Hell: Tacit Knowledge and the Impossible Claims Some People Make

Hell: Tacit Knowledge and the Impossible Claims Some People Make October 30, 2015
Copyright: karenr / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: karenr / 123RF Stock Photo

This is a guest post by Matthew Distefano, whose book “All Set Free: How God is Revealed in Jesus and Why That is Really Good News” was recently published by Wipf and Stock. Read more of Matthew’s excellent work at his website All Set Free and at the Raven Foundation.

Tacit knowledge is the sort of knowledge that is experienced. It is difficult, if not impossible, to use language to explain it. An example should make this clear so let me offer one.

If I wanted to prove that I knew how to ride a bicycle, what proof would I offer? Would I state something like, “When analyzing bicycle stability it is common to use two parameters; the lean angle and steering angle of the bike” or, rather, simply model that I have experienced riding a bike? I believe the answer is self-evident.

If I merely explained the physics of how to ride a bike to somebody, I would not have transferred any knowledge to the person. They would have to get on a bike, find the balance point, learn how to pedal, and experience all the ins and outs that go into actually riding the bike. Then they would tacitly know how to ride a bike, which of course, is the only way to know how to ride a bike. The same thing goes for love and since God is love I think you see where I will be going with this.

Hopefully all of us have experienced love in one way or another. If we have, then we all have knowledge that cannot be put into words. Transferring the knowledge of what it felt like to hold my daughter, Elyse, for the first time, will never be accomplished. Yet, for those who have held their own newborn child, we all just sort of know what we are trying to talk about when we talk about the experience. The same thing can be said about the love of God.

So, why then, do so many Christians make impossible claims about God, the nature of the supposed dualistic afterlife God has set up (assuming that there should be an afterlife at all), and how he relates to and with his son Jesus? For instance, how can we claim that God is love, which we’ve all experienced, and also that he is the creator of, let’s say, a place or state of everlasting torment, which based on our experience, cannot possibly be the product of love?

Think about it!

People can quote their favorite Bible verse all they want—and assuming their interpretation is the correct one—but having never experienced love in their own lives doing such a thing, this common Western eschatological view tacitly carries little weight. Should one of our loved ones behave in the same way many people claim God does, there is no doubt we would not consider that love. But somehow it is if God does it?

Now, if we choose to listen to what Scripture does say about the afterlife, we can certainly find a strong statement in Revelation 21:4, where John the Revelator envisions a time when God will “wipe every tear from their eyes.” How can any human being possibly say this unless there is hope that all will be reconciled in the end?

Again, think about it!

One can shout until they are blue in the face that God may make those in heaven ignorant to the existence of their lost loved ones or even sicker, that the torment of the damned—which inevitably includes those same loved ones—would be viewed as something to give glory to God for, but these claims again cannot be experienced. Thus, it would seem utterly irresponsible for John to tell us that someday, all of our pain, sorrow, grief, guilt, hurt, and torment would melt away unless he envisioned a time when all who ever existed would live in harmony with one another forever.

Certainly, should we actually believe that we will no longer see our sons and daughters, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers; we would live in a state of hopelessness and thus, lose our very humanity. I feel as if everyone, including John the Revelator, knows that in their “gut.” I feel this way because I have experienced such a strong love for my wife and daughter that I cannot believe I would ever be consoled should either one of them be lost from me forever. If they are someday lost—or if anyone is for that matter—I would have to include the Apostle Paul as being just as irresponsible as John when he mocks death itself in 1 Corinthians 15:55. Indeed, death stings like hell should the dualistic ending to the human story in fact be the correct one, as many Christians often unflinchingly claim it is.

Now, I would like to address one other claim that a large portion of these very same Christians make about God, which is that in order for the Father to forgive our sins, he had to have his son sacrificed first. I will be blunt: there cannot be a single Christian who has ever experienced a claim such as this. Again, interpreting Scripture is one thing, but without the possibility of tacitly knowing this supposed “truth,” how much attention should such a theory garner? I say: not much! As a father, to experience this would force me to become a monster. As a son, I would have to become a victim of my father’s insanity. Either way, to experience penal substitutionary atonement theory is to experience darkness but in God there is no darkness at all. Selah!

Drawing from my own tacit knowledge, I can honestly say that I have experienced God in multiple ways—both his wrath and his mercy. During my younger years, when I was more angry and resentful, I experienced God’s love as wrath. My view of God was through the lens of anger and hostility—wood, hay, and stubble as Paul would put it[1]—and the purifying flames of God’s love seared as if it were vengeance and wrath. However, when I began to consent to God’s love and when I began to follow the Way of Jesus, the Father’s steadfast love was now experienced as such. I was the one who changed, not God.

I believe that all who have experienced love have experienced the divine. That love is the grounding of our existence. It permeates the cosmos and self-evidently can only be known by experience. Once this is truly experienced, no darkness can overcome it (John 1:5). In the end, no darkness will. At least, that is the hope I have based on my experiences.

Let us at least have hope.


[1] 1 Corinthians 3:12.

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  • Jefferson W. Slinkard

    Very well done!

    • Matthew Distefano

      Thank you!

  • cken

    I love the style of argument the author uses. First you start with a premise that is false or at best tenuous i.e. God created hell. Then in addition he fails to define either heaven or hell other than a brief reference to a phrase presumably from Dante’s Inferno. Failing on these two points he then proceeds to make his point that God’s love can be wrathful.

    • Matthew Distefano

      I’m not making an argument. I’m using the arguments/evidence others make to draw absurd conclusions. The premise “God created hell” is what some people claim and I am showing that to be tacitly impossible to “know.”

  • Father Thyme

    Do you really believe in the mythological Norse underworld of Loki’s daughter Hell? Or the mythological Greek underworld of Zeus’ brother Hades, like Jesus did?

    Mentioning the Jesus character, he never used the Germanic-Anglo-Saxon term heaven. Οὐρανός/Ouranos/Uranus was his mythological Big Fat Greek Sky Father.

    • “for the kingdom of Uranus is at hand” (Matthew 3:2)
    • “a voice from Uranus saying” (Matthew 3:17)

    I’ll stick with the rational viewpoint of the Qoheleth, that is, you will have no reward more and no advantage over General Custer’s dead horse or Captain Kidd’s dead parakeet.

    • Ecclesiastes 9:5-10 For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten…in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.
    • Ecclesiastes 3:19-20 Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.