As regular readers will know, I use this blog to put words to the voiceless thoughts that mill around my head. By trying to get something down on pen & paper (as many of my posts originate there before being transcribed and edited) I can critique my own thoughts and try to evaluate if what I am thinking makes any sense.
Of late, I have been thinking a little about the idea of hell. I guess it was properly sparked off by reading Hitchens’ diatribe, God is Not Great, where amidst his irrational ramblings against religion he does make a good point that the idea of hell is used as an evangelical tool to try to “scare” (for want of a better word) people into belief. This is something I recognise, most frequently among street preachers you occasionally see dotted around London. Another part of it may well have been how much I disagreed with Tom Wright’s thoughts on the subject in Surprised by Hope.
The fact of the matter is that the idea of hell makes me uncomfortable. The traditional idea which has seeped into the public consciousness is a deeply disturbing image of fire and eternal punishment. If any group of people are good at capturing the zeitgeist, it is animators. If you watch comic depictions of hell in The Simpsons or South Park you will find a common theme around which they are based (although each usually has their own amusing twist on it).
The idea also makes other christians uncomfortable. When, many months ago, I mooted the idea of doing some investigations into the idea by reading and writing about the subject, I was frequently either warned off from doing it or advised not to look too closely. Of course, not all responses were like that, but a noticeable number were. The only trend I noticed was that those most opposed to this undertaking were those at the more ‘conservative’ end of the theological spectrum.
So what is the correct way to proceed? Should I drop any investigation into the matter, thinking that I know and understand everything there is to know about hell and then keep it at the back of my mind? If I’m asked “do you believe in hell?” how should I respond? Will it be a simple “yes” or “no” or should there be a clarification about what the questioner has in mind when they ask the question?
I study in order to do battle with ignorance. When that battle is over, the peaceful aftermath allows for a faithful out-living of what I have learned. The christian life lived without an understanding of theology is ignorant and misguided; yet the pursuit of theological correctness, if not followed through with practical application is a purely academic study, helping no one. As such, I cannot heed the advice of those who would warn me to stay away. If I am to be a faithful christian, I can’t decide that there are areas which mustn’t come under scrutiny. What if I’m wrong?
One of my major concerns is that the idea of hell has been hijacked, subject to later reinterpretation and then fed back into the christian psyche so that what is preached as “the christian view” of hell is no longer based firmly in what may be found in the books of the bible. In particular, I am concerned about the influence of Dante’s Inferno episode of the Divine Comedy. To some extent, Milton’s Paradise Lost may also come into play. So in anything I read, I will look out for any authors who approach the subject seeming to come with a pre-formed vision of what hell is, if indeed it is anything.
This exercise is largely to sharpen up my thinking which is, I freely admit, a little woolly on the matter. But I think it is worth stating where I am starting from. My position has been for some time, best described by the term ‘tentative annihilationist’. That is, I subscribe to the idea that hell is the destruction of the soul; you simply cease to exist. This is set apart from two other main schools of thought: the traditional idea of eternal torment stated above and the idea of universalism, that everyone will saved and no one would go to hell.
As lovely as that final idea sounds, it seems to be borne out of little more than wishful thinking. I’ve never yet read a reasoned argument in its favour. As hinted above, I am also sceptical about the eternal punishment theory. The reason is that there is so much in the bible that refers to destruction far more than torment. Even what is said about we might think of as ‘hell’ seems at odds with what little is spoken about in churches.
So what is my plan for going forward? Well, as usual, my primary means is reading books. At the time of publishing this, I expect to be about half way through Erasing Hell by Francis Chan & Preston Sprinkle. In order to get more a more informed opinion on universalism, I intend on picking up Rob Bell’s controversial recent book on the topic, Love Wins. Someone recommended to a book entitled something like A History of Hell though I forget the author’s name. If you have any recommendations, then please feel free to suggest them in the comments.
There will be several features I will look out for in these. I may well follow up on my own if I don’t think they are addressed properly. Specifically, they will be about the translation and interpretation about the various terms used: Sheol and Abaddon (Hebrew), Gehenna, Hades and Tartaroo (Greek).
Behind some of the words of caution I have received, there has been an undercurrent of thinking that by looking at this side of theology one must be ignoring the gospel of grace. I won’t be ignoring it, though I readily acknowledge it is difficult to look at both aspects of christianity simultaneously without going a bit cross-eyed, like looking simultaneously to the extreme right and left fields of vision at once.
I’m sure there will be many other topics that cross my path as I go along, though I hope to gain the right balance between not getting distracted and not ignoring important, intertwined strands of thought. I’m not anticipating that this will be a fun or a pleasant trip. But like going to the dentist, it may be necessary. I just haven’t been to the dentist in almost 15 years and I’m not sure that’s the best state of affairs to be in.