Do you believe that we atheists are going to burn in hell forever? Or, as Hemant asks in his book, do you believe that we are “lost” souls that need to be “saved”?
I guess I should start by explaining that I don’t believe in the “traditional” (i.e. fundamentalist) conceptions of Hell in the first place, nor do I believe in their particular brand of theology that makes “salvation” all about getting into Heaven and avoiding Hell after we die. That’s just not what I think Jesus’s message was all about. Honestly, the Bible doesn’t really even tell us that much about Hell. The word is only used 14 times, and that’s in our English translations. In the original lanaugages there are actually three different words (Gehenna, Hades and Tartarus) that are translated “Hell” and it’s not clear to me that these three words are referring to the same thing, or that all three of them are referring to a literal place in the afterlife. The first seems to be a metaphor for divine judgment (though not necessarily after death), the second seems to just be a generic word for “death” or “the grave” (like the Hebrew word “sheol”), and the third is a weird borrowing of Greek mythology and conflating it with something about fallen angels. So yeah, I think the traditional doctrines of Hell are not particularly well founded when it comes to what the Bible actually tells us about it.
What we are told is that God has called all people to follow Christ’s radical way of love (for God and especially for others), and that failure to do so has grave consequences. However, I most emphatically do not think this means that God is threatening to punish us for our disobedience (or disbelief). Rather, Jesus simply warns us that the natural result of a life lived apart from love is “hellish”. “Hell”, in one sense, is a symbolic description of what it is like to live a life filled with bitterness instead of forgiveness, with bigotry instead of acceptance, with the pursuit of power and wealth rather than generosity and self-sacrifice, and with hatred (or mere self-centered apathy) instead of love.
And because I do believe that death is not the end, I think it is possible that how we choose to live in this life can have ramifications for what our existence will be like in the next life. However, I don’t think that even then God will exclude anyone from his love. He still invites everyone to the celebration feast of heaven. But consider this: if you lived your whole life as a hate-filled bigot and then you are asked to sit down at the feast table in heaven next to someone you spent your life excluding and despising, will it feel like heaven to you, or would it be more like hell? And supposing you are unwilling to let go of these attitudes and unwilling to accept God’s unconditional love for you if it means you would have to learn how to likewise love others unconditionally, then would God’s love feel like heaven to you, or might not his love actually feel like the “burning coals” St. Paul said your enemies would feel when you respond to their hatred with love? (cf. Romans 12:17-21) Again, all of this is speculation, since as I said, the Bible doesn’t actually tell us a lot about the afterlife – but it’s bascially what I think it was what Jesus was getting at when he warned us about being “judged” by the way that we lived (cf. Matthew 25:31-46).
So, looking at heaven and hell this way, it’s not really my place to say whether anyone, atheist or Christian or whatever else, is going to heaven or hell. I don’t know if, in your life, you are pursuing a way of love and reconciliation or not. I do think that all people ought to be called and encouraged to follow this way of Jesus – even if they don’t choose to believe in Jesus in a religious sense – not necessarily so that they can avoid “Hell” when they die, but simply because Christ’s way of love is the best possible way to live. And to be honest, as I told Hemant once when he visited our church, there are some atheists I think who do a better job of following the way of Christ than a lot of Christians I know.
(BTW, I hope this mostly answers Bjorn’s question too.)
[tags]atheist, atheism, Pastor, Mike Clawson, writerdd, Hell, Heaven, Gehenna, Hades, Tartarus, Bible, God, Christian[/tags]