Sharon L. Baker, Associate Professor of Theology and Religion, Messiah College
The Problem with Hell
When I was 26, I found out I was going to hell. Young, impressionable, and without a strong faith, I listened intently as the pastor of a church I was visiting described in graphic detail the tortuous, unquenchable flames that would burn human bodies forever and ever. He spoke of worms eating away at decaying flesh, total darkness without the presence of God, and worst of all, no release from those horrors for all eternity. I certainly didn't want to be one of those unfortunate many to feel the flames licking at my feet soon after leaving life in this world. So I took out the proper fire insurance and asked Jesus to save me from my sins and, therefore, from eternal torment in hell. Whew! That was 25 years ago, and hell is still a hot topic.
Hell haunts me deep down inside, where I fear to tread and fail to admit uncertainty lest ripples of doubt disturb my secure little world of faith, lest someone find out and think me less Christian and more heretic. I have no intention of doing away with hell. I can't -- certain verses in the Bible won't allow me to do that. So I am very concerned about remaining faithful to the Christian scriptures; but I'm even more concerned about remaining faithful to the God of love, who loves the worst of the worst, the world's enemies, including, even, the Hitlers, the Idi Amins, and the Osama bin Ladens of the world. Our traditional views of hell as a place of eternal punishment where unbelievers dwell in undying flames contradict the image of God as merciful, forgiving, and compassionate. Our traditional focus on hell as an evangelistic tool does not genuinely communicate the very heart of the gospel. If we receive Jesus as Savior merely because we want to avoid hell, we miss the entire point.
I am also very disturbed by the behavior of those who claim kinship with God through Jesus, who for centuries have instigated and participated in horrendous violence in the name of God. To stem the tide of religious violence in the world, we must offer an alternative image of God that more closely resembles the teachings and life of Jesus of Nazareth. If we do not hear the call of the kingdom, if we forget the meaning of Jesus' life and death, then we will continue to live as if Jesus never died. We will continue to solve the problem of violence violently, including our buying into the violence of hell.
So I've written a book that rethinks the issues surrounding traditional notions of hell as a place of eternal punishment in favor of a view more consistent with that of a loving God. What follows are my reasons for wanting to raze hell:
- Hell doesn't avenge evil or reveal God's power. It does the exact opposite! By holding on to the doctrine of eternal hell, we in essence hold to the belief that in the end God's will to save all people goes unfulfilled, which puts God's power and goodness in doubt.
- Hell heralds eternal hopelessness. Suffering in hell for all eternity means that souls burning there forever will exist without any hope of redemption. This leads us to the belief that God withdraws unconditional love once a person's body dies. In other words, God's love for us is tied to the physical body and the temporal realm, and grace disappears for unbelievers after the physical life is gone.
- Hell keeps evil in eternal existence. The Bible tells us that, in the end, God will abolish evil. Yet, somewhere in the universal expanse of God's perfect peaceful kingdom, evil still survives in those who inhabit hell -- evil "lives" on eternally.
- Hell creates a clash between justice and love. We unintentionally conjure up a cruel father who demands that unrepentant sinners spend eternity in the flames of hell, finding endless torture an agreeable way to achieve justice -- which is a far cry from the God who loves with an everlasting love. We develop a picture of a God who promotes eternal punishment as positive, as part and parcel of divine love and justice. We try to relieve these tensions by appealing to God's love and mercy on the one hand, and to God's justice and wrath on the other. Such a view of God's love, mercy, justice, and wrath leads to the conclusion that to love is to punish eternally and, therefore, to punish eternally is just.
- Hell assigns eternal violence to God: Traditional theories of hell not only keep evil in eternal existence; they also keep the cycle of violence in motion for all eternity as unfortunate souls suffer the ferocity of eternal torture because God requires it.
- Hell executes eternal punishment for temporal sin: Does sin committed during one short, temporary life span deserve an eternity of punishment? Even in our own society, we strive to make the punishment fit the crime.
I wonder how many other pastors pounding pulpits across the world have their parishioners running scared out of their wits and into the kingdom of God, taking out fire insurance as a precaution against the threat of hell. "Who cares?" you might say. "As long as they purchase their policy in time, who cares why they buy?" God might. God may desire to save us from the flames in order to spend eternity in loving communion, not by scaring us to death but by luring us with divine compassion, urging us gently with a caring hand, forgiving, reconciling, and calling us to do the same.