A few years ago Rob Bell shocked the evangelical world by saying out loud what a lot of us were thinking: that maybe our old ideas of hell weren’t really valid. He was questioning the idea that people who don’t believe exactly like we do will spend eternity in everlasting torture, separated from God and from anything good.
It makes sense that he would question this traditional perspective. After all, most everything traditional about how we practice Christian faith is under the microscope of a changing society these days. And for those of us who like to preach that faith in Jesus Christ is, at its core, about love and reconciliation and peace…well, it makes even more sense. It’s hard to be reconciled to someone who believes differently than you do when you keep telling them they are going to hell.
So, I was on board. Hell is something we create for ourselves here and now. God wants to be in loving relationship with all people. As Christ-followers, we live our lives in this world on a constant quest for reconciliation, forgiveness, and love. And we don’t open conversation about our faith with people who believe differently by telling them they are going to burn for all eternity if they don’t agree with us.
Lately, though, I’ve begun to wonder.
The source of my wondering comes, not from any biblical study or deep theological conviction about afterlife or the character of God, but just plain old life experience. The more I hang around, the more I doubt the mantra of my ever-optimistic friend who loves to tell me: “Every dog has his day!”—her version of what goes around comes around. I’m beginning to suspect that this mantra is not, in fact, true. Every dog does not have his day. Sometimes doing the right thing doesn’t end up for the best. People who hurt others repeatedly and intentionally very often get away with it. Evil people prosper. Sometimes good peoples’ lives are full of painful circumstances that are really unfair.
In my job I am confronted with peoples’ raw pain all the time, and I don’t know what to do with those realities. I could repeat my friend’s mantra over and over and will it to be true. But I just don’t think that’s going to work for me anymore.
Which leads me back to the concept of hell. Rather than hell being eternal torture for people who don’t believe exactly right, what if there really is a hell and it’s the place where every dog has his day? I mean, after life in this world is over and done, you get what’s coming to you—even if you didn’t get it during your lifetime?
Any responsible theologian will tell you that you can’t just create theological concepts for the purpose of expediency, but what about defining theological positions for the purpose of being able to get up in the morning and face the day? Isn’t that what religion is partly for anyway—us, feeling around in the dark, trying to say things about God that we think might be true so that we can make some kind of sense out of this broken world in which we live?
There’s so much about being human that’s so unfair. Wouldn’t it be comforting to know that people who are mean and hurtful and vindictive will be called on some eternal carpet while folks who did their best and always chose the high road will win out, finally?
Of course, this only works if you’re a person who’s always kind, generous, thoughtful, long suffering, etc. Since even the good ones among us screw up sometimes, maybe my punitive concept of hell won’t work after all. Otherwise, if we’re honest, we’d all have to end up there for one reason or another.
Nevertheless, as theologically unsound as it may be, I may just hang onto my idea of hell. At least today, anyway. Not for purposes of grand theological inquiry, but just for getting out of bed to face the day.
Anybody with me?