Credit: Steven Depolo — 2012 Festival of Arts Grand Rapids

Hell is for Real — But Not in the Way You Might Think

He was almost to the good part. And I was almost to the door.

“Johnny has tattoos, and he’s 20, and he wants nothing to do with God …”

“Nope,” I whispered to my then-girlfriend, and promptly stood up to leave.

I knew the story. So do you. A pastor with an education at a devotional seminary creates the straw man, and lets his poor interpretation of scripture do the rest.

“ … and then he’s hit by a bus!”

That escalated quickly.

It always does.

I reached to push open the doors that separated the chapel from reality, but was too late. Possibly sensing the departure of a soul to be saved, he hurriedly completed the story arc.

“JOHNNY IS GOING TO HELL!”

Well, shit.

In the Walter Mitty version of this story, I slowly turn toward the pulpit. As the door shuts behind me, the Stepford congregation collectively adjusts to my presence. I respond to the pastor’s inquisitive stance with a five minute rant on hell (or the lack thereof), his harmful theology, and how God isn’t so insecure that he needs some affirmation of his holiness from a 20 year old who probably listens to Mumford & Sons.

But while Johnny isn’t “going” there, the pastor was correct in one sense: hell is very real. It’s real in that it is a place of excruciating torment — maybe endlessly so. It’s real in that it’s a place of hopeless abandon. And to those who experience this very real hell, it can feel decidedly absent of God.

Indeed, hell is real. There’s no doubt about it.

Just ask the methamphetamine abuser who just lost custody of her daughter.

Or the 13-year old boy in the children’s cancer ward with the incurable brain tumor who, as of yesterday, can no longer see or hear. He’ll spend his last moments in darkness.

Or that boy’s parents.

Or the disfigured burn survivor, who has become reclusive due to society’s continued anathema against “different”.

Or the LGBT youth who, like any child, seeks friendship in school, but is instead denigrated by peers until suicide is the only option.

Given the opportunity, each would explain their position as hellish. A living nightmare. They’d say they are “going through hell.” And they would be correct.

Now imagine none identify with Christianity when they die.

Are they all going to … hell? Or back to hell? Does God kick their hell-after-life up a few notches, so not to be confused with their hell-on-earth?

Is hell both something you can experience in life and an unquenchable lake of fire that God, in his wrath, angrily tosses you into due to your insolence?

For the Calvinist, specifically, does God in his holy decree predestine a child to suffer unconscionable pain in this life, and upon the child’s death, sentence them to that same misery — forever?

Because they were created for that purpose?

And this god, this is a god worthy of worship?

And the boilerplate response is only, “His ways aren’t like our ways”?

Really?

Now, if you subscribe to the above, it’s probably worth knowing that academia has informed us that no, actually, Jesus wasn’t speaking of the after life when he spoke of “hell.” And the concept of eternal conscious torment simply isn’t biblically supported. Even John Calvin and Martin Luther couldn’t agree on exactly what the after life looked like — mostly because scripture doesn’t tell us a whole lot about it.

Sadly, most of what we think we know about hell comes from 14th century poetry.

But we don’t need to get wonky to extricate toxic beliefs from our religious repertoire. Rather, we can merely — and meekly — ask: is an angry, vindictive God capable of such evil found in the person of Jesus?

Is He found in the Jesus who commanded us to love even our enemy?

Is He found in the Jesus who came to the defense of an adulterous woman?

Is He found in the Jesus who healed the ear of Malchus?

Is He found in the Jesus who suffered and saved broken humanity at the cross?

The answer is simply “no.” If you hold to the view of the temperamental, angry, pagan god who endlessly tortures his own creation, you cannot simultaneously claim to follow Jesus — and then equate the two.

Sorry. Do not pass go. Do not collect salvation.

Now, imagine for a moment a world in which that pastor spent a handful of minutes on scripture, and the rest advocating that his congregants spend their week trying to rescue those already in the midst of hell.

What would that look like?

Would that more closely resemble Jesus?

Would that look a bit like the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven?

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