Hope not ever to see Heaven. I have come to lead you to the other shore; into eternal darkness; into fire and into ice.
–Dante Alighieri, Inferno
“The mercy of God,” shouted the street preacher on Hollywood Boulevard, “is right now he’s not striking you dead. Time to read the Bible. Time to know the God of the Bible. Robin Williams is burning in hell. Here’s a guy…Robin Williams…who made everybody laugh, who put a smile on your face, and he lived in a world of depression.” Next to him stood an assistant holding up a fiery sign proclaiming Repent, Turn to Jesus, or BURN.
I acknowledge it’s a cheap shot to make fun of the over-the-top street preachers with their banners and megaphones. Most of the dyed-in-the-wool protestants and evangelicals I’ve known over the years would cringe at such a distasteful presentation of unfruitful evangelism tactics.
And yet…when push comes to shove, Hell; specifically, the doctrine of unrepentant sinners being damned (perhaps predestined!) to the flaming depths of hades to suffer a fate literally worse than death—tormented for all eternity in outer darkness along with Satan and his entire demonic horde; is actually quite standard fare throughout large swaths of Christendom and a key portion of many churches’ Statement of Faith.
Saddleback Church, one of the most popular megachurches in the United States and led by Hawaiian-shirt-wearing pastor Rick Warren, author of the immensely successful book The Purpose-Driven Life, clearly states on its website:
Man was created to exist forever. He will either exist eternally separated from God by sin or in union with God through forgiveness and salvation. To be eternally separated from God is hell. To be eternally in union with him is eternal life. Heaven and hell are places of eternal existence.
This statement doesn’t delve too far into the fire and brimstone aspects of what they believe about hell at Saddleback, but obviously to be eternally separated from God by sin doesn’t sound very appealing.
You’re still wondering just how widespread this belief in hell is? According to a 2014 poll by Pew Research Center, 58% of all American adults believe in hell, and that number jumps up to 70% among all Christian religious groups.
Count me among the 30% who don’t.
God Save Eleanor Powell
I have a confession to make. When I was a young boy, I had a massive crush on Eleanor Powell. She was beautiful, she was glamorous, she was an incredibly talented dancer, and—while perhaps not the best actress in show business—she was typically cast in roles where she shined as the plucky, enthusiastic optimist. Which suited me just fine because I was a happy-go-lucky kid at heart.
But I was also terrified. Know why? I was genuinely scared that Eleanor Powell was burning in hell! (She died the year I was born.) I don’t remember if I was able to do any research into her religious views in my youth, and looking up her biographical details today reveals she actually did seem to have a vibrant Christian faith and even hosted a ground-breaking, Emmy-award-winning program called Faith of Our Children. But for whatever reason, I’d gotten it into my young head that the eternal destination of Eleanor Powell’s soul was in question, and I was deeply troubled by the thought.
I remember pouring over passages in the New Testament trying to discern just what hell was all about and if there were any loopholes for avoiding it apart from sincerely offering up “The Sinner’s Prayer”. I never methodically read the Book of Revelation all the way through…I’d always skip to the final chapters where it spoke of the defeat of the devil and his gruesome fate (along with the rest of hell’s residents) getting thrown into the lake of fire and burning day and night forever, and it would haunt me to the core.
My First Dip into Progressive Waters
One of the reasons I decided to make hell the first stop on this Dial H for Heresy journey is because this was the first major doctrine I questioned in my adult religious life and which compelled me to break ranks with my fellow evangelicals.
I don’t recall exactly when I began in earnest to question the doctrine of hell. I think it was a lengthy process, helped along with a few books and many blog posts across the web on the topic. (Strangely, as much as I’m a fan of Rob Bell, I’ve never read Love Wins which so controversially challenged the doctrine of hell. It’s still on my bucket list.)
Truth be told, my first inclination wasn’t to drop the whole traditional concept of the afterlife and become a universalist. Sure, I was tempted by the idea. But I instead gravitated towards what is typically called annihilationism—that is, only believers in Jesus get to live eternally in union with God, and those who don’t make the cut simply die once and for all during the events of “the last judgement”. In other words, if you’re an unrepentant sinner when you die on earth, your soul goes to some sort of holding place (perhaps still technically labeled “hell”) to await your final punishment which is to die spiritually as well.
I no longer believe in annihilationism either, although I fully admit many of the passages in the Bible which describe hell and the afterlife (and there are surprisingly few of them for what seems like such a crucial aspect of the faith) seem to point in that direction. I would argue that if it came down to a two-way comparison between annihilationism and eternal conscious torment (ECT) via a comprehensive study of scripture, ECT loses big time.
But at this point in my life, I am fully at peace with the belief that the eternal destination of every human is to find final rest in the arms of a loving God. How that plays out in the afterlife—particularly as it pertains to the much-debated “monsters” of history like Hitler or Stalin, etc.—is a mystery to me. But I’m fine with this mystery. Rather I believe the great sin instead is to wrest the precise nature of the afterlife out of the realm of the unknown and attempt to pin it down with facts and figures. We do people a massive disservice when we proclaim we understand their final destiny (or their loved ones!) and attempt to speak authoritatively on topics we literally have no way of verifying. While there is much we can intuit about the nature of this reality right here, right now…the divine presence, grace, love, creativity, an abiding hope for justice to prevail, and so forth…when it comes to the afterlife, we are all flying blind.
Pascal’s Wager, Busted
It has been argued that when it comes to betting on the afterlife, we should all err on the side of “avoiding hell at all costs”. This is sometimes referred to as Pascal’s Wager. The idea being if there’s even the slightest possibility that God exists together with heaven and hell, we should all believe in God in order to try to get into heaven and stay out of hell. It’s the old evangelism trope of “if I’m wrong about God, I only wasted my earthly life, but if you’re wrong about God, you’re damned for all eternity.”
The problem with this view, theologically, is that paints God as the most vindictive, monstrous figure in all of existence. It portrays an all-powerful supernatural being whose primary objective when it comes to the fate of humanity apparently is to sort out the haves from the have nots. The haves get to enjoy their endless bliss and overflowing joy without ceasing, while the have nots get nothing but pain, suffering, loss, and unimaginable emptiness to look forward to for literally forever and ever.
I want nothing to do with such an egregious and barbarous historical climax. If my going to heaven is dependent on my fellow humans facing an eternal destiny of overwhelmingly terrible proportions—however wretched and violent and disgusting their lives on earth may have been—then I wash my hands of the whole damn thing. Boo on you, heaven! Fact is, I’d rather throw my lot in with the damned and at least find solidarity with the majority of mankind than ascend to heaven with the knowledge I follow a deity capable of inflicting such brutal misery. As a father of young children myself, I simply can’t imagine finding any point of commonality with a divine father-figure who is comfortable with abandoning his very own offspring to such a horrific fate. I refuse to acknowledge a God who is in all respects a greater villain than even Satan himself. After all, Satan is merely responsible for working within this spiritual system to lead folks astray. God is the creator of the entire system in the first place!
Whenever the problem of evil in apologetics comes up, the question is usually phrased as “why would a loving God permit evil to exist in the universe?” That’s a valid question, but it gets oh so much worse when the question really ends up being “why would a loving God permit most of the people who ever lived to spend eternity suffering unimaginably in a raging inferno located in outer darkness while a very select few get to whoop it up in paradise?” In any instance a Christian apologist attempts to stumble over some sort of explanation for that problem which doesn’t result in God looking like a despicable brute, I’m usually siding with the atheist at that point.
Thankfully, It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way
The crazy thing about the doctrine of eternal torment is…get this folks…it wasn’t even the predominant theology of the early church! What the what?! How can you have an early church thriving and expanding in the midst of persecution and social stigma without the powerful evangelistic engine of preaching that only the “saved” will be brought explicitly into loving unity with God?
Hmm. Maybe the church grew and expanded because that wasn’t the majority teaching prior to the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Just a thought.
I’m out of time in this article to delve into the nitty-gritty of such a bold claim, but I highly encourage you to pick up Keith Giles’ excellent resource Jesus Undefeated. In his book, Giles evaluates the historical as well as scriptural merits of the three major views of the afterlife in Christian tradition: eternal conscious torment (ECT), annihilation, and universal salvation. Obviously, he makes a compelling argument for the latter. I particularly appreciated the wealth of quotes from the first few hundred years of Christian thought on the subject which most of us raised-Protestant types might be shocked to read about. Here’s just one of many such excerpts from a follower of Origen of Alexandria:
In the liberation of all no one remains a captive! At the time of the Lord’s passion the devil alone was injured by losing all of the captives he was keeping.
–Didymus (370 AD)
In other words, when Jesus defeated the devil, he did so by emptying hell of all its prisoners! Take that, ECT!
So, my dear readers, could it be that maybe, just maybe, the idea that God damns all unrepentant sinners to an eternity of hellfire grew in popularity in the Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire because it was fairly useful tool for the church to wield its power and authority over the unwashed masses? Which begs the question: who stands to gain from such religious power and authority today?
Personally, I’m ready to leave ECT in the dustheap of history where it belongs. It damages people, it damages effective Christ-centered spiritual formation, and—perhaps most importantly—it damages our view of a loving Father who leaves the one sheep behind to find the ninety-nine who wandered astray and compels us to pray for our enemies and lay down our lives for those who don’t deserve it.
But what about the downstream effects of walking away from ECT? What about Satan? What about spiritual warfare? What about the “end times” and the apocalypse and the age to come?
All in good time, my friends. All in good time.
Dial “H” for Heresy will be back next week. Subscribe to get notified when future installments are published!
The painting used in this article is “The Harrowing of Hell” by Hieronymus Bosch
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