Belief in hell

This article is part of a 6 part conversation – see also the following:


Part 2

My second question: The chains of hell and burning in hell, seems a ridiculous and man-made conception. When the body is dead, what is left but a soul? How does one ‘chain’ a soul, which is spirit or pure energy? (I suppose one could burn energy.) Whatever the soul is, it comes from God and I believe it will return to God.  So, if I do not believe in a devil, and I do not believe in a hell, how do I accept the Christian faith?

Smithy, as with Satan, the notion of hell has been subjected to a whole many descriptions of what it is supposedly like. And as with Satan, the fruitful imaginations of misguided individuals have led to much caricaturizing and preposterousness. But again, creating a straw-man and then vilifying it, does nothing to establish truth.

There are various metaphors for hell used in the Bible. I don’t think, though, that we are necessarily compelled to regard any of these metaphors as some sort of literal description. Biblical references to hell (and heaven for that matter) seem to be using physical imagery to represent conditions in a different plane of existence. (Which is precisely what a metaphor is: expressing a certain truth by representing it as something else.)

The Bible describes hell with imagery such as a fiery lake of burning sulfur, unquenchable and everlasting fire, a punishment of eternal fire, never-dying worms, gnashing of teeth, torment in fire and sulfur, smoke of torment, outer and utter darkness, and eternal chains of darkness. Not for one moment do I suggest that one can walk away from reading such imagery and not be struck by the dreadfulness to which these metaphors point. (In fact, a metaphor can only be a metaphor if it represents something real.) So there is a definite sense in which all the Biblical metaphors for hell are declarations of how hell somehow really does exist as something dreadful.

It is interesting how most of the words spoken about hell in the Bible, come from the mouth of Jesus himself. Jesus is regarded by most people (religious and non-religious) as one of the greatest moral teachers who ever lived. Now the traditional and essential Christian understanding of who Jesus is, is that he is the incarnation of God in human form (ontologically dual-natured, he is both a human being and a Divine being.) There are two ramifications if Jesus really did speak those words about hell: 1) Jesus’ remarks are deceiving us about hell’s actual existence, but this also puts a serious doubt on Jesus’ true nature (and moral character, for that matter). 2) Since Jesus really was God incarnated, he spoke the truth and hell really does exist.

Trying to make sense of the imagery of hell and what it actually refers to, doesn’t seem to be a fruitful place for starting to think about hell. The more critical question seems to be why there should be something like a hell at all. What sense does it make for anyone to believe in hell? What is the point of hell?

You’ve made the remark that whatever the soul is, it comes from God and that it will return to God. Unpacking your statement from a Christian point of view will provide the framework for explicating the issue of hell.

First, what would it mean to say that “souls come from God”? In Christian terms it would mean that God created beings like humans (whose identities equal that of a soul). It also means that such beings exist ontologically distinct from God. This means that the essence of what makes humans human, is different from the essence of what makes God God (although this does not mean that humans – or any being – can live casually apart from God.) Or to put it another way: humans are not God, nor a part of God, but they do come from God.

Why would God create such beings separate from himself? The Christian worldview affirms that nothing compelled God to create anything (as if he needed to create something), but that when he created beings like humans and angels, he did so for their benefit with the purpose of relating to them.

What I’ve already alluded to in reply to your first question, is that it is the creature’s capacity for free choice that makes possible a meaningful relationship with its Creator. In other words, if part of God’s good creation was to create beings with the ability to lovingly relate to him, then the only way to guarantee the possibility of genuine expressions of love is if there is also a real possibility that love could be withheld. The point is that love is only love when it is chosen to be freely expressed. Therefore nobody, not even God, can force love; love is by definition unforced.

In the Christian worldview God has made humans for the purpose of loving Him. To love God is essential to what it means to be human. Not to love God is evil, a privation, falling short of what God intended. In short, humans have chosen not to love God (theologically called the ‘fall’) and not loving God resulted in evil as part of human nature (theologically called ‘sin’ and denoting strong moral corruption).

The astonishing thing, so Christianity goes on to assert, is that God still wants to relate with people and wants people to experience the fullness of such a relationship, since that was His original intention for human beings. But how do beings with corrupted evil natures, relate to a morally perfect being? The answer is: they can’t, except if the evil in human nature can somehow be destroyed and human nature then be restored to original goodness. But how do corrupted beings restore themselves to original goodness? Again the answer is that they can’t. It would be like trying to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.

The heart of Christianity is the teaching of grace, that the person of Jesus, the incarnation of God, accomplished what humans left to themselves couldn’t. As a human being he identified with human nature and showed what a human life uncorrupted by evil looks like. As God he was able to absorb the evil of all humankind who ever lived and that would still come to live, and destroyed it by dying on a cross. As a human Jesus died, but because he was also God, he physically rose again from death.

All this has tremendous significance for humanity. Jesus’ death signifies the defeat of evil and His miraculous rising from death signifies complete restoration. Christianity declares that God wants humans to apply these truths to themselves by accepting it through faith. Faith, believing that Jesus accomplished what they couldn’t accomplish for themselves, is what makes it possible for human beings to come into a relationship with God. It should be noted that the fullness of this relationship (and the fullness of human restoration) can only be achieved in heaven (a different dimension of existence), since the devastating effects of evil in this world, make its full attainment here impossible. But for the person who lives by faith and in a relationship with God, the process of restoration has already begun.

Okay, I need to clarify something at this point. I’ve spoken of the need for “evil to be destroyed” and why this is crucial. Now the Bible mostly refers to the idea of the need for “sin to be punished.” But the idea of sin being punished seems to have become in people’s minds to refer to some vengeful Cosmic Policeman who is constantly prowling and ready to punish anybody who just dares to step out of line. This is again an example of one of those absolutely superficial caricatures that people in a post-Christian culture have erected to ridicule and declare utterly unbelievable.

But the idea of sin needing to be punished is actually a more accurate description of reality than the more sanitised and abstract idea of “evil being destroyed.” If one accepts the basic notion of a relationship between God and human beings, then human beings’ refusal to love God is a very personal and relational thing. It is a blatant affront to God’s person. By realising the difference between who God is and who humans are, one sees that this isn’t something like turning your back on someone after a squabble. This is more like the peasant spitting in the face of his king.

Humans rejecting God denotes the most severe crime against another person that can be committed. Justice demands the punishment for any crime and it’s no different with the sin against God. Notice that I’m referring to the sin (singular) against God. Human sins (plural) are individual acts of sinning which are merely symptoms of the bigger issue that the idea of sin (singular) represent: refusal to love God. It seems that most people cannot appreciate this point, because their view of God is of some docile old grandfather handing out candy after slapping your hand for using a bad word. For most people, the concepts of God’s holiness and justice in opposition to sin, are totally alien.

This brings us to the second part of your remark: the idea of souls returning to God. Here is the crucial question: In what sense do souls who have free will, who can choose between loving God or rejecting God, all return to God? Is there any guarantee that all souls will love God? In what sense does a soul who has rejected God return to God? More importantly, why would it want to?

It is in answer to these questions that the idea of a hell starts to make sense. Hell is primarily a place of existence for people who would not want to go to heaven. This doesn’t mean to say that anybody would consciously choose to go to a place like hell, but being in hell would be the result of making a lifetime of choices that did not care about the kinds of values that will be present in heaven. J.P. Moreland made the following observation:

“[If] we fail over and over again to live for the purpose for which we were made – a purpose, by the way, which would allow us to flourish more than living any other way – then God will have absolutely no choice but to give us what we’ve asked for all along in our lives, which is separation from him.”

That is what hell essentially is: separation from God. It simply isn’t accurate to think of God as sending people kicking and screaming to hell, like a sadistic tyrant who finds pleasure in the misery and torture of his subordinates. Hell is more the natural consequence of a life that has been, and still wants to be, willingly lived apart from God. D.A. Carson describes it this way:

“Hell is not a place where people are consigned because they were good blokes, but they just didn’t believe the right stuff. They’re consigned there, first and foremost, because they defy their maker and want to be at the center of the universe. Hell is not filled with people who have already repented, only God isn’t gentle enough or good enough to let them out. It’s filled with people who, for all eternity, still want to be the center of the universe and who persist in their God-defying rebellion.”

What about all the strong Biblical imagery of punishment in hell? The point of such imagery is not that hell is some sort of torture chamber, but it points to what it is like to be separated from God. Hell really is punishment for sin (singular: the rejection of God), but at the same time the punishment of hell is what it means to be separated from God. It is as if the imagery is meant to remove any doubt in somebody’s mind that being separated from God is terribly dreadful indeed. It’s a warning, not for scaring people into having a relationship with God (love can’t be forced), but to focus attention on examining where sin (evil) ultimately leads to. The privation of human nature leads to spiritual and physical degeneration in separation of God and of which death is the inevitable doorway.

Can one accept the Christian faith without believing in hell? It doesn’t seem possible to divorce the idea of hell from the central tenets of Christianity (possibly the reason why Jesus himself spoke relatively a lot about it). Accepting the Christian faith essentially means coming into a relationship with God (it isn’t just accepting a set of abstract ideas). Yet nobody is forced into such a relationship, although everybody is invited to it because of grace. If having a relationship with God is what heaven is all about, then not having a relationship with God – being separated from God – is what hell is all about. It is because the idea of hell is essentially relational that it makes sense, if not imperative, to believe in it, even if it is not something that anybody should (or could) find palatable.

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