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At seventeen years old, I took the dramatic step that almost every new Christian makes by accepting Jesus Christ as my personal Savior. I can honestly say experiencing the love and grace of God for the first time is difficult to describe in words, but the best I can do is to say it was emotional, exhilarating and relieving as though a massive weight was lifted from my heart. I’m sure my raging teenage hormones played a significant role in this experience. However, what led me to such an incredible spiritual encounter was not made out of an attraction to the divine, but a decision that was made out of fear.
As someone who had been viciously bullied in school, one of the things I struggled with the most was my ability to forgive. It’s easy to dwell on the past and harbor my anger towards my adversaries, but it’s also just as easy to allow that resentment to come out in the way I treat others. In reality, I’m no better than the ones who treated me unfairly by allowing those experiences to dictate my life and hurt others in the process. After hearing a guest speaker at a youth camp preach about how God desires for us to forgive one another, I was deeply moved. I came to the realization that if I can’t forgive those who have caused hurt in my life, how can I expect God to forgive me for worse things?
It was that fear of the unseen eternal consequences that drove me to make such a drastic, life-altering decision.
“God is Love!”
This phrase is commonly tossed around ad nauseam in most Christian circles. As the Bible recollects, humanity fell into Original Sin at the beginning of creation; and throughout history, God established different covenants with His followers that involved rituals and sacrifices in order to free them from their sins. But after humanity continued to repeatedly fail at upholding these practices due to their own wickedness, God established a new and everlasting covenant by offering Himself as a human-incarnate sacrifice once for all for the salvation of those who believe in Him.
But how can a God of love send people to Hell? Seems like a total paradox, doesn’t it?
If there exists a god of love, it makes no sense to me why he would create some people for Paradise and others to suffer eternal torment. Even the first book of the Bible gives an account that God saw His Creation as something good, not something disposable.
I used to believe there were two different kinds of people in this world: those who were saved through faith in Jesus, and those who were predestined for damnation. This was largely based on what I was taught in youth group when I identified as an Evangelical. In some ways, I feel like American Christian culture has created a false dichotomy for people to make judgmental assumptions that their faith automatically justifies a free ride to Heaven – while every other person on Earth is viewed as a walking corpse. In my own observation, this worldview stems from a theology called Calvinism, which was an invention of the 16th century in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. I’ve written an article dedicated to my personal thoughts on Calvinism which can be read here.
Perhaps Hell is just a medieval myth invented by religious institutions in order to control the masses and manipulate them into fearful submission? The Roman Catholic Church certainly has had to answer for grave abuses such as the selling of indulgences among laypeople and clergy. Such a practice is certainly a black mark in Catholic history which was later addressed and corrected by the Church at the Council of Trent. Even certain televangelist media outlets were infamous for duping audiences into donating money to their ministries, hoping they would receive special ‘blessings’ by God for their generosity. In my perspective, these fall under what the Bible categorizes as the sin of simony (Acts 8:8-10).
In our postmodern culture, it is common to hear the the phrase, ‘There are no wrong paths.‘ So if God is love, then maybe there is a possibility that all will be saved? Surely, He desires all of humanity to be in a relationship with Him and nobody would actually have to be tormented forever, right?
Universalism is an ideology that suggests everyone will be saved after death, regardless of what path in life they have chosen. While this sounds like a lovely perspective, the problem with this theology is it makes allowance for a denial of the differences between sin and righteousness, or good and evil. If everyone is saved in the end, then surely Heaven must be full of willfully unrepentant evil-doers. It’s a belief-system that nullifies any need for repentance, rendering Jesus’ crucifixion as a meaningless sacrifice.
To me, this is not an good indicator of a god who is perfectly just, but a deity who cares very little about individual accountability and injustice.
The interesting thing about justice is it usually involves a punishment that revokes certain privileges or rights. I think everyone can relate to an experience where they were in trouble with their parents, friends or teachers at school, employers at work or with the law. In the case of criminal behavior, sometimes detention, being grounded, a hefty fine or community service are lighter forms of punishment whereas a lifetime sentence in prison or capital punishment is much more severe for crimes of the highest degree.
Could Adolf Hitler possibly be in Paradise after being responsible for the mass genocide of over 6 million Jews? How does someone repent, have a clean slate or undo the damage caused from such an atrocious act? In a worldly sense, had Hitler not committed suicide after realizing defeat in WWII, he would have been put on trial for crimes against humanity, imprisoned and executed. Is it possible that he would have suddenly realized the errors of his ways in the last remaining moments of his life and pleaded to God for forgiveness? What if he realized the enormity of his iniquities in the midst of his defeat and felt like he were better off dead – similar to how Judas realized what he had done to Jesus after betraying Him? The Bible does not say whether Judas went to Hell, but some would argue that he displayed a repentant attitude by returning the thirty pieces of silver before going off to hang himself. I would argue that these theories are possible, but I’m in no position to give a definite answer to that. Either way, both Judas and Hitler would have had to answer to their Maker for everything they were accountable for.
But on the flip side, how beautiful would it be if a murderer met his victim in the afterlife and sincerely apologized for his actions – all the while receiving forgiveness from the one he had done wrong to. Some people actually realize the gravity of their wrongdoing and, by the grace of God, make a conscious effort to change their ways. Some also find themselves so overcome by their own struggles that they fall back into their old habits, while others willfully refuse to change. The thought of a place of eternal torment may seem quite unpopular, it is a truly necessary factor as for why Jesus would die as a sacrifice for sins.
If God is all-powerful, surely He can create a world where nobody would have to suffer physically, emotionally, mentally or spiritually. But if God is real and is a relational being, He probably wouldn’t receive much satisfaction from robotic submission. Surely, the only way to fully appreciate divine love is to have the ability to choose – to love willingly.
If God respects our free will enough, then perhaps He doesn’t actually send us to Hell? That would mean the door is locked from the inside.
Perhaps we choose to go to Hell rather than God sending us there?
This is where the concept of Purgatory began to make sense to me. If there are people in isolated places on Earth who have had absolutely no formal introduction to a relationship with Christ, how can God condemn these people to Hell for eternity? This also led me to understand why Jews, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians pray for their dead. While it is common for people to mistake Purgatory for an extension of Hell, the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes it as a ‘waiting room’ or a ‘shower’ before entering Paradise (CCC 1030), similar to what the Bible describes as Abraham’s bosom (Luke 16:22-23). This opens up the possibility that the sacrifice of Christ extends to those people who might be judged according to geographical factors and a willingness to respond to God’s grace.
But I also believe it’s important not to mistake Purgatory as a ‘second chance’ at salvation, since the Scriptures say,
“And just as it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment,” – Hebrews 9:27 RSV
Historians know Jesus existed and ignited a religious movement that changed the face of humanity forever. But if He was only a man and nothing more, then we ought to carry on with our lives and forget about what happens after we die or the ramifications of how we treat people on Earth.
If there is no God, then we are accountable to no one.
But what if Jesus really is God? What if He did rise from the dead and ascend into Heaven? What if everything He said is true?
In fact, no other person talked about Hell more than Jesus Himself. No amount of euphemisms or so-called ‘progressive’ interpretations can change the historical context of Scripture. If the Early Apostles and Church Fathers confirmed what Jesus said about Hell, I don’t think our present-day minds would know any better than those who knew Him firsthand.
If the existence of Hell is true, it shouldn’t all of a sudden change its definition or cease to exist just because the cultural majority doesn’t accept it. To put it bluntly, for Christians to believe in a God of love yet to deny the existence of Hell is to completely negate a sense of true justice.
One of the things that drove me up the wall in the past was how it seemed like the only thing that drives religious people to do good deeds and treat people respectfully was their fear of damnation. I can honestly say that atheists are absolutely right in saying that people ought be kind to one another and do the right thing – not because of fear of divine retribution, but because we ought to. As Christians, the driving force behind our motivation to do good should not be a selfish fear for our own souls, but for a selfless love for God. As the Bible says,
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love.” -1 John 4:18 RSV
Granted these thoughts, I believe God is perfectly loving, but I also believe God is also perfectly just. And in my perspective, a love that isn’t just is not love at all but pure apathy.