We don’t think about hell enough! And that is damaging our understanding of humanity and Christianity. That’s the challenge that I encountered last week, and now it’s Advent Sunday, which is traditionally a time of preparation for Christmas, with a focus on the Four Last Things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell.
Writing in the Guardian last week, Meghan O’Gieblyn, talks about changing approaches to hell by Christians. She talks about growing up in a conservative church where hell was a significant part of the faith. She also notes how this emphasis on hell was relegated to the very occasional mention by pastors who wanted to “sell” Christianity to people. She is very critical of Rob Bell’s Love Wins, which she argues is about rebranding not rethinking.
O’Gieblyn also talks about how Bill Hybels at the megachurch Willow Creek conducted market research and focused on positives aspects and heaven and avoided any mention of the alternative. But, after the terrible events of 11th September 2001, Hybels was moved to talk about evil: the evil in the world and also the capacity for evil that we all have. O’Gieblyn comments positively:
In speaking about his own capacity for revenge and hatred, he had opened up a possibility, a way of talking about evil that felt relevant and transformative. It wasn’t fire and brimstone; it wasn’t condemning the sinner as some degenerate Other. Rather, he was challenging his congregation to exercise empathy in a way that Jesus might have, suggesting that he among us without sin should cast the first stone.
O’Gieblyn also talks about how the problem of people suffering in hell unsettled and disturbed her enough to become a “former believer”, although one who hasn’t “totally shake[n] it [off].” I think that shows the problem with the simplistic, binary judgment that her tradition talked about, where the emphasis is on “praying the beliver’s prayer”, as if it were the secret password to an otherwise locked door. But, in a rather overlooked part of the letter to the Romans, Paul writes (Romans 2:14f):
when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.
This seems to imply that if people act according to their consciences they will be positively judged by God. In other words, there will be surprises about who is in heaven! The converse of that is given by Jesus in his parable of the sheep and the goats, which seems to imply that they may very well be surprises about who isn’t in heaven…
C S Lewis tackled the problem of hell in his book The Great Divorce by emphasising free will and allowing people to choose, even after death:
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell.
His concept of hell saw it as a sort of purgatory: people could choose to move from the hell of separation from God to the heaven of God’s love. I think this goes beyond what the Bible says on the subject, which rather talks about a last judgement when those choices are made. But, Lewis thought that not everyone would choose (whenever and whatever that choice looks like), that there would be people who would not want to pay the price of giving up their autonomy. But, that would be their own choice. “A dungeon of their own mind”, as he describes it.
However, O’Gieblyn also finishes with a more positive discussion of why actually talking about hell is important:
Part of what made church such a powerful experience for me as a child and a young adult was that it was the one place where my own faults and failings were recognised and accepted, where people referred to themselves affectionately as “sinners”, where it was taken as a given that the person standing in the pews beside you was morally fallible, but still you held hands and lifted your voice with hers as you worshipped in song. This camaraderie came from a collective understanding of evil – a belief that each person harboured within them a potential for sin and deserved, despite it, divine grace.
Acknowledging the reality of sin as damaging and destructive is important. Acknowledging the reality that we are sinners moves us away from simply trying to claim a status as ‘victim’. Acknowledging that there is the real potential for divine judgement moves us away from seeking retribution. All of this should move us towards repentance and seeking, again, God’s love and loving help.