(Eschatology is the study of death, judgment and the end times. Did you know this? I did not.)
I wouldn’t have described the Evangelical church I grew up in as preaching fire and brimstone...except that somewhere along the line, I developed a strong need to tell my friends about Jesus so that they would have the chance to avoid hell. I lost friends when I acted on that need. When I shared an excerpt from my memoir-in-progress that included such an experience, my readers pointed out that I centered the telling on the pain I felt following my friend’s refusal to speak to me ever again. They said that while the rejection must have been painful, they needed to understand my beliefs on hell. At first, I balked at sharing. That wasn’t the point of the story. My point was that we could improve on our willingness to entertain discussions of belief. But then it hit me: Multiple people were giving me space to share what I believe. The friend from my memory might have closed the door on a conversation, but here, on the page of my writing, was another chance to speak.
What an opportunity! And yet, what did I believe? Accepting Jesus as Lord and Way to Heaven is enough most days. Why bother dwelling on hell when you are assured of salvation?
I needed to do some research. I started by asking my Christian girlfriends what they believed about hell. We discussed a variety of views -- drawn on from the Bible and modern Christian thinkers -- but none of us was ready to commit to one. I was beginning to feel uncomfortable about my wishy-washy stance, especially after I read a short anecdote in Carla Power’s memoir in which she describes the Sheikh reprimanding the evangelist at his door for not holding a firmer line on hell:
“What will happen to me if I don’t believe you?” [The Sheikh asked the Christian messenger at this door.]
The man was silent, clearly not wanting to scare off a potential convert. What about hell? Akram asked him. Oh no, the man assured him. There was no mention of any hellfire in the Bible. “I had a Bible in my house,” the Sheikh said. “I’d underlined it, and I went and got it, and showed him.” Here, and here, and here, he’d showed the missionary, the Christian scripture spoke of the flames of hell.
“Never feel shyness to mention the fire of hell,” he assured his listeners. “You either believe, or if you don’t believe, then it’s the fire of hell.” (If The Oceans Were Ink, p. 274-5)
The Sheikh’s response made me want to take a firmer stance on the issue. Perhaps I needed to defend the fire and brimstone perspective? Perhaps I had just become too soft?
The upshot is that there are three basic theories on hell:
Back in junior high, infernalism was right there in the same sentence with the Jesus message, as in “Jesus came to save us from our sins so we wouldn’t go to hell, and if you believe this, you’ll avoid hell too.” I learned that people don’t like it when you tell them this.
Much more recently, when my daughter was five, she asked me what happens to people after they die. I didn’t even want to talk about hell. I told her that those who believe in Jesus and God go to heaven and are with God forever.
“What if you don’t believe in God?”
Seriously, she asked me this, because unbelief is such a common option these days. I fumbled to come up with an explanation on the spot but what I suggested to her was that people who didn’t believe perhaps then just died and stopped existing but that maybe they were okay with that because they didn’t want to be with God anyway. That’s win-win for everyone, right? You don’t even have to force infernalism. You can just choose to cease existing.
A few years later though, I read Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders in which ghosts of the graveyard haunt Lincoln on his visit to his recently deceased son. It’s not a book to read at night, and is largely based on Egyptian theories of the afterlife, but still, I took it to heart when the preacher character didn’t pass directly to heaven but rather was judged, and pretty severely at that. I didn’t like this theory of universal refining and the need for further redemption after death. But did that make the theory false?
Near the beginning of the text, Jersak provides a very handy chart of Hebrew and Greek words (and their locations in Scripture) that are traditionally translated into hell or that relate to divine judgment. He points out that today’s “simplistic, selective, and horrifying perception of hell [the fire and brimstone version] is due in large part to nearly 400 years of the King James Version’s monopoly in English-speaking congregations (not to mention centuries of imaginative religious art). Rather than acknowledge the variety of terms, images, and concepts that the Bible uses for divine judgment, the KJV translators opted to combine them all under the single term “hell.” In truth, the array of biblical pictures and meanings that this one word is expected to convey is so vast that they appear contradictory.” (15)
And yet, Jersak suggests that perhaps scripture was actually mean to be this way:
“The stubborn fact is that Scripture is richly polyphonic on the topic of hell and judgment -- as if by design. Thus, if we become dogmatic about any one position, we reduce ourselves to reading selectively or doing interpretive violence to those verses that don’t fit our chosen view...If we can momentarily suspend our penchant for forcing the text to harmonize with our systems or even with itself, we’ll see some magnificent tensions…
“For example, the Bible repeatedly affirms that God has given humanity the real capacity for authentic choice…[implying] the real possibility that some could choose the way that leads to destruction...On the other hand, the Bible just as plainly teaches that God is also free: free to relent, free to forgive, free to restore even when judgment is promised...Thus, before we plant our flag on any one version of hell, we must take all of the biblical text on hell and judgment, mercy and restoration into account.” (6-7)
I love that Jersak points out that our view of hell is influenced by our view of God. Is he loving or someone to fear, for example? A friend shared her father’s testimony recently, that he told her he needed the fear of God in him in order to convict his heart and foster his belief. Others, we have observed need a loving God in order to believe. Sharing his personal perspective, the evangelical author confesses that “since [his] early days as a terrified infernalist, [he has] developed a strong preference for hope.” (9) He also explains that evangelicals are preaching a variety of outcomes now, not just infernalism. As for me, I think my beliefs have followed a similar evolution, though I’m not sure I was ever a “terrified” infernalist. I think “motivated infernalist” might be more accurate. And yet, in my image of God, love and forgiveness win out in all struggles, and I have no reason to dwell on a theory that would force eternal separation from him. Bottom line, it’s not what he wants. Our job is to figure out if it’s what we want.
In the end, I couldn’t follow all of Jersak’s extensive analysis, but I do appreciate the general conclusions he draws for us:
“Will he who refuses it now refuse it to the last? / To this there are two possible answers: the first says simply “Yes”. It is the answer of the infernalists. The second says: I do not know, but I think it permissible to hope (on the basis of the first series of statements from Scripture) that the light of divine love will ultimately be able to penetrate every human darkness and refusal.” (von Balthasar, Dare We Hope?, 178).
Still, Jersak makes it clear that at the end, while there is hope that all will be redeemed and walk through the gates, they will do so only with a specifically Christian redemption. “Anyone can come, but only if they have their robes washed in the blood of the Lamb. Only upon a specifically Christian redemption can one enter the gates… This vision declares the possibility and the hope that even in the next age, there are those whose thirst will finally bring them to say yes to the Lamb, even those who were unable to do so on this side of the grave.” (172)
“Human choice and divine mercy preclude presuming anything, but Christian love obligates me to pray fervently for all.” (151)
Bottom line, I know I got it wrong years ago when I propagated scare tactics. Believing in Jesus in order to avoid hell is bad faith and misses the whole point of Christianity. The main reason we accept Jesus is because he is better than any of our hopes and too good to refuse. If seeing a gorgeously wrapped Christmas gift under the tree brings you joy and gratitude, how much more so the ultimate gift of love and reconciliation? This is what we’ll keep sight of, just in case.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.