“Is hell real?” What are we, six-year-olds?


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.

Wrong question.

Wrong game.

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 poor little brain 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. 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.


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  • I was involved in a facebook conversation with a person who just couldn’t understand why the concept of hell was a non-issue with me, or of heaven. I tried to explain that this life is the delightful gift I’ve been given, so why should I look for more? Like everything we can possibly do with this life is not enough. I get to eat chocolate AND enjoy a cup of coffee. Sometimes I get to have chocolate IN my coffee. I get to watch my kids grow into adults and feel my heart expand when one of my grandkids hug me. I get to sleep, and use the snooze alarm.I get to watch sunsets and lightening storms and the cat chase her tail. I get to snuggle with my husband and doze to the baseball game. I get to love, to mourn, to laugh, to share,
    to explore, to create. I get to…so much more…every single day.

    I have to wonder, are we supposed to be so greedy, that we want more?

    • 1captainhooker1

      “I have to wonder, are we supposed to be so greedy, that we want more?”

      Or on the flip side, are we to be so vengeful and bitter that we wish a hell upon others.

    • Jane

      I hear you…but I also live and work in an Asian slum. Everyday with kids and women who live amongst pigs all fighting for he best scraps from the rubbish truck. I think people look for more and rightly so…

  • I’m writing a book right now about some of this. Basic premise is, Heaven decides to finally reveal itself to Earth. Free Will still exists, nothing else changes in how we die or any of that. It’s just Heaven saying hello to Earth and basically admitting, “Yeah, we’re here, so uh, you may want to refocus your life in the knowledge that you’ll be joining us in eternity one day, so maybe, be good to one another? Thanks.” Short version, but that’s the basic gist. Fun part for me is, I get to have Hell step in too. Heaven’s revealing itself, breaking its own rule? Cool, we’ll do the same. Drama and fun ensues!

  • Roz Dotson

    Oh my..shhhhhhh…take heaven and hell away and soooo many people will have no reason to go to church on Sunday…or be ‘good’ Christians during the week. wait..wait… wonder if the Tea Party would disappear?

    • I think of we take heaven and hell out of the answer column, it changes the equation. It also has us look at our motivation. That can be a very good thing.

  • Kathleen Margaret Schwab

    When i was at a very bad point with my chronic pain, before i got some medicine to help, had lost my job, my unemployment ran out and I could see working again was not an option, I found myself getting obsessed with heaven. My life here sucked, that was the issue. Every so often I think God tells me things, very quietly, and pretty much always stuff that just pertains to me. I usually go with this stuff. And I felt he told me to stop thinking about heaven and be present in my life. At the time this was upsetting, because my life was a big serving of physical pain with a side of emotional distress. But it was of course the best advice.

  • Susan Irene Fox

    John, as usual, your simplicity reflects your eloquence. For me, it’s easy: hell is life without God.

    • sheila0405

      For me, too.

      • Susan Irene Fox

        Sheila, see above.

    • jdkoeppen

      But if God is supposedly everywhere and everything, how is it possible to have “life without God”? Do you believe that God created a realm of reality that he can’t, or chooses not to, be a part of?

      • Susan Irene Fox

        God created us with free will. As a result, He allows us to choose to be with or without Him. I’ve experienced both. For me, life without Him was hell.

        • jdkoeppen

          But even free will doesn’t allow us to really be without God. People can choose turn away from God, but there’s nothing that we can do that would turn God away from us.

          • Susan Irene Fox

            You’re absolutely right; I agree with you 100%. He is always there, waiting for us to come to Him. He never turns away. Yet remember Jesus’ parable of the lost son. When he ran away from his father, he was in a hell of his own making. It wasn’t until he came home to his father that his private hell ended. That’s what I am equating as hell. Just my opinion. And thanks for the exchange. It’s a pleasure to be able to discuss the gospel with a brother in Christ. Helps to articulate it more clearly. Bless you, jdkoeppen!

          • Lars

            For many people, life without God is simply life itself. Sometimes it feels like “heaven” and sometimes “hell”, but most of the time just plain old life. The prodigal son is a beautiful story but what if the son never comes home? Or never gets that chance for some reason? Does the father grieve but think ‘well, that’s the risk of free will’ or does he sentence his child, his own creation, to eternal conscious torment? That’s the Father we must reconcile if we’re going to believe in free will. Otherwise, it’s just coerced obedience and free will is ultimately meaningless.

          • 1PeterW

            Among other things, you are both misusing the parable sometimes called the Prodigal Father. It isn’t an allegory. The father isn’t God. When the son says his (rehearsed, possibly unrepentant) speech about sinning against “heaven” it’s a circumlocution/euphemism for God. Thus, God is a separate character. Parables aren’t illustrations or allegories, but the message itself, perhaps an analogy. If a father would so humiliate himself in welcoming back the son who essentially said,”I wish you were dead so I can get my inheritance now,” then to what lengths does God go to welcome us back?

  • sheila0405

    I think the closest the Bible comes, on the subject of heaven, is Jesus’ last conversation (before the crucifixion) with his disciples in St John’s gospel, chapter 14. He speaks of a mansion with many rooms, and that each disciple will have a room with Him in eternity. I always picture a large hotel-like building when I read that. Still not a very good picture of where we end up. Your own rationale is intriguing.

  • Tom Paine

    I am a Christian and I am not a fundamentalist. I agree that “what happens in the museum” is vitally important. I agree that “the door” is a one way venture (at least for most) and much of what is on the other side is based on conjecture and from extra-Biblical information. But Jesus, Paul, nor the authors of Hebrews, the pastorals, or Revelation seem to me to have the same thesis as the author. Quite the contrary, they seem to call on us to place our hope on “what is beyond the door” and offer us images from the other side. Christ himself appears to have gone through the door both ways and appeared to have insight over what is on the other side even before he died. I understand the author’s passion for getting folks out of the “afterlife insurance” model of thinking. But I do believe the Bible doesn’t leave the other side of the door a complete mystery to us. Just this last week in the Gospel lectionary reading Christ corrects the disciples saying that they should place their joy in that their names are registered in heaven.

  • Noel Derecki

    One does not snort crack. One smokes it. The medulla is in control of autonomic processes. I think perhaps you’d like to consider a cortical area…

    That aside, if I interpret the New Testament appropriately, it seems that the Kingdom of heaven is here and now, and thus “hell” would be also. They are one and the same, and our choices immediately impact our experience, which is in real-time.

  • kcrothers
  • Chiefy

    Regardless of the possibility of the existence of hell, there is no doubt that the concept is real, and has been used to threaten church members and unbelievers since biblical days. There is also no doubt in my mind that the traditional concept of hell is inconsistent with the idea of a just, merciful, omnipotent, and loving God.

  • Gary Calderone

    I found the book Proof of Heaven by neurosurgeon Eben Alexander very compelling.

  • Rob Thomas

    I like the movie, “What Dreams May Come” (screenplay by Ronald Bass, directed by Vincent Ward) version of the afterlife where people are in Hell not because of any judgment made against them, but because it is their nature to create a “nightmare” afterlife world based on their pain. The only way out is to believe that they are worth the love and sacrifice of another.

  • I believe that our future resurrection and eternal life are significant messages of Jesus. If that is something other than what we are calling heaven–okay. But I believe in eternal life.
    However, I do not believe in a vindictive punishment of any kind for those who do not want the eternal life offered by the Father.

  • Todd Anthonsen

    we’re all being used by each other….this is the closest we’ll get to hell, guess there’s nothing to do but enjoy the ride

  • stuffandthings25

    How is it insulting to ask questions? This post doesn’t appeal to me very much at all. I think it’s the indignant feel of it. There’s really nothing to be indignant about, man. People ask questions. We have brains and like to use them.


    Well in old scriptures, so many things have been written about hells…
    7 types of hell

  • 1PeterW

    No one, John Shore included, has mentioned something far less individualistic (American): the image in Revelation of a New Creation, a new heaven and earth, and the New Jerusalem descended to a new earth, where death and crying and pain are no more; where even the kings of the earth, supposedly consumed in lake of fire, are there to say, “Oh, wow, look who’s in charge after all.” There is a huge difference between the popular (Greek vs. Hebrew) belief in individual immortality and reunion with relatives–and the communal, holistic (Hebraic) view of resurrection and re-creation, God’s justice somehow, some way, ultimately having the last word. It would seem that the voice of the martyrs crying out “How long?” for justice and the vision of redemption of the city (not Eden) might be welcomed by victims of the horrors of war, torture, physical and sexual domestic violence, murder, and all the inhuman human injustices might somehow find comfort in welcoming arms, though I have no preconceptions anything after death myself.

  • Andrea

    To continue his museum door illustration though, what if there is a sign on the door that says “this door will open up at 1 pm and allow admittance for one hour.” Should we ignore the instructions given to us? Scoff and say, “Those instructions are a joke written by some crackheads to mess with us. No one knows when that door will open.” What if that sign had been there for years? I’m having too much fun with his example

  • Rebecca Trotter

    Eh. I’m not buying it. I agree that the reason the bible has so little to say about what happens after we die is because of our tendency to want to fixate on the afterlife – often with the result that we don’t take this life seriously enough. However, the argument that God has kept the door shut and we should just accept that and not question it seems suspiciously like the sort of arguments put forth by religious people when one of their problematic teachings is challeneged – “God has his reasons, we just need to trust and leave it at that.”

    Also, while Jesus has very little to say about the afterlife, the idea that there is an afterlife was widespread at his time and he certainly didn’t challenge it. In fact, he takes advantage of it in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. Then there was his comment that he was going to prepare a place for his followers when he left them. As well as the comment about “in my father’s house, there are many rooms.” His statement about “eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it entered into the minds of man what God has prepared for those who love them” can legitimately be understood as a reference to the afterlife.

    I don’t think that we ought to be fixated on the afterlife, nor should we view this life as inconsequntial in light of an afterlife. But what happens after we die is a legitimate concern and simply telling people, “don’t worry about what’s going to happen when you die, just pay attention to the here and now” is not particularly helpful when facing the end of one’s life or the loss of a loved one. No we don’t know for sure and anyone who says they do know and can give you a roadmap is an idiot. But we have some ideas. We have some clues. A surprising number of people report having some experiences. I certainly don’t think the conversation ought to be put behind a door and labeled out of bounds.

  • JenellYB

    Ive come to a peace in this through faith that whatever may be beyond my physical death, if anything, to that presence ive experienced with me in this life, and it will be OK. Even if there is nothing beyond, if this consciousness I think of ME just ceases to exist, I’m OK with that, as well. I do tend to think there will be more, but if not, I accept that.
    Just having this life itself is pretty amazing, all by itself. It is sad that many are so worried about some after life, they fail to appreciate living this one.
    It has troubled me, too, to have observed so many times, those professing belief in heaven and hell seem more afraid when facing their own pending death than those that do not.