I do believe in hell. I just don’t believe in hell, the way most Christians, or the general public for that matter, does. I haven’t arrived at this understanding on my own. I didn’t imagine it or think it up myself. It’s not a belief I plotted and reasoned out myself. It was a view introduced to me by Christians in history and in the present. In other words, it’s not just wishful thinking or me picking and choosing which doctrines I like or don’t like.
What then do I mean when I say I believe in hell? I think I believe what is articulated here by David Bentley Hart. As many know, whether from my writings or personally, Hart is one of my favorite living American theologian/philosopher/scholars. Some do not care for him, but that usually has little to do with his actual scholarship, writings, or ideas. Please take the time to watch the entire video. It’s about 20 minutes long and well worth your time.
While Hart draws lines that lead directly to the last four years and our current political climate, I would ask you not let that distract from Hart’s greater points, which go much deeper than our current political moment in time.
He’s speaks of a “different class of the imprisoned.” He speaks of the “least of these” written of in Matthew 25 as “Christs by proxy.” Give that some thought. He says at one point:
“The failure to see the face of Christ in the poor, the infirmed, the refugee, and the prisoner is the soul’s condemnation.”
Heaven or hell are as close as the face looking back at us. But not just any face. When we fail to see Christ, choose not to see Christ, in the faces of the disenfranchised, those outside the camp, those not like us, the less powerful, then we condemn ourselves. We choose hell and make the Evil One our father—at least in those moments anyway.
According to Christian orthodoxy, all faces reflect the image of God. However, Christ has chosen the least of these to be him by proxy. Just as the religious leaders, teachers, and priests of that day could not see God in Christ, every generation thereafter, is challenged in the very same way—in moments of specificity. There is a recapitulation, a cycle that seems woven into time since the fall, wherein we get our chance to play out the very story told in the gospels. But who will we be? Will we be the ones who do not see Christ and even persecute him?
It’s easy to see God in the face of the well-off, the healthy, the beautiful, the young, the charming, the smiling face of privilege and prosperity. It’s easy to see God in the face of the powerful person. When it’s a face with skin the color of my own, from a similar background, economic class, religion, political party, or experience, it’s easy to see God in those faces. Those faces ask nothing of me and, in fact, can perhaps do something for me. Plus, they make me feel safe.
We treat those faces well. We recognize them, we communicate in various ways to them, “I see you.” It’s very much like we are looking in a mirror though. We often are just selfishly recognizing ourselves. We pat ourselves on the back, thinking, “See, I do recognize God in others.”
All well and good, but that is not what we are called to do in Matthew 25. That is not our challenge. Our challenge is to recognize Christ in the other—the least. Our challenge is to go “outside the camp” (Heb 13). That is where we will run into people who do not look like us, live like us, or experience life like us. These are the ones left out.
As Hart points out, we have no permanent city in this life and we are called to go outside the gate, outside the camp, for there Christ is and there is salvation. This is why nationalism is a heresy and patriotism too often a trap. We have no patriotism beyond a simple love of neighbor, which includes those outside the city, outside our nation or ethnic group.
Hell is bound up with our reaction and response to Christ in the least of these. We are not condemned because we failed to pray the “sinner’s prayer,” or join the right church. We are not condemned because we were baptized incorrectly or not at all. We are not condemned because we didn’t attend church regularly, tithe, have the right politics, theology, or share our faith.
We are damned because we refused to see Christ in the poor, the infirmed, the refugee, the thirsty, the hungry, and the prisoner. Paradoxically, this means we did not truly see each of these in their humanity and individuality, either. Our judgment is both now and not yet.
Heaven and hell are mere moments from each us; they dwell in the face of the person we encounter next and our response to that face. If we worry or wonder about who that person might be, we echo the question posed to Jesus in the gospels: “Who is my neighbor?” We know who it is. The Samaritan. The one either we or society have decided is less than us—the one on the margins, the one not like “us.” That one.
I do believe in hell. Lord have mercy.
I have a Patreon Page—please consider supporting my writing.