The strange hope of hell
I think if we’re honest, many Christians would admit that hell embarrasses us. It seems a relic of a much crueler age. To tell someone that hell exists for those who don’t receive God’s grace feels barbaric, and on the surface it seems at odds with the love and grace of Jesus. Throughout the years, many in Christian circles have tried to suggest that maybe Jesus didn’t mean what he said when he talked about “hell” or that we just misunderstood him.
But I don’t think you can get around hell, though many have tried. I don’t have time to mount a theological defense for hell, nor am I knowledgeable enough (although I can point you toward Francis Chan’s book, “Erasing Hell,” which is a good starting point). But after years of wrestling, I’ve come to believe that Christianity without hell doesn’t make much sense.
The hope of heaven is that it’s a world made right. There’s no sickness, sadness, pain or evil. It’s a world where God rules and its citizens know that he’s sovereign and good. The very things that caused us so much pain here — including our pride, anger, selfishness and lusts — are gone, because we’ve been forgiven of them, based on Christ’s sacrifice.
But what of the ones who caused our pain? What of the ones who harmed us, took advantage of others and carried out unfathomable evil? What about Hitler, Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden? If I told you you’d be walking the streets of Heaven, free of pain, but that they’d also be there, you’d likely be offended.
Our hope for heaven is a hope for a world made right. And that includes hope for justice. Heaven is life in the presence of God, receiving his grace, mercy and love forever. Hell is life in the judgement of God; it’s a place for ultimate justice. To me, it’s always baffling when the ones who say “if there’s a God, why doesn’t he do something about all the evil in the world,” and then get offended at the concept of hell.
Of course, that’s because it’s not just Hitler and Osama bin Laden who we believe are going there. Things get personal when it’s your neighbor or even yourself.
No good person in heaven, no innocent ones in hell
I doubt anyone would get offended if I told them that when he dies, I believe Charles Manson will go to hell. They might get a little angry, however, if I said that if they died without trusting Christ, they’d be joining him. But anyone who’s spent time around Christians who believe in hell and talked about their faith know that they believe that’s the destiny of those who don’t follow Jesus and depend on him as their only hope.
Now, I know that this is where I’ll get the angry comments about what gives me the right to believe I’ll get to go to Heaven and everyone who doesn’t share my beliefs will go to hell. And, that’s fine. But pretty much every religion claims exclusivity. And my intention with this post is not to sway you or change your mind, but to share what, as a Christian, I believe.I understand that it’s offensive to tell someone they’re going to hell, which is why I’ve laid off it. I can lay out my beliefs, I can tell them what I believe the Bible teaches. I can trust that God convicts them from there. My job is to shine a light, not to judge. And I understand that most of us try to live good lives and believe we’re kind to others. Few of us believe we’re perfect, but most of us would probably think we’re not bad enough to be sent to hell. After all, we’ve seen “bad” people and we’re at least better than them.
But for the Christian, we don’t believe that’s the standard. The standard for heaven is set by the one who lives there, and that’s God. And we believe no one measures up to him. We don’t believe anyone is born good enough to go to heaven; our destination at birth is hell. The Bible says that humans are born at enmity with God; our selfishness confirms that. God doesn’t send good people to hell; there’s not going to be a single innocent person there.
Instead, it’s an act of grace that gets us to heaven. Christians believe when we look at our lives, we’ll understand that we can never meet God’s perfect standard. He gave us the Law to reveal that our hearts are prone to stray from it. The central teaching of the Christian faith is that God came to Earth and lived the perfect life none of us could live. Jesus’ death on the cross wasn’t just a physical dying; there, he suffered under the wrath of God for our sins. His resurrection was proof that the payment had been accepted and the job was complete. And now, those who trust fully in him get into heaven under his name and his works. Christians use the word “saved” because we very sincerely believe that that’s what has happened; we’ve been saved from the judgment we were destined for. And we tell others about it because we want them to share in that same joy and hope.
Granted, Christians have abused hell over the centuries. They’ve used it as a scare tactic, a bragging tool or to make themselves better than others (which, given the theology I just explained, is sadly ironic). I wish there was less hell talk and more hope talk. I’ll fully admit that I get uncomfortable talking about hell; I get uncomfortable thinking about it.
But, as I’ve struggled to put both our greatest hope and our most uncomfortable belief into words here, I realize that both heaven and hell are beside the point. They’re not just final destinations we talk about. Rather, our discussion of them puts the focus back on Jesus. He is the one Christians turn to for hope of heaven. He is our deliverance from hell. In the middle of this discussion is the cross; it is literally the crux of the issue.
And any discussion that centers back there is one that I feel that is putting Christians back where they should be.