[When this post was originally published my old blog, on JohnShore.com, it went viral to the tune of about about 20K shares. When I moved my blog to here on Patheos, none of my posts' Share numbers transfered along with it. But that's what this post did. I'm also proud that in one of his final sermons at his mega-church Mars Hill, Rob Bell quoted at length from this post. That was nice. -- John.]
Asking whether or not hell is real is like asking your teammates in a football huddle whether or not they think it’s possible, from your team’s current position on the field, to sink a three-point basket.
Missing the point.
Here’s something I hate: conversations that ostensibly are about answering a question to which, in fact, there is no knowable answer. Getting stuck in a conversation like that transmogrifies my medulla oblongata into a crack-snorting hamster on a wheel.
So, to state something so obvious I should be embarrassed to type it: No one has any idea — none, zero, zilch, nada, void, total blank — what happens to anyone after they die.
It could be that heaven is awaiting some of us. Or all of us. It could be that hell is waiting for some or all of us. Could be a Dairy Queen awaitin’. Could be a dentist’s office. Could be a six-room igloo. Could be interplanetary pinochle tournament.
No. One. Knows. It’s. Not. Knowable.
And if at this moment you’re inclined to grab your Bible, stop yourself. It’s not in there. You can pretend the Bible tells you what happens to people after they die, but you wouldn’t be fooling even yourself. Paul enjoins us to give up childish things, and you can’t get more childish than pretending the Bible is a magical window that lets you see beyond life.
Trying to use the Bible as proof of what happens after we die is like trying to use a telescope to row a canoe. [Tweet this.] Wrong instrument. Wrong purpose. Only results in you still haplessly floating about.
The only thing we know for sure about what happens to us after we die is that we don’t know what happens to us after we die.
I believe God made and sustains this world. So for me the All-Time Great Question on this topic is: Why can’t we know what happens to us after we die?
Why did God set up this system, in this way? Why that colossal mystery?
What is God trying to tell us by so resolutely not telling us what happens to us after we die?
If while wandering around the inside of an art museum I come across a door that’s solidly locked shut, what do I do? Well, if I’m emotionally immature, I might wrestle with the door’s handle, or maybe fall to the floor and try to peer beneath it. I might throw a tantrum because I can’t get into that locked room. I might squat beside the door, fold my arms, and determinedly try to imagine everything inside the room. There are all kinds of ways I might waste my time outside that door.
But if mature, I will simply assume that those in charge of the museum know what they’re doing, and for whatever reason don’t want people going in that room. And that would be good enough for me. So I would turn away from the door, forget about the room, and go back out into the museum, where all those wonderful works of art are waiting to enlighten and inspire me.
I think locking the door between this life, and whatever is on the other side of this life, is God’s way of telling us to get our butts back in the museum.
I think keeping the afterlife a complete mystery is God’s way of telling us to pay maximum attention to the life we have on this side of the door. That the ever-fluid now of our lives is where the action is. As clearly as he possibly can, I think he’s telling us to with full and focused consciousness be in our lives. To love our lives. To believe in our lives. To trust that within every single moment of our lives is virtually everything that we could ever want to know.
I refuse to pretend to take seriously the question of whether or not hell is real. I think entertaining the question of what happens in the afterlife is an insult to God and all that he has given us in this life. When we need to know, we’ll know.