Fire and brimstone...

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Friday morning, in my Theology of Evangelism class, we discussed the topics of conversion and pluralism. However, before getting into the meat of our readings for the week, our professor opened us up with a conversation about a very controversial topic: hell. As a precursor, he informed us that he'd never had such a discussion in that particular course before. We were guinea pigs. The conversation was framed around two components of the topic of hell: how does it exist and what is its function, and who populates it and what determines its population.

Our professor, Dr. Mark Teasdale, proposed six different, primary theories around the existence and function:

  1. Hell does not exist
  2. Hell does not exist, but a person can cease to exist
  3. Hell exists, but only on Earth
  4. Hell exists in the form of purgatory
  5. Hell exists alongside purgatory
  6. Hell exists in a literal sense, but purgatory does not exist

Pertaining to the second topic, with the professor's help, we discussed the following options for hell's  population:

  1. A person goes to hell because they lack something that would gain them access to heaven
  2. A person goes to hell because he or she possesses, professes, or claims the wrong thing
  3. A person goes to hell because they choose to, or because of ignorance of any other option
  4. A person goes to hell because God wills it in an arbitrary way
  5. A person goes to hell because he or she is born into it (when looking at "hell on earth")
  6. A person goes to hell because of hypocrisy (the example of the Pharisees)
    • Right belief
    • Right action
    • Wrong witness
  7. No one goes to hell, for it is impossible for anyone to do/be anything worthy of it

I don't intend to offer my personal ideas quite yet because they are still in an early stage of formation. One statement Dr. Teasdale made during the class, quoting another theologian, made a lot of sense to me: "If I put any stock into the validity of scripture, I have to believe that hell exists. I don't have to believe that there's anyone there."

In my world, God is big, loves deeply, pursues relationship with creation in an insatiable fashion, is relationally vulnerable, and meets people where they are at. I've read through Dante's Divine Comedy, thinking about both hell and purgatory. I've also read through the entire Left Behind series (I was young and impressionable... don't fault me, please). I've made my way through Rob Bell's Love Wins and read numerous articles on either the validity or the error of "universalism."

I was raised in a family and a culture that believes heaven and hell are the only two post-life possibilities. The two are permanent residences, and humans are given only one life in which to choose their fate—a choice that is dependent on one's personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as Yahweh's only son, the sole means of salvation, atonement for sin, and reconciliation to God. If, by the time a person reaches the end of his or her life, they have not made a deliberate profession, then their eternal fate is sealed. God rejects them and condemns them to an eternity of, at the best, separation from God, and at the worst, physical, spiritual, and emotional torment at the hands of God's enemies.

This brings me to two personal struggles that I've been wrestling with for some time now...

First, given my belief that God's relationship with creation, specifically with humankind, is one founded on choice, on God's choice to offer love and on a person's choice to either accept or reject that love, and given my own personal experience of Divine love, it is beyond me to believe that anyone, when faced with the reality of this love directly, could say no. But the choice has to be there. Otherwise, it is not a relationship based on love but rather on coercion.

Second, given the average lifespan of a human being and the limited array of experiences many of us have, I find it hard to believe that, not only are we given one shot, but also that God—the one who created us out of pure love and out of a desire (not need) for relationship—would be so willing to let us go, exiling us to a place of separation from Godself, and condemning us to torment for saying "no" to the relationship, the love, God offers.

Ted Peters, in Essentials of Christian Theology by William C. Placher, discusses his belief that salvation is indeed universal and hell is finite rather than infinite in the chapter on eschatology. Discussing love, he states, "It is intrinsic to the nature of love that it be complete and whole." Here's his logic, at least as I follow it: God is love; God creates out of love and for love; love is a choice; God's creation must choose; God creates heaven for those with whom God is in relationship...

Sidebar: life and our experience of it matters, meaning that we take the knowledge and memory of this life with us into the next, including the knowledge and memory of those whom we have known and loved...

Heaven exists; hell exists; the people in heaven are surrounded by and filled with love; these people know that hell exists; these people feel love for those who, by their absence in heaven, are presumed to be in hell; these people cannot experience the ecstatic nature of God and heaven because of their awareness of hell; God sees this and realizes that love has not yet fulfilled its culminating purpose; God brings those in hell into heaven, destroys hell, and makes all things whole.

For some, this theory strips humankind of the option of choice, of its own intrinsic agency, and as such, isn't really a feasible option. I'll admit I have my own problems with some pieces of Peters' theory, but for the most part, it makes sense to and resonates within me. The same goes for one of Rob Bell's proposals in Love Wins.

Bell, recounting the narrative of the New Jerusalem from Revelation 21, discusses the existence and purpose of the gates within the city. In v.25, we learn that "the gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there." (NRSV) What does this mean? The gates are always open, meaning that there is the option for going to and leaving the city. For me, this idea makes it easier for me to either deny the existence of hell or at least account for its being empty. Even at the end of all things, when God brings heaven to Earth, there is still the option of choice. People can come and go as they please.

The conversation about heaven, hell, and everything in between is not an easy one for most of us. Neither is it a short one. But to come to the shotgun conclusion that there's one life and it either leads one to cotton candy clouds and (boring) harp music or gnashing of teach and fire and brimstone is careless. If we say that God is love, then we have to wrestle with what that means not only for now but for the future. We're talking about eternity here, about human beings, our relationship with them, and their relationship with the Divine.

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photo credit: heyrocc (via Flickr)