Hell…and How to Get There


(This is chapter 6 of Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God. I want you to have it. Share it freely and widely.)

Hell…and How to Get There
Brian Zahnd

My dad was in the process of his slow dying. Dementia had rendered this intelligent and articulate judge nearly as mute as the sphinx. He had broken his arm in a fall and I was sitting with him in the hospital. Since conversation with my dad was nearly impossible, I had a book with me, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Prophets. Abraham Joshua Heschel was a Polish-born American rabbi, theologian, philosopher, and social activist who worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and lent his prominent voice to the civil rights movement. It is remarkable that a Jewish rabbi’s writings have been so influential among Christian ministers, theologians, and lay people around the world. The preeminent Christian Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has often cited Heschel’s influence on his own work. Everything I’ve ever read from Heschel has shown him to be a thoroughly God-saturated soul, a kind and wise sage of the highest order. Rabbi Heschel was so immersed in the Hebrew prophets that he became one — a modern-day Jeremiah marching arm in arm with Dr. King across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in brave defiance of entrenched racism. Recalling his participation in the Selma March, Rabbi Heschel said, “I felt my legs were praying.” Heschel’s whole life was a kind of prayer, and I have the highest admiration for this man of God, just like I have the highest admiration for my dad. For some reason my dad was often confused for a well-known rabbi. Maybe because he looked vaguely Jewish but more, I like to think, because of his kind and wise bearing. In many ways L. Glen Zahnd was not unlike Abraham Joshua Heschel.

So there I was sitting at the bedside of my dying father reading The Prophets. My mind was occupied with thoughts of life and death, God and the prophets, wisdom and kindness, how we ought to live our lives, and how L. Glen Zahnd and Abraham Joshua Heschel were great examples of men who did it right. Shortly before midnight I left my father’s room to go home. The hospital corridors were quiet and the lights were turned low. It was an ambiance that matched my pensive mood. I entered the empty elevator, pushed the button for the ground floor, and watched the doors close. At that moment a thought erupted from some fundamentalist outpost in my brain asking this disturbing question: “Is Abraham Joshua Heschel in hell?” I uttered my reply instantly and out loud with more than a hint of indignation: “What would be the point of that?!”

For most of my life I had held to a simplistic equation about the afterlife: Christians go to heaven, where they enjoy eternal bliss, while everyone else goes to hell, where they suffer eternal torment. But now with death, my dad, and Rabbi Heschel weighing heavy on my mind, my tidy and trite equation began to crack under the strain. Was Rabbi Heschel in hell? After all, he wasn’t a Christian. Of course, there were a lot of reasons for that, not the least of which was that he had barely escaped the horror of the Holocaust inflicted upon European Jewry by Christian hands in Christian lands. But was I to believe, as some theologies suggest, that Rabbi Heschel had escaped Hitler’s ovens in Auschwitz only to be eternally consigned to God’s own ovens in hell? At that moment, just before midnight, in that hospital elevator, a theology claiming that God locked Abraham Joshua Heschel (along with Anne Frank!) in an eternal torture chamber suddenly appeared irredeemably ludicrous as I protested out loud, “What would be the point of that?!” It was the beginning of a serious rethinking of what we Christians mean and do not mean when we talk about the four-letter word hell.

One of the problems with understanding what is meant by hell is that this tiny word has been forced to carry so much freight. Over the centuries it has picked up meanings often far removed from what was originally intended in the Bible. Hell has become a catchall word for however we imagine eternal punishment in the afterlife. But the Bible doesn’t talk near as much about the afterlife as we have imagined. A surprising thing about the Old Testament is its almost total disinterest in the afterlife. We think of heaven and hell as being the stock-in-trade of religion, but this was not the case with the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures. While the pagan religions of the Gentiles made elaborate speculations about the nature of the afterlife (this was a specialty with the Egyptians and Babylonians), the Hebrews were conspicuous in having almost no afterlife theology. For the Hebrews, death was Sheol, the grave, the underworld, the abode of the dead. The Hebrew Scriptures are fundamentally concerned with this life. C. S. Lewis emphasizes this point in his book Reflections on the Psalms.

It seems quite clear that in most parts of the Old Testament there is little or no belief in a future life; certainly no belief that is of any religious importance. The word translated “soul” in our version of the Psalms means simply “life”; the word translated “hell” means simply “the land of the dead”, the state of all the dead, good and bad alike, Sheol. It is difficult to know how an ancient Jew thought of Sheol. He did not like thinking about it. His religion did not encourage him to think about it. No good could come of thinking about it. Evil might. It was a condition from which very wicked people like the Witch of Endor were believed to be able to conjure up a ghost. But the ghost told you nothing about Sheol; it was called up solely to tell you things about our own world.

Only about a century and a half before the birth of Christ did the hope of resurrection (a very different hope than a paradisiacal heaven) take hold among certain sects within the Jewish world. So when Jonah says, “Out of the belly of hell [Sheol] I cried,” Jonah doesn’t mean that he had entered a Dante-like inferno haunted by pitchfork-wielding devils but that he had simply sunk down to death’s door. This is why modern translations either leave Sheol untranslated or translate it as “realm of the dead” or some similar phrase. Over millennia, hell has picked up all kinds of popular imagery and common assumptions that get read back into the biblical text. In other words, many concepts of hell are not derived from the text but read into the text.

When we get to the New Testament we find Hades (the underworld from Greek mythology) used in place of Sheol. C. S. Lewis says, “Hades is neither Heaven nor Hell; it is almost nothing.” Hades does not generally correlate with the lurid images of a medieval torture chamber depicted in Chick tracts and popular imagination. Hades, like Sheol, simply refers to the realm of the dead. So, for example, in the book of Revelation Jesus says, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.” Only the archaic King James Version translates Hades as “hell.” All other English translations either leave Hades untranslated or translate it as “the grave.” The other New Testament word that the King James Version translated as “hell” is Gehenna — a reference to the Valley of Hinnom south of Jerusalem. This valley of the shadow of death had been the infamous site where children were sacrificed as burnt offerings upon the hideous fiery idols of Molech. Later the Valley of Hinnom became the city garbage dump, a place where the fires were never quenched and the maggots never died. As a burning, maggot-infested garbage dump, the Valley of Hinnom (transliterated from Hebrew Ge Hinnom, literally “Valley of Hinnom,” to the Greek Gehenna) became a primary source for imagining hellish judgment.

Six centuries before Christ, the prophet Jeremiah predicted that because of its sinful rebellion Jerusalem would be dragged into the valley of Hinnom, a prophecy that was fulfilled when the armies of Nebuchadnezzar sacked and burned Jerusalem in 587 BC. Jerusalem had gone to Gehenna…or hell. Jesus made many similar predictions about the impending doom of Jerusalem, especially during the final week leading up to his crucifixion. At one point a clearly frustrated Jesus said to the Pharisees, “You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell [Gehenna]?” Indeed they did not escape! In AD 70 the Roman general Titus destroyed Jerusalem, killing hundreds of thousands in the process. In the smoldering, corpse-strewn ruins of the city, the fires were not quenched and the maggots did not die. Jerusalem had gone to hell…again.

I don’t mean to imply that Jesus never spoke of an afterlife hell — he did and we’ll get to that — but he did not speak of it as much as is often presumed. Much of the time Jesus was talking about a literal hell in this life. Consider this passage from Luke’s gospel.

At that moment some people came up and told them the news. Some Galileans had been in the Temple, and Pilate had mixed their blood with that of the sacrifices. ‘Do you suppose’, said Jesus, ‘that those Galileans suffered such things because they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? No, let me tell you! Unless you repent, you will all be destroyed in the same way. ‘And what about those eighteen who were killed when the tower in Siloam collapsed on top of them? Do you imagine they were more blameworthy than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem? No, let me tell you! Unless you repent, you will all be destroyed in the same way.’ (Luke 13:1-5)

For a host of reasons many people have been trained to read references to an afterlife hell into this passage. They assume Jesus is saying something like, “Yes, some people were killed by Pilate and others were killed in a building collapse, but I tell you, unless you repent you’re all going to hell when you die.” But that’s not what Jesus says at all. Jesus is not talking about hell, or at least not an afterlife hell. Jesus isn’t talking about what happens to people when they die. Jesus is talking about an avoidable threat in this life. In effect Jesus is saying, “Unless you rethink everything, embrace the way of peace that I am teaching, and abandon your hell-bent flight toward violent revolution, you’re all going to die by Roman swords and collapsing buildings.” This is exactly what happened forty years later when the city collapsed under the bombardment of Roman catapult balls (hundred-pound hailstones) and more than half a million people were killed by Roman swords. Jerusalem had become hell — a horridly real and literal hell!

It’s very eye opening to realize that in all the evangelistic sermons found in the book of Acts, none of them makes an appeal to afterlife issues. Not one. If preaching the gospel is telling people how to avoid an afterlife hell, the apostles in Acts did not preach the gospel! Peter and Paul were not preaching a gospel of “how to go to heaven and not hell when you die.” Their gospel was the audacious announcement that the world has a new Lord, a new King, a new emperor: the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth. Their invitation was to believe this joyful announcement, turn from the destructive ways of sin, and be baptized into the new world where Jesus is Lord. They preached that those who responded to this gospel by faith and baptism were forgiven of their sins and made citizens of Christ’s new kingdom. Presumably the apostles had beliefs about an afterlife heaven and hell, but those beliefs certainly were not central to their gospel. Their gospel was about the arrival of the kingdom of Christ here and now, and about the hope of resurrection in the age to come. True to their Jewish roots the apostles preached a gospel that had little or no emphasis on the fate of departed souls.

When Jesus does speak of an afterlife hell (most extensively in the parables of the rich man and Lazarus and of the sheep and the goats), he is making this point: it is the wicked who end up being condemned. And we need to recognize that Jesus uses the word wicked in a conventional sense: the wicked are those who live wicked lives, inflicting evil upon others. Jesus does not use the word as a technical term for all of humanity except those who have “accepted Jesus into their hearts.” Jesus does not use wicked as a synonym for non-Christians! The idea that all non-Christians are wicked is the result of some very arrogant and deeply mistaken theological systems. It’s an absurd imposition upon the text. According to Jesus, the avoidance of afterlife condemnation is not based upon being able to give particular answers to abstract theological questions cribbed from John Calvin and labeled “faith” but on how one actually lives his or her life. Jesus certainly did not lay the foundation for an afterlife theology that claims all non-Christians go to hell. This has become a common way of thinking about heaven and hell — “Christians go to heaven; non-Christians go to hell” — but it is not based on anything Jesus ever said!

Life is not an elaborate testing center for afterlife placement based on theological acumen. Life is a gift from God, a gift that is properly appreciated and respected by loving God and neighbor. The New Testament teaches that it is Christ who judges how we have lived our lives: “For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.” (2 Corinthians 5:10) Jesus says it this way: “Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out — those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.” (John 5:28-29) And we should note that Jesus doesn’t say that those who have done evil will be tortured eternally; all he says is that they will face a judgment of condemnation. A lot of wrong thinking about hell is the result of reading into the text what is not actually there.

A careful reading of the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31–46) shows that Jesus is not strictly speaking about an afterlife judgment but about what happens “when the Son of Man comes in his glory.” According to Jesus, the coming of the Son of Man is not an event postponed to a distant future but an imminent event. On the night of his arrest, Jesus told the high priest Caiaphas that he (Caiaphas) would witness the coming of the Son of Man. “But I tell you, ‘From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.’” (Matthew 26:64) During his trial before the Sanhedrin, Jesus claimed to be the Son of Man referred to in Daniel 7, the humane ruler who is the alternative to the beasts of empires. It is to this Son of Man that the Ancient of Days gives everlasting dominion over the nations. When Jesus, the Son of Man, was vindicated by God in resurrection and given all authority in heaven and on earth, the nations were given a Christ-informed moral arc that if followed leads to what Jesus describes as “the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” But if the nations reject the way of Jesus, it leads them to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Jesus teaches us that the nations that care for the impoverished, the infirm, the immigrant, and the imprisoned enter the Father’s kingdom, while those nations who ignore “the least of these” are on the path to a smoldering Gehenna with the devil and his angels.

What Jesus certainly does not say is that the sheep and goats are divided on the basis of who has and who has not said a sinner’s prayer! Unfortunately, a cobbled-together misreading of Paul has been used to either ignore or evade what Jesus taught about the priority of loving our neighbors as ourselves being the criterion for judgment. Jesus taught that the Golden Rule is the narrow gate that leads to life. The narrow gate is not a sinner’s prayer but a life of love and mercy. The way of self-interest that exploits the weak is the wide road to destruction; the way of co-suffering love that cares for the weak is the narrow road that leads to life. At the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said it like this:

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.… Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. (Matthew 7:12-14, 21)

It should be noted that when Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven, he is not talking about an afterlife kingdom in heaven but the reign and rule of God that comes from heaven. The kingdom of God is the government of God. Jesus’s entire ministry consisted of announcing and enacting this kingdom, this government, that comes from God. In the Sermon on the Mount, in his provocative parables, by his radical hospitality of welcoming sinners, and through his compassionate healing of the sick, Jesus was explaining and embodying God’s new government for humanity. But Jesus tells us that this is a hard road to walk. We are deeply addicted to the old system of prioritized self-interest. Jesus knows that the single greatest obstacle for people entering the kingdom of God is economic self-interest. It’s why Jesus famously said, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” And Jesus put it more bluntly when he said, “Nobody can serve two masters. You will end up hating one and loving the other, or going along with the first and despising the other. You can’t serve God and money.” Luke then tells us what happened when Jesus told the Pharisees that the love of money was the great obstacle to entering the kingdom of God.

The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this, and mocked Jesus. So he said to them, ‘You people let everyone else know that you’re right — but God knows your hearts. What people call honorable, God calls abominable! ‘The law and the prophets lasted until John. From now on, God’s kingdom is announced, and everyone is trying to attack it.’ (Luke 16:13-16)

The Pharisees loved money and regarded wealth as a sign of God’s blessing. Likewise, the Pharisees viewed sickness as God’s punishment for personal sin. This was the standard pharisaical reading of Deuteronomy: good people are blessed and bad people are cursed. But Jesus disagreed with the Pharisees’ health-and-wealth interpretation of the Scriptures. So when the Pharisees mocked Jesus for saying that you can’t serve God and money (which Jesus described as attacking the kingdom of God), he gave them the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Please read it carefully.

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers — that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (Luke 16:19-31)

In response to the Pharisees who saw health and wealth as signs of God’s favor and believed sickness and poverty were punishments sent by God, Jesus told a story about a rich man for whom every day was a feast and the poor, sick Lazarus who longed for the crumbs from the rich man’s table. Jesus confers dignity upon the indigent and infirm beggar by giving him a name while leaving the prominent tycoon nameless, thus hinting at the impending reversal of fortunes. Eventually both men die and both men are in Hades. For Lazarus death is a place of comfort, but for the rich man death is a place of torment. They are both in death (Hades), but they experience it quite differently. We see much of the rich man’s problem in his disdainful attitude toward Lazarus. He doesn’t deign to speak with Lazarus directly but addresses himself only to Abraham. He still views Lazarus as an inferior being, thought of, if at all, as the help. We see the rich man as a kind of comical Thurston Howell III character, assuming privilege and lacking all self-awareness as he tells Abraham, “Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.” We can imagine Abraham shaking his head and muttering, “He still doesn’t get it.” In short, the rich man has still not learned to love, and in this loveless state, his soul finds nothing but torment.

The first part of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus was an existing Jewish folk tale; there are seven versions of it in rabbinic writings. But Jesus supplies his own twist to the parable by adding the bit about the five brothers. The effect of this new addition is to pull the story back into this present life. The original point of this rabbinic story was that a day would come when there would be a great reversal. Jesus’s point is that the day of great reversal has arrived with the coming of the kingdom of God! The Pharisees, who have been mocking Jesus and attacking the kingdom of God, are the five brothers of the rich man. The rich man wants to send Lazarus to his five brothers (the Pharisees), but in Jesus’s parable Abraham says the brothers have the Law and the Prophets and that they are enough. According to Jesus, when the Law and the Prophets are read correctly, without being screened out through the lens of self-interest, the message adds up to love — love of God demonstrated by love of neighbor. The rich man argues that this isn’t enough, but if someone were raised from the dead, his brothers would be convinced. Jesus says this isn’t the case. In the previous chapter of Luke’s gospel Jesus gave the Pharisees the parable of the prodigal son. Did the return of the prodigal son who “was dead and has come to life” convert the older brother (the Pharisees)? No. In the final scene, the older brother is outside the father’s house, gnashing his teeth in resentment and rage. The father has not exiled his elder son to the outer darkness; rather, in his refusal to forgive, the embittered brother has exiled himself. If the Pharisees can’t be converted to the way of love by listening to the Law and the Prophets, and by witnessing sinners coming to life through the ministry of Jesus, they won’t be convinced even when a crucified Messiah is raised from the dead on the third day!

Jesus’s teaching on hell is basically this: if you refuse to love, you cannot enter the kingdom of God and will end up a lonely, tormented soul. If we take Jesus seriously as a teacher, we must never think the gospel is a means by which we can ignore God, scorn the suffering, mock the poor, and have everything turn out all right. If you want to know how to find hell, follow the path set by the rich man…you’ll get there.

How do I read the parable of the rich man and Lazarus? I don’t read it as a reconnaissance report on hell — a hell I’m certain I’ll never see because once upon a time I prayed a salvation prayer. No, this parable is not a voyeur’s view of the damned to inform the comfortable and curious. I read the parable as a rich man living in a world where at least a billion people long for the crumbs from my table. I don’t read it and then think, “Well, after all, I prayed a sinner’s prayer when I was fifteen, so I don’t need to worry about any of this.” That would be to mock Jesus, the very thing the Pharisees did! To be a Christian means I am deliberately attempting to follow Jesus. Being a Christian does not mean I can ignore Lazarus with impunity! Being a Christian means I can no longer pretend that I don’t see Lazarus lying at my door.

Not long ago I saw a homeless man panhandling at the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City. For all I know his name could have been Lazarus. I gave him a few dollars. A police officer saw what I did and told me, “You shouldn’t give him money. He’ll probably just spend it on booze or drugs.” I told the officer, “When I give money to the homeless, I don’t do it just for them; I also do it for my own soul. They can spend it on whatever they like, but I cannot afford to ignore them.” Yes, I also support credible organizations doing good work to help the homeless, but I know I can’t afford to pretend I don’t see Lazarus. Jesus teaches me that ignoring Lazarus is the road to the hell of a tormented soul…and I don’t want to go there.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky introduces Eastern Orthodox theology and wisdom into his novel through the saintly character Elder Zosima. In his mystical discourse on hell, Elder Zosima says, “I ask myself: ‘What is hell?’ And I answer thus: ‘The suffering of being no longer able to love.’” Jean-Paul Sartre famously said in his existentialist play No Exit, “Hell is other people.” Elder Zosima’s response to Sartre’s cynicism would be, “No, hell is the inability to love other people.” Dostoevsky’s Zosima seems very close to how we should understand hell. It has something to do with a wrong reaction to the very essence of God: love. We might even say that hell is the love of God wrongly received. Hell is not God’s hatred of sinners; God has a single disposition toward sinners, and that is love. God is always the loving father of both the prodigal younger son and the resentful older son. He always loves them both. Hell is not God’s hatred; rather, hell has something to do with refusing to receive and be transformed by the love of God. Isaac the Syrian, a seventh-century bishop and theologian who had an enormous influence in shaping the theology of the Christian East, writes,

Those who are suffering in hell, are suffering in being scourged by love.… It is totally false to think that sinners in hell are deprived of God’s love. Love is a child of the knowledge of truth, and is unquestionably given commonly to all. But love’s power acts in two ways: it torments sinners, while at the same time it delights those who have lived in accord with it.

We find a similar thought from the important early church father John Chrysostom, who says, “It is not God who is hostile, but we; for God is never hostile.” Saint Anthony said of God, “He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm.… Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.” God is love. As sinners we are sinners in the hands of a loving God. God has a single disposition toward sinners, that of unconditional, unwavering love. From the heart of God there flows an eternal river of fire, the fire of unquenchable love. The question is not whether God loves us but how we respond to God’s love. To those who respond to God’s love with love — “We love because he first loved us” — the river of fire is a source of warmth and light. But to those who refuse to love, this same river of fire produces torment.

In Romans 12 the apostle Paul echoes the Sermon on the Mount when he writes, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.… Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” Then Paul goes on to write (quoting from Deuteronomy and Proverbs),

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:14, 17)

What is Paul doing here? Is he teaching us how to torture our enemies? Of course not! Paul is following Jesus in teaching us to love our enemies. But Paul also draws us into the deep mystery that the wrath of God is the love of God wrongly received.

Let’s say I have an enemy whom I deeply despise; my heart is filled with nothing but bitter contempt for my enemy. And let’s say that I wind up destitute, living on the streets. I’m friendless and homeless, hungry and thirsty. Then my despised enemy finds me on the streets, takes me into his home, and gives me food and drink as acts of co-suffering love. If I respond to my enemy’s love with entrenched hatred, these acts of kindness are a source of torment; they burn me up. Hot coals of resentment are lodged inside my head. I am tormented. I’ve turned heaven into hell. When hate wins, hell is inevitable. But what if I will repent, if I will change my thinking, change my heart, if I will say, “Why am I acting this way? This man is not my enemy. He’s a good person. He has nothing but love for me. I repent. I’ll stop resisting him as my enemy and receive him as my friend”? If I do that, what had previously been a source of bitter torment becomes the warmth and delight of a shared meal with a dear friend. What had been hell turns into heaven. This is close to how I understand hell. Hell is the love of God refused.

Is the postmortem state of a hell-tormented soul eternal? Perhaps. I speculate that hell is as eternal as the human capacity to resist the love of God, and thus hell is potentially eternal. But this is only speculation. I can’t make the claims of certainty made by either universalists or infernalists. What I’m convinced of is this: no one who calls upon the mercy of God is ever refused. Perhaps you can imagine repentant sinners crying to the Father of Jesus for mercy and being told coldly, “No, it’s too late.” I cannot imagine that from the God who is eternal love. But I can imagine a perversion of the human will that persistently resists turning toward the love of God. C. S. Lewis says it like this:

I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside. I do not mean that the ghosts may not wish to come out of hell, in the vague fashion wherein an envious man “wishes” to be happy: but they certainly do not will even the first preliminary stages of that self-abandonment through which alone the soul can reach any good. They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free.

The idea of hell as the self-exile of the soul from the love of God is a theme C. S. Lewis explores in his fascinating novel The Great Divorce. Does this mean that I (or C. S. Lewis) know what happens to people who wind up in a postmortem state of hell? No. And neither do you. Do I believe in hell? Of course I do! I believe in the literal hell of war, and I believe in the present and postmortem hell of a tormented soul incapable of love. Most importantly, I agree with everything that Jesus believed and taught about hell. But that doesn’t mean I have to agree with everything that smug, mean-spirited, self-righteous, Bible-thumping know-it-alls believe about hell. They don’t get to dictate what Jesus taught about hell. I’m very leery of making claims of certitude about precisely what is meant by hell and exactly who goes there. I regard it as extraordinarily dangerous and detrimental to the soul to go through life convinced that everyone except people like me are going to wind up in hell. That must surely be one of the back alleys to hell! If you want to find your way to hell, a good way to go about it would be to assume that everyone unlike you is headed there!

The idea that all Christians upon death are received into heavenly mansions of eternal bliss while all non-Christians are plunged into an eternal torture chamber is more the product of popular and pagan myth than derived from anything Jesus ever taught. This pernicious and arrogant posture about the afterlife is highly repugnant to people who have not been scripted into this particular sect of Christian thought. Jesus never taught anything that remotely supports the idea that all Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists will be tortured for eternity. This kind of thinking about hell crept into the minds of Christians via popular misconceptions and glitches in systematic theologies run amuck. It doesn’t come from Jesus.

Let’s try a thought experiment. Consider two women — we’ll call them Becky and Belqees. They are imaginary women but certainly representative of real people. Our imaginary women were born on the exact same date, March 5, 1959. Becky was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Belqees was born in Kabul, Afghanistan. Because of their geography, Becky is a cultural Christian and Belqees is a cultural Muslim. Unfortunately, Becky is a mean, judgmental, self-righteous Pharisee. You know the type. She holds her Christian faith with a kind of triumphalism that makes her insufferable to everyone outside her tiny fundamentalist tribe. She has boundless disdain for all who are unlike her politically, culturally, ethnically, and especially religiously. She holds Muslims in particular contempt. Belqees, on the other hand, is a kind and generous soul. She is known throughout her neighborhood for her acts of charity, and she regularly cares for the poor and sick. She is a devout Muslim, worshiping God in the only way she knows within her cultural context. She loves God and she loves her neighbors. In a strange coincidence, these women who share the same birthday also die on the very same day. What happens next? Is your theology such that you are forced to say that Becky is escorted to her finely appointed luxury mansion while Belqees is dragged away to a dark dungeon of eternal torture? This is a monstrous theology that is utterly contrary to the spirit of the gospel! The gospel is not the appalling claim that billions of people are fated to unending agony by a capricious God! If you say, “But only Jesus can save,” I say, “Yes and amen.” And who are you to tell Jesus whom he can and cannot save?! Are you going to tell Jesus he cannot save Belqees? Jesus can save whomever he wants. Jesus is Lord.

This thought experiment, which I’ve given to many people, often leads to the objection that such a theology would lead to a lack of motivation for evangelism. But this is true only if you think the gospel is about the postmortem issues of heaven and hell, a subject never raised in the apostolic sermons of Acts. The truth is that the gospel is the joyful proclamation that the kingdom of God has arrived with the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The gospel is the audacious announcement that Jesus is Lord and that the world is to now be reconfigured around his gracious rule. The gospel is the beautiful story of how God is bringing the world out of bondage to sin and death through the triumph of Jesus Christ. If you don’t know how to preach the gospel without making appeals to afterlife issues, you don’t know how to preach the gospel!

Hell in its popular and pagan misconceptions has been a blight upon the beauty of the Christian gospel. Hell, in the sense of a legitimate questioning about what happens to the wicked upon death, is a vast subject, and it’s a subject that largely lies behind an impenetrable veil. We should not pretend to know more about what lies beyond the veil of death than we actually do. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. When talking about hell, a good dose of humility is in order. It is certainly beyond the scope of this single chapter to give a thorough examination of Christian thought regarding hell as it has evolved down through the centuries. (For a thoughtful exploration on the theology of hell, I recommend Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem by Brad Jersak.)

What I can say about hell is that we do not need to (and must not!) hold to a perverse doctrine that all non-Christians are subjected by God to eternal conscious torment. So let me say it plainly: I do not believe Abraham Joshua Heschel is condemned to hell. Indeed, what would be the point of that?! The gospel is not a perverse theological system in which good people are tortured by God for eternity. Christians must stop suggesting anything like that! I remember a college student in my church who had returned from a visit to Auschwitz with a deeply shaken faith. In tears she told me she could not continue to be a Christian if it meant she had to believe that all the Jews who died at Auschwitz were now being eternally tortured by God. I was glad to tell her that such a belief was not Christianity but an arrogant fundamentalist fiction, an ugly distortion inflicted upon Christian faith. Years later when I officiated her wedding, she told me how that conversation had saved her Christian faith. Using hell as a means of scaring people into Christianity may also drive them out of Christianity when they become a little more thoughtful. Insisting that Abraham Joshua Heschel, Anne Frank, Albert Einstein, and all other Jews are condemned to hell is an arrogant and malevolent doctrine that is responsible for the creation of countless atheists. I am sympathetic with the atheist who cannot believe in a god who is so petty and cruel that he defends his so-called honor by torturing billions of souls for eternity. I don’t believe in that god either. But I’m no atheist. I believe in the God who is the Father of Jesus and who relates to sinners in the very same way that Jesus did. I believe in the God revealed in Christ, the heaven-sent Savior who harrows hell to rescue sinners…sinners like me.

“No one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.”
—Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life