To Burn or Not To Burn: How the Hell am I supposed to Answer That?

When people find out I’m a Christian, I can sometimes see this internal debate play out across their face.

Shit. She thinks I’m going to Hell. ABORT CONVERSATION!
Hang on. Am I going to Hell? Should I be worried about that?
Duh, No.
Uh oh, she’s still talking. What did she just say? FOCUS!

Usually they don’t dare to ask me what I think… and honestly, when they do, a similar conversation plays out in my head.

Oh, God, how the Hell am I supposed to answer that?
Am I a bad person if I believe in Hell?
Am I a bad Christian if I don’t?
And what kind of almost-pastor doesn’t have this figured out anyways?
Oh, shoot, now he’s staring at me funny…

There is hardly anything more polarizing (and paralyzing!) to talk about than Hell.  Some of us are afraid to talk about it at all, lest we come across as scary and judgmental. Others of us are afraid not to talk about it, for the worry that if we don’t understand it we might do the wrong thing and end up there, or for the more compassionate worry that if we don’t warn others, we condemn them to a fiery fate.

The classical options are pretty sparse. The prevailing conversation would have us believe that there are two choices. We can either a) Believe that Hell exists, and that anyone who has done (FILL IN SIN HERE) or doesn’t believe  (FILL IN BELIEF SYSTEM HERE) is going there to suffer eternally. Or b) think that this-stuff-is-too-scary-to-talk-about-and-probably-doesn’t-even-exist-because-God-loves-us or… something like that.

Frankly, I’m not satisfied with those options. The scripture on Hell is rich, diverse, and sometimes pretty weird, but definitely and undeniably there. But I do believe in a God of love, grace and forgiveness who desires true well-being for all of creation.

Honestly I have more questions than answers about Hell, but I’m going to stick a stake in the ground here, and share three beliefs that I’m willing to hang my life on.

1). We don’t know who goes there.

There are all kinds of ideas in scripture about who goes to Hell: “the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars” (Rev. 21:8), those who don’t serve their hungry, thirsty, naked, sick or imprisoned neighbors, (Matt 25), and anyone whose names are not “written in the book of life,” whatever that means. (Rev. 20:15).

I know that I fall into some of those categories (I’m not a murderer, right? Unless I believe what Jesus says in Matt 5:21…), and yet I believe with all my heart that with grace I have been saved through faith, and that in his death Christ has triumphed over my death (Eph. 2:8-9.) The appropriate response to that grace is gratitude—not to turn around and start judging others. I don’t know who’s going to Hell, and it’s not my job to find out. If God can save me from that death-dealing list of sins, then God can save everyone—and I pray that God will.

2). We don’t have to look far to find it.

Have you ever had a “hellish day at work?” Ever watched the news and thought that a war zone or scene of a terrorism attack or an impoverished neighborhood looks like Hell itself? Ever felt so trapped by anger or shame or sadness that your life feels like a living Hell?

Guess what? You were right. I believe that we can find doses of Hell anywhere that sin and death are winning. War zones. Broken relationships.  Cancer. Cruelty. Unless we can hear God’s promises in those places, they truly are Hell.

The Good News is that we also experience heaven on earth—and I’m not talking about my mom’s chocolate cake. Whenever God’s promises of forgiveness, healing, and holy presence are named, claimed, and lived, wherever we acknowledge God’s reign, we are experiencing a slice of the new world that God is creating. In the face of living Hell, God is already here, promising true life—and it’s our job to keep pointing those promises out to each other.

3). In the end, God wins.

Hell is scary, and rightly so. We feel its power every time we hear the oh-so-believable lies that we don’t have enough or aren’t good enough. But God has given us tools to fight that enemy. We have the scriptures, which reiterate God’s promises over and over again. We have the sacraments of baptism and communion, in which we experience those promises in our bodies. And we have each other, and the opportunity to preach the Good News to each other every time we gather.  Martin Luther said that these reminders allow us to look Hell right in the face and say that “Christ’s life overcame my death in his death,… that his love destroyed my Hell in his forsakenness.”

So be not afraid. In the end, even death will die. And that is Good, Good News.

What do you think about Hell? Have you found a fruitful way to answer those ‘hellish’ questions?


11 comments on “To Burn or Not To Burn: How the Hell am I supposed to Answer That?

  1. I have all these same questions. Thank you for thinking and writing about Hell. And giving us an encouraging message. (You can use this as a sermon. It’s very good. ) so many pastors avoid the subject.

    • Thanks, Myra! I’ve been calling this the ‘scary hell post’ as I’ve been getting ready to post it. It’s truly hard to talk about!

  2. So one book that has shaped my thinking on hell a lot is The Great Divorce by CS Lewis. His concept is that hell is the state of choosing to live from one’s own self-deceptions as opposed to living from what is real (which, he argues, is God and God’s love). “Hell is a state of mind – ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind – is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly. For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakeable remains.”

    This gets a little personal, but oh well. When I was struggling the very most with scrupulosity, it felt to me as though I was in hell, because I was operating within a world where nothing was real and solid–it was all fear all the time. I think, in a sense, I was in hell. Finding grace and coming into the light of Christ saved me in a very real, tangible way that has born real fruit in my life. It gave me something solid to stand on. It wasn’t about accepting specific doctrines like the Trinity or anything like that, but just knowing and experiencing that I was loved.

    I don’t think there are any hells except those of our own making, and I have hope that God will work grace and redeem all creation with love, but I do believe that hell is real.

    • Katie, I’m so appreciative of your ‘getting personal!’ Your story is so important to hear, especially when we’re swimming in the liberal-don’t-think-about-hell culture. This stuff really does matter to people; it has a big impact on their spiritual lives. We HAVE to be ready to think and talk about the Good News part of the picture!

  3. I agree pretty much with what Bethany and Katie said. Hell is existence without God, and the existence of free will suggests to me that such an existence is a choice we can make. It might be temporary — those who hate, for example, are living in a type of hell. Or it might be something in the eternities — but even then, I believe, God is ready to redeem those who wish to be redeemed. Or to put it the way that C.S. Lewis did (there he is again), the gates of hell are locked from the inside.

    I find repugnant the idea that God, as some believe, would consign people to hell because they didn’t have the right religion or made mistakes in their theology.

    • I’m thinking about how people come back from heaven and tell us that it’s real but we never hear about anyone coming back from hell as a place to tell us it is real. Although people do emerge from hell in this life. But Jesus told about Lazarus who wanted to come back from hell to warn others but he wasn’t allowed to.

      • Oooh, good thought! To take your ‘this life’ part of it further: hasn’t EVERY CHRISTIAN emerged from Hell? We all have stories to tell about it! That’s what happens at baptism, right?

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Eric. I’m troubled by the same thought. I wish that someone had let ME write the Bible so that I could make it REALLY OBVIOUS what I think God’s up to! Unfortunately, the scripture is so ambiguous. The belief that you and I share (that a God of grace isn’t interested in consigning people to hell) is one that we’ll have to take on faith. Of course, I take A LOT of important things on faith, and I’m very willing to take this one, too.

  4. Yes, the idea that God consigns people to hell for having the wrong theology does not seem remotely right to me.

  5. I had a Bible study where this question came up. My Pastor at the time pointed out that there are a lot of uncertainties about what heaven and/or hell is, but something that most everyone can agree on that heaven is being with God and hell is being separated from God. Jesus has promised us that “when two or more are gathered in his name” God is with us. So yes, we can experience heaven here on earth. God will always love us and invite us to come to him, but if one actively rejects the Holy Spirit, we can separate our selves from his love. So yes, we can also experience hell here on earth.

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