opportunity to choose our paths. While a person may not want to go to Hell, they chose a path that leads there. God respects us so much and wants a voluntary submission to His will. We will not go to hell against our will, but because of it.
Infinite punishment for a finite sin is contrary to justice
To God, the most heinous thing a person can do, in the words of Dr. J.P. Moreland, is to, “mock and dishonor and refuse to love the person that we owe absolutely everything to, which is our Creator, God Himself.” The Bible says the greatest commandment is to love God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. The punishment of a lifetime of refusing God will result in an eternity apart from Him (ultimate sanction for the ultimate sin). We have a lifetime to choose Him. If we were to have a second chance after death, what would be the point of this life? Who is to say that one will not reject God after the second opportunity? Is hell okay under these circumstances? Further, such a question assumes that we do not have sufficient opportunities to meet God during our lifetime. If we are to be held to account for our decisions, we must have the opportunity to make the correct one. If God is truly just, such an opportunity will occur.
When we argue against the finality of hell, we are failing to see the horror of what sin really is in God's eye. It is rejection of Him.
An interesting theme behind the critique of hell is that it is not "moral" or "just." In most accounts, the critic is disavowing God, while at the same time calling hell unjust. C.S. Lewis has this to say, "How had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust." In essence, when one denies the existence of God but refers to good and evil, it becomes a self-defeating argument. When we call something bad, we refer to a standard that is beyond ourselves. Where does that standard come from? If the standard is man-made, then it is subjective. How then can we call crimes such as those committed in Darfur and Nazi Germany truly "bad" if humans are the ones defining good and bad. Our ideas of good and bad can change. If there is not a God, what then can we defer to as the arbiter when we say something is evil?
I have yet to read an atheistic argument relating to morality that does not ultimately end in subjectivity, thus doing away with any notion of inherent human rights or inherent evil. I am not saying that God is required for a person to be "good" (there are many non-Christians whose behavior/actions can be considered moral or good). My argument is that a higher authority is required for an action to be considered inherently moral or evil. A humanistic concept of good/evil is only temporal and thus changes.
Lastly, it is very important to note that Christians (at least the ones I know) do not enjoy the thought of people going to hell. We are not "gleeful" as I have seen some say. I are saddened by the thought of hell. This is why Christians try to reach about to non-believers. Those that take joy in preaching hell should be ashamed of themselves.
While hell may play an initial part in someone becoming a Christian, our continued faith is not necessarily reliant on the fear of damnation. At least in my case, I do not stay a Christian out of fear of hell -- I stay out of love for my creator.