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 🙂 ). 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.