Is Hell For Real?
Rev. Robert Short
Since about the fifth century A.D., Western Christianity has more or less officially held that all eternity is divided into two parts--smoking and nonsmoking. Or "hell and heaven," to use traditional language.
But along with this more official view, there has always existed a minority report which says that eventually all people will go to heaven and will be part of God's nonsmoking family forever. This view that all people will ultimately be "saved" is usually referred to as "universal salvation" or--when it is held by people who also believe in the divinity of Christ--"Christian universalism." In the early church, such notables as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Gregory of Nyssa were Christian universalists. As a matter of fact, by the fourth century A.D. there were six distinctive theological training centers or "schools" existing in the Christian world. Four of these six schools taught Christian universalism. So at this time, at least, the "minority report" was actually the majority.
But we all know the story. The smoking/nonsmoking view has finally settled in as "traditional" Christian teaching of both the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. (The Eastern Orthodox churches have never considered this question closed and have always maintained a strong tradition of Christian universalism).
It is urgently and critically important that the Christian churches reexamine this entire issue. I know it sounds strange to place such a "this world" significance on such an "otherworldly" question, but I am convinced that the whole question of the nature of our ultimate destiny is the most important single question now facing the churches if they are to minister faithfully and successfully to humankind. I agree with Wilhelm Dilthey, who said, "The thing that more than anything else profoundly determines the way we feel about life is the way life is related to death." And I agree with Karl Barth when he wrote: "Eschatology,"--that is, our view of the afterlife--"rightly understood, is the most practical thing that can be thought." So what are the arguments for the nonexistence of hell and why is this issue so crucially important for the actual success or failure of all human history?
At first glance the New Testament would seem to support both sides of the question. But those peculiar Christians who take great joy in hell's existence usually overlook the New Testament's many doom-busting verses such as John 1:29 and 12:32-33; Acts 3:21; Romans 5:18 and 11:32-36; 1 Corinthians 15:28 and 2 Corinthians 5:19; Ephesians 1:10; Colossians 1:20; 1 Timothy 2:1-6, and many similar passages. Partisans of a literal hell usually use a double standard when interpreting Scripture: They give a literal interpretation to Scripture when it mentions hell, but either ignore or give non-literal interpretations to the many passages that would seem to deny hell's existence.
Furthermore, when we look at Scripture more carefully and examine the passages that mention hell, we see that most of them can be understood as referring to the internal combustion that rages inside us in this lifetime, to the extent that God does not live inside us in this lifetime. Just as the "kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:21), so also is the Kingdom of hell. In about 80 percent of the cases, the Bible is not talking about a literal hell, but a living hell.
The entire New Testament assumes that everyone has a god or a master or a center to his or her life, some one thing that a person "worships," or trusts, without questioning. It also assumes that no person starts out in life serving the true God. This is what is meant by "original sin": No one starts out--or "originates"--in life believing in the only true God or master of center of life. Originally, at the center of our lives, there is not the true God but only a false god, a wretched little god that, whatever it might be, is not capable of fulfilling our hearts.
The false gods we all originally serve are put together with cellophane tape, and we know it. Our conscious awareness that they are only taped together can go from vague to painfully vivid. But to one degree or another we are all aware that these taped-up idols can come unstuck at any time. And this tends to make us anxious. And unhappy. And full of hate. In any case this situation, which exists from the very day of our birth, puts all of us under considerable strain.
Now here is something else: Whenever one of our taped-up gods does become completely unstuck, this is an entirely new experience for us, and is generally what the New Testament means by the "the hell of fire."
This experience is new because now, for the first time in our lives, we have absolutely nothing we can trust or depend on or believe in or hang on to. Previously we have always had at least some one thing, some little taped-up god, we could finally fall back on. Now there is nothing.
This experience is "hell" for the same reason. The New Testament descriptions of "hell" are actually apt and accurate, for the inward experience of losing one's god is seemingly bottomless, endless, and escapeproof. When our taped-up god becomes unstuck, our heart comes unstuck with it. Therefore, the place of hell is actually like the ball that is so difficult for batters to hit: It is "low and inside." It's tightly locked up inside us so that it makes for the worst of all possible prisons: Instead of being in "hell," the hell is in us.
On the other hand, there are those Scripture verses which seem to take seriously at least the possibility of an actual hell on the other side of death. Why do they do this? At the time of Christ, most of the Jews lived under the religion of "the law." The law said, in effect, "Unless you obey God's commands, God will punish you in hell." And, of course, this is the way many Christians still understand the matter. But Christ fulfilled the law (Matt. 5:17). That is, he not only perfectly obeyed the law for all of us, something we could never do, but for all of us he also took upon himself the punishment of hell, a punishment each of us has coming according to the law. But now, if we believe in Christ (which means to obey him), we will have the joyful inward assurance of "the forgiveness of sins"--not just the forgiveness of believers' sins, but also God's forgiveness of all sins. In this way, then, the New Testament contrasts "the gospel" with "the law." And thus the grim seriousness, with which the New Testament frequently pushes the threats of the law and hell, is not there to force us into once more becoming enslaved by the law, a fearful bondage from which Christ would free us; but it is there to sharpen and intensify the contrast between the grim news of the law and the good news of the gospel. In this way the New Testament helps us to better understand and appreciate and believe the gospel.
So much for isolated passages of Scripture. But what about the teachings of the Bible as a whole? What about Christian doctrine? Almost everyone agrees that there are two attributes of God that are obviously and incontestably affirmed throughout Scripture: God is all-loving and all-powerful. But the existence of a literal hell logically denies either one or the other of these attributes. Either an all-powerful God can save all people, but will not, in which case God is not all-loving; or else an all-loving God wants to save all people, but cannot, in which case God is not all-powerful.
In the past both Roman Catholic and modern Protestant theology have tried to sidestep this difficulty by attributing to people a possession which the Bible attributes only to God--"free will." According to this view, God in his infinite love hands over to people a portion of his infinite power, so that he must then helplessly stand aside (poor feeble old dear!) while he sorrowfully watches these creatures, which he himself has made, freely damn themselves to hell forever. It is, of course, extremely illogical to say that any creature would freely and therefore knowingly damn itself to an eternity of real suffering. But in addition to the obvious illogic of such a view, it is also patently unbiblical and clearly stands in direct contradiction to the central teaching of all classical Protestantism and the teachings of many Roman Catholic theologians. If the Protestant Reformers did nothing else, they consistently underscored the Bible's own view that our salvation "depends not upon man's will or exertion, but upon God's mercy," for it is finally God himself who "has mercy upon whomever he wills, and he hardens the heart of whomever he wills" (Romans 9:16, 18).
There are in fact so many strong biblical, doctrinal, and logical arguments against the existence of a literal hell that this question naturally arises: Why do the churches teach it and why do people often believe it? The reasons are basically simple. In the case of the churches it is their faithless fear of giving up "the gospel at gunpoint." The churches tend to believe, consciously or unconsciously, that fear--rather than love--conquers all. In the case of individual believers, it is the attractive way hell divides everyone into smokers or nonsmokers. All of us nonsmokers like to have someone around that we can sneer at down our self-righteous noses. But if God were finally to let all people into heaven, and none of us were to get there except solely through God's own power and love--in other words, through God's "grace"--then we'd finally have no basis for looking down our noses at anyone.
But the most powerful argument against the existence of a literal hell is the argument which also shows us how crucially important this issue is for all history. For Christ has told us that we can know a thing by its fruits (Matt. 7:16, 20). This of course means we can also test the validity of the churches' teachings in this way. And by this time in history it has become painfully apparent that the "Christian" doctrine which had yielded the most poisonous fruits is the teaching of a literal hell. For not only can it proven that this doctrine has produced cruel, self-righteous "Christians" throughout Western history, Christians who have felt justified in hating and even killing since it can be argued that any action is justified if it saves more people from hell, but a literal hell's more modern and even deadlier fruit has been atheism.
The single most important cause for the Western World's great defection from Christ has been the church's teaching of a literal hell. For if we examine the last three centuries of Western history, we can see very clearly how the central atheistic figures of this period were turned away from Christianity basically because of the teaching of hell. And by now we can also see far more clearly the nihilistic and catastrophic results of this atheism. For example, from people like Nietzche and Wagner we have seen the fruits of Hitler and the entire Nazi period. And what was the teaching of Christianity that turned Protestant Nietzche and Catholic Wagner against Christianity? A literal hell.
From people like Feuerbach, Marx, and Lenin, we have seen the fruits of people like Stalin and Mao and the misery of Communism throughout the world. And what was the "Christian" teaching which more than any other caused Feuerbach, Marx and Lenin to see Christianity as an "opiate"? The fact that Christians preoccupied with getting to heaven and avoiding hell were willing to turn their backs on the body politic and let it go to here-and-now hell--the only real hell there is. And why did Freud debunk religion in general and Christianity in particular as "illusion"? Again, it's a matter of historical record. Freud had a Christian governess who terrified him with threats of hellfire when he was barely old enough to talk. Therefore Freud couldn't wait to fashion an interpretation of human life that would completely eliminate the need for religion and its terrifying denials of the human body.
These are a few of the reasons why I assert that the present number-one priority of the churches is to reexamine seriously this entire question and come to a new and more carefully considered conclusion about it. Only if the teaching of hell were true would the churches be justified in retaining it. And a growing number of theologians--both Catholic and Protestant--are now saying it is not true. If it is not true, then the churches have no time to lose in loudly and clearly saying this to the world. For in the meantime the teaching of a literal hell continues constantly and rapidly to produce its two greatest by-products--by-products which in turn reinforce each other: the cruelty and narrowness of self-righteous "Christians" and the desperate nihilistic hopelessness of atheism. It is monstrously ironic that the teaching of a hell to come later is the greatest single cause of a hell on earth now. When will we ever understand that God is still in charge of his world and that his love is much larger than we can scarcely believe it to be?
(This article is reprinted with permission from U.S. Catholic published by Claretian Publications, 205 Monroe Street, Chicago, Illinois 60606, 800-328-6515)