I’ve had the urge to write this post because recently I have been at gatherings with pastors and seminarians where the topic of hell was raised (mainly due to the recent lectionary texts that mention it). In every one of these gatherings, there was a small contingent of people who gave a little dismissive smirk, nod, and wink when hell was mentioned-as if to say that’s a cute antiquated piece of Christianity that we shouldn’t believe in anymore.
I get it. Hell has fallen out of favor in theology for several good reasons. First, American Christianity has often focused too much on hell and therefore the pendulum has swung the way of outright rejecting it. Second, hell has been interpreted through the lens of medieval Christianity and that lens is now out of focus. Third, hell is hard to reconcile with a truly gracious God.
I get why people don’t believe in hell especially in Lutheran circles; it doesn’t fit into their understanding of how God works.
But, I just can’t dismiss it. Jesus talks about hell too much for me not to take it seriously.
So here is what I believe about hell.
Hell is separation from God. When Jesus talks about separation from God he uses imagery of fire, outer darkness, and gnashing of teeth. These metaphors are used to show that hell is not a pleasant place.
People choose to be separated from God (Lutherans, get over the “choose” language here). There are people here and now who are separated from God. The way a person is on earth is not going to change much when they die. If a person is mean, filled with rage, racist, bigoted, hungry for opportunity to misuse power, or turned in on ourselves, they will pretty much stay that way when they die. If one lives their whole life rejecting God, I believe when the resurrection happens they will reject God to God’s “face” and God will give them what they want (read The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis to see why this is a bad thing).
I believe that hell starts now as a state of being. I believe this because I know many people living in a hell of their own making. The really unfair part of this is that people’s personal hell spills over into others’ lives. Here and now, not only do we make hell for ourselves, but the personal hell we live in affects others. The civil war in El Salvador was hell on earth. The genocide in Rwanda was hell. These events were made by people vying for power and it caused hell for countless other people.
But on a personal and less grander scale, I know people who are divorcing, and it is hell. I know people caught in addiction, and it is hell. I know people who are choosing to be turned inward on themselves who are not connected to God and they are living in hell.
Hell is also a state of being after one is dead. Either a person is cut off by God forever ceasing to exist or they stay forever in eternal separation; I am not sure what happens. Either way it’s not a place where one wants to be.
I hope that I am wrong on this. I hope that people will change when faced with the light of God at the consummation of all things. I just don’t think they will. I believe that hell will not be empty because I see people living in it with their lives here and now.
Let me clarify something: I am not saying that I know who is going to heaven or hell; only God makes that choice. What I am saying is that I think God will ultimately let people choose isolation apart from Him and this is hell.
Ultimately, I believe that there is communion and non-communion with God now and forever.
What are your thoughts on hell?