Hell is a dreadful topic. A professor of mine once stated that he’s a “biblically-hopeful universalist”; meaning he adheres to the Biblical testimony of a final judgement while at the same time yearning that eventually, miraculously, somehow all will choose allegiance to Christ over eternal rebellion and suffering. I would fall in the same category. I hope hell doesn’t exist. But it’s also difficult to ignore the Biblical witness to its reality.
And the topic of hell is a touchy subject among American Christians. Most contemporary discussions operate in the shadow of Rob Bell, whose infamous book Love Wins sparked a tidal wave of conversation across evangelicalism. But Bell was hardly the first nor the last person to ask questions regarding arguments for or against eternal punishment. An increasing number of American Christians ask similar questions: can a loving God and an eternal punishment really both exist?
But the very act of questioning hell is a luxury of which we’d be wise to also take note. Because the western, American perspective through which we question hell deeply influences our conclusions.
First of all, it should be said that we Americans do not regularly experience hell on earth. I want to follow that statement with a bold and assertive footnote: bad things do happen to Americans, in America. I am not attempting to (and I sincerely hope than none of this comes across as) belittling to the pain borne even to those in first-world. The girl who’s been raped at her first college party knows hell on earth. The veteran who’s homeless and mentally traumatized experiences hell on earth. The parent who answers the door at midnight to find a police officer with a grim face knows hell on earth. The eighteen year-old who’s struggling with bi-polar disorder and regularly spirals into suicidal states knows hell on earth.
In other words: America is not devoid of pain.
But Americans do live in avoidance of pain. We go to great lengths to distance ourselves from its pertinence. And, in many ways, we have succeeded. Because of this, we do not understand pain in the way citizens of developing nations must. We have clean water. We have inconceivably low rates of infant death. Even the most unfortunate Americans live on more than $1 a day (unlike 970 million people across the globe).There are limited cycles of perpetual poverty in America; there’s no mass genocide taking place in our backyard.
What we need to acknowledge, then, is that evil is a real and pertinent aspect of reality. And while we want to believe that a good and loving God couldn’t possibly be a judgmental and wrathful God, we also don’t find ourselves grappling with the daily reality of evil, pain, death and suffering.
Thus, when we begin to ask questions regarding hell, we need to understand hell not as a place where God throws all the unfortunate souls who didn’t make his “nice” list. Rather, hell is a place where evil is judged, where sin and death meet their end. To remove our belief in such a place is an attempt to remove the reality of pain and evil in the world as it is. We might fool ourselves into doing so as Americans; we could believe that with enough anti-septic, therapy and tolerance we can cure almost all wounds. But this illusion is a luxury only members of the first-world can attain.
Secondly, Americans can question the existence of hell because we are not regularly confronted with egregious social injustice. Again, there are numerous exceptions; the first caveat I would make to this point is that I present it as an white, Protestant, male living in America. There most certainly are people who experience grave injustice in America. But, for the average American (in comparison to the rest of the world) life is pretty good. Injustice is present in America, but not as an undeniable reality. And certainly (I am quick to admit) not to someone who lives in the majority, such as myself.
For me to question hell- to question the divine necessity to vanquish evil, to examine the scales of justice and judge as fit- has something to do with the fact that I don’t regularly encounter incarnated evil. And I don’t regularly witness a need for retributive justice.
These are luxuries I must acknowledge.
Because it’s easy for me to want to emphasize God’s mercy over God’s judgement; I don’t live with an immediate necessity for the latter. Would I still be asking the question “are we sure God needs to judge evil?” if I lived in a town that was just raided by ISIS? Would I really be thinking “surely, everyone will eventually love God” when I’ve just watched my crops destroyed, my daughters raped, my husband killed, and I myself having now been sold into sexual servitude?
I don’t know. But one thing is for certain: I can’t be arrogant enough to say that I would.
The theology of the oppressed is the closest to a Biblical theology that we have in the modern world. And we need to listen to the oppressed more than we ourselves speak. We have much to learn from them, including a sound perspective on hell.
I recently had the chance to meet with the Vice President of one of the largest non-profit relief organizations in the world. He’d just returned from visiting refugee camps in the Middle East. Most of them were Christians, fleeing persecution. In addition to poverty, drought and malnutrition, they’d witnessed their children beheaded, their friends crucified, and numerous other unspeakable atrocities. Hell was real to them; hell was their life.
And I asked him what the Christians there believed about hell, believed about the eternal judgment and destination of their enemies. He thought for a moment and then replied: “It wasn’t really a concern, for them at least. I asked them how they felt about ISIS, and they told me ‘we pray they come to know Christ.'”
That’s it. No debate about whether or not they’ll end up in hell. No question about whether God will execute his justice upon them or whether God’s goodness allows for the possibility that they be damned. None of that mattered. What mattered was their understanding of the Christian imperative: usher in the kingdom of God while holding onto hope- despite and within your circumstances.
We Americans get entrenched in our ivory castles of theology that we forget the real matter at hand: the kingdom of heaven is coming! It is near; it is not yet; but it is here!
“Does hell exist?” It’s a good question- I suppose- one which I have the luxury of asking. But it’s not the most helpful question, nor is it the real question at hand. The real question looks through the evil and suffering of this present age, beyond the cross, and to the empty grave. The real question is less concerned about the destination of my enemies and more concerned with the impending arrival of Love Incarnate. The real question is less obsessed with knowing the details of justice’s manifestation (as if that’s even possible), but focuses on the hope of a time when evil will be judged and found unnecessary, untrue, unreal.
The real question is not whether or not hell exists. That’s a good topic for cheap cigars and late nights on the front porch. But the real question, the one that transcends our circumstances (be they good or bad), unites us with those who suffer and leads us to pray for those who oppress, is this:
Christ’s kingdom is coming; what role will I play in it’s arrival?
And, as Christians, we all have the luxury of asking that question.