Sunday, March 6, 2011

What the Hell?

This is the first post in a series on Heaven, Hell, and God’s relentless love.

Would a loving God send millions of people—even one person—to eternal torment?

Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins has stirred up a storm of controversy about heaven and hell.  At least, his promotional materials have kickstarted debate among Christians. 

You see, the book doesn’t come out until the end of this month.

This prepublication buzz suggests that Bell has touched a nerve.  Heaven and hell probably do not occupy our minds as we go about our daily rounds of work, school, carpool, shopping, chores, and volunteer work.

Nevertheless, the concepts of heaven and hell brush up against our deepest longings and our most enduring fears.  Bell is a keen observer of things human.  His new book’s title—Love Wins—gets our attention precisely because it touches on these desires and anxieties.

We want to be loved.  We want to give love.  And yet, the evidence suggests that we humans tend to foul up this love thing with depressing regularity. 

Will we ever get this right?


At the same time, we want justice.  We may not be able to define evil, but we know it when we see it.  People commit unspeakable acts of cruelty every day. 

Children and adults alike are abducted, tortured and abused.  Despots enrich themselves while impoverishing, terrorizing, maiming, and murdering their subjects.  And these are just the cruelties that make headlines.

Can it really be that evil pays?

We want to be unconditionally, irrevocably loved.  We want things set right.

The Holy Scriptures teach us that God does in fact love us and that he sets things right.  Heaven and hell play a role in God’s response to his fragile, fractured creation. 

There is solid teaching about this in Scripture and throughout Church tradition.  But what Jesus teaches about the role of heaven and hell has also been debated, misunderstood, and misrepresented for centuries.

Before rushing to ask who goes to hell or who goes to heaven—or even if there are a heaven and a hell—there are some things we have to get straight first.  When we think clearly and biblically about those things, then we may see that we need to ask different sorts of questions about heaven and hell.

Let’s start with this.  God made us.  He designed us and brought us into existence.  (Okay, I know that this suggests a discussion about evolution for some readers.  Please wait for another series of posts on that topic.)

God’s plan for us is easy to express and difficult to execute.  He made us to experience the unquenchable joy of loving him and loving one another as a response to our abiding awareness of his unrelenting love for us.

We are free to pursue entirely different purposes in life, of course.  Material comfort, physical pleasure, celebrity, success, power and material wealth offer themselves to us as life’s highest goal.

This is one place our thinking about heaven and hell goes off track.  Some teach and others merely assume that God is just steaming about all those people who opt for something different from the purpose set out by God.

Following this line of thinking brings us erroneously to the idea that God condemns people to hell because they’re cheeky enough to disagree with him about what makes for a happy human life.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Remember that God knows us precisely because he made us.  And for that matter, his reason for making us in the first place was to share with us his incomparable joy and peace.  When we pursue ends contrary to our true nature, we will eventually be miserable.

This doesn’t make God angry the way we can get chafed by petty disagreements and slights.  It grieves God because his beloved is on a path of disappointment, frustration, loneliness and self-destruction.

Since we are spiritual beings, the habits of our souls have an eternal trajectory.  We are, in this life, accumulating habits for eternity.  It’s hell to be resentful or envious or vindictive even for a few hours. 

Just imagine saddling ourselves with such a posture for eternity precisely because we can’t or don’t want to kick the habit.

God is determined to save us from the toxic forces within us precisely because he loves us.

This first foray into the topic of heaven, hell and God’s love is meant to open up some questions.   

In future posts we'll look more closely at what it means to say that God is love and what being created in the image of the loving God means for our our lives.

We'll reflect upon God's judgment and God's mercy and how hard it is for us to hold those two things in our mind at once.  

We'll think about what Scripture means by heaven and hell.  And we'll talk about how heaven and hell are not just about the afterlife, but about our day-to-day existence.

3 comments:

  1. Can't wait for the coming installments!

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  2. I am certainly no theologian, and hesitate to even comment on theological matters. In my simple mind, the state of sin and hell are the same. I look at both as being the absence of God; more specifically the self-inflicted absence of God. Maybe a better expression would be denying oneself and therefore separating oneself from God. I tend to think that when Peter denied Jesus three times, he actually denied himself. I have certainly been there, and it is not a place I enjoy. Many thanks.

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  3. Thank you, Michael, for the thoughtful response. As I'll mention discuss in a later post, I'm especially fond of the older language for the Apostles' Creed. The more traditional form says that Jesus descended to hell. Having been there myself, I'm grateful that he came to get me out.

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