Posted by: dacalu | 28 July 2011



Hell can be a tricky subject in Christianity. We have proposed numerous models of heaven, hell, and the afterlife. Somehow non-Christians (and a scary number of Christians) have developed a cartoon picture of the afterlife, such that everyone lives on after death. Good people become bodiless spirits, which nonetheless have wings and a halo. Satan gets hold of the bad people who suffer for eternity, punished by devils in a fiery underworld. Heaven and hell exist primarily as means to encourage good behavior. I call this suite of ideas carrot-and-stick Christianity and I have very little respect for it. It’s not Biblical; it’s not traditional; it’s just dangerous and wrong. Mind you, it’s quite successful at propagating itself, but it’s still dangerous and wrong.

That said, I’ve been asked whether or not I believe in hell and what kind of hell I believe in. Here it is.

Let us clear away some underbrush. Punishment is off the table. I don’t believe in a God who responds to sin with everlasting punishment. Eternal suffering, being infinite, cannot be a just recompense for any temporal (and therefore finite) sin. Thus, if God punishes in eternity, God punishes unjustly. Furthermore, I have never believed in punishment and deterrence as just and proper to earthly governors. Analogously, I don’t attribute punishment and deterrence to God. I do think that actions have consequence and God, being good, helps us to understand what the consequences are. Education and rehabilitation seem far more likely means for the God I know.

I want to begin with a quote from one of my favorite theologians.

“This is true perfection: not to avoid a wicked life because we fear punishment, like slaves; not to do good because we expect repayment, as if cashing in on the virtuous life by enforcing some business deal. On the contrary, disregarding all those good things which we do hope for and which God has promised us, we regard falling from God’s friendship as the only thing dreadful, and we consider becoming God’s friend the only thing truly worthwhile.” Gregory of Nyssa (335-c.394)

Afterlife, for me, only makes sense in the context of heaven. I must begin there – believing as I do that heaven is the natural and proper end of humans. I have faith that death of the body has no dominion over me. That is to say, death is not the final end. Afterward I will have new experiences and, quite possibly, new choices and new challenges. Heaven means the kingdom of God, living with God such that God’s will, my will, and the will of others are in full accord. Heaven will be a fulfillment both personal and communal. Any aspect of pleasure comes from this accord, not the other way around. Let me be perfectly clear, I expect to be happy because I am at one with God and neighbor. I do not expect to be one with God and neighbor because that will make me happy. Important distinction there. Any concept of happiness or pleasure I have that does not follow from harmony with God and neighbor cannot be happiness in heaven.

Heaven is good, joyous, wondrous, and satisfying. I wish it for everyone, as I think God wishes it for everyone, but this heaven presents a problem – some people do not wish it for themselves. They don’t want eternity with God. They don’t want eternity with neighbors. They don’t want the kind of happiness that only comes to groups. What do we do with these people?

I object to universalism (the doctrine that everyone goes to heaven) because I think it makes God into a bit of a bully. Is it really kind to force people into communal happiness? Would God, who gives us such a free hand on Earth, give us less choice in eternity? It seems implausible, inconsistent even. God then, offers us a choice: live with me, or not. But what would the “not” entail? There’s the rub.

I see two alternatives, the ontological (1) and the existential (2), each with plusses and minuses, but pragmatically no different from the mortal perspective. I will explore both, not because I think it makes a difference to those of us alive, but because I find it interesting and you might be more inclined toward one or the other.

(1) The Ontological Alternative to Heaven

Paul Tillich has said that God is the ground of all being. Greek theologians argued that in God we find the one absolutely necessary thing in reality; all else rests on God. In more contemporary language, let me argue that all things that exist exist because God wills them into existence, continually.

God, in this scheme, gives humans the gift of life. To be is to accept that gift, consciously or unconsciously. If I accept that, I find myself wondering what it would mean to refuse the gift. Life depends on God; without God it ceases to be life; it ceases to be. Could it be possible to will oneself out of existence – the ultimate suicide? I’m not claiming that’s an immoral thing or even a bad thing, necessarily. I can’t understand choosing it, but maybe God allows it to happen.

A friend of mine recently shared with me his concern that God put us here without asking our permission. What if we don’t want existence? It’s a legitimate question. For me, existence trumps non-existence, every time, but I’m not entirely confident God would force that choice. God causes us to be, but maybe (just maybe) allows us to cease. I find it unappealing, but very reasonable and actually very Biblical.

What would you do if you had infinite power and saw people making decisions you didn’t like? Decisions you knew were bad for them? Would you turn them into puppets that couldn’t act? Probably not. (I hope you’re not that kind of person.) Would you make it difficult for them? Would you remind them of the alternatives and encourage them to consider them? I think so.

It may be that God allows us to go out of existence – to extinguish ourselves – but only once fully convinced we want to. God may set up an exit to reality, through which we can pass, but only with great hardship and pain. Perhaps the road to total annihilation lies in throwing ourselves into a great celestial furnace in which we may be consumed. It’s an ugly thought, but one of the more popular ones in scripture.

The Bible speaks of human salvation in terms of a refiner’s furnace, burning off the dross and leaving only the pure metal. (Psalms 12:6, 21:9; Proverbs 17:3, 27:21; Isaiah 48:10, Matthew 3:12, 13:42, 13:50; Luke 3:17) One does not throw things into the furnace so that they can sit there and burn. One throws things into the furnace so that they might be consumed. The same notion appears with lye corroding in Isaiah 1:25.

The book of Revelation does mention a lake of fire and sulfur in chapter 20. As far as I can tell, the primary reference for everlasting torment comes in verse 10:

“And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” [See also Revelation 14:11]

However, four verses later, we read that the lake of fire is “the second death.” I’m not sure how to interpret that other than to say it is the death of the soul, the final death, which comes after the death of the body. [NB: Matthew 10:28 would seem to back this up.] It sounds like annihilation, not punishment. So the notion of the furnace is chiefly one of burning away, with the exception of 2 passages in Revelation. The fire burns away all the dross, the chaff, and the admixtures.

[A quick note on “the worm that never dies” – some use this as an argument for eternal torment. Isaiah 66:24, in referring to the bodies of those who rebel, says that “their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched.” There’s no notion that the souls are still in the bodies. Mark 10:47-8 says that it is better to have one eye and live than to have two eyes in a dead body thrown onto the smoldering, rotten, worm ridden heap (Gehenna). Still no torment, just death and shame.]

(1a) I should mention here, that the refiner’s furnace begs the question of whether God might use the furnace as a means of separating out the pure silver. Perhaps the part of us unwilling to live with God passes out of existence while the remainder, the true self remains. CS Lewis suggests something like this in The Great Divorce when he speaks of the Tragedian. He warns that we can, through our actions and intentions, eliminate the good in us, leaving only a shell that can be blown away, like chaff on the wind. There’s no necessary reason to believe that we live (eternally) or die as a unitary individual. We may be refined.

(2) The Existential Alternative to Heaven

Let us presume that God’s goodness entails causing us to live in eternity. After all, allowing your creations to commit true suicide smacks of negligence. Let us say that God gives us a choice (again following CS Lewis). We say to God, “thy will be done,” or God says to us, “thy will be done.” God continues to support us ontologically, but leaves us to our own devices.

In such a scenario, I must ask, “What would life (or perhaps existence is a better word here) be like without God as a friend?” I don’t think God could be an enemy. It seems inconsistent with Christ Jesus (if not, perhaps with the God of the Old Testament). Even if we ignore the malevolence necessary for enmity, why would an omnipotent being choose to live with hate? Apathy seems more realistic. That too, does not fit well with the Christian idea of God, but if we consider it the lesser of two evils, maybe God allows us to live on our own instead of allowing us to eliminate ourselves.

At first glimpse, this looks like the more compassionate option. I’m not sure it is. Life without communication from God would be like life in a very small, and very boring cell. Most of what we do in life revolves around our interaction with other created things. Refusing harmony with God and others means rejecting interaction with them. They go on with their own conversation, their own growth in community while we sit by ourselves. No one to talk to. Nothing to do but reshuffle our own thoughts. Milton’s Lucifer claims that it is better to rule in hell than serve in heaven, but I fear we should find this not to be the case. There is none to rule over but the self. There is no one to correct our mistakes and force us to grow. No one to distract us. I think I would quickly fall into rehearsing my pride and shame for past acts, acts in the world of interaction. I would miss the people I loved and miss the stimulation of people I hated. Could you really entertain yourself for eternity?

This picture of hell lines up with the “outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30, Luke 13:28) It’s also consistent with the tale of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). The rich man suffers. (In Greek he “exists in torment,” rather than the NRSV “was being tormented” so there’s still no need for an intentional punishment.) A chasm separated him from Abraham and Lazarus. It’s often conceived of as two chambers – one for the blessed and one for the damned – but one can also see it as those in the bright warmth of the hearth and those on the outside. (Admittedly, in this case, it’s the light coolth of the air-conditioned house and the hot thirst of the outside. I live in Tucson, so this makes sense to me, as it would to people in ancient Israel.) Much like the Greek Tartarus, hell could be a place where God sends people to be ignored, an oubliette of their own making.

(2a) Here too, a slightly weaker version of the same may be proposed. We can imagine people huddling in their own little hells with God checking in on them from time to time. “Would you like to come out now?” “No” “Are you sure? I have a candy.” “No. Leave me alone.” And a sad, “Thy will be done.” CS Lewis’ gray town looked something like this.

(2b) We might also conceive with some Orthodox Christians that heaven is like a giant campfire around which all are seated in eternity. The blessed enjoy the brightness and warmth of God’s presence. God forces the rest to sit there but doesn’t force them to enjoy themselves. They spend eternity complaining about the heat of the fire, the staleness of the marshmallows, and the annoying behavior of the happy-clappy people sitting next to them.

Only one issue remains: time limits. The tale of Lazarus and the rich man begs a very important question. Will there come a time when we no longer have a choice? Does God give up on us? A number of my friends who are considering Christianity find this troubling. God sounds somehow capricious and mean if there is a time limit on our choosing blessedness. Why would God set a limit on when we can choose, or more specifically, do I have to choose God before death? When I haven’t seen clear evidence?

OK, that’s really three questions asked together, so I’ll pry them apart.

Is there a time limit? I think there must be. In scheme one (self-annihilation hell) there comes a time when a soul, when a self actually manages to will itself out of existence. God has not been capricious or mean. God extended the process of self-destruction through pain and challenge, but eventually allowed the self to escape from God and from bliss. One would have to blame God for allowing too much time to choose – rather than too little – for a self that found existence to be a trial.

In scheme two (withdrawal hell) there comes a time when the self has refused to see God for so long that the sight has atrophied. It no longer has the ability to know God for it has forgotten what God means, who God is. It lives alone, walled off. God can reach out (God knows where it is because God sustains its existence) but it can no longer reach out to God. It wouldn’t even know how. Does God reach out and reach in to them? I think so, but at this point it becomes solely a matter of grace – of God’s will to save, and not a choice of the self. Perhaps, after millennia it can meet God again for the first time, unburdened by whatever caused it to reject God in death. I hope so. It seems more likely, though, that continued existence in solitude would fester, with resentment and egotism growing more and more until the self could only look inwards.

So yes. There does appear to be a time limit.

Is that time limit death? Possibly. Attributing much to God’s mercy, I’m inclined to say that we have opportunities after death to see God fully and truly. In that moment of full awareness, God asks us once again whether or not we will live in divine blessedness and company. Perhaps, as some Muslims say, we confront God in full glory at our death to be presented with the choice. Perhaps as CS Lewis imagined, hell has a bus stop and those willing to leave can, but eventually people wander too far away, or simply like it where they are. For me, I say it is a mystery, great for speculation but, in the end, far less important than keeping our eyes on loving God, neighbor, and self in this lifetime.

What if you don’t experience God in this lifetime? It’s hard for me to imagine. God is so hard for me to ignore (think flashing neon sign subtle). Nonetheless I know many – both Christians and non-Christians – for whom God does not seem to be present. What should they do? My advice is simple.

Love the people who show up.

God asked us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Neighbors occur frequently and abundantly and we never find ourselves in want of good works if we care only for them.

Matthew 25:31-40
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

If you see God, I hope you’ll be respectful. No, more than that, I hope you’ll be loving, kind, and open-hearted. When you meet God, by grace, may you do all these things. If you don’t see God, don’t worry. There are billions of opportunities to love God in the shape of neighbors. If you haven’t seen God by the time you die, I think you will see Jesus then, and you will have the opportunity to love him, as you have (I hope) loved countless others before – and loved him in countless others before. Have no fear. God shows up.

Do you have to be Christian to go to heaven? I don’t think so. You just have to act like a Christian (should). I don’t want people to be Christian so they’ll go to heaven. I want them to be Christian because it’s a great way to meet God and – when we do our job – a great way to love our neighbors. You just have to love into eternity the way you loved in life. And that will be enough for “the earth to be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”



  1. My dear Lucas. You’ve made me think and cry all in one post. My theology of the heaven/hell has tended toward a universalism… not a forced paradise as such, but rather the idea that given infinite time and infinite encouragement even the most stubborn of God’s creatures would not be able to resist the lure of an infinitely loving God. You’ve given me much to ponder.

    Sorry we missed each other when you were here. I pray we will have another opportunity to visit before too long.

  2. I have always found, well not always but for a long time, that GBS’s interpretation of Hell in Man & Superman to be enticing. There is a choice. Folks who end up in Hell but would do better in Heaven may go there and vise-versa. Both Don Juan and Donna Anna make the transition and it looked like Donna Anna’s father would be happier in Hell being admired for his statuesque appearance.

  3. Do you read these Lucas? I( hope you do. This is only on the very first part of you post on Words losing their meaning.
    Mind/Brain- perhaps you are projecting.. Perhaps mind & soul are interchangeable.
    I would like to say that you are evil, but I know that is not true.
    You are sneaky.
    Celibacy-“vowed singleness”- You can have sex with one only.
    Chastity- What on earth does right mean?
    Abstinence- Do not screw multitudes.
    You are open to interpretation.

    Love- Pledge of Commitment even if one is with a crazed asshole.
    One keeps that pledge.
    More later.

    • Dear Hiram, Always good questions. Thanks for that.
      1) Do I read these? Yes
      2) Perhaps mind and soul are interchangeable. Many have thought so. I object on the grounds that mental disorders and mental disabilities seem perfectly straightforward to me while I find the idea of disordered or disabled souls to be abhorrent. “Soul” for me captures that which is essentially and inalienably human. None of us can be more or less ensouled, though we can be out of our minds.
      3) I am not evil…of course if I was evil, there’d be nothing to stop me from saying I wasn’t. grin.
      4) I try to be sneaky if it gets you to think.
      5a) Abstinence means refraining completely. Sexual abstinence means no sex.
      5b) Chastity meant that you are moral in sexuality. Everyone in Christianity agrees that sexual morality is important, but many of us disagree with what constitutes sexual morality. Thomas Aquinas thought you should only have sex with your spouse, that you shouldn’t enjoy it too much, and that you should intend to conceive. All other sex was immoral and therefore unchaste. Most Christians think that sex with your spouse is moral, even if it does not have the intent to conceive. Sex with anyone but your spouse, they say, is immoral. I’m one of those people that’s open to possibility of moral sex outside of marriage, on the grounds that I’d rather people have sex with someone they’re not married to than get into a marriage they will not or cannot follow through with (which involves lying to God, the church, one another, and the community about their commitment). For me, and many Episcopalians, there is chastity outside marriage. Their is also unchastity outside marriage – this generally involves personal satisfaction without concern for the physical, mental, and spiritual well being of your partner or yourself. I’m also convinced that their can be unchastity in marriage, on the same grounds.
      5c) Celibacy meant vowed singleness. As most celibates are celibate for religious reasons, they tend to value chastity and feel that chaste singleness means abstinence. Technically, it is the formation of a committed relationship that would break a vow of celibacy. Medieval thinkers were far subtler than we on distinctions between having an intimate relationship, having sex, and getting married. They were less attached to the three going together than we are. Really. The Christian ideal has always been that the three should go together, but they can, and have been conceived apart. Thus I can be an ardent advocate of chastity, while being less concerned with celibacy and sexual abstinence. One of the great losses that came from demoting chastity, celibacy, and abstinence to “strict sexual restraint” has been our present inability to even talk about the relevant issues without assuming that morality = no sex.
      6) I’m also ardent about ardor (love) and am happy with your definition.


  4. […] how similar this image of eternal reward and punishment is to our modern myths of heaven and hell. Having not found them in the Bible, I had assumed they were medieval creations. But no, here they are in Plato some 400 years before […]

  5. […] I will start with a positive statement about how I see baptism. I am a fan of many religions, but Christianity remains closest to my heart and forms the core of my belief, practice, and society. It is dear to me because it both preaches and practices “free lunch.” God loves us without condition, without requirement and without expectation. We call it grace. Judaism and Islam, while emphasizing mercy, chiefly frame our relationship with God as a contract – this in exchange for that. Buddhism and Taoism, while promoting limitless giving of self, see all suffering as the consequence of human disharmony. Christianity unabashedly accepts human powerlessness. God sends both sun and rain. We are asked (though not always expected) to accept it all as a gift. We are asked to give without hope of either favor or compensation. [This is why I take theodicy without flinching and object to carrot-and-stick versions of heaven and hell.] […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: