If you’ve been following along (the first post in this mini-series is From Hell to Crazy Town; the second is The Truth isn’t liberal or conservative), then you know that on our quick road trip through Christianity we have stopped in Crazy Town.
I’ve called it crazy because I don’t know how else to describe the idea that a loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful God also condemns to hell everyone who doesn’t worship him (or at any rate allows such people to end up in hell, which is exactly the same as condemning them himself: choosing to not throw a life-preserver to a drowning man is the same as holding that man’s head beneath the water yourself).
Such a God simply makes no sense. It cannot be. God cannot be at once honorable and despicable.
So what to do? This is hardly a primary concern for non-Christians, of course: they readily dismiss a God they understandably think so shabbily constructed (and marvel at how anyone could take seriously the belief system in which he is the object of worship).
But Christians have a whole other kettle of concern there. And the strain of that shows: when it comes to hell, Christians are all over the place. Some think that hell is a literal location of super-hot eternal damnation. Some think hell is a metaphor for a place where God is not. (I talk about why that’s no better than the traditional view of hell in The Absence of God: A Kinder, Gentler Hell?) Most think hell is real, but concede that they have no idea what that actually means, or what the criteria is for being sentenced to it.
Basically, at this point the whole concept of hell amounts to a churning miasma of conjecture, best guesses, hopes, and acknowledged ignorance.
The one thing, though, upon which all Christians agree, is that God is fair and just. It’s only at the point where that needs to be reconciled with hell that the thinking of most Christians suddenly gets extremely fuzzy.
Ask any one of the hundreds of millions of evangelical/conservative/Baptist-type Christians, for instance, if Gandhi is in hell, and just watch the fuzz start flying out their ears. I once watched Albert Mohler field that very question, and it was like watching a slow-motion film of Fozzy Bear exploding.
So, again, what to do?
Well, as with any problem, before solving this one we need to be perfectly clear as to what exactly the problem is: an ill-defined problem leads to no answer at all.
For we Christians, the problem with hell is what the Bible says about hell.
The problem with homosexuality is what the Bible says about homosexuality.
The problem with women’s rights is what the Bible says about women’s rights.
The problem with Jews (used to be) what the Bible says about Jews.
The problem with slavery (used to be) what the Bible says about slavery.
So we see a pattern.
If what the Bible says runs contrary to what is obviously moral, then Christians have a problem.
Here’s the bottom line for me: I look at the Bible, and I don’t see God or Jesus (or Paul, for that matter) telling me that homosexual love is necessarily immoral. I don’t see God or Jesus (or Paul, for that matter) condoning slavery. I don’t see God or Jesus (or Paul … oops: never mind!–for now) telling me that women are organically inferior. And I don’t see God or Jesus telling me that after they die anyone is ever sentenced to an eternity of suffering.
When I look at the Bible, one of the main things I see is a mirror. I see a book so dense, complex, long in the making, and defined by its tens of thousands of translators that ultimately it functions for people as nothing so much as it does a reflecting glass. We bring to the Bible who we are—our expectations, experience, convictions, doubts, hopes, fears, desires … all of it—and then in it see all that confirmed.
We do that as individuals; we do that corporately, as a culture.
Do I think that we should dismiss, or in any way diminish, the Bible? Most certainly not. But do I think that we need to take pains to ensure that we don’t ever confuse the Bible with God?