My Problem with Christianity: Part 2 — Hell

Before I really get started on this series, let me say that I have absolutely no intention of convincing or converting anyone of anything by writing this. The Dalai Lama said that since there are some 6 billion people on this planet, there is probably a need for 6 billion religions. I couldn’t agree more. And now, on with the show.

I remember the moment pretty clearly. We were sitting in the car, the love of my life and I (you know who you are ๐Ÿ™‚ ). We were in high school and talking about the big things in life. We were at the corner of Central Avenue and Missouri, but I don’t think we were heading to church, though we might have been. I was making an argument that bothered me then and continues to confound me. If Jesus died for our sins and God is love, then what the hell is Hell still doing there?

My phrasing may be flip, but this is in fact a serious theological and philosophical conundrum. I may have been given a biased view, but it is my understanding that it was exactly this kind of question that lead Martin Luther to challenge his (at the time) Catholic faith. I was taught (in a college survey of religion class, not in Catholic school) that Luther did not “feel forgiven” within the framework of Catholic theology. This makes sense to me, because theologically, at least to my brain, the existence of a real but supernatural Hell causes some real problems.

At the time I first brought this up, my girlfriend expressed the argument that there had to be a hell, because people like Hitler had to go somewhere to be punished. A pretty common argument, actually. But one that has an inherent danger. We might all agree that Hitler needs to go to Hell. We might even add a few more onto the list. But once we put one person on the list, what is to stop us from adding almost everyone? Surely we have all committed sins. Not as grievous as Hitler, of course, but where do you draw the line?

Different sects in Christianity want to draw the line in various places, but frankly the line usually runs something like “if you belong to OUR church, you will be saved from Hell.” There is a slight variation of those who approach things more phenomenonlogically who say something like, “I feel that Jesus has held me close to his heart and I know I am saved.” Neither idea holds much truck with me.

In high school I came to the conclusion that a person could only go to Hell after they personally met God face to face (in Heaven that is) and rejected Him. But now, I think even that line of thought is inadequate. The theological question is, “did Jesus die for all of our sins or not?” If He did, then there can be no Hell, it seems to me. Or to paraphrase a quote I saw years ago from Jules Feiffer, “If Jesus died for all of our sins, who am I to deny His sacrifice by not committing them?” If he died for all of our sins, it would seem that His sacrifice also includes the “sins” of not believing in or accepting Him.

But most Christians believe in one way or another that Jesus didn’t really die for ALL of our sins. That someone will be sent to Hell. Even Jesus preached this. He talked of separating the sheep from the goats at the end of time. And in a teaching that probably kept Martin Luther awake at night, Jesus said that “not everyone who called ‘Lord, Lord'” would be saved either.

Personally it all sounds a bit capricious to me. I don’t pretend to know the mind of God, but from inside my head it seems like there is some secret and mysterious criteria for who is and who is not “saved” built into Christianity. At the street level it seems to translate into “We know we are saved” or even “I know I am saved” but either way, we can’t really tell about you! This does not strike me as the plan of an all loving God.

There are some who feel that Hell is not really a part of Christian theology. Their reading of the Old Testament does not find any mention of some place of eternal punishment. They argue that “sheol” in Hebrew is simply the place of the dead and that when Jesus talked of people suffering because they did not believe or act “correctly”that their suffering would be earthly, not supernatural. This makes more sense to me, but frankly very few Christians think this way, and general Christian theology does not proclaim this.

“Hell is real,” Christianity says, “and if you screw up, God will send you there.” Not a very comforting message and not one I can believe in whatsoever.

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18 Comments

Filed under Christianity, journey into Buddhism, Philosophy & Religion, Religion, Thoughts on Buddhism

18 responses to “My Problem with Christianity: Part 2 — Hell

  1. u have an outstanding blog here. I like ur thoughts!

  2. Thanks ๐Ÿ™‚ We will see where this goes. By the way, your photos are simply astounding! My hat is off to you.

  3. Alan

    Hello,

    You ask some valid questions. We Christians go to the Bible to find the answers. I pass on two quotes from the Bible if you want to look into this further:

    Whoever believes in him [Jesus] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of Godโ€™s one and only Son. John 3:18

    That if you confess with your mouth, โ€œJesus is Lord,โ€ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. Romans 10:9-10

  4. Hitler and Mussolini were at least nominally Christians, although I have no idea what they believed in their hearts.ย  But if they believed that Christ rose from the dead they are “saved”?ย  And Ghandi and Ticht Nhat Hahn are not? Just checking to make sure.

  5. Being nominally Christian wont save you.
    and as for believing that Christ rose from the dead-
    here is a quote from James 2:19 “Even the demons believe–and shudder!”

    You said: “If Jesus died for our sins and God is love, then what the hell is Hell

    still doing there?”
    Jesus did die for our sins, as a gift for us, but each person has to decide for

    himself whether to accept that gift or not. For some reason..many people reject it.

    John 15:6 “If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and

    withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”

    It is not enough to believe that jesus is god you have to follow his instructions,

    which he gives in the bible. thats what it means by abide there. Hitler and

    mussolini obviously wernt following jesus’s instructions else they wouldnt have

    been so bad.

    Mark 12:28 And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one

    another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is

    the most important of all?”
    29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the

    Lord is one.
    30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul

    and with all your mind and with all your strength.’
    31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no

    other commandment greater than these.”

    In the scripture i quoted above, jesus said what his two most important

    commandments were. If people dont follow these, how can they be said to be abiding

    in Jesus? They may believe god is god but they dont show him the love that they

    should. That puts them against god. I think Hitler would have been a lot worse off

    when he met god than Gandhi, because for every bad thing we do, god stores up wrath

    for us. When we decided to wholeheartedly listen to Jesus and worship and obey god

    properly, we are spared that wrath.

    People dont go to hell based on how good or bad they have been – some really bad

    people do become christian and repent and are forgiven by Jesus.
    The apostle Paul, who was one of the main people who set up the church in the

    generation after Jesus died and was resurrected, was a person like this. He was the

    main enemy of the church until Jesus appeared to him.

    You said: “but from inside my head it seems like there is some secret and

    mysterious criteria for who is and who is not โ€œsavedโ€ built into Christianity.”

    There is no secret – it is plainly written in the bible. (see above and previous

    comments)

    Who is/was Ticht Nhat Hahn by the way?

    -Paul

  6. He is a Buddhist monk who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King. His website is here: http://www.plumvillage.org

    Yes, but if, as you say the question comes down to actions, and not faith alone as the other commenter (who also relied on the Bible) how much is enough?ย  This was the question of Martin Luther.ย  Yes, I would rather be in Ghandi’s shoes than Hitler’s at the pearly gates, but you and I are neither.ย  So where do we fit?ย  Does going to work in an office building, writing some checks to charity and helping out with a fund drive occaisionally count as “loving your neighbor?”ย  Perhaps many, many people are in for a rude surprise when they reach the pearly gates.ย  I am pretty certain that I am, if there is such a place.

    But this still avoids the basic question: “Did Jesus die for ALL of our sins or not?”ย  According to the the two folks who want me to re-read the Bible, the answer is clearly “no.”ย  And that may be the case, I would never in any way claim to know the complete mind of God.ย  But I still have problems with a theology that states that a loving God who has a “plan” for us will doom us for eternity if we don’t believe, act or think in exactly the right way.

    If Jesus died for ALL of humanity’s sins, then Hell is closed.ย  If He only died for SOME of our sins, then Hell is open, and frankly, personally, I am having trouble determining what the “tipping point” is for being sent there.

  7. Hi
    Here it is again in a different book of the bible:

    Luke 10:27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
    Luke 10:28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

    “Do this and you will live” – live meaning to not die a spiritual death when you r body .That is the criteria.follow these two of the commandments that Jesus said were most important!

    Ok a few points:
    how much is enough?
    Jesus said love you neighbor as yourself.
    How much would you like to be loved?
    Would you like help with a fund-drive or to recieve some money from charity in hard times? Well why not?
    But what would really make you happy? Someone who loves you will do for you what you most need at a particular time in your life.
    This can be anything! If you love people, you will see their needs and have compassion and help them with whatever. It isnt all about money.
    And who is your neighbor that jesus said you should love?

    Luke 10:29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

    Well, open up your bible to luke 10 and read for yourself! It is a good parable.

    Ill be praying for you.

    As for ‘ALL of humanityโ€™s sins’ – yes Jesus died for all of our sins. Jesus conquered the world and defeated death. But if you want the salvation Jesus offers, you must follow his instructions to have your guilt of sin taken away.

    Paul

  8. I appreciate your sincerity Paul, but I am still left with a conundrum here. On the one hand you tell me that Jesus died for all of all of humanity’s sins, which is a position I would like to agree with you on. But then you tell me I have to “follow his instructions” to have my “guilt of sin” taken away (although I am not sure I see the distinction of removing the guilt if the sin is already removed, but anyway…)

    But here is the conundrum: suppose I don’t follow his instructions? What if my pride or my fear or whatever else keeps from from doing His will. Or what if I am just plain pig headed stubborn? Ummm…wouldn’t that be a sin?

    It seems that what you are saying is that He **didn’t** die for the “sin” of not following his instructions. Which, if true, means His death and ressurection did not remove all sin from all people. I suppose you could somehow take the position that “not accepting salvation” is not actually a “sin” somehow, but that seems rather tenuous. How can you consider the very act that condemns a person to Hell for all eternity not a sin?

    And further, if “following his instructions” is necessary for salvation, I still think things get quite sticky. Is the example of Mother Theresa the model for “loving your neighbor as yourself”? I haven’t seen a lot of Mother Theresas around, I know I am not one. Or is it totally self contained? I have to love my neighbor exactly as much as I love myself (which maybe I am not too fond of myself right now, I don’t like this argumenative guy I have become ๐Ÿ™‚ )

    Maybe it is just me and the brain that God apparently gave me, but I don’t find any of this simple at all.

  9. Hi again!
    This is becoming an interesting discussion you put up some good points there.I think god has given you a very intellegent brain, judging by the way you write.
    I didnt know who Mother Theresa was so i had a search on google…From what i read she was a good example of someone who loved god and loved her neighbor too. She demonstrated love for god by obeying what he told her and love for the people around her by seeing the poor when she was teacher, and going to serve them.
    Remember Jesus said the most important commandment is to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength ‘ (mark 12:30, matthew 22:37)
    I think you are focussing more on the love your neighbor part but that is very important too.
    You dont see many Mother Theresas around its true. I think most people dont live up to their full potential and that is a possible reason. I think your post on ‘nominally religious people covers that…
    The thing is you dont have to start acting in a certain way in order to be ‘saved’. If you repent and accept the truth of Jesus then he will help you do the things you need to do. But you need to let him and to be honest, even as a christian there are times when I dont follow Jesus properly – I try to do my own thing and ignore god for a time. Its not a good thing when that happens.
    If someone repents and confesses their sins to god then continues to live their life exactly the same way as they did before well…I dont think that is the way its meant to be.
    So being christian is not a once off event and its not a matter of being christian because you were brought up that way by your parents.you have to talk to god every day in prayer and reading the bible (in my opinion anyway).Then his influence on you will keep you on the right track.
    If you think pride or stubbornness or fear is stopping doing gods will i recommend you pray about it and he will answer you and help you
    God isnt looking for ways to trip people up so they cant go to heaven – he wants to save everyone. Thats why Jesus came to earth and sacrificed his life and thats why god gave us the bible.

    Well i didnt come here to be argumentative but i thought i should reply to your comment as well. Just tell me if you want me to stop commenting and i will cos i will only comment if it helpful/informative for you.

    Paul

  10. I didn’t say you were argumenative, I said I was ๐Ÿ™‚

    On another blog in another time, I covered the the two great commandments and basically I said that only being able to follow one of them, I would take the “love your neighbor” part. I don’t do that well, of course, but c’est la vie. In that same post in that far away time and place I also said that I have no want or need of being “saved” in an afterlife. I will be posting my thoughts on heaven here soon enough.

    Something tells me you might disagree with those thoughts as well. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  11. CaptainSeven

    I am by no means an expert on Christian appologetics, but I found this discussion interesting, so I thought I might add my two cents. The best way I have heard it described is as follows: God is loving and merciful, but He is also holy and just. The prophets of the Old Testament could not even look upon his face and live, due to His holiness. A sinner cannot abide in the prescence of God. In breaking His commandments, each of us incurrs a penalty of sin. That is to say every human being ever….with one exception…Jesus.

    That penalty of sin must be paid in order to achieve Heaven upon death. However, no human being can pay that debt of sin, no matter how righteous they live (Ghandi, Mother Thereasa, etc…). Isaiah 64.6 – But we are all as an unclean [thing], and all our righteousnesses [are] as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.

    In the Old Testament, the people of Israel had to bring sacrifices to the altar of God in order to make payment for their sin. Or they would pass their sins symbolically to a goat (scape goat) to avoid the righteous judgement of God.

    The only way it is possible for humankind to be saved from the damnation that is justly ours for our sin is for someone else to pay that debt for us. That Someone is Jesus Christ.

    In living as a man, He was sinless, and walked only in His Father’s will. This is something only He was capable of, since He was at the same time both human and divine. In His puinishment and death on the cross, He was the perfect sacrifice for all humankind. Paying the sin debt for all sinners from all times. His payment is transferred to our accounts, and clears all of our debts if, and only if we believe that He died for our sins, and ransomed us from ultimate death. If one does not believe this, than one may be a wonderfull, and moral person, but cannot escape the payment of their sin-debt.

    In closing, it comes down to a matter of will. Adam and Eve’s willfullness in disobeying God in Eden started a war of wills between humans and God, that has not ceased. Submitting utterly to His will, will lead one to the Gospel of Christ. Choosing to excercise our willl in rejecting Christ is a choice, and a more costly one there could not be. This seems harsh and judgmental, and unfair. As for the first two, I believe it is, however I do not think it unfair. After all It is His world, and we are His children. He gave us His Word, His Son, and everything we need to achieve both happiness here on Earth, and in life everlasting. Both seem to me to be more than we deserve.

  12. I can only partially agree with you, Capt. ๐Ÿ™‚ Yes it is true that He (if He exists) gave us everything thing we need to be happy here on earth, and it is true (Biblically speaking, if not in reality) that He offers everlasting life on top of that. But unfortunately that offer of everlasting life contains the sword of Damocles in it. Get willful, lose your faith or strength and BOOM! 75 years of potential happiness turned into an eternity of suffering. You may be OK with that, and that might be the reality of the situation for all I know, but for me it is illogical, and actually unfair.

    I would expect more of an omnipotent and all loving God, personally speaking.

  13. CaptainSeven

    As a Bible believing Christian, I believe once you are aved, you cannot lose your salvation. I also believe it is possible to chose to give away that salvation, but only as a specific, purposeful choice to abandon God, and your salvation. All of us are willfull, sinful, and at times doubt our faith. This will not re-damn us. An acceptance of Christ brings a change in life, perspective, and most importantly in one’s heart. However, it doesn’t stop sin or will from creeping in. It merely provides the only truly effective weapon against it.

    I find nothing illogical in the arguments I have presented. Indeed I am a very logic based person, and it was through logical deductions that I came to be a believer. I used to be one of those, ‘all paths lead to Rome’ analogizers. Where any spiritual pathway could lead to heaven. That seemed fair to me. I would submit that you may mean ‘unfair’, instead of ‘illogical’.

    Btw…where does my description of God suggest a lack of omnipotence?

    Try this on for logic though: There can only be one truth. One mathematics. One set of bona-fide morals. One God. One beginning. One end. One truth. Two plus two can never equal anything but four. Ever. This is the God I believe in. Just like the mathematics we use to study His world. Purely truthfull, logical and rational.

    We are His children, and He has set the rules, as our Parent. We may be too young to understand why all the time, and His parenting may seem harsh or unfair. However He always knows what is best for us. One day we will all ‘grow up’, and thank Him for raising us the correct way.

  14. You are obviously a man (well, I assume a man) of deep faith. I am a man of none, at least in anything supernatural. And yes, I will agree that there is a unity at some level of the universe. It could very well mean one God, I just don’t happen to see it that way. I am willing to admit I am wrong about that, but not at this time. ๐Ÿ™‚

    But once again you have avoided (well actually answered in a way) the logical problem I posed: “Did Jesus die for all of our sins?”

    Here is what you said: “As a Bible believing Christian, I believe once you are aved, you cannot lose your salvation. I also believe it is possible to chose to give away that salvation, but only as a specific, purposeful choice to abandon God, and your salvation.”

    It seems to me that “choosing give away salvation” and “losing” it are pretty much the same thing. I had it, but now it is gone. But furthermore, it seems that what you are saying is that Jesus’s sacrifice does not cover those who “abandon God.” You can correct me if I have misintepretted what you said, but this is how it reads. Logically speaking you have said that Jesus died only for Christians (or maybe theists) who are faithful. Accordingly, that means that some of our sins were not included in His sacrifice — in this case the “sin” of abandoning God. It seems to me this is the logical conclusion of this position (which if, of course common to many Christians.)

    Many people seem comfortable with this. If I can paraphrase your comment a bit, you seem to be saying, “God has offered to save me, and all I have to do is follow His way. Seems fair to me!” I admire your faith on that.

    Unfortunately, for those of us with lesser faith, this leads to real problems. You say I can lose salvation by a “specific, purposeful choice to abandon God.” The problem becomes defining that exactly. Is it someone like me who decides that agnosticism makes more sense logically? Is it a Buddhist monk who is an atheist? Or is it a “Christian” who continues his job making bombs and such even when he feels it is wrong?

    Or to build on your analogy, how rebellious a child can I be and still not lose my inheritance? You (and many others) say that IS possible for me to lose that inheritance. And maybe so. And while Jesus may have *potentially* died for all of our sins, he did not actually die for them all.

    And maybe some day I will “grow up” and see the wisdom of this, but for now it seems illogical and the actions of a God who is something less than all loving.

  15. CaptainSeven

    Excellent discussion.

    I guess to analogize I would put it this way: There is a bar full of people. None of them have any money, but they are drinking anyway. If someone came in and paid the bar tender for all drinks anyone had had, or any drinks they will have, but only if they ask the bar tender to put their drinks on the generous person’s tab. If they don’t ask, they will have to pay in order to leave. If they ask, and then several drinks later decide that they don’t want any charitable help from the big spender, they could always go back to the bar tender and demand that they be held responsible for their own tab, thus abandoning the charitable man’s offer of payment.

    This ‘charitable man’ gave enough money to easily cover the tabs of every drink that any of them consumed, so he did pay for ALL their drinks. After that, it was a matter of each bar patron’s will as whether to accept the payment offer or not.

    I fully realize that this analogy is oversimple at the least, but I believe it conveys the point well enough. Jesus did die for all of the sins of all people ever. Now it comes down to our willfull choices.

    As to the abandoning faith in Him part, I was referring to a willfull decision, such as: ” I know that Christ has saved me, but I am conciously choosing to become a satanist.’. That person has given away their salvation. This is not to be confused with a Christian who slips back into a sinfull lifestyle, they are still saved, but may not receive higher rewards in Heaven.

    I know the Bible seems exclusive in its teachings…because it is. It doesn’t follow the politically correct idea of not trying to offend anyone. For those who believe, it is nothing short of God’s Word.

    A parent who loves his/her child will love that child even while they screw up, and will lovingly punish that child when they do what they have been expressly forbidden. Seems perfectly logical, and loving.

  16. I have issues with both analogies, but you are not surprised at that. ๐Ÿ™‚

    In the bar analogy, it seems you are underestimating God as the “patron.” I see your point of course, but a truly generous (and after all, omnipotent) patron would anticipate that some might be wary, uncomfortable or too proud to accept his largess, so if he truly wanted to pay for EVERYONE’s drinks, he would instruct the barman to take out the till and so on. Or just buy the whole bar and never mention the price of the drinks to anyone. If anyone offers to pay, the barman says somthing like “the drinks here are already paid for, why don’t you take your money to another bar and buy people some drinks there?” OK, or build a hospital with the money ๐Ÿ™‚

    My problem with the parent analogy is that Hell is forever. Hell is just not tough love or a correction. Eternal damnation. No hope whatsoever, doesn’t sound anything like what a parent would do. Actually, I did sort of like the Catholic idea of purgatory, it more fit the model you have proposed. Suffer for a while, and then when you have learned your lesson (or something) you go to heaven. Seems more parental than Hell.

    But ultimately, we are actually saying the same thing. You say that Christianity is exclusivist. In my own heart, when I was a Christian, I did not believe that. But it is clear in the Gospels that it is. I simply cannot, and will not, believe in an exclusivist religion or God. Of course that has no effect on whether or not there is such a God or your right (and everyone else’s) to believe in and worship such a God.

    But I just cannot.

  17. CaptainSeven

    I should make clear that I am not trying to convert you, but rather explain one Christians beliefs in an understandable way.

    The bar analogy was obviously wrought with problems, and was only meant to convey the idea of Jesus’ payment for our sins.

    I was raised very strongly Catholic. Ironically, purgatory was one of the many ideas which caused me to leave and go to a non-denominational Christin church. Purgatory, like Papal infallibility, has absolutely not a wink of Biblical foundation. Purely man-made concoction, but one that does sound better to people, since it basically makes God a big softie.

    This conversation may not go much further, but I still find it interesting. To me, the ultimate concept of the Bible is our willfull disregard of God’s commandments, our utter sinfullness, and the triumph of an all loving God, who sacrificed his only Son to protect us from death. Christianity’s purpose is not to gain an understanding of life, or to learn lessons and grow – these are side products – but for us to discern God’s will, and submit ours.

    I am optomistic for you, since you are obviously seeking religious truth, and with an open mind. This was a similar journey that I took, after about 8 years of secular agnosticism. My rational became in the end: If there is life, it came from somewhere. If there is more than one god, there had to be only one to begin with. This ‘god’ must exist outside our dimensions of time and space, or existence is not possible.

    I have to stop myself, or this will become a thesis paper. ๐Ÿ˜€ Keep searching bud, just remember, if a said religion fits man’s nature comfortably, there can’t be a very good reason for that. Doing the right thing anywhere in life often involves sacrifice on our part. Indeed the most giving and Christ-like of us sacrifice the most. The most sellfish, the least. Sorry for the rant, and thank you for this discussion. – Keith

  18. Thanks Keith ๐Ÿ™‚ I was also raised Catholic, but obviously we see things in a very different way, and that is OK. To be honest, I am not actually seeking a religious truth, a spiritual one, perhaps, but not a religious one. I agree with you 100% that Christianity is not about understanding or learning lessons or growing. And as you will see, if you keep reading here ๐Ÿ˜‰ that is exactly the reason I feel I have found something that is more valuable for me.

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