Skip to comments.Why We Need Hell
Posted on 03/24/2006 10:40:30 AM PST by hiho hiho
Frederica in Orthodoxy, Christian Life, Christian Apologetics [Beliefnet: March 23, 2006]
Hell has never been a fashionable destination, but it in recent years its met a fate that even the most passé hotspots dont endure; people suspect it doesnt exist. Or, if it does exist, it attracts no customers; "we are permitted to hope that hell is empty" is how this is sometimes phrased. Even the most conservative Christians have a hard time putting a positive spin on a wrathful God who flings evildoers into flaming torment.
It is tragic that some Christians have been so battered with stories of a prideful, vindictive God that they have fled from Jesus fold. No wonder some become atheists; who would want to spend eternity with such a tyrant?
Yet Im going to make a case for hell, though not the one you see in cartoons, a fiery cavern where demons poke you with pitchforks. Dante made that kind of thing look pretty exciting, but "The Inferno" was written almost 1300 years after the Gospels. When you strip away European and medieval assumptions, and look at the writings of Christians in lands and cultures closer to Jesus time, you get a different picture.
First of all, hell is not a place. If youre separated from your body and exist only as a spirit, you dont take up any room. In the Hebrew Scriptures all the dead, righteous and unrighteous, abide in Sheol (the Greek Scriptures translated it "Hades"). It is a non-physical realm where the souls of all the departed await the Last Judgment.
But they dont all experience it the same way. In Jesus parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31), the Rich Man is not sequestered in a bleak alternative dimension; hes able to see Lazarus, and speak to Abraham. But hes sure isnt having a good time.
How can this be? Because the real answer to the "where" question is "in the presence of God." Nothing exists outside God, making the concept of "separation from God" only a handy metaphor. "Whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there" (Psalm 139:7-8). In this life, we perceive that presence pulsing through all material Creation. In the next life that materiality will be dissolved, and well be irradiated by the living energy that sustains the universe.
Those who love God and prepare themselves to assimilate his light will begin to be transformed even in this life; they become "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4). But those who resist and ignore God "harden their hearts" (Hebrews 3:15). If they "love darkness rather than light" (John 3:19), they will find the inescapable brilliance to be searing misery and paradoxical blindness.
And thats only a foretaste. What we experience as spirits can be termed "Hades" and "Paradise." After the unimaginable resurrection and restoration of our bodies, true "Heaven" and "Hell" will commence.
How can the same Light affect people in different ways? Hearers of scripture in earlier generations would have seen this phenomenon every day. Before the age of electricity, light always meant fire. And fire requires respect. From earliest childhood they would learn that fire gives us warmth and light, but if mishandled, it deals agonizing pain, darkness and death. "Our God is a consuming fire" (Deut. 4:24, Hebrews 12:29).
"The same sun that melts wax hardens mud" is how Origen, the 3rd century Egyptian writer, put it. In the 4th century, St. Basil the Great used the story of the three young men in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3:1-30) as an illustration: the fire spared the prayerful trio, while the guards who threw them in were destroyed.
Gods presence is not just Light, and Life, but Love. And Love invites, but does not compel. The Prodigal Sons older brother lived in his fathers loving abundance, but was bitter and resentful. To the pure, Gods purity shines clearly; but to the twisted, even His love appears untrustworthy and twisted (2 Samuel 22:27). St. Issac of Syria (7th century) wrote that those who suffer in the next life "are scourged by the scourge of love."
This idea, that both heaven and hell are experiences of the same divine presence, is startlingly different from contemporary assumptions. But even more so is the next idea: hell is not a punishment. We assume Gods justice means settling the score; that each sin must have its payment, either in Christs blood or human writhing in hell. We can even sort of like the idea. Surely God will torture murderers and rapists and bad guys, and anyone who ever did us a wrong turn. Justice, we think, means finally getting even.
But as St. Isaac points out, God isnt "just" in that calculating sense. "How can you call God just," he says, when you consider the parable of the workers paid for a full day when they worked only an hour? Or the parable of the Prodigal Son, restored fully to his father on the basis of mere repentance? St Isaac concludes, "Do not call God just, for his justice is not evident in the things concerning you."
God is not looking for repayment, but repentance. What heals a broken relationship is sincere love and contrition. Whats wrong with us isnt a rap sheet of bad deeds, but a damaged heart, a soul-sickness, that plunges us into fearful self-protection, alienation from God and others. Paradoxically, this leads to death: "whoever would save his life will lose it" (Matthew 16:25).
This sickness elicits not Gods fury but his indomitable love, much like the urgent, grieving love a parent has for a wandering child. (Jesus parable was about the Prodigal Son, not the Indignant Accountant.) "It is not that God grows angry with us," said the 3rd century Desert Father, St. Antony the Great, "but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us."
Who will end up in hell? Nobody knows. God has not shown us the guest list. And "Judge not" (Matthew 7:1) means its none of our business. We cant guess by looking at external behavior, because we dont know whether someone, in private, is begging God for forgiveness and the strength to change. Thats the lesson of the Publican in the Temple.
The safest bet, and a venerable spiritual discipline, is to assume that you, personally, are the worst sinner in the world. St. Paul set an example, referring to himself as "the foremost" of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). And, while God has not told us who he will or will not save, he has given us a safe harbor. Christians have agreed on certain spiritual helps from the earliest centuries: the Eucharist, personal spiritual direction and confession, public worship, private prayer, and the intercessions of the "great cloud" of saints. In this way we can become light-bearers, even in this life. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (4th century) said that the Spirit penetrates our whole being like fire transforms a piece of iron, "so that what was cold becomes burning and what was black is made bright."
If you hammer together your own Stairway to Heaven, you wont know which rungs are missing. The practices upheld by the consensus of the community is a surer bet for the humble.
So, yes, we need "hell" or rather, we need an urgent awareness that eternal misery is a horrifying possibility. But on the other hand, I dont see any permission to imagine that "hell" sits empty, with the deck chairs stacked and folded. Jesus was emphatic, not that a place named hell exists, but rather that some will be in torment, with "weeping and gnashing of teeth." He nowhere encourages us to hope that he was just kidding and everything will turn out fine.
We dont know, of course, *how* things will turn out. We hear that "God desires all men to be saved" (1 Tim 2:4), but we dont know if that desire will be fulfilled, and in a way we could now understand. We dont know how God deals with hard cases. All we know is that were commanded to go and preach the Gospel. If God has some emergency back-up plan in case we fail to do our job, he has not told us about it. Hes only told us as much as he thinks servants need to know.
What we know is not facts, but a Person, and even in this life we begin to be softened and warmed by his love. Every ordinary moment is turning us either into a light-bearing saint or a monster. The Judgment on the Last Day will reveal what we did with all that time, and how our choices shaped us, one by one.
And if Jesus parable of the sheep and goats is correct (Matthew 25), the Day will be less like judging a criminal trial and more like judging a livestock show. You dont need a cross-examination to tell a sheep from a goat. Day slips into day, and after decades of goatish deeds, it will be nearly impossible to turn back.
"Today, when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts
While the promise of entering his rest remains, let us fear lest any of you be found to have failed to reach it" (Hebrews 3:15, 4:1).
"You dont need a cross-examination to tell a sheep from a goat."
Even the most conservative Christians have a hard time putting a positive spin on a wrathful God who flings evildoers into flaming torment.
Dave Allen did a great routine about how God had to be an Englishman because only an Englishman would be able to stand at the Gates of Heaven and inform folks that they couldn't come in.
You really had to see him do the routine for it to work.
The gates of hell are locked from the inside.
"If I knew God I'd be Him."
this is one of those things that prove the inefficiency of having the Bible as sole authority
uhhhh, no thanks.
Why get so snotty???
Those Christians of the Eastern Orthodox Church have suffered massive persecutions under the muslims and the nazis and the communists. MILLIONS upon MILLIONS of them have died for their faith in Christ Jesus... can YOUR denomination make such a statement??
No, I think not.
Lighten up on those dedicated Christians called the Eastern Orthodox.... your faith should be so strong.
Regards, a Baptist!!
When I die I'll say, "Another marine reporting Sir. I've served my time in hell."
Of course, we know there is no prophecy, literally "truth", in personal interpretation of Scripture.
Doesn't stop the proud from doing it, mind you.
Well, that, and also GM's HQ is there.