Foundational to the reasoning informing Francis Chan’s videommercial for his new book is the oft-presented premise that, when it comes to hell, we mere mortals are helpless to understand the mysteries of God’s justice.
“Sure” goes this anemic apologetic meme, “to us hell seems cruel and unfair.” (And here the person saying this is likely to shrug with an air of amiable haplessness.) “But who are we to try to understand the mind of God? God is for the faithful to worship and obey, not comprehend. All we know is that God is good, and hell is real. How those two things are reconciled must remain a mystery beyond our fathoming.”
The real mystery is why it’s not considered at best absurd and at worst profoundly dangerous to suggest that God has a sense of justice diametrically opposed to the sense of justice that is innate to just about every human being. That God’s entire moral structure is radically different than ours is a horrendous supposition. And it’s no small thing that it keeps legions of non-Christians bemusedly wondering what mind-numbing drugs Christians regularly ingest that allows them to not just accept that idea, but to actively promote it.
And when non-Christians point to hell as Exhibit A for the case that the Christian god is either too helpless or too cruel to take seriously, why, exactly, do Christians cleave to the distinctly unsatisfying response of “Who can know the ways of God?”
Well, here are three reasons why:
1. They believe that the Bible says hell is real—which doesn’t leave them a lot else to say about it besides that God’s justice unfathomable;
2. They get off on being part of the team so winning that the penalty for not being on that team is eternal torture decreed by God; and
3. Asserting that hell is real but that the morality of hell can’t be grasped neatly and absolutely absolves them from any and all moral responsibility for what, to every last appearance, is a grossly immoral cruelty.
So, to sum up those postions:
“It’s in the Bible.”
“I’m a winner; you’re a loser.”
“There’s nothing I can do; it’s God’s will.”
And there we have the blanket, not exactly warm but definitely fuzzy, in which so many Christians contentedly wrap around themselves at night before they go to sleep.
Except that even they don’t really buy that. Have you ever noticed how no evangelical (or at least not one in anything resembling a national spotlight) will ever actually say that Gandhi, for instance, is right now burning in hell? You can sooner get a garden snail to sing the national anthem than you can an evangelical to just once come out and say that upon dying all Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and virtually anyone else who dies a non-Christian goes straight to hell. They simply will not say it.
What they will say (and always with that little shrug that allows the prickly mantle of responsibility to slip from their shoulders) is, “Hey, what can I do? It’s not me. It’s in the Bible.”
Even they choke on the distasteful thing they’ve already swallowed. The injustice of hell is so profoundly anathematic to everything humans instinctively hold dear that even those who believe in hell invariably balk at claiming the objective final truth of hell. Even they can’t force their mouths and brains to override their hearts.
If it’s true that by justice God means something diametrically opposed to our understanding of that word, what, then, are we to make of Jesus when he talks about love? About peace? About altruism? About honor, righteousness, compassion, loyalty, dignity, truth? Is what Jesus means by those words also radically different than what we mean by them?
And if it is, then where in the heck does that leave us?
If we know going in that we can’t make sense of God’s justice, then what grounds do we have for believing that anything about God makes any sense at all? And why do we even have our inborn sense of right and wrong, if it’s so obviously contrary to God’s sense of the same thing? Aren’t we built in God’s image? Isn’t the whole idea that we’re supposed to champion out in the world God’s values? But how can we do that, when we so clearly have zero comprehension of, for instance, justice, which, relative to engaging with others, is arguably the paramount value?
If hell is real, and God is just, then we know squat about justice. If God could shut hell down, but for whatever excellent (and highly secretive) reason chooses not to, then any Christian who goes out into the world meaning to create within it more justice may as well substitute for their goal getting eels to excel at tap dancing. It simply doesn’t make sense for me to fight for something that not only do I not understand, but which all available evidence indicates I have perfectly and exactly wrong.
And what are we doing making laws? If our ideas of justice are so egregiously erroneous that, contrary to everything we think, know, and understand, it is, in fact, morally righteous and just that 95% of people who have ever lived spend eternity being tortured in hell simply for dying non-Christian—even if they died never having heard of Christ—then why on earth would we bother codifying into laws our clearly dumbass ideas about justice and morality? Then we’re like toddlers trying to cook a seven-course gourmet meal. Complete waste—and extremely dangerous. Guaranteed regrettable results.
The bottom line on the whole issue of hell is that if hell is real, then God—and therefore Jesus, who (let us never forget) according to Trinitarian theology is God—must be a sadistic lunatic. And the only way to get around that logically airtight truth is to assert that God’s understanding of justice has virtually nothing in common with all of humanity’s ideas about justice.
I don’t think God is a sadistic lunatic. I think God is just, fair, compassionate, rational, and loving. The Bible’s few words about hell are open to all kinds of scholastically supportable interpretations. To choose to call true the interpretation of hell being a real place, in real space and time, where real people are forever being fried alive?
Talk about crazy.