I have not read Love Wins. I am not familiar with Rob Bell’s message, although I am fairly certain it has something to do with Hell or the possible lack thereof. But the more I hear of it, the more it seems possible to me that I agree with the man.
The subject of Hell has always been an interesting one to me, even when I was small. My imagination is fairly dark, and I can picture, very clearly, the torturous agony of being burned in fire for literally all eternity— and it scares me beyond belief. I know I always thought I believed that Hell existed, and that all The Bad People (those who did not know Christ) would be Going There after they died. The system seemed simple. You have Jesus, you get Heaven. You reject Him… ooh, you probably should have chosen differently. Oh, well, too late now. Enjoy eternal flames. But different memories of my thoughts on Hell surface lately, memories of horror and questioning. The main question being the one we all have, those of us who believe in Hell: How could a loving God do such a thing?
I had friends once, a few years ago, that I loved so dearly. These were my favorite people in the whole world. I loved her and her husband so much, but they weren’t Christians in the same way I was. And I was told that people like them, people who didn’t pray regularly or attend church or read the Bible, would go to Hell. That put a knife in my heart. The time I knew them wasthe only time I my life I made a point of praying every single night, because I was determined that if I had anything to say about it, they would go to Heaven. When I look back, the whole thing is not exactly very Christian, because I wasn’t all that bent on them having a relationship with Jesus or anything; I just wanted, desperately, for them to avoid eternal damnation.
Well, now, that’s a lovely way to be going about life, isn’t it?
The idea of being tortured forever has a way of sticking in the mind, and while many of us pretend that our motivation for evangelism (and, indeed, our own Christian lives) is love for Jesus and the desire that the rest of humanity share our joy, the reality is that we just don’t want our friends to be slow-cooked in the Cosmic Oven of Justice. The belief in Hell, when it exists, is all-consuming. It’s a game-changer. The love of God is a pretty good motivator as far as motivators go, but if we are honest with ourselves, it’s not much compared to eternal damnation. It’s not that we don’t love God, but we are always aware of the looming menace of Hell, and it has a way of giving one a nudge in the moral direction. And that’s a bit unsettling.
We ask ourselves from time to time, Am I living this life because I love God, because I want to, or because I am afraid of burning forever in the torturous flames of justice? And we manage to convince ourselves that we’re not frightened in the least of Hell, that of course we are motivated solely by love… But then, the easiest person to lie to is yourself. And again, it’s not that we don’t love God. It’s just that being, as we are, human, fear is always going to dominate. That’s just how it works.
But of course, we believe it— Hell — anyway, despite the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, the Bible never actually mentions an eternity of suffering for nonbelievers. Lakes of fire burn themselves out eventually. And to the question, How can a loving God be so cruel? we give the feeble answer of, “It’s not cruel… It’s justice… We don’t understand because our minds are finite… Sin is so much more horrible than we can imagine…”
Which is all well and good if you like to accept things purely based on tradition, but I have of late become wary of such behavior. It’s just too easy to dismiss the things that don’t make sense by saying that they would make sense if we were as smart as God, but as we’re not we may as well just take it on faith. You could explain anything that way, and people have. Bloodletting by using leeches may have seemed barbaric and ineffective when it was widely practiced, but everyone just kind of assumed the doctor knew what he was doing. Laypeople are notoriously unconfident in their own knowledge, and when something doesn’t make sense to us, we prefer not to question it, but accept the words of the more educated among us. Instead of saying, “That doesn’t make sense. Explain, please,” we say, “That doesn’t make sense to me. I must be dumb.” It’s how we justify the contradiction of a loving God doing something that is, by all accounts, undeniably cruel.
And you’ll note that I did not call it an “apparent” contradiction. The whole point of torture is to hurt people, which is not a very nice thing to do at all. A loving God does not damn people eternally because they don’t love Him back. It’s not that it doesn’t seem to fit. It’s that it truly does not fit at all.
And all that about God’s ways not being our ways is all right as far as it goes— of course life is going to take unexpected turns and all that — but if you just dismiss everything you don’t understand with that phrase, I will cease to hold your opinion in any regard, as will all the right-thinking element of humanity. Obviously I don’t know exactly what God is up to, but being made, as I am, in His image gives me a fairly accurate perspective. We have some of His qualities, and along with them a rudimentary understanding of His modus operandi. We can grasp concepts like forgiveness and love and justice because we were created to. Logic and emotion interact to help us understand this world and the things beyond it. So when every last one of us is unsettled by the apparent contradiction between a God who is love and a God who sentences half His creation to burning torture for eternity, I think something is up here. And that something is that maybe one of those two factors is wrong. That is to say, either God is love and the cruelty of Hell does not exist, or God is cruel and some of us will burn forever anyway. I don’t know about you, but according to my life, it’s the former.
Don’t misunderstand me: I believe in justice. You should know this if you have ever read even a sentence of this blog before. Heaven knows there are a few individuals whose eternal damnation would not bother me in the slightest— a dark and vengeful sentiment, I know. I believe that after this life, people will pay for their crimes. Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and all their ilk will have to face the reckoning. But I no longer believe that the same God who sent His only Son to this Earth, the God who loves me, would burn someone eternally just for not choosing a relationship with Him. I do not believe that there are people He created solely to face an eternity of suffering. Emotionally, it doesn’t add up. Logically, it doesn’t make sense. Grammatically… hang on, I’ve lost my train of thought.
I think that’s all, anyway. I don’t like the idea of telling people that unless they “repent and turn to Christ” there will literally be Hell to pay. And don’t ask me what, if Hell is not an everlasting pit of fire, comes after death. I’m sure I don’t know. I do, however, plan to come back as a ghost after I die, and I am sure I will have the answers for you then. But who knows? I may simply choose to spend the centuries pulling pranks on the local skeptics or walking up and down the beaches in a flowing white dress. Hopefully I will have many years before I am forced to make that decision, but if my paranoia is accurate, I only have about two minutes.
It’s late at night and there are weird noises in the kitchen.