Of hell and hell fire: it’s not what you think

C.S. Lewis as a young man

We worship a bi-polar deity, most of us anyway.  Our God is the very definition of love . . . but, like the killer bunny in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “he’s got a vicious streak a mile wide.”

We are taught that God is love.  We are taught that God consigns the wicked to hell for eternity.  Surely both can’t be true?

C.S. Lewis (who, like Jack Kennedy, died fifty years ago today), captured this dilemma beautifully in The Pilgrim’s Regress.  It was his first crack at Christian apologetics written shortly after his conversion to Christianity in 1929.  The allegory is set in the land of Puritania where a young boy named John is taken, as all young boys eventually are, to meet the Steward.  Puritania is owned by “the Landlord”, a shadowy figure who has gone abroad and left his vast domains in the hands of a caretaker.  Lewis was always at his best writing about children, and his description of John’s visit to the Steward is so good I will give you the whole story just as he wrote it:

One dark, cold, wet morning John was made to put on new clothes.  They were the ugliest clothes that had ever been put upon him, which John did not mind at all, but they also caught him under the chin, and were tight under the arms which he minded a great deal, and they made him itch all over . . .

The Steward lived in a big dark house of stone on the side of the road.  The father and mother went in to talk to the Steward first, and John was left sitting in the hall on a chair so high that his feet did not reach the floor.  There were other chairs in the hall where he could have sat in comfort, but his father had told him that the Steward would be angry if he did not sit absolutely still and be very good: and John was beginning to be afraid, so he sat still in the high chair with his feet dangling, and his clothes itching all over him, and his eyes starting out of his head.

After a very long time his parents came back again, looking as if they had been with the doctor, very grave.  Then they said that John must go in and see the Steward too.  And when John came into the room, there was an old man with a red, round face, who was very kind and full of jokes, so that John quite got over his fears, and they had a good talk about fishing tackle and bicycles.

But just when the talk was at its best, the Steward got up and cleared his throat.  He then took down a mask from the wall with a long white beard attached to it and suddenly clapped it on his face, so that his appearance was awful.  And he said, ‘Now I am going to talk to you about the Landlord.  The Landlord owns all the country, and it is very, very kind of him to allow us to live on it at all–very, very kind.’

He went on repeating ‘very kind’ in a queer sing-song voice so long that John  would have laughed, but that now he was beginning to be frightened again.  The Steward then took down from a peg a big card with a small print all over it, and said, ‘Here is a list of all the things the Landlord says you must not do.  You’d better look at it.’

So John took the card: but half the rules seemed to forbid things he had never heard of, and the other half forbade things he was doing every day and could not imagine not doing: and the number of the rules was so enormous that he felt he could never remember them all.

‘I hope,’ said the Steward, ‘that you have not already broken any of the rules.’  John’s heart began to thump, and his eyes bulged more and more, and he was at his wit’s end when the Steward took the mask off and looked at John with his real face and said, “Better tell a lie, old chap, better tell a lie.  Easiest for all concerned,’ and popped the mask on his face all in a flash.

John gulped and said quickly, ‘Oh, no sir.’

‘That is just as well,’ said the Steward through the mask.  ‘Because, you know, if you did break any of them and the Landlord got to know about it, do you know what he’d do to you?’

‘No sir,’ said John: and the Steward’s eyes seemed to be twinkling dreadfully through the holes of the mask.

‘He’d take you and shut you up for ever in a black hole full of snakes and scorpions as large as lobsters–for ever and ever.  And besides that, he is such a kind, good man, so very, very kind, that I am sure you would never want to displease him.’

‘No, sir,’ said John, ‘But, please, sir . . . ‘

‘Well,’ said the Steward.

“Please, sir, supposing I did break one, one little one, just by accident, you know.  Could nothing stop the snakes and lobsters?’

“Ah! . . .’ said the Steward; and then he sat down and talked for a long time, but John could not understand a single syllable.  However, it all ended with pointing out that the Landlord was quite extraordinarily kind and good to his tenants, and would certainly torture most of them to death the moment he had the slightest pretext.  ‘And you can’t blame him.’ said the Steward.  ‘For after all, it is his land, and it is so very good of him to let us live here at all–people like us, you know.’

Then the Steward took off the mask and had a nice, sensible chat with John again, and gave him a cake and brought him out to his father and mother.  But just as they were going he bent down and whispered in John’s ear, ‘I shouldn’t bother about it all too much if I were you.’  At the same time he slipped the card of rules into John’s hand and told him he could keep it for his own use.

This story has always filled me with delight because it captures perfectly the bizarre way in which a loving God and the fires of hell were presented to me as a child.  Growing up Baptist in Western Canada, I can’t recall hell being part on the theological smorgasbord served up on Sunday mornings.  Still, I somehow figured out that God had prepared a really dreadful place for the wicked and that those who didn’t repent were sure to go there.  So it was that, at the tender age of ten, I informed my mother that I wanted to get baptized.  She was delighted, of course.  In Baptist churches, it is a bit odd for a boy to be ten and still unbaptized, and she must have wondered when I’d be making my “profession of faith.”

Like John in C.S. Lewis’s story, I was taken to see the pastor at the earliest opportunity.

Ray Price was a fun-loving elf of a man with big floppy ears and a silly grin.  He once told us that, in a past life, he had been a race horse named ‘Prince’.  We knew it was all a joke, naturally, but we thought it was terribly funny. Price had been a professional cricketer in England as a young man and had recently arrived in the howling arctic to preach to Canadians in exile.

When my mother and I arrived, Rev. Price invited me into his modest study and asked how he could help me.  “I want to be baptized,” I said.  The pastor asked why.  “Because,” I answered with admirable honesty, “I don’t want to go to hell.”

“Oh, if that’s all this is about, I shouldn’t be too worried,” the pastor replied.  He didn’t tell me that hell was a figment of the Medieval imagination, or that only really wicked people go there; he just told me not to worry.  And since he was the authority on these things, I didn’t worry.

Not everyone gets off so lightly, of course, especially here in Texas.  Every summer at camp, and twice-a-year at revival services, young Texas Baptists got up close and personal with the fires of hell.  A few “liberal” Baptist churches shielded their children from this horror show, but only a few.  For most, hell was front and center.

Even for non-Baptists, hell has been making a strong comeback in recent years.  Crime rates and support for capital punishment dipped dramatically in the 1960s, and belief in “a literal hell of fire” followed a similar trajectory.  But in the last three decades this trend has reversed.  (I have always suspected these trends are related.)

According to a 2012 Gallup poll, 77% of Americans say they believe in hell.  Americans are uniquely confident about the afterlife.  Only 42% of  Canadians, 38% of Australians and 32% of people in the United Kingdom believe in a place of eternal torment.  But even in America, when pollsters ask people if they believe they, personally, will land in hell, only one-half-of-one-percent answer in the affirmative.

Hell is for other people; in particular, evil, wicked people like the folks that flew planes into the twin towers.  It is no longer much of an existential threat.

Jonathan Edwards

It’s abiding popularity notwithstanding, hell ain’t what it used to be.  In 1741, Jonathan Edwards, a New England pastor and theologian, preached America’s quintessential hell sermon:

Imagine yourself to be cast into a fiery oven, all of a glowing heat, or into the midst of a glowing brick-kiln, or of a great furnace, where your pain would be as much greater than that occasioned by accidentally touching a coal of fire.  Imagine also that your body were to lie there for a quarter of an hour, full of fire, all the while full of quick sense; what horror would you feel at the entrance of such a furnace!  And how long would that quarter of an hour seem to you!  If it were to be measured by a glass, how long would the glass seem to be running!  And after you had endured it for one minute, how overbearing would it be to you to think that you had it to endure the other fourteen.

Edwards asks us to imagine enduring such torment for four hours, or twenty four, or a full year.  Hell is altogether unbearable, and yet it must be born.

And then, how would your heart sink, if you thought, if you knew, that you must bear it forever and ever!  That there would be no end.  That after millions of millions of ages, your torment would be no nearer to an end, than ever it was; and that you never, never should be delivered!

But why, we moderns ask, would a loving God want to do that to anyone, for any reason, for even a split second?  And that’s just the problem, says the New England divine, God may be perfect love, but He has nothing but contempt for His hopelessly corrupt creatures.

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes, as the most hateful and venomous serpent is in ours.

It was Edwards’ desire, of course, to use the fires of hell to encourage people to turn to God. And it worked rather well, sort of.  Unfortunately, for staunch Calvinists like Edwards, there was no way of knowing for sure that you were “of the elect”, that is, whether God would have you whether you turned to him or not.  What if you had been created for eternal perdition (as, according to this doctrine, most humans are) and there was nothing you could do about it?

John Piper

You may rejoice that we have evolved beyond such crude conceptions of hell and the Almighty, but you would be wrong.   John Piper, a Baptist pastor who is a leading light in the New Calvinism movement, has achieved amazing notoriety by embracing Edwards’ conception of hell uncut and uncensored.  Consider this:

Children are better at conceiving this than most of us adults are.  You remind a child early on that not to believe in Jesus will lead him into never-ending suffering.  The child might lose some sleep.  We ought to lose some sleep thinking about hell as never-ending suffering, never-ending torment, never ending, year after year, century after century, millennia after millennia, age after age, forever.  And when you think of it, you have to ask, Why such a severe response?  And the way the problem will be framed sometimes is why would we get an eternity of suffering for a temporally limited time of sinning.  Isn’t that disproportionate and wouldn’t considerations of justice mean that if we did seventy years of sinning that we would get maybe seventy years of suffering?

But you know that’s not the way justice works.  That would be like saying that because it only took you ten seconds to kill the little baby you should spend ten seconds in prison.  Justice doesn’t quite work like that.  It’s not a matter of how long is the duration of the crime, it’s the heinousness of the crime, the severity of the crime.  And the severity of crimes rise and fall not simply by how long the crime lasted, but by several other factors, one of which is the dignity of the person sinned against . . . God is an infinitely worthy being, and therefore a sin or an offense against him is worthy of an infinite punishment.  That’s the way Jonathan Edwards argues for why hell makes as much sense as it does and should sober us and take our breath away.

Piper is just trying to frighten people out of hell and into heaven.  It isn’t enough, he says, to be afraid of hell, you must also be in love with God.

But that’s just the problem, isn’t it.  How could John, the hero of The Pilgrim’s Regress, possibly love a Landlord who was ready to throw him into a pit of snakes and scorpions on the slightest pretext?  Piper’s bi-polar God drives us to the same question.

John Piper is right about one thing, in the whole of biblical history, no one talked more about hell than Jesus.  There is very little talk of an afterlife worthy of the name in the Old Testament.  The Apostle Paul never uses the word, nor does the Gospel or the epistles attributed to John.  Even the book of Revelation, with all its talk of death and destruction, ends with “death and hell” being  cast into the lake of fire–something the author calls a “second death”.  That sounds like annihilation to me.

You will only find good, old-fashioned hell-talk in the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke.  Jesus doesn’t just employ “hell” as a passing metaphor, the references to perdition are constant and unrelenting.  Sometimes Jesus uses the traditional Greek word “hades” (the place of the dead), but he prefers the Hebrew word “Gehenna”, a term inspired by the burning garbage dump outside Jerusalem.  Only in the Gehenna Jesus talks about, “the worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.”

But who goes to hell, and why?

Since Jesus is the Bible’s go-to guy on hell, questions of this sort should be directed to him.  Contra John Piper, Jesus never says we go to hell for refusing to accept him as Savior.   Nor are we damned for impugning the dignity of God.  According to Jesus, God loves everybody, all the time, no matter what.  So why all the hell talk?

Let me repeat:  God loves everybody.  All the time.  No matter what.

God loves those who hate God and commands us to love those who hate us.

God is infinitely forgiving and couldn’t care less about his personal dignity.  The Loving Father in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15) doesn’t seem to notice that his youngest boy has essentially behaved as if he wished the old man dead.  The father doesn’t even want to hear the kid’s explanations and apologies.  He is so overwhelmed with joy at the sight of his lost son that he breaks into tears, places a ring on his finger and a fine robe on his shoulders, slaughters the fatted calf and throws a once-in-a-lifetime party.

This portrait of God as loving parent replays throughout the teaching of Jesus.  As father Gregory Boyle puts it in his wonderful book Tattoos on the Heart, “It is precisely because we have such an overactive disapproval gland ourselves that we tend to create God in our own image.  It is truly hard for us to see the truth that disapproval does not seem to be part of God’s DNA.  God is just too busy loving us to have any time left for disappointment.”

To test Boyle’s radical thesis, let’s take a look at the two most famous hell passages in the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 18 and 25.

Matthew 18 begins with a question: Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?  To everyone’s astonishment, Jesus places a child in the middle of the circle of disciples and says, “Truly I tell you, unless you change (literally, “unless you are converted”) and become like children, you will never see the kingdom of God.”

Jesus tells his closest followers that anyone who puts a stumbling block in the path of a child is liable to the fires of hell.  Therefore, if you are tempted to disappoint, distress, or disillusion a helpless child, Jesus says, do whatever it takes to overcome that temptation.  “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire.”

Then, in case we think Jesus has forgotten about the spiritual and physical abuse of vulnerable children, he says, “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.”

As if to remove all doubt as to his meaning, Jesus pictures God as a dedicated Shepherd who, if the most absent-minded sheep wanders away, will leave the more obedient and dependable members of the flock and go in search of dumbo.  “And if he finds it,” Jesus assures us, “truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.”

And that’s just the problem: the Father loves everybody, particularly those who go astray.  If God picks favorites, its going to be the weakest, slowest, most error-prone person who gets special attention.  “So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”

That’s what Luke’s Prodigal Son parable is all about.  Far from tossing sinners into hell, the Father goes to the wall for them, paying any price to shield them from the consequences of their boneheaded decisions.

And it isn’t just children and sheep that God cares about.  According to the last public sermon in Matthew’s gospel, the refusal to care for the most broken and vulnerable people in the community gets us a one-way ticket to hell.  Looking down on these people, calling them fools, idiots, dead-beats and losers, moves us to the verge of the abyss.  We consign ourselves to hell by failing to welcome “Christ in his distressing disguise” (to borrow a phrase from Mother Theresa).

Then he will say to those on his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me, a SNAP recipient and you cut my benefits and told me to get a job.”

Actually, that last line isn’t in the original text, but if the coming of Messiah had tarried two millennia, it would have been.

Of course the damned are sure they would have been more than helpful if they encountered the second member of the Trinity on their doorstep.  To which Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.  And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Surely that can’t be right.  Dissing children, the poor, the sick, the undocumented and the incarcerated may be worse than we commonly imagine, but surely that isn’t what sends us to hell.  Isn’t it all about deciding for or against Jesus?

It depends what sort of Jesus, and what sort of deciding, we’re talking about.  If Jesus really does come to us in the desperation and vulnerability of broken people then, yes, it does all depend on what we do with Jesus.  And that’s true even for those who have never heard of Jesus.

Does this mean we have to rethink the doctrines of salvation, justification and sanctification?  I’m afraid so.

Consider this word from bishop and New Testament scholar NT Wright.

If you don’t have time to watch, here’s the gist:

Very interestingly, I was sitting in the Sistine chapel just a few weeks ago. I was waiting for a service, and I was sitting next to a Greek Orthodox (priest) who said to me, looking at the pictures of Jesus on one wall. He said, these I can understand. The pictures of Moses on the other wall, he said, those I can understand. Then he pointed at the end wall of judgment, and said, that I cannot understand. That’s how you in the west have talked about judgment and heaven and hell. He said, we have never done it that way before, because the bible doesn’t do it that way. I thought, whoops. I think he’s right actually.

Over the course of a thousand years, the Christian church gradually separated along geographical, linguistic and cultural lines.  In the west, centered in Rome, was the Roman Catholic Church.  In the east, headquartered in Constantinople (now Istanbul) the Eastern Orthodox Church evolved.  The Eastern Orthodox understanding of judgment and damnation centers on the blazing love of God.  Choices made in this life have eternal consequences.  At the point of death, as in each moment of life, we are exposed to the burning love of God (its just more obvious in eternity).  If we open ourselves to that love, we are in heaven; if we hate the blinding presence of God, we are in hell.

Milton’s Lucifer

As Lucifer puts it in John Milton’s Paradise Lost,

The mind is its own place, and in it
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.

Fyodor Dostoevsky captured the essence of the Orthodox vision in his depiction of Father Zosima, the saintly Russian monk.  Zosima, on his death bed, tells his charges that years ago, on the verge of a  stupid duel he had arranged to fight with a man much better than himself, he remembered the dying days of his brother Markel.  As “galloping consumption” gradually collapsed his lungs, Markel had been grasped by a holy passion and was given to the most outrageous statements:

Life is paradise; we all live in paradise, although we don’t want to see it.  As soon as we are willing to recognize it, the whole world will become a paradise; it could happen tomorrow, any time.

We are all guilty toward others and I am the guiltiest of all.

Every one of us is answerable for everyone else and for everything.  I don’t know how to explain it to you, but I feel it so strongly that it hurts.


The presiding doctor concludes that the disease has progressed to Markel’s brain.  But on the morning of his duel, Zosima remembers his brother’s religious ramblings and concludes, all in a flash, that he had been right, that his brother had stumbled upon the heart of the gospel.

Which brings us back to the parable of the prodigal son.  The elder brother (standing proxy for you and me) comes in from the fields and hears the sound of music and dancing leaking through the door of the banquet hall.  When a servant tells him what it is all about, the brother is indignant and refuses to join the party.  His Father tries to reason with him, but that is no help at all–the Father is the problem.  How can he show such extravagant love for a wretch who has dishonored the family in so flagrant a fashion?

This portrait of the kingdom echoes through Luke’s gospel.  The good, upstanding, righteous people refuse to attend the Master’s banquet.  They have no beef with the Master.  In theory, they love and respect the man.  But they object to his guest list.  It’s not exclusive enough.  In fact, it not exclusive at all.  And who wants an invitation that everybody in town also receives simply by virtue of being human?  Where is the honor in that?  Where’s the distinction?

And so,Lucifer-like, we refuse to join the party, thereby consigning ourselves to the outer darkness where men (and women) shall w(eep and gnash their teeth.

8 thoughts on “Of hell and hell fire: it’s not what you think

  1. Heaven and Hell are classic carrot and stick. In the art of persuasion, it is hard to give up the coercive power of the stick. Memory of sleepless nights of my youth exist. In a dream, I awoke, looked out the window and saw the entire western horizon aflame.

  2. Edwards did NOT want people to make ‘a decision for Jesus’ because, by Calvinist lights, it would not change a thing. You were preordained, done. Only God would make the decision long before you were born. So out of that came Protestantism’s emphasis on LIVING a good life – then later a wealthy one – to prove you were among ‘the chosen.’. You might not be, but wouldn’t God give a clue? Surely he’d not damn the successful man!

    From this rather horrid and hopeless interpretation came its opposite – evangelical salvation through embracing Jesus as your personal savior. But it, too, morphed into believing in The Elect – the successful man and occasionally even woman who attained material good thereby proving Jesus had bestowed great favor on them for their sanctity.

    This is the faith of capitalism. Die hard Calvinism is practically non existent since it’s far more enticing to ‘choose’ Jesus and then get your condo in Florida and Mercedes Benz. Social Darwinism was, oddly, the secular manifestation of religious salvation – the rich are rich because they are better. But even that was not as useful as promising abundant life materially and no hell at the end. Today’s hyper individualism materially dovetails nicely with hyper individualism in salvation. Good bye hopeless Calvinism, hello born again success. You are The Elect because you accepted Jesus. In sum as one of them announced, “I’m born again. I can do anything I want.” And in that summation lies ALL the corrosion of predatory religion mixed up with predatory capitalism. All one can say is, “Jesus wept.”

  3. A great reminder of the compassion of our Father and how easily we can get self-righteous. Everyone is invited to the party.

    But having an invitation is not the same as actually going to the party. Romans emphasizes that salvation is not the default setting. If hell is no big deal, why did Jesus go through so much pain and suffering? To set a good example?

    The love of God is amazing, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” 1 Jn 4:10

  4. The reaction of the elder son becomes much more understandable to people who grew up in a dysfunctional family structure. The feeling of, “Hey, I’m the one who did everything I was supposed to do, why don’t I get any credit?” is perfectly rational when this story echoes your daily life. And he’s got a point — why wasn’t the party for BOTH of them, if the father loved them equally? The message sent by that story is, I think, not quite the one it intends to be sending: irresponsible behavior pays off handsomely in the end, while doing the right thing gets you ignored and slighted. But, you say, we’re supposed to be better than that, overcome our merely-human resentment and rejoice with the father? Maybe, if it were a single incident. For far too many of us, it’s not.

  5. An interesting note: gehenna was not used among the Jews as a reference to hell until the 6th century A.D. If Jesus had meant to warn of hell, his audience would have had no idea that was what talking about. Instead, Jesus’s references to gehenna were almost certainly have been understood by his audience as a reference to the book of Jeremiah. Gehenna is another name for the Valley of Hinnom or Tophet. This was the place where the Israelites burned their infants. It played a prominent role in God’s condemnation of Israel in the book of Jeremiah. Other language Jesus used such as yoke, the good shepherd, etc also harkens back to the book of Jeremiah.

  6. I don’t know enough about the history of Gehenna to comment on this, but you raise an interesting point. The shepherd reference also owes much to Ezekiel. Any biblical scholars out there care to comment?

  7. The elder brother response is indeed natural and understandable. But I think Jesus knew what he was driving at. There is a preferential option for the poor in the Bible, and I suspect that extends to the unwise and to self-indulgent idiots. God throws parties for those who don’t deserve it. That’s grace. An offensive idea to be sure.

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