There is indeed an anemic tendency in the church to minimize hell or do away with it. We often don’t know what to do with it. The roots of hell lie deep in Scripture, so we cannot simply do away with it, much as we’d like to. Hell is also rooted deeply in human experience. If, as Paul Griffiths defines it, hell “is that despairing condition in which separation from God seems to be final and unending,” then hell is real for many people, and real, probably, for all people some of the time. There are many people for whom hell is a daily reality, for whom a lack of faith is unavoidable and excruciatingly painful. Sometimes, major depression is hell, a prison with no apparent exit.
It’s perhaps too easy for comfortable, First World Christians to doubt the existence of hell: it’s not so easy for the poor, the hungry, the sick, the oppressed. As John R. Franke implies in his reflections, Matthew 25:31-46 is a key text in understanding hell: those sent into the eternal fire are those who ignored the plight of the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. Since God has taken the side of the oppressed and marginalized, when we do the opposite, are we not in danger of hell?
And, it it true that salvation loses its meaning and urgency if we aren’t saved from anything. If we are saved by the grace of God, through faith, through a trusting relationship with God through Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit, then there must be the possibility of rejecting that relationship, of turning away from God instead of to God. That turning away is hell.
There is much to reflect on about hell in C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle. At one point at the end of the world of Narnia, the Narnians are all moving toward Aslan (the Christ-figure of Narnia). As I remember it, if they approach Aslan with love and joy, they keep on coming into Paradise. If they turn away from Aslan in fear and loathing, they run off and are seen no more. It seems that we need the possibility of hell if faith is to be a genuine, uncoerced friendship with God.
One of the best reflections was a quote from William Stringfellow (quoted by editor John Buchanan): Jesus “descended into Hell. That is very cheerful news... There is nothing that I have known this side of Hell that is unfamiliar to Him. There is nothing known to me which I am wont to call Hell which He has not already known. Nor is there anything beyond these realms which, even though unknown to me, He does not know.” Jesus has descended into hell. There is no part of God’s creation, including hell, where the Savior has not been. When you are in the depths of despair, know that you are not alone: Christ has been there too, and God is with you there too. As Christ suffered death and hell, God suffered too. You are not alone in the depths. You are not abandoned. Your hope may be restored.
Yet, as theologian Robert Jenson once noted (in a class I attended), there is also a certain logic of Christian theology that tends toward universal salvation – even St. Paul concluded about his fellow Jews, “And so all Israel will be saved...” (Romans 11:26). There is a logic of salvation that is ever expansive. Paul shares the “hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). The Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Christ effects the salvation of not just those human souls who explicitly believe in Christ. God’s salvation is cosmic.
In the Christian Century, Martin Marty was perhaps the clearest about this. Those who relish the reality and everlasting nature of hell perhaps too much (for others, at least) also need to be aware of what they are affirming. Is God a cosmic torturer, punishing non-Christians with never ending water torture (euphemistically called ‘waterboarding,’ as if it were somehow anything other than drowning someone to the point of death over and over again), fire torture, beatings, and flaying alive for ever and ever? Is God the keeper of a cosmic, everlasting Abu Ghraib prison for billions of people? If Christ returned today, would 4 billion + people really get a one way ticket to everlasting torture, as many, more conservative Christians often believe? What does that say about God? I know: God is just as well as loving. But does that penalty actually fit the ‘crime’? Will the screams of torment in hell really make the joys of Heaven more sweet? Could you enjoy Paradise with God knowing that most people created in God’s image are in everlasting agony? Could God? Of course, hell is not understood by any of the theologians in the Christian Century in this tortured and torturing way – as it was described to me as a “Trailblazer Boy” at Bible camp.
A related question arises: Is there a part of God’s creation that will be eternally unredeemed? Does the possibility of reconciliation with God end with death? As Jurgen Moltmann noted, we must believe in hell, but it is not necessary to believe either that anyone is there now, or that anyone will be there forever. Will God ever give up on any of God’s creatures? Was it not 3rd century theologian Origen’s belief (hope?) that in the end even the devil – a fallen angel – will be saved? I think it was the rap singer Agape who once asked, “Would you be disappointed if everyone made it into Heaven?”
At least one of the theologians – Alyssa Pitstick – seems to have a clear “if-then,” conditional theology of salvation; as in, “if you have enough faith, keep God’s commandments, and desire Christ’s return, then you will be saved.” The problem with that perspective is that it does not comfort terrified consciences, and it puts the work of salvation on our shoulders. In her defense, Dr. Pitstick does include a quiet “by his grace” after the “if,” but it is more accurate to have a “because-therefore” theology of salvation: Because God so loves you, and because Jesus died for you, and because God raised him from the death, and because God’s Holy Spirit has been given to you in your baptism, therefore you have the gift of faith, the gift of a relationship with God, the gift of eternal life, even if you feel as if you do not believe, or obey, or desire Christ’s return enough. It is gift, all gift.
The reflections in the Christian Century end with a beautiful piece by Amy Laura Hall, who asks, “What if one of God’s own beloved may be so violated as to vitiate her own capacity to opt for God? What if the grinding prism of violence comes so to bear on a body as to render the mind incapable of receiving grace?” We indeed have a Savior who has suffered everything we have suffered, including being forsaken by God. We have a Lord who understands our struggles, our doubts, our inabilities to trust or believe. We have a God whose grace is bigger than all the evil that has been done to the hearts, minds, and bodies of God’s children. We have a Savior who will one day heal even the deepest pains and comfort all grieving, troubled hearts. Can anything separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord forever? No thing can.