Imagine a father has five sons. The sons grow up in a modest house and work hard for everything they have. One day when the sons were grown up the father came to two of his sons and told them that he had built lavish mansions for all five of them, outfitted with the most luxurious conditions imaginable. For each son the gift was theirs but with only one small catch – they had to sign a piece of paper stating that they believed the father in what he said. If they signed they got the mansions and the good life for the rest of the their lives. The catch was that if they did not they would then be sold into slavery where they would be tortured until they died. The other part was that the father was tired and didn’t have the strength to tell the other sons and left it to the two to tell the others.
One son immediately signed and left with his bags for the mansion with a huge smile on his face, telling one of his brothers on the way out of town, who signed and promptly followed. The other son told by the father was at first shocked and somewhat sceptical. He took some time before signing but eventually did. He decided he should contact his other brothers, who had moved from their childhood home, before he left for his mansion. He traveled to visit one brother to tell him. This brother was skeptical, as he had lived with his mother most of his life and did not know much about his father. He found it hard to believe that he had only two options and thought that maybe his father was a little off or his brother was leading him on, trying to get his signature for one reason or another. Having no access to his father directly, he declined to sign and decided it must have been a bad joke. After his brother left he was almost immediately whisked up taken into slavery where he proceeded to live out his years plagued by the worst kinds of suffering.
Finally returning from his failed journey, the brother told by his father decided to send word to his final brother, who had left for a far away place at a young age, with the paper to sign by messenger. After several months of not hearing back, he decided to retire to his mansion as well, fearing this brother would also lack belief. Little did he know that his message was thwarted by bandits on the road and never made it the intended recipient. As such, the final brother was also nabbed and sold into slavery, tortured for the rest of his miserable life.
Because the offer was given for reward, could the father be considered loving and kind and just for his gesture, even though the punishment for not believing was so unspeakably horrible? Could we today speak with someone who acted the part of the father in this story and think of him as loving and kind, or would we look at his actions as appalling and of the worst kind of evil? Could you sit quietly by and let a friend of yours do this to his family, content in the knowledge that they had the option and the father in his wisdom had a reason for it?
I hear it proclaimed that God is just for this behavior because He is all knowing and far superior to our own personal morals, that we could not hope to understand morality the way God sees it. But how can this be true? Why is the church not seeking to reconcile the act of a loving God with its theology? Why is the thought about hell not existing such a, offensive idea when eternal punishment for some who could not know be considered just and loving?
Hell is not the act of a loving God. Hell is an invention of man used for the control of the actions, motivations, and behaviors of people who look to the very giver of these measures for examples of righteous living ordained by the creator of the universe who loves them deeply.
Hell is not defined by the Bible. In theology it is said that Jesus spoke more about hell than any other topic. In reality, Jesus spoke of places like the grave and Gehenna and in those terms Jesus is making analogies about Hell; as in Jesus said hell was like… If Jesus spoke so much about what a place was like, then why didn’t he at any point speak the name of the place? Why didn’t he say “will be in danger of the fire of hell, a place like Gehenna”? Instead he said ‘will be in danger of the fire of Gehenna”, a word translated hell. Is it possible that the same terms used with the word “hell” are also the words used to describe them? In essence, are they one in the same and hence either the word is used to describe what it is like and needs an original term or is simply the place translated into hell? It seems as though there is no Greek word used for Hell, only other places mentioned and translated as Hell. For reference, Gehenna was a valley outside of Jerusalem where trash was burned. It was also where social outcasts were sent. Jesus mentioned a very literal place, but it was not the hell of eternal doom.
With the word Hell why isn’t there a first principle argument where Jesus states the item and the definition, then using analogies to describe the place? If I were to mention Nebraska I would not do it by simply making statements about it such as “a place with corn in abundance where the prairie meets the plain” and expect people to know exactly what I am referring to. Of course, from the argument that it was an accepted known concept to Jews at the time, when Jesus traveled to Jerusalem he did not say “I’m off to a place with a wall, where fundamentalists curse new ideas and stone adulterers.” He said Jerusalem!
Jesus was not speaking of eternity in the New Testament, he was speaking of community. His concern was that we would have life to the fullest, not that we wouldn’t suffer for eternity in a place of eternal torment. We create hell, we make hell. But I do not believe we can go to Hell. I certainly don’t believe Jesus did either. History is filled with stories of the life and death of heroes who were killed for an idea that would change the world and the way people lived. Why would this not be the same?
To make matters worse, I don’t believe that most anyone really believes in Hell. For example, lets say you were driving down the street heading to see a movie and happen to drive by a kindergarten school filled with kids but with the doors locked and one side of the building on fire. The windows are open and hundreds of kids are poking their heads out screaming for help and you can see smoke in the background slowly fill the rooms. Would you stop? Would it be possible to NOT stop? Would that image of the kids being burned to death be so imprinted on your conscience that you could not do anything but stop; or would you be compelled to continue on to your movie, pleased as punch with your life as it is and the lovely car you’re driving?
Is not hell and the idea of it like this? If one really believes in hell as a reality for most of the planet, how could one do ANYTHING but something about this? How could you go out to eat, take a vacation, read nice stories to your children, dream of nicer cars, consider new furniture, or even casually watch TV when the world around you will be tormented for all eternity in the worst conditions even imaginable?
Could it be that Christianity does not actually believe in the existence of Hell more than just a cursory concept to be avoided? Or, is it possible that the concept is so egregious that the very concept can not be contained in the mind, thereby leaving the chosen free of the conscious guilt of its existence?
More than not I believe that no one really believes more than in the sense that they are free of having to suffer this punishment. Belief in Hell is no more than a human inspired dichotomy of sacred and profane extremes, resulting in the extravagant paradox of God’s unfailing love and the unrelenting suffering some, but not the chosen, must endure because of something we can not understand or be allowed to understand by God’s design. For when the religious do not understand or there are holes in theology, it is said to be because God did not reveal this to us or we were not meant to know. How is it that the Bible is a road map for our daily lives but something so absolutely crucial is kept from our knowledge? How was this not shouted to us from the heavens? How is it that we can not fully comprehend the idea of something so horrible we are destined for it unless we believe Jesus?
The question that most troubled me as an Evangelical was how the act of creating a system in which most if not all of your creation would suffer for all eternity was the act of a loving God. The reply I most often received, quite literally, was some variation of “just because”, which is not an answer. Quite simply, sending the majority of creation to hell, most of which without the option of knowing other wise, is not the act of a loving or righteous God.