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?
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?