I recently ran a poll on an Internet message board I frequent, asking respondents to choose what they believe God will do with humanity at the end of time. Among the choices were the following:
1) All non-Christians will go to hell.
2) Anyone who doesn’t believe in God will go to hell.
3) People will get a chance to accept God before the final decision is made.
4) Only the most evil and unrepentant will go to hell.
5) God will have mercy on everyone.
I then asked them to choose what they would do if they were God. The same choices applied. My gut feeling was that some people would choose answers 1 or 2 in the first poll (believing that God would either send all non-Christians to hell, or at least all non-believers to hell), but that far fewer people would choose answers 1 or 2 for the second poll.
My assumptions proved true. For the first poll, two respondents believed that all non-Christians would go to hell, and one respondent believed that anyone who didn’t believe in God would go to hell. The majority, of course, chose something between answers 3, 4, and 5. Yet no one, when answering the second poll – the one about what they would do if they were God – answered choice 1 or 2.
What does this say about our conceptions of God? Could it be true that these rebellious, sinful, hopeless creatures called human beings are more merciful, forgiving, and loving than the very God who created them? If one abides by a traditional/evangelical Christian view of reality, this seems to be the only assumption one can make. We think God will send all non-believers, and maybe even all people who aren’t specifically born again Christians, to hell, yet if we were God ourselves, we would be much more lenient, merciful, and forgiving.
Something’s wrong with this picture.
By the standards with which we understand the terms, the very idea that an all-loving, all-merciful, all-compassionate God could even conceive of a place such as hell is counter-intuitive and nonsensical. You must redefine those terms in order to make sense of such a concept.
Yet, this is the prevailing concept within traditional/evangelical Christianity. God is love. God is merciful. But God will send you to roast for eternity in unimaginable torment if you don’t believe and do the right things.
It can’t be both ways. If you abide by traditional/evangelical Christian thought, then you must either acknowledge that God is not loving, not merciful, and not compassionate, by the standards with which we understand those terms, or you must acknowledge that the very concept of hell is flawed.
I personally believe that the hell doctrine is Christianity’s single biggest doctrinal disgrace. For centuries it has been used as a tool to wield power, scaring people into submitting to the will of the Church for fear of eternal punishment. It is certainly not worthy of the God we believe embodies love, mercy, and compassion, and it is not even biblical, if one understands the background against which the bible speaks of hell. Even if one makes the argument for the biblical veracity of a place called hell for sinners, such teachings would clearly fall into the category that the Episcopalian bishop, writer, and scholar John Shelby Spong would call a “sin of scripture.” It can stand proudly beside those other sins of scripture such as mandatory execution for homosexual acts, the slaughter of innocent Egyptian babies, and words of encouragement and support for beating and abusing wayward children.
I don’t personally believe in hell. I believe in a God of love, a God of compassion, and a God of mercy. I believe in forgiveness and acceptance. I don’t believe that anyone is completely guilty of whatever crimes/actions they have committed. No one is born evil, or born with a desire to do evil. We learn these things through society and culture, and usually a healthy dose of neglect, abuse, and bad influences. Even if someone is born with a mind seemingly pre-wired to criminal pathology, is it their fault they were born with such a mind? Did they ask to become a homicidal maniac, child molester, or serial killer? I believe in the concept of basic human innocence. We are born innocent, and anything that happens thereafter is a complex combination of psychological pre-wiring, nurture, and societal influence. No one can do anything other than attempt to make their way in the world with the set of parameters they have been given. Some of us get two loving parents, a nice house in suburbia, reliable cars, good schools, and positive influences. Others of us get an abusive mother, a drug-dealing father, dangerous schools, ghetto tenements to live in, and the stench of crack pipes to fall asleep to. Still others get the impression of stability in white suburbia, but grow up behind the scenes with sexually, physically, and emotionally abusive parents.
Where would you be, if you had been given scenario number two or three in the paragraph above?
I’m not suggesting I believe that crimes should go unpunished or that serial criminals should be allowed back on the streets. What I am suggesting is that when it comes down to ultimate truths and ultimate realities, we all have innocent souls. Therefore, how could anyone be worthy of a place like hell? Don’t forget – hell is not just a place of temporary punishment where you get to burn in utter agony for a few weeks in order to pay for your crimes. Hell is a place where you burn in utter agony, without dying, for all eternity! No crime/action/inaction in life could possibly justify such a punishment – especially not the crime of believing in the wrong religion, or choosing not to believe at all.
The ancient Jews did not really have any unified or structured concept of hell. The closest thing to an afterlife to the ancient Jew was the place called “Sheol,” which was more or less the underworld – the world of shadows, under the ground, where all people went when they died. It had nothing to do with eternal torment, or any sort of reward/punishment cycle.
Hell came into being along with the birth of the Christian church. If you open your bible, you won’t find any reference to hell until the New Testament. During the time of the birth of Christianity, there was a garbage and refuse dump outside of Jerusalem, called Gehenna in Greek, which was routinely on fire as the city’s waste was burned. The early Jewish Christians combined their understanding of the spiritual place called Sheol, with their knowledge of the physical place called Gehenna, to form the concept of hell. It was a way for them to makes sense of the tragedies and persecutions that they suffered, and it was a way for them to satisfy the basic human idea of reward/punishment.
Although the gospel writers (writing several generations after Jesus’s life), attributed words to Jesus that included talk of hell, most scholars do not believe the historical Jesus would have had any concept of hell as we understand it, as the concept was not developed until long after his death. If Jesus ever spoke of eternal rewards and punishments, it would have been in a metaphorical sense – in other words, to live apart from God is to doom yourself to eternal suffering through being separated from the source of your being; to live in union with God is to live in perpetual exaltation with the source of life and love. Which sounds better to you? I know I would choose the latter.
For the kingdom of God to be realized in the present, I believe Christianity must jettison outdated and immoral doctrines like the doctrine of hell. If God is all-loving, all-merciful, and all compassionate, then all human beings have innocent souls, and all are equally deserving of eternal communion with God.