I don’t think a lot about hell. I hardly ever preach on it. I don’t hold many opinions about it. I intend not to go there myself.
But like two-thirds of Americans, I do believe hell exists. I’m less sure what it’s like.
I don’t buy that it’s a place where the damned are literally burned forever in a lake of fire.
When I was a young minister, a teenager in my congregation was horribly burned in a home accident. I prayed with him and his parents in a hospital burn ward as he was dying, and I’ve never seen anything as gruesome or tortuous as his injuries.
Ever since, I haven’t been able to imagine the loving God I worship throwing anybody into a fire and leaving them to writhe there forever. I just refuse to believe that of him.
I believe hell’s eternal fires are a metaphor for a grief or bitterness we can’t otherwise understand here, a spiritual pain that results from having rejected God’s love forever.
Another issue I have with hell is trying to figure out who goes there. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot — shoo-ins.
But who else? Where’s the cut-off line?
In Christianity, my religion, many say all those who don’t embrace Jesus Christ as the son of God and their personal savior go to hell, and those who do embrace him are spared no matter what terrible sins they’ve committed.
That’s problematic, too.
How could God send a person from, say, communist China to hell for not believing in somebody she’s never even heard of? How would that be just on any level, especially if God’s lets a murderer into heaven because he prayed a last-minute fire-insurance prayer on his deathbed?
So yes, as a Christian, I’m more-or-less required to accept that all salvation comes through Jesus. It’s a tenet of the faith.
But it doesn’t necessarily follow for me that only Christians can be saved.
In “Mere Christianity,” the great C. S. Lewis explains it like this: “We do know that no person can be saved except through Christ. We do not know that only those who know Him can be saved by Him.”
I suspect God judges people, Christians or not, more on what they do know than on what they don’t know. Or perhaps he judges based on what they do with what they know.
I get this sense from the sermons and parables of Jesus himself, who talked a lot about hell. St. Paul implies this as well.
In Jesus’ accounting of right-standing before God, a religiously unclean but compassionate Samaritan appears to have far more hope of heaven than a self-absorbed priest, and a humble, desperate tax collector is nearer the pearly gates than a smug Pharisee.
Notably, in Jesus’ worldview self-righteous religious folks are the most likely to be damned. The biblical Jesus can’t abide them. Prostitutes and tax collectors? No problem.
The rich likewise are doomed.
For example, in Jesus’ parable of Lazarus the beggar, Lazarus is ushered at death straightway into Abraham’s bosom, while the wealthy man at whose gate Lazarus lay is banished to a hell so hot he begs for just a drop of water to ease his torment.
Those who ignore others’ suffering never fare favorably with Jesus. He speaks explicitly about who’s hell-bound in Matthew 25:
▪ Those who don’t feed the hungry.
▪ Those who don’t give the thirsty a drink.
▪ Those who don’t welcome aliens and strangers.
▪ Those who don’t clothe the naked.
▪ Those who don’t tend to the sick.
▪ Those who don’t treat prisoners compassionately.
Jesus says that on judgment day God will declare to such miscreants, “‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels.’”
As usual, Jesus stands our prejudices and expectations on their heads.
We see a single mother who can’t afford her insulin, or an ex-con at an intersection begging for a meal, or a Central American immigrant seeking refuge, and if we’re not careful and self-aware, we assume them to be sinners, outcasts or losers.
Jesus says they’re the very children of the Almighty, that the kingdom of God is theirs. He says the way we treat them might even determine our own eternal destination.
We see a guy in a $2,000 suit, driving a BMW, barreling past broken folks on his way to a church board meeting, and we assume he must be God’s right-hand man.
Jesus says the guy only thinks he’s rushing to a board meeting. Jesus says it’s likelier he’s driving headlong through the open gates of hell.
My guess is, neither heaven nor hell will be populated by the folks we expect to be there.