Comfortable with hell?

Aug 31, 2015 by

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There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” — C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

A boy in my daughter’s school class once told her, “I want to go to hell because you get doughnuts. In heaven you only get cupcakes.”



It was second-grade nonsense, but it understandably bothered her that someone would “want” to go to hell.

I realized that I didn’t know what I’d say if someone asked me what I believed hell was or who (if anyone) was going there. I realized that I was embarrassed of hell.

It can’t be healthy to feel uncomfortable with a major tenet of your religion, so I determined to make my peace with hell one way or another.

When I went back to the Gospels, specifically looking for references to hell and eternal agony, I was surprised by the harsh Jesus I encountered. He had no problem handing out threats.

Of course, many of these consequences come out of his parables, so they can’t be taken literally.

Jesus was fond of both hyperbole and metaphor in his teaching, and his “blazing furnace” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth” are no exceptions.

The word “hell” itself raises questions. It is used to translate the Greek word Gehenna, which was a valley outside Jerusalem. Human sacrifice was believed to have taken place there in Old Testament times. It was also a sort of garbage dump where refuse, dead animals and even the bodies of criminals were burned.

To Jesus’ listeners, gehenna personified everything that was unclean, vile and accursed.

When Jesus threatens wrongdoers with being thrown into gehenna, he could have been using it in the same way we invoke Timbuktu or Siberia to conjure a specific concept (remote and very far away).

As I considered my established images and perceptions of hell, I was overwhelmed by Jesus’ consistent message of impending judgment.

Over and over in his parables the master (or king or bridegroom) returns to dole out punishment or reward.

Jesus may be alluding to an actual single moment in time (his second coming) or the ongoing reality that our daily decisions have consequences. Or maybe both.

The message of all the dire warnings is the same either way: There will be a reckoning.

Significantly, at these moments of judgment there are usually two distinct sides. You are either wicked or righteous. A goat or a sheep.

Anabaptists tend to emphasize the importance of “works” in the Christian life, perhaps too much at times. But there is biblical backing for this.

In Matthew, Mark and Luke, people are always “sent to hell” because of their actions.

The Gospel of John comes as a relief with its focus on eternal life and the singular belief by which it is attained.

Does anyone ever get comfortable with the idea of hell? Is there a satisfactory way to explain that after death there is no more forgiveness?

When asked, “Why do children suffer?” I say, “I don’t know.”

“Is Gandhi in hell?” I say, “I don’t know.”

Perhaps that’s wishy-washy, but it’s the most authentic and honest response I’ve got.

What I do know is that each person’s behavior, beliefs, life and loyalty will be called into account. And there are consequences.

I find peace in God’s justice — and his mercy.

Besides, I’ve never been a big doughnut fan. I’m at peace eating cupcakes.

Sarah Kehrberg lives in Swannanoa, N.C., and attends Asheville Mennonite Church.

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  • Debra B. Stewart

    I have a reading suggestion for you. “If Grace Is True,” by Gulley and Mulholland, two brother Quakers.

  • Carla Histand

    Sarah, thank you for bringing us back to solid scriptural footing.
    Jesus Christ is our sure foundation, but many opt to appease the sinner, rather than to please God… and nowhere did Jesus say “that’s okay–we’ll talk about it and I’ll let you continue to walk ‘in the flesh’ because you’re such a good person”.
    Good people go to hell.
    People whose Lord and Savior is Jesus Christ will go to heaven (period).

    • James M. Branum

      If “good people” go to a hell of eternal torment then God is unjust.

      • Conrad Martin

        First of all, you can’t judge God on human terms, He can do whatever He wants. Secondly, God doesn’t want anyone to go to hell, but some people reject Him. What is God supposed to do with those who reject Him? Say to them, aww come on in anyway, even if you do hate me. Thirdly, I’m not sure why Jesus had to go to the cross and die for our sins, if there are no consequences for our rejection of Him.

  • Don Lowery

    Having come out of a Baptist background…all you would ever hear is give your life to Jesus at the alter call to keep from going to hell. Hardly anything about doing anything after you mutter those magic words was mentioned. Made more than one person anxious when I would mention that there’s much more to being a Christian than saying some magic words and leaving it at that. Leaving that background almost two years ago…have found a place where what I do now is more important than trying to keep from going to a fairy tale place being used to scare people into doing what you want them to do. At my remembrance service…I would rather have people remember the good I did in this life…rather than walking an aisle because someone scared me with going to a big/bad place.

  • James M. Branum

    The concept of a literal hell is the ultimate kind of violent theology. Even the worst of humans (i.e. Adolf Hitler) can only abuse and torture someone in this life, while a literal view of hell makes God into an even worse kind of monster.

    I think we can say hell was a popular concept at the time of Jesus and hence he (assuming the gospel narratives are correct in their quotations of him) used the metaphor as a picture of divine justice in the context of oppression. But the idea of hell is completely absent from the Old Testament/Jewish scriptures and hence I would argue is a later and popular concept but not divine truth.

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