Hell in Sunday School

My Sunday school class, at the request of one participant, recently ended up discussing first heaven and then hell. I started us off by noting that, while “heaven” (in the sense of the sky) is there from the very first verse of the Bible, the same cannot be said for “hell” (see the recent online article highlighting the infrequency of references to anything that could be so translated).

Hitler_girlI was delighted to have the opportunity to raise problems that ought to be considered by anyone who supports the notion of eternal conscious torment. I asked them to consider what they would be willing to inflict upon their own child, if their child had grown up to do the things Adolf Hitler did (Hitler had to be mentioned, as the constant go-to example for people deserving of hell). I asked them how long someone has to suffer to make up for what they did to another person, and whether Hitler suffering literally forever could ever make up for the Holocaust, or whether even eternal conscious torment of the mastermind behind torture and genocide fails to make what was done “all better.”

We also touched on a question that is raised by the depiction towards the end of the Book of Revelation of the New Jerusalem as a city which, on the one hand, has evildoers still living outside it, while on the other hand, never has its gates closed. And so why is the viewpoint so widespread that once one has died, there are no second chances? Presumably Hebrews 9:27 plays a role. But does it really teach that clearly, and even if it does, can one such verse bear the weight being placed on it, when there are so many other relevant considerations?

Have you ever discussed these topics in Sunday school? If so, how did your discussions go?

Of related interest, see Ben Corey's post which highlights this conundrum: if hell is real, then God waited an awfully long time to let people know about it.

a-handy-map-of-hell

 

comics-thedoghousediaries-hell-internet-586092

 

Stay in touch! Like Religion Prof on Facebook:
  • Michael Moore

    Ha! The handy map of Hell is pretty clever.

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    In our class, it mostly comes up by way of whether or not a given text is talking about Hell as we conceive of it. The evangelical mind tends to take almost any reference to darkness, judgment, etc. and put in “Hell.” So when we come across those things, we talk about whether or not that’s really warranted.

  • jekylldoc

    I have trouble thinking of any circumstances which would lead me to consider joining in such a discussion. If our religion doesn’t speak to the grown-up in us, we should ask ourselves why not.

  • John MacDonald

    Heaven is a place of endless tears where the saved mourn in despair their lost loved ones who are being tortured eternally in Hell.

  • antimule

    I hope I am not being snide, but I have to ask – what is the point? If Jesus was just another failed apocalyptic preacher, as you believe (and as I agree), then who cares what does the Bible say about Heaven and Hell? It obviously can’t deliver either. To an agnostic like me, Liberal Christianity just seems like a game, honestly.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Sorry for taking so long to reply. I wonder how much you understand about Liberal Christianity, which helped to pioneer the historical approach to Jesus and the Bible that led to many of these conclusions. It is precisely the critical investigation of the past that helps people in our time to understand that we cannot just rely on the writings and purported authorities of the past in formulating our views. Simply ignoring the past doesn’t seem to lead to people doing better heading into the future.

      • antimule

        Thank you for your gracious reply, despite my tone.

        I am not in favor of ignoring the past at all. Biblical history fascinates me. I just don’t understand why people who arrive at the “failed apocalyptic preacher” conclusion don’t do as Bart Ehrman did and leave the faith. Obviously, one can be a great historian of Christianity w/o being Christian.

        It is just…. well, think about the “Jesus as a cynical sage” hypothesis. I can clearly see why someone who believed in that would want to continue being a Christian. Cynical sage Jesus, someone who fought for the rights of the oppressed is still a very good role model. On the other hand, apocalyptic preacher Jesus was probably a turn-or-burn fanatic who had promised heaven to his followers but got nailed instead. What is there to follow, exactly?

        I really hope you won’t hate me for putting it like that. I think you are a good scholar. But I just don’t see the point of following such a character as Jesus probably was.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          I apologize for taking so long to reply. I think that, if Jesus reinterpreted messiahship as involving submitting obediently to God on a path that led to rejection and execution, then even if his expectations regarding the end were wrong, the overall concept of a crucified messiah might still be a powerful one, capable of challenging our ideas about power and conquest, among other things.