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.