If I was going to rank the topics that make me cringe internally, Hell is definitely way up there on the list.
In an effort to reconcile this topic with my faith in a loving God, I’ve done a good deal of reading on the topic. From Love Wins by Rob Bell to Erasing Hell by Francis Chan to The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis to a more recent entry like Four Views on Hell (which was recently updated), there is a ton of material on this topic.
But no matter how much reading and thinking I do about the subject, there’s still an overall revulsion to the the whole idea that I can’t wash away no matter how much processing I do. The idea that some people will suffer in a place of fire and agony for eternity almost makes me nauseous. I don’t want that for my worst enemy.
I have two choices: get on board with the reality of a place of eternal torment or ignore the whole thing as best I can. I’m not the kind to ignore stuff, and I can’t get happy about the first option. So here are some perspectives I apply to the concept of Hell as I try to put it into proper perspective in my life of faith:
God Is Smarter Than I Am
In The Great Divorce, author C.S. Lewis posits an idea; that everyone in hell can leave anytime they want, but the vast majority choose not to. I highly recommend the book, but essentially, Hell is a place of separation from God and those who have chosen it have no interest in getting closer to God. They live in a dreary wasteland of perpetual isolation. There’s a bus that runs between Hell and Heaven, but even those who board the bus almost always return to Hell. If you’re interested in why, you should totally read the book.
Here’s my takeaway: not that C.S. Lewis is correct about how Heaven and Hell work, but rather, if a human can come up with a plausible idea of how everyone in Hell wants to be there, it gives me hope that God’s solution comes from an angle I can’t even begin to understand.
God is way, way, way smarter than I am. Just because I see a two-sided problem doesn’t mean that God doesn’t see 100 different options I can’t even consider.
Lewis’s idea, to me, is very different from concepts like “annihilationism,” which I find to be a slightly less terrible concept than eternal suffering. If we’re trying to take the edge off the rough parts of God, I tend to think we’re way off base. God doesn’t need PR spin. He also isn’t going to play by whatever rule book we try to impose on the afterlife.
God Is Different Than I Am
Remember the Scripture about a thousand years being a day and a day being a thousand years? I think that’s a poetic way of expressing this idea of God’s being outside time. The deal with God being from everlasting to everlasting, again, I think it points to God being outside of time. He existed before our time and after it, simultaneously.
Think of it like this: In some sense, God is right now at the creation of the world, God is right now at the crucifixion of Jesus, God is right now at your birth, God is right now with you as you read this, God is right now at your death and God is right now at the end of this age. For God, it’s all the same infinitesimal moment.
When God performed the act of creation, it was all the same thing. The very act of creation involved the earthly life of Jesus. The pain of that sacrifice was part of creation.
So even if we talk about an eternity in Hell, I have no idea what that actually means. We can’t understand non-linear existence. For me yesterday is past and tomorrow is future. I have no clue what eternity actually means outside the realm of time. Spending eternity in Hell may not be what I think, just like sitting around playing harps all day is a ridiculous view of Heaven.
God Is More Loving Than I Am
When I “know everything completely,” including the nature and reality of Hell, I believe that I’m going to respond by saying, “God, you’re so merciful and generous and loving! I can’t believe how great you are! I thought hell was this terrible thing, but now I see it’s all part of your love and generosity!”
As I already said, I don’t know exactly what the nature and reality of Hell actually is, but God isn’t a mean kid on an anthill with a magnifying glass. So whatever God is doing with the afterlife, it’s loving, not hateful.
I’m not saying that “God is loving, so a hell of eternal suffering is impossible.” I’m saying that I don’t fully understand, but whatever God is doing, when we get the full picture, we’re going to see that it’s always been loving and we’re going to worship God all the more, not pull back from fear or sadness.
Pastor Timothy Keller has famously said that “If we knew what God knows, we would ask exactly for what he gives.”
This is where I place my faith. God is loving and good and generous. When I think I see an area where God is none of these things, it’s because I don’t have the full picture.
I wish I had a more satisfying answer than, ‘have faith,’ but come on. That’s the life followers of Jesus have signed up for. Trusting God when we don’t understand. However, we don’t need to pretend that hell doesn’t exist or that we’re sure of what it looks like and we’re totally fine with it.
We can say, “I’m not sure, but I know God is loving and my job is to share the good new of Jesus about having an abundant life starting here and now.”