I don’t talk about it much these days, but sometimes I think about hell.
I was reminded of the topic when I was on the Life After God podcast with Ryan Bell last week. (It’s seriously amazing to me how one good conversation can spark so many others.) One of the questions that Ryan asked me (about twenty minutes in) was what some of the “last threads to break” were for me, the last beliefs that I discarded from my own Christian views. That answer came very easily for me: the traditional doctrine of hell.
As I said then, I came to this question at a point where I wasn’t actively arguing for Christianity anymore, having been frustrated so many times in my attempts to fashion for myself a rational worldview out of the one that had been handed to me as a child. But I was still reading what Christians were writing, although they tended to be a bit more liberal and heterodox. (Well, unless I was reading evangelicals to dissect the arguments they were making.)
By this point, I didn’t think much about hell. For all the “turn or burn,” fire-and-brimstone, shouting-at-the-devil kind of preaching that I heard growing up, the existential fear of hell never really stuck for me. But that’s not to say that I never thought about it, and most of what drew my thoughts to it was not my own fears or apprehensions about my eternal soul but the suffering of others.
I knew the traditional view, of course, but I had no real idea that other perspectives like annihilationism or universalism existed. Once I started looking into those, particularly universalism, I began to see why this version of hell — which I never argued for in my Internet crusades — seemed so odious to so many of the non-Christians, particularly atheists, that I encountered.
I never quite got the clarity I needed on that, I don’t think, until I saw the movie What Dreams May Come.
I was familiar with Richard Matheson’s work before watching the movie (I hadn’t read the book, nor have I since), but the movie surprised me given its departure from his other works of horror and suspense. But what I really found compelling was the descent into hell of the protagonist Chris Nielsen, played superbly by the late Robin Williams.¹
(Warning: Intense imagery.)
Thematically, I have much to object to in the film, particularly the mystical elements and the “soulmates” frame that drives the plot, but what draws me to the descent is the idea of someone you love (here, Chris’s wife Annie) being stuck in hell, and you’ll be damned if you’re not going to try and rescue them. And if that doesn’t work, self-sacrifice is better than separation.
God is not a character in the story arc of What Dreams May Come (although she is mentioned in passing occasionally in the film). All of the assistance that Chris receives is from other inhabitants of this ethereal afterlife, but the system is set up by God. And in the end, it takes a person — not a divine messenger — to know someone is suffering and to try and do something about it.
Compare that with, say, the story of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:
“He [the rich man] answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.'”
In other words, “They’ve got the book. Let ’em read it.”
Could there be a starker contrast? One human sees someone suffering and tries to stop it, even defying the natural order to do so. Another callously says, “Go read your scriptures. Not my problem.”
The lesson of What Dreams May Come ultimately is one of triumphant love, of a deep bond that even hell itself cannot break. What gets lost in that lesson is the observation that none of it should have ever been necessary. God is not held to account in this scenario.
Traditionalists will try their damnedest to wriggle out of this dilemma. Some will appeal to God’s justice (as though perpetrating a greater injustice will resolve that) or God’s holiness (as though it is actually moral to discard sentient beings like so much garbage). I could never find their arguments compelling.
For some Christians, the solution is a God that “draws all men” to herself, that desires all people to be reconciled. And that is, all else aside, a god that at least seems to have a modicum of compassion.
But for me, Hell was just another reason that Christianity didn’t make sense to me anymore, and it wouldn’t take me long to finally admit to myself what that really meant.
Screencap via YouTube