What if There Isn’t?

TIME Magazine wimped out.  On the cover was the provocative question “What if There’s no Hell?”  The article inside hardly dealt with the question.  Instead of wrestling with something philosophically interesting, they wrote about debate sparked by Love Wins, a new book from Rob Bell, pastor of a non-denominational megachurch.  I haven’t read it, so I’ll summarize from reviews.  The book suggests it is possible that the love of God will redeem all people, even if it occurs after death.  The reason that is controversial is that Rob Bell is a rock star among Evangelicals, and orthodox Christians say that anyone who hasn’t accepted Jesus as the only son of God by the time they die will go to hell, a place of eternal pain and punishment.  No second chances.

This is quite a black & white position to take considering our information about what happens after death is pretty sketchy.  I sure don’t know, and to be flip about it, I’m not dying to find out.  I am unable to reconcile the idea of an everlasting loving parent called God, with anyone who would maintain a permanent torture chamber.  If God needed a place like that, then God would have to be an abusive parent.

I believe that love is God.  It works the other way around too, but I prefer to put it that way.  The energy is more important than the name.  Let’s assume just for discussion’s sake that our energy retains identity after death.  I could see reasons to have a time-out space after death, like you might make available for any child who has been unhappy or who has misbehaved.  Help may be provided for us to fully understand the cost of our misdeeds and mistakes undertaken while we lived.  Perhaps people are given an adjustment space in a form relevant to their former lives.  In my case, it’s probably an edit bay where I’ll get to review the tapes from the cosmic nanny-cams.

Only humans could be cruel enough to threaten those seeking truth with eternal damnation if they don’t profess faith in a certain fashion word-for-word.  It takes unrepentant hubris to do that.  You don’t set your wayward child on fire and add fuel whenever the flame burns low.  That concept of hell didn’t come from God.  It’s from the animal in us, the cornered beast that attacks out of fear.

Part of what muddied the waters is the problem of translation.  Much of what ended up as “hell” in English was originally either “hades” or “sheol”.  Both those words are just a name for where the spirits of dead people go.  There’s nothing about eternal fire or punishment in those words.  The word “tartarus” is used once.  That’s a pit in hades where you get put, like solitary confinement, if you truly blew it.  It’s a holding cell, and it isn’t permanent.

Which leaves only the word “gehenna”.  Jesus used that word for hell.  Gehenna’s a highly metaphorical label from Jewish tradition.  Over many centuries it came to represent the name for a place where the wicked had to go after death to become purified.  Maximum sentence – one year, except for five guys who supposedly got afterlife sentences.  I have my doubts about the five guys.  That’s the human tendency to withhold forgiveness creeping into the story.  For the rest, when the year’s over, everyone either moves on past the waiting room or the bad guy energy gets consumed if it isn’t fixable.  Sounds like sensible recycling to me.  Put the fuel to use.  No need for torture.

In short, if you study what’s written, the place of permanent punishment unwise preachers and others have threatened people with probably doesn’t exist.  A loving God would have no need for it.  But what about heaven or hell on Earth?  To me, that’s where the concepts are most applicable in daily life.

Every time I act from weakness, fear and unkindness, the gates of hell open.  I risk being consumed.  But when I bring joy, or comfort to the wounded, or can offer compassion, patience and forgiveness, I can hear angels singing.  My place in the heaven life can be is assured.


Filed under Ethics and Morality, forgiveness, Metaphysics, symbolism

25 responses to “What if There Isn’t?

  1. I think some of my troubles come from the holy roller hell school I was at. I worried about hell all the time and if I was really a Christian. We all do things we shouldn’t as told in the bible and if I get held accountable one day I’m in trouble. As soon as a child is old enough to pray if they dont become Christians and they die, hellfire awaits is what I was told. That means there’s five year-olds in hell. It almost put me off religion altogether. My best friend wears long dresses and never cuts her hair so she gets into heaven. We’ve stopped talking about religion, but I can barely say whatever I really think, which means I’m lonely because she’s my only friend my own age. Blah, and when did this become about me?
    It’s comforting to think I’m not on a one way ticket to hell.
    What about the Adam and Eve thing? It all seems to be parable-like? Why curse everyone?

    • Ps, that doesn’t mean I’d trade her though. We’re just different. She’s a great friend and a wonderful person.

      • I hadn’t heard that heaven could have a dress code. I mean, what’s the point without a body? I guess she’s trying not to “profane the temple”. If you want to exalt the gift of having a body, you have to eat well, sleep enough, exercise and not put toxic stuff in it. I have friends I can’t talk religion or politics with too. They have no idea what I really think, but we still can have fun doing things together. I sure agree that what you happen to believe doesn’t determine your worth. For me it’s 99% ethics; how you treat yourself and others. Thanks, Lisa.

  2. Well done, friend. I haven’t heard of this new book, but I read a book a few years ago called “If Grace is True: Why God Will Save Every Person” by Gulley and Mullholland that really forced me to ask myself what I truly believe about a punitive afterlife. I finally dropped it, for many of the reasons you’ve so elegantly enumerated here. I agree, too, that the ideer of hell is more applicable in daily living. Cheers!

    • Reading holy texts as literal does take most of the fun out of learning from them, doesn’t it? That applies to the books from all the other religions as well. Thanks for your support, Matt.

  3. Thought provoking and entertaining post, as usual. I am impressed. I actually had to look up the meaning of “hubris.” Should I have known that? Brain injury. Comes in handy sometimes.

    I am sorry if this offends anyone, but the idea of a heaven or hell just strikes me as totally ludicrous. I believe that it has been and remains a powerful way to herd and control the masses over time because of the big “What if…” Nobody knowingly wants to condemn themselves to a hell, I would think.

    I believe that death from this physical body is just a transition of energy. What is next becomes what you create with the consciousness that is you now. Basically , just like in this life, it is what you think it is.

    • I like to think of earthly life as a limited version of real life, as if this existence is the charcoal sketch, and the part after dying is the Technicolor wide-screen movie version (with surround sound, of course).

      Hubris is a good word to use in understanding the behaviors of many kinds of people in positions of power; politicians, corporations, religious leaders. Humans do have inflatable egos. I like vocabulary. I don’t know if you should have known it, but I’m glad to pass it along.

      Thank you for your lovely presence and contribution, Debbie.

  4. After I post about freaks, puppies, buttholes and nothing in particular, I love coming here and feeling like a grown up. Thanks for that.
    If life is an all or nothing audition for a spot in heaven, I’m screwed.
    My idea of God is one of unconditionally loving Father/Mother who parents authoritatively. I picture him/her watching us go about our lives, cringing at our actions, deploring most of our choices, and sometimes, smiling at our kindess and love toward one in another. I can see myself stumbling into heaven like a drunk college kid. I’m sure I’ll have to face the music for some of the things I’ve done or felt in life, but after I’ve had some time to “sleep it off”, I trust God will gather in my his/her arms and comfort me, because God is love, and love is forgiveness.

    • I know you are a grown up just from reading your entertaining posts. Grown ups realize how much the world needs more silly. Modern life is so pressured and dehumanizing! I can easily get with there being a “sleep it off” cot. Thanks for coming by, DMTF.

      (I’ll write about my heaven fantasies in the next post.)

  5. Wonderful perspective, Mikey.

    I have wondered what, should he actually exist, God thinks of all the interpretations that have been placed on “everything”. I have this vision of him pacing around in Heaven, throwing his hands in the air, shouting “How could they get it so wrong!”.
    Last December I wrote a bit of fantasy about Him dropping in for tea.

  6. TLatshaw

    I unwittingly moved into Rob Bell’s backyard: Grandville is the city next to my new home. There is quite a lot of church activity here, but I haven’t run into anything too forceful or demanding.

    It does strike me a little strangely that, for places as amazing as heaven or hell, the Bible doesn’t really expound on them very much. But even if we say that we think or believe the afterlife is a certain way or that the common perceptions of it are off, can we ever escape the uncertainty of not knowing for sure?

    • I’ve grown to LOVE the uncertainty! That has allowed me to live more in the now. My current position is to believe that if I live, really live fully present and open, then the afterlife will take care of itself. I need know nothing more.
      (I’m still celebrating your new freedom, Tim.)

  7. And from my perspective, what if the followers of dogma and scripture discover that they got it all wrong by not practicing free-will and what comes naturally?

    • Hence the need for a “time-out” space, for reconsidering past misunderstandings and improper action. The point is to find a path of forgiveness, and a way to continue learning.

  8. Mike,

    How reassuring. Thank you so much! You hit the nail on the head with this: > “Every time I act from weakness, fear and unkindness, the gates of hell open.”

  9. jgavinallan

    Your work is remarkable. Again, I feel drawn to the scary or confrontational content. ideas that you bring forth not only in your writing, but also from comment, cause a surge of emotion in the reader. At least this reader.


    • Thanks, Jaye. The writers whose work I like the best deal with the scary stuff, and with controversial topics. Plus, the need for tension and conflict is a requirement of every good story. Nobody wants to read about the peaceful, happy valley where nothing bad happened to anyone. It’s boring! I also like to laugh, though, so I write funny posts when I can.

  10. Pingback: Response to “What If There Isn’t?” a Hell | Cyclical Causality

  11. Hello there,

    I’ve just posted a response to this post on my own blog – I didn’t want to clog up your page – it’s a long one.


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