Over the past two years, I’ve traveled across North America and beyond filming and promoting Hellbound?, a feature-length documentary that takes a critical look at the traditional Christian doctrine of hell.
During that time, I’ve spoken to literally thousands of people about hell. And while I have encountered a precious few who are willing not only to countenance but also to embrace opposing viewpoints, the vast majority are absolutely convinced they have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In their minds, those who disagree with them—to reference one of my favorite Richard Dawkins quotes—can only be ignorant, stupid, wicked or insane. This attitude is a big reason why I made this film, because whenever I see people respond to their critics in this fashion, you know there’s far more at work than a mere theological dispute. Personal identities, careers, even the eternal fate of billions of souls purportedly hang in the balance.
As I write this piece, my senses tell me I’m absolutely stationary. So is my desk, my computer and my office. I could bring in 100 witnesses who would swear on a stack of Bibles that this is true.
If anyone questioned that observation, we would probably laugh at first. But if she persisted in her refusal to accept the obvious fact of my inertia, before long we would suspect she was either delusional or purposely denying what was plain for all to see. And then we would seek to silence her objections or remove her from our company—likely feeling a mixture of anger and pity as we did so—but convinced such actions were necessary for us to resume our lives.
There’s just one problem with this scenario: Contrary to our deepest convictions and scientifically verifiable experience, both the lone dissenter and the rest of us would be 100% correct in our observations. We would also be 100 percent wrong.
That’s because one thing I neglected to mention is that the dissenter is an astronaut observing Earth from Mars. Over the past month, she has carefully tracked the location of the Earth against the background of stars, the moon, the sun and other celestial bodies and determined it is far from stationary. Every 24 hours, the earth spins completely around. And it isn’t just spinning. It’s orbiting the sun at a speed of 67,062 miles per hour. And the sun isn’t stationary either. Neither are the other stars. In fact, everything the astronaut observes appears to be hurtling out into the unobservable abyss we can only describe as “outer space.”
And because everything on Earth is moving through space at the same speed, it also creates the illusion of inertia, the same illusion we experience while sitting in an airplane that is actually screaming through the sky at 600 miles per hour. So, relative to my desk I am stationary, but relative to the sun, I am not.
For those with even a smattering of scientific education, the above example is hardly revelatory. But when we consider how wrong we can be about a simple observation like whether we are in motion or at rest, when it comes to far more complicated questions, such as how to interpret what the Bible says—or doesn’t say—about our eternal fate, it should introduce a sense of profound humility.
Unfortunately, such humility appears to be in short supply.
In his excellent biography of the late Steve Jobs, author Walter Isaacson repeatedly references Jobs’ infamous “reality distortion field,” his ability to deny facts that were so obvious to others. This was Jobs’ greatest strength and his greatest weakness. Sometimes it allowed him and his team to achieve the impossible. At other times, it made him impossible to deal with.
Jobs’ reality distortion field may have been stronger than most, but he was far from alone in this tendency. Whether we realize it or not, we all live within our own reality distortion field. None of us sees the universe—or the Bible—as it is; we see it as we are. Add the fact that reality itself is a distortion field, and one wonders how we can be certain about anything. Just when we think we have things all sewn up, someone could introduce a variable that makes our deeply held convictions look quaint, if not absurd.
How do we live in a world where we can be 100 percent right even while we are 100 percent wrong? Can we even function? Clearly we can and we do. Absolute knowledge of the universe is not a requirement for those living in that universe. And for the Christian, neither is absolute knowledge of the Bible, God or what happens after we die. It’s not even a possibility.
So the real question isn’t if we can live in this world of uncertainty but how we live in it. More importantly, how do we treat the other beings who share this world with us? Do we use our reality distortion field, as Steve Jobs sometimes did, to abuse and ostracize others? Or does our awareness of the subjective nature of experience spur us to dialogue with others who might be seeing something we’re missing?
As the question mark at the end of my film’s title suggests, I don’t think any of us can be certain what happens after we die—if anything. But we can be certain of one thing: As long as we continue to insist on certainty, we won’t have to wait until we die to experience hell. We will have plenty of it here on Earth.