Let's Talk About Hell

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It is not my wish to lay down the law about hell. It is my wish to discuss it because in discussing it, we are “edified.” Orthodox Christianity maintains there is a hell. This is one of the comforts offered by traditional orthodox religion. When you think of someone like Hitler and the Holocaust, hell seems somehow right and satisfies our sense of justice. On the other hand having someone tortured and cruelly treated forever seems to portray a picture of God as unusually cruel and quite unattractive. The question arises: How do you worship as God a character of sustained cruelty like that?

My view would be to remember the imagery of the Bible talking about hell is just that: figurative imagery. Also hardened sinners are not so much sent to hell as choose hell. I look at hell as choosing “absence from God.” Look. I would not have believed this when younger, but I have since learned to my satisfaction there are cruel people who enjoy meanness and don’t like God. They don’t want any part of Him. They don’t enjoy the holiness that being near to God implies. They see God as foolish and or weak and they don’t like His weakness.

Mankind has been given some free will. Mankind must choose grace. As the Bible says you can “frustrate” grace or the offered good. In Galatians 2:21 we are told not to “frustrate the grace of God.” To force a person who enjoys being bad to hang around the good in heaven is not recognizing mankind’s free will. God’s Courtesy demands that He recognize and honor the free will that people have. The exquisite courtesy of God is part of His grace manifested to us wherein our wills are respectfully treated. So we must treat others. God’s Courtesy is part of God’s grace in acknowledging our dignity as human beings. So if someone wants to choose absence from God, you can’t stop that person. He has a will, so his decision making must be respected even though that decision is an unwise one.

My next point would be, if there is no hell, that reduces the need to labor on. No hell cuts not all but some of the valuable motivating tension of Christianity. We as Christians have a duty to tell people that their decisions are serious. Their decisions on spiritual matters need to be considered gravely. Now, I am sure that a decision made from fear of hell is not a completely soundly motivated one. That decision does not praise God as it should.

The best decisions are made out of love for Christ for all that He has done for us: redemption, creation, the comforts of a regular walking with Him and His daily concern. The decisions that are made out of fear are not the best They are strictly second best. Fear may get your attention, but ultimately the best decisions come out of love, not fear. Love implies we make the right decisions out of our love for Christ, to help Him help others, and to experience the higher quality of a life in Christ.

Now as an alternative “after” life style the Roman Catholics offer purgatory. Purgatory is a limited amount of time in hell, then you are loosed into heaven. The hitch to me is that God or the Church that holds the keys of God’s Kingdom (the “keys” is a Roman Catholic dogma that I would suggest you have no part of) sentences the sinner to purgatory. To me the sinner would have to “choose” purgatory, which means he has seen the light of salvation anyway, so why torture him? However, I see nothing inherently evil or wrong in purgatory. It is not mentioned in the Bible.

The other alternative “after” life style, is reincarnation. That says individuals are reincarnated into different lives continually after they die, until they finally achieve a high enough life level in a life to go to heaven. This sounds a trifle bizarre to Westerners. But what of that? There doesn’t seem to be any special meanness in it. There is a Christian reincarnation theory that says individuals always come back as people. Then there is Hindu reincarnation that says people can be punished severely and come back as animals. I was somewhat amazed in India when a friend of mine didn’t tip the cab driver enough, or so thought the cabbie, and he told my friend his grandmother must be a roach somewhere (had been reincarnated as one). Reincarnation was an early belief among some Christians but was declared a heresy by an early Church Council or Synod.

Heresy was the usual way over intellectualized Western religion would deal with things in those days anyway. When people talk about “heresy” I usually say, “So what?” It is not by our words and dogmas we find salvation, but by our walk with Christ or our relationship with God. Was not Micah a precursor of justification by faith saying, “what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? (Micah 6:8)

The Westminster Confession states the truest churches under heaven are a mixture of truth and error, although some are so full of error as to seem no true churches at all. Since this is the case, I would not suggest your becoming obsessed with intellectual truth and error. Theology and creeds are enlightening, but it is with God we meet face to face to work out our salvation with diligence. Our God is an invisible Spirit who contains a Trinity of personalities. Our individual minds are finite and His Spirit is infinite, so we as individuals can contain at most only a part of the infinite truth that is God. But a good heart comes before a right dogma. Theologians may roll over and die at that statement. So what? Considering the weakened state of religion, all the emphasis on dogma for a thousand years has left Christianity in today, I say, walk with Christ, and let theology follow. It is living the cross that leads us home to Heaven. Thus let the discussion of hell end.


Dr. James MacLeod may be contacted through the Neill Macaulay Foundation.