A true story:
A long time ago, a very powerful king built a 90 foot tall statue of himself. Upon its completion, he demanded that everyone in the land bow down and worship this statue thereby proclaiming the his godliness. Three brave young men refused and were brought before the king. He thundered at them and threatened them, but they would not worship him. He was not their God, they said. So, the king ordered them to be burned in a furnace heated to seven times its normal operating temperature. With hands and feet bound, they were thrown in; so hot was the fire that it killed the king’s men who dropped the young men over the side.
Last time I wrote I was thinking through a different view of the rewards promised to a Christian in the life beyond this life.
Lately, as a consequence of that view, I’ve been wondering about Hell as a place of eternal torment. Specifically, I’ve been troubled by the common idea that the Christian God, who is love, would send people to eternal torment.
And I am wondering about the nature of this place called Hell, the place from which many Christians say God is absent.
Just to be clear, I think there is such a “place” as Hell, maybe more a state of existence, really. Jesus refers to it by analogy to Gehenna, which in His time was “a deep, narrow glen to the south of Jerusalem…[it] became the common receptacle for all the refuse of the city. Here the dead bodies of animals and of criminals, and all kinds of filth, were cast and consumed by fire kept always burning” (Easton’s Bible Dictionary).
Neither am I questioning that there are consequences for one who steadfastly maintains that she or he has no use for God and His offer of forgiveness for our rejection of Him (Christians call this “sin”). Our repentance and His forgiveness are both necessary because even God cannot respect our free will and unilaterally repair a broken relationship.
So, to my wondering. First off, the common image of a wrathful God-the-Father and the loving God-the-Son would seem to somehow set God against Himself. Of course this cannot be; there is only one God. While there are good theological answers to this seeming paradox, I find the theology arguing for a wrathful God increasingly troubling. After all, the Apostle John says that God is love.
Second, there is no place God is not. He is everywhere, that’s one thing that makes Him God. Theologically, this is known as God’s omnipresence. King David, ancient Israel’s greatest king, as he writes this of God:
Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol [Hades], behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the dawn, if I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, even there Your hand will lead me, and Your right hand will lay hold of me.
So, if God is not bifurcated into love and wrath and if the omnipresent God is everywhere, then what sort of place must Hell be? Without going into an exhaustive review of theological arguments and word studies to make my case, let me say that Christians for centuries have thought differently about Hell than what so commonly comes to our minds today, which is the notion that a wrathful God sends people who reject Him to a place of eternal torture where He is absent.
As for Hell itself, I don’t think God set out to create a place of torment for unrepentant humans. As I said above, I think such a place exist, but the Bible says it was originally created for “Satan and his angels,” not for humans. To be a human in Hell is to be in a place God did not intend for us. After all, He wishes that none of us would live in Hell; however, He does respect our free will.
As for Hell being a place of eternal torment, I think it is, but maybe not for the reason so often assumed. Consider this quote:
…if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head. —Apostle Paul, biblical book of Romans, c12, v20
I’ve been wondering whether the Paul offers a clue here as he quotes King David’s son, Solomon, reported by the Bible to be the wisest man who ever lived. These words are not an exhortation to be nice to an “enemy” to spite them; rather, they acknowledge the very real human experience that being nice to an enemy will be miserable for them. Certainly we have all had the experience of receiving something nice from an other at whom we are angry. We simply don’t like to be the recipient of such kindness; perhaps this is one reason why humanitarian aid workers are sometimes killed when trying to help. The killers hate the religion/organization/country represented by these aid workers to the point of killing them for their kindness, which they can’t bear to receive.
I think there is something helpful in this for our view of God and Hell. There is an ancient view still held today in large segments of the Christian Church: God’s love is experienced as wrath and torment by those who have chosen to live their lives apart from Him. In other words, the same “consuming fire” of God that warms and comforts those who love Him also torments those who do not.
Consider the story of the three young men with which I began. Here is the rest of the story:
The king saw four men in the furnace, and they were dancing! God had joined the three in the fire! The three emerged from the fire completely unharmed, skin, hair, and clothes all unburned. Only their ropes had burned away.
For the three young men who followed God, the fire was protection and safety. For the king’s men it was death. Similarly, when God freed the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery more than 3000 years ago, to aid their escape He came between them and the army of Pharaoh:
The Cloud [of God] enshrouded one camp in darkness and flooded the other with light. The two camps didn’t come near each other all night.
In both these cases followers of God experienced God as life and those rejecting God experienced Him as death. Perhaps this is the difference between Heaven and Hell: Heaven is to eternally experience God’s love as warmth and beauty while Hell is to experience His love as eternal torment and pain—the same God who is love experienced radically different.
As I said above, the Bible is clear that Hell was not created for us in advance. Rather, it is a place created by the existence of our own free will and will be populated by those who have freely rejected God’s love. It must exist as an experience of God’s rejected love just as Heaven must exist as an experience of God’s accepted love.
We will all live eternally, we have no other options. God puts a choice before us for how we will experience Him through that eternity: as life or as death. Choose life. Choose Him, it is what God wants for each of us.