Hell cannot exist.
That was the realization I came to after considering the doctrine of hell I was taught, where hell was composed of two parts: Hades and the Lake of Fire.
As told to me, when a non-Christian dies, their soul is taken by angels and put into Hades, which you can think of as a holding cell. It’s a bleak place where the damned are conscious and are suffering. And when Jesus returns, He kills all of the unrighteous and sends them there. He puts the devil into a pit, has the Antichrist and the false prophet thrown into the lake of fire, and establishes an earthly kingdom. At the end of His millennial kingdom (and yes, we will get into that whole bizarre doctrine later) He lets the devil out again, who goes out and deceives all of the people who remain, at which point God annihilates the universe, throws the devil into the lake of fire too, has Hades opened up, judges all of the non-believers and sends them to the lake of fire where they are tortured forever and ever and ever.
And then all of the Christians gather around for another rousing praise song and march off into eternity blissfully happy and joyous as the screams of the damned and the smoke of their burning continue to waft up to the heavens. Amen.
So today we’re talking about that version of hell. Hell as a place God created. Hell as a place God will condemn the souls of non-believers to an eternity of torture for their unforgiven sins.
That hell cannot exist. Now I have read up on the topic, but I’m going to skip throwing a bunch of scripture references at you and stick with the realizations I had as I thought about eternal hell.
Hell cannot exist because it is not just.
Let us say, that you broke the law today. You sped on the freeway on your way to work. And let’s say that a policeman caught you and arrested you. It’s not unheard of, but it is a bit odd. So you’re placed in prison. And no one ever comes for you. Day after day, week after week, your pleas to the police fall on deaf ears.
Then after decades, you are brought out to a judge who tells you that the evidence of your crime is sufficient. The policeman had a radar reading on you and shadowed your vehicle for several minutes gauging your speed. You admit guilt and the judge sentences you to life in prison where you are to be tortured for the rest of your life.
Is that a just sentence?
We, as human beings made in the image of God have been given a sense of what is right and wrong. We do not punish minor offenses with torture or death any longer. We recognize that as unjust. So why would we expect something different of God?
The apologist will, no doubt, simply state that of course I would believe that in my own sinfulness and human perspective. But God is higher than us and holier than us and more just than us, so surely no matter how infernal and wrong torture may seem (let alone ETERNAL torture), because God does so, it must be just.
To which I would simply say, when we pray for holiness or to be more like God, are we praying to be more loving towards one another or are we asking God to bring us to a place where we celebrate torture and human suffering?
Which leads into the next point. Hell cannot exist as the evangelical has defined it because of the church. Or rather, so long as there is a hell, there cannot be a heaven.
The author of the apocryphal book the Revelation of Peter recognizes this. In it, after spending some time describing what hell is like and what the tortures of the damned will be, the writer has Peter grieving at their fate, and being told by Jesus that because of the pleas of the church, God will grant them mercy and allow them into heaven eventually, but Peter reportedly tells his disciple Clement to seal that answer up so people don’t assume they can skip out on following Christ and expect to get off scot free.
The author recognizes the tension between the idea of heaven as a place where the Christians will live in happiness and bliss and the idea of hell as an ongoing, neverending torture chamber where everyone else is consigned.
Would a Christian be happy and blissful knowing that his loved ones and friends were suffering so and would suffer so forever and ever and ever without end or even a brief pause in the torture? I very much doubt this. To do so, God would either have to violate his mind and wipe the memory of his loved ones from them, or violate his love for his friend or family and his conscience and transform him into something that would applaud and rejoice at such a fate.
Hell lastly cannot exist in that form as it violates the described nature of God.
God is depicted as a father. One who sits on his porch waiting and searching for his wayward children. Throwing a party when they come home. Accepting them as His children.
First, while I have spanked my child as punishment before (which I now regret), it was of a brief duration intended to correct their behavior. I would never, and no good parent would ever, consider an unending beating of my child regardless of his transgression.
Secondly, how odd it is that God’s love is like a lightswitch in this case. He is full of love and mercy and ready to forgive all one second before death, and yet vengeful and incapable of mercy one second following death.
There are expanded arguments against this version of hell elsewhere, but I have limited time.
And none of this is to say that a different version of hell does not exist. There are multiple other possibilities.
1. Hell is something we carry within us. Our sins, our selfishness, our misdeeds cause pain that isolates us. Our refusal to seek forgiveness further builds walls. And a lifetime of these deeds eventually will separate us from others and from God, so that when we die, we become the outsider looking in at the party, unable or unwilling to go in and let the isolation end.
2. Hell as a temporal punishment where every man is repaid according to his deeds. Punishment fitting the crime, as it were, where we are made to realize the pain we’ve caused others, the suffering, and all the ways our conduct made the world a little bit worse and we suffer others’ pain as our own.
3. Hell is simply the unprepared soul’s response to God’s nature. God is described as a consuming fire. Christians are said that they will pass through a trial by fire when they die burning off their sins. Unbelievers are described as entering a lake of fire. It could be that the same ‘fire’ or love or holiness that purifies a prepared soul will burn and drive away an unprepared one.
4. Annihilation. This would still cause pain to Christians, but in the context of eternity, the memories would likely fade and allow the sorrow to be replaced with joy.
None of these would demand an eternal separation. And I think the first option we can see in action in the world today as humans inflict suffering upon each other and share the fruits of hell.
There are problems with universalism too, but I’ve gone on long enough for one blog post. I’d recommend reading up more on the topic. There has always been a strain of universalism within the church and it would be worth your time if, like me, you’ve encountered a bit of a problem with the idea of hell you were taught.