The Luxury of Questioning Hell

hell

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.

 a

a

a

The Face of REAL Persecution

Taken from an IS video, this photo shows Iraqi prisoners, including what appear to be children, piled onto trucks before being driven off for execution. Photo from Anglican Communion News Service
Taken from an IS video, this photo shows Iraqi prisoners, including what appear to be children, piled onto trucks before being driven off for execution. Photo from Anglican Communion News Service

It’s three AM in the morning and I hear a dog bark down the street. I turn over in the night and feel my wife next to me in bed, hear my children sleeping in the next room. Suddenly, there’s a loud bang, the door to our house is kicked open, lights flash into our house and masked men yielding guns charge into the room. I jump out of bed and one of them slams the butt of his rifle into my face. My wife cries and lunges for our children, but a man grabs them and begins dragging them outside. There’s yelling, my children are crying. I hear similar shouts coming from the other houses. I hear my neighbor’s wife screaming in terror.

I try to push through to my wife, but another rifle butt hits me in the eye and I cannot see out of it. I am on the ground and I turn over, trying to stand up when another blow hits my good eye and I see only darkness. I crawl on the floor, blood pouring from my face. Lord, hear our prayer. I am trying to reach the sound of my screaming children. I feel two sets of hands take me by the ankles, and pull me out of the house, dumping me in the yard. I hear the sound of a pistol loading behind my head. Lord, hear our prayer. I hear my children screaming. I feel the muzzle position itself at the base of my skull.

Lord of mercy, hear my prayer. 

The situation in Iraq has gone from dire to hell. ISIS, which now calls itself simply the Islamic State, claims that it “can do anything now that the world is just looking at Gaza”. The Vicar of Baghdad, Reverend Canon Andrew White has issued an impassioned plea for prayer and support as the ISIS onslaught against the minority Christian community increases and worsens. According to some unconfirmed reports, up to 1500 people have been killed by ISIS already.

This is not to say that we should not be concerned with the events of the Gaza Strip; Christians should be praying fervently for both situations. But the worsening crisis in Iraq should draw on the heartstrings of Christians in particular because the killings in Iraq are not due to war or political disputes, they are religiously based slaughterings. Christians, as well as various other religious sects, are facing unprecedented persecution. And they need our prayers. 

Displaced Iraqis from the northern town of Sinjar flee to the mountains, seeking refuge after Islamic State extremists seized their hometown and vowed to execute them. Photo from New York Daily News
Displaced Iraqis from the northern town of Sinjar flee to the mountains, seeking refuge after Islamic State extremists seized their hometown and vowed to execute them. Photo from New York Daily News

As American Christians, news of the sufferings of our brothers and sisters should awaken us to the realities of the world we live in. And it should not just sadden us, it should convict us. Because American Christians have a terrible habit of crying wolf when it comes to religious persecution. Even when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby in a controversial judicial decision this past July, many Christians were quick to remark that the whiplash faced  by the media had taken some form of persecution. Shortly thereafter, Fox News Host Gretchen Carlson came out and warned that America’s increasingly anti-Christmas spirit promoted Christian persecution. When President Obama signed an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, Christian author and radio talk show host Michael Brown called it throwing “religious- in particular Christians- under the bus”.

In far less official and undocumented cases, I’ve had numerous conversations with fellow Christians in America when they refer to the “persecution” they face from the government for not being allowed to pray publicly in school or because of the remote possibility of losing their second amendment rights. Others of us may mention persecution not at the hand of the government but of peers: we are mocked, looked down upon or viewed as intellectually inferior. All these things are unfortunate and discouraging. But none of this is persecution. This is “being in the world but not of the world.” It’s being a Christian.

And when reading of the horrible events taking place in Iraq we ought to be humbled into prayer and drawn into the grateful realization of how well off we really are. In truth, we ought to be a little bit ashamed of ourselves. Because the American tendency of labeling our standing in society as “persecuted” is akin to standing next to a cancer patient in the hospital and complaining about a chest-cold.

I am not saying we don’t go through difficult times or that there are not some people reading this who are not facing depths of despair: but if they are it’s not because of persecution. Mislabeling any hardships we face displays great ignorance and great insensitivity and diminishes our ability to properly minister to our brothers and sisters in their greatest moments of need. It betrays the fact that, on a practical level, we care more about our political standing and whether or not we’ll be allowed to buy ammunition at Wal-Mart than the fact that some of our brothers and sisters are falling asleep tonight not knowing if they’ll awaken with a nozzle to their foreheads.

I say this as a reminder to myself as much as anyone. I say this to awaken myself from the apathy that haunts me into caring more about updating my Iphone than praying for the persecuted church, more about what type of shoe I will wear today and whether or not 1500 Christians in Iraq are slaughtered while I sleep. It would make for an awful day if my boss yelled at me and berated me publicly for my faith. That would be a good day for an Iraqi Christian; at least they and their family would still be alive. At least they would still have their house, their possessions and a safe place to sleep.

We are not persecuted in the United States.  Take a moment today to read about Christians in Iraq and Syria. Take a moment to read the plea from the Vicar Of Baghdad. Then bow your head, picture yourself as a sibling, parent, child in the Iraq church. Feel their pain, their vulnerability, their suffering for the sake of Christ. And for a moment, let us try and put aside ourselves and be unified with them.

 

Pray for the the church in Iraq and Syria who are facing dire persecution at the hands of ISIS.

Pray for people everywhere who are persecuted for their beliefs.

Continue to pray for the war in the Gaza strip, as the violence continues there.

Pray for the American church, that we would be awakened from our apathy and united with the global church in their sufferings.

 

Lord, hear my prayer,
    listen to my cry for mercy;
in your faithfulness and righteousness
    come to my relief.

Psalm 143:1

 

 

10492078_10152596294334429_3483906318320546292_n
The Arabic letter N is a sign of solidarity with Iraqi Christians. The symbol – meaning Nazarene, or Christian – is being painted on Christian homes by IS supporters to mark them out for attack; and is now being adopting by Christians around the world as an act of support.