It’s easy to believe in God, in heaven; even in hell, if you’re speaking of hell on earth. All of us have experienced both heaven and hell in this life. We’ve seen evidence of their reality here and now. But are they actual places and states of existence in the next life, the afterlife?
I was taught about eternity in childhood. The soul’s immortality—our eternal continuation and existence beyond death—was a given. After death, the soul went either to heaven or hell. If you were a “true” Christian—if you had consciously and verbally accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior and said the sinner’s prayer, if you were an obedient disciple—you would go to heaven and be with God forever. If you were not a “true” Christian—if you had not consciously and verbally accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior and not said the sinner’s prayer, if you called yourself a Christian but were not an obedient disciple—you would go to hell where you would be separated from God forever. As if that wasn’t enough, you would also suffer never-ending conscious torment at the hands of laughing demons and the relentless yet never-consuming fire.
It was a clear, black-and-white distinction between who went to heaven and who went to hell. Only a few chose the narrow path to heaven. All unbelievers were out, even some of the religious and spiritual and certain self-proclaimed “Christians” who deceived themselves into thinking they knew God; all Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus—and all other religions aside from ours—and animists, atheists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, perhaps even some in mainline denominations who were “spiritually dead”.
I took it for granted throughout much of my life that heaven and hell were real, literal places we go after death. I still believe in a literal heaven, though one different from the misty images of pearly gates and golden streets. I can still—partially, hesitantly—almost believe in a literal hell of some kind, without knowing what exactly it might be. It’s a hard concept and belief to let go of when it’s been handed down as such an essential doctrine for as long as you can remember, implanted from the earliest childhood memories.
I’ve found hardly any satisfactory answers or explanations concerning hell. A few verses here and there; my father’s books about certain Christians’ vivid visions; peoples’ personal stories of near death experiences and tastes of their eternal lot before coming back to their bodies.
I’ve given my own answers and explanations. God is a wrathful judge—just and holy and pure—and cannot associate with sin or sinners (something Jesus seemed just fine with). We are under God’s just judgment and wrath and anger and will receive due punishment for our sins (hell) if we are not alive in Jesus, for Jesus is our only righteousness before God. Humans have free will and God won’t drag anyone kicking and screaming into heaven if they don’t want to be there. God doesn’t send people to hell—people choose it (in their rejection of God). God doesn’t want anyone to perish, but desires all to be saved (one of the easy, nice-sounding phrases that contradicts other not-so-easy, not-so-nice-sounding passages). Those in hell deserve to be there—we all do. That we deserve hell is a starting point, and the possibility of anyone getting to heaven is the miracle. And so on.
I don’t remember exactly how I was taught about hell, what was said and how it was explained. But around the mere idea of hell was a great cloud of fear and trembling (and not the good kind). I don’t know if my parents spoke about it or emphasized it often, or if I heard much about it in church, in Sunday school, at Christian camps and in youth groups. I remember a line of books about hell on one of my father’s bookshelves. Their cover art contained fake-looking flames and bold black letters, emphasized with shades of orange and red. I think I even read one or two, back when I somehow wasn’t as bothered.
I remember and always will how as a child I would lay in my bed in a dark room I shared with my brother and attempt to think of every sin I had committed that day, asking God for forgiveness. I was under the impression (where did it come from?) that if I happened to die that night without repenting of all my sins, I could (or would) go to hell. I had no concept of the theology I would later come to adopt—a loving God forgiving all past, present, and future wrongs (and thus no fear of hell if I happened to forget one). As a child, it was simple—it was up to me to repent and ask for forgiveness. If I didn’t, wasn’t sorry, forgot, didn’t care, whatever, I would go to hell. Somewhere I missed the part in Sunday school (or wasn’t taught) that when Jesus gave his life for me he took care of all my transgressions for all time. It wasn’t up to me because God had made it his own concern. Repentance was and is necessary, but not in fear. And repentance does not save me. It is a response to God’s primary initiative action, and not my own action, that in itself rescues me.
Hell is my brother recalling that story from our childhood. Someone shared a message during the small house church that met in our parents’ basement. They said, “You can deceive yourself into believing you’re a Christian.” How can a young, naive, Christian-raised child not be damaged by this statement? How can it not affect their image of God, and their own self? One must be saved to go to heaven and not hell, and this very salvation is precarious, apparently anything but guaranteed; we can lose it at any moment and, worse, not even realize it. We could die and go to hell while all our lives believing we were saved, that we were in and not out.
This is just one reason why the Bible is still difficult. It can be used to prove this point. For example, “Lord, Lord, didn’t we do this and that for you, in your name?” The response: “I never knew you.” It takes not a large leap to go from someone in spiritual authority telling others they can deceive themselves into being Christians to, “What if I am the one Jesus is talking about when he says, ‘I never knew you’?” Then follows fear, anxiety, and doubt; in one outcome possible performance and striving, and in another perhaps depression and despair. If the mere possibility of such consequential self-deception is real, how could it not?
I don’t know what to do with all the passages that mention hell (even though hell was often described by Jesus in terms of a physical place, Gehenna, a spot outside Jerusalem where trash was burned in a perpetually smoldering fire; not to mention that the Jewish scriptures were often more concerned with physical reality and resurrection than an afterlife). I want to believe they mean something non-literal. But, if you come from the background I do, it’s a cyclical, self-defeating thought process. It goes like this. Hell is a real place and countless people (most of us) go there, since God is holy and just. Or hell is not a real place and thus no one goes there, leaving unanswered questions of holiness and justice. To believe the latter leads to another statement I’ve heard—the belief that hell is not real is exactly what Satan wants you (and all people) to believe. So, you’re stuck. You can’t escape the idea, the thought, the concept of hell, literal or not.
I hold a foot in each world. The one of my childhood where I can still somewhat, somehow believe in a literal hell of some kind, being supposedly essential to the Christian faith (but why?). And the one of my spiritual evolution where I can never satisfactorily answer the question of how a good, loving God could create humans only to allow them to spend eternity there or, worse, send them there himself (is there a stark difference?).
If presently I can’t bring myself to approach the Bible for answers, all I can do follow is my own heart and personal experience of God’s love (all subjective, of course). Accordingly, I find it difficult if not impossible to believe in a literal hell where the “unsaved” suffer forever, though the God of my childhood doesn’t seem to care all that much if it’s true. After all, sinners are under God’s wrath and deserve punishment.
The problem is, I cannot get both my feet in one world alone. I am in the middle, paralyzed at the center, stretched thin on either side. I can’t commit fully to either. I can’t commit to believing in a literal hell where billions of souls suffer because I can’t imagine following this belief to its logical conclusion about the nature of God. And neither can I commit to not believing in a hell of some kind for the same reason—I’m unsure I can follow this belief to its logical conclusion for the lack of justice it seems to imply. Not to mention how easily we find evidence of an already existent hell-on-earth in our daily lives.
My only choice is to surrender the idea, concept, thought, and belief entirely (especially the ones that damaged me), and to entrust the truth to God (whatever it might be). In striving to reach an answer, I experience only fear and anxiety, not love and trust. If God truly is good and right in his holiness and justice, and a loving God of peace and rest, I follow the peace and remain where there is rest, believing in the miracle of the mercy I don’t deserve rather than the fearful punishment I do.
Even when it seems to contradict some of my religious upbringing and conditioning, segments of the evangelical church, theologically conservative family and friends, confusing and inexplicable passages in the Bible, and a wounded and narrow and incomplete image of God, I am confident in my experience of and encounter with the God I know now. In the midst of all the movement of my spiritual transformation, there is one great experiential truth that has never changed: No matter the nagging doubts and questions and lapses into unbelief, and no matter the moments of fear and anxiety over what comes after, I know that I am loved, and that I belong.
Whatever else I don’t know—especially concerning what comes after—this much I know to be true.
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