Pastor's Blog

One of the Christian doctrines that is most repulsive to people is the doctrine of hell.  Critics of Christianity find it incomprehensible that a loving God could run an inescapable eternal torture chamber off in one corner of the universe and that good people who had made it to heaven could continue to a happy existence knowing that their friends and relatives were being tortured there.

When I was considering abandoning the Christian faith I found those objections reasonable.  That didn’t change when my faith recovered.  I still find those objections reasonable.  Hell as eternal conscious punishment is objectionable and repulsive.

That doesn’t change the fact that the Bible (and Jesus in particular) presents a good bit of material about hell.  If our faith is based on biblical revelation, we have to do something with that material.

Some people deny the existence of hell and opt for universalism (there is no eternal punishment and that everyone (including the Hitler’s and Jeffrey Dahmer’s of the world) will be saved.  Others believe hell means annihilation, i.e. hell is not everlasting conscious punishment but the complete annihilation of the soul, the destruction of consciousness.

I never found either of these views satisfactory.  While there are difficulties with every viewpoint, I have found C. S. Lewis’ ideas on hell to be sensible.  Lewis’ ideas can be found in the chapter “Hell” in his “Problem of Pain” (it’s brief -- 11 pages in a little paperback) and in an imaginative (and often misunderstood) short story entitled “The Great Divorce”.  I’ll percolate his view down to its most pertinent points.

Hell is quite often depicted as fire.  But Jesus mentioned an important detail when he said that those cursed at the judgment will depart into “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25.41).  Hell, Jesus infers, was made for angels – spirit beings – and not humans.  So what kind of fire can touch bodiless spirits and cause them to suffer?

Alongside of the imagery of unquenchable fire Jesus depicted hell as a place where the worms that consume the dead are unsatiated and never die (Mark 9.48), presumably because what they are consuming is never fully consumed.  And in perhaps the strangest twist of all Jesus calls the suffering outside of the kingdom “outer darkness” (Matthew 25.30).  How can hell be darkness if it is a fire?

Lewis suggests that rather than taking the images literally and trying to find a way to combine them to get a literal picture of hell, we should determine what the images represent and think of hell in those terms – not literally as fire, worms, and darkness.  The images, he says, represent painful punishment (fire), destruction or ruination (fire and worms;  “destruction” rather than “hell” is the term the apostle Paul uses [2 Thessalonians 1.9]), and banishment (cast into outer darkness). 

Taking all the images figuratively doesn’t mean that hell is not a place of suffering.  It means that the suffering is best depicted to our minds through these pictures – even if the images are not an actual snapshot of what the suffering looks like in reality.

For Lewis, hell is not fire and worms and impenetrable darkness.  It is a punishment involving an existence of banishment to suffering through constant ruin, constant disappointment, constant inability to achieve any lasting sense of fulfillment or joy.

So what might that look like?

The mystery of the incarnation – how Jesus could be God and man at the same time and how Jesus could be sinless and yet still have a meaningful human experience -- may seem like a lot of ethereal theological mumbo-jumbo that has nothing to do with everyday life. 

But there is one key application of this truth that I have found crucial to the Christian worldview.

Human nature wants to avoid personal responsibility for one’s own problems.  We prefer to place the blame for our personality foibles, shortcomings, and mistakes on our parents, siblings, neighbors, teachers, a bully, or some other environmental factor – anything but ourselves.

And certainly things external to us can be factors in our shortcomings and failures.

But suppose Jesus had been raised in the same environment you were.  How would He have turned out?

The Christian belief that He would have turned out perfect despite having been surrounded by imperfect parents, imperfect siblings, imperfect neighbors, and a difficult social environment.  It had no adverse effects on Him because He was so attuned to God’s will.  He always chose the correct response to any adversity that He faced.

But the rest of us don’t do that.  We do what seems best to us.

Our society talks a lot about the wisdom of children and their internal goodness – but are children really wise?  Children may have good intentions, but do those good intentions always translate into good moral decisions that produce good outcomes?  Do children really understand how to properly respond to the misguided people around them?  Do they know how to deal with a parent who gets angry unjustifiably, or a deceitful neighbor who tries to take advantage of them, or a bully who tells them that they are stupid or ugly?

Everything about reality tells us that they don’t respond wiselyYou and I didn’t.

Children don’t know how to interpret or understand or deal with the world – either the adult world or their own.  Quite often the decisions that they make are less than ideal and those less than ideal perceptions cause them to veer off track – and the wrong sort of thinking develops.  This idea isn’t unique to Christianity.  Secular psychology has understood human development the same way.

But the Christian belief is that Jesus wouldn’t have veered off.  He would have been straight as an arrow and would have hit the mark of truth with every moral decision and every response to His environment.

But that means that each of us plays a significant role in our shortcomings and misperceptions and failures.  It doesn’t matter that we were innocent children.  We were innocent and ignorantand we made bad decisions.  We couldn’t help ourselves.  And many of those small decisions molded our personalities in adverse ways.  And we are responsible for those decisions.

This is not to deny the role environment plays in our “malformation”.  It is simply to say that from day one we play a crucial role in our own molding, by our perception of people, things, and events (whether those perceptions are accurate or not) and by our responses to those perceptions.

And the world is troubled because, from day one, we all get things wrong.

Except for Jesus.

Sin begins with the tiniest divergence from agreement with God.  It is something we do naturally.  We don’t even have to think about it.  To make matters worse, a good many times we aren’t even aware that our perspective or opinion is differing with God at all.  This is the Christian doctrine of the depravity of man.  We are born spiritually dead – not that we don’t have a spirit or a mind, not that we can’t think -- but that we are not innately connected to God.  We don’t know Him and we don’t understand Him, hence the image often used to depict our condition:  blindness.

When we say Jesus didn’t sin (or “had no sin”), we mean more than that He didn’t commit acts of sin.  We mean that in His experience of life Jesus didn’t experience that blindness, that disconnection from God.  When temptations were placed in front of Him, he saw how He could disagree with God and gratify Himself, and He saw the attractiveness of that option.  But He also saw the option of obedience to the Father and the attractiveness of that option.  And obedience to the Father was the option He always chose.  Some people think He did so because He couldn’t choose otherwise.  I’m more inclined to believe that He simply chose that way because He knew the Father and WANTED to obey.

Why was He like that?  I don't know.

I would like to suggest that Adam and Eve were in the same position as Jesus.  There was no sin in them – no sin nature, no innate disagreement with God, no bent away from God.  They were not ignorant of God or His ways.  There was complete freedom to choose.  And humanity used its freedom to choose against the Father.  Why?  I don’t know.  It’s a part of the mystery of sin.

Have you noticed that I say, “I don’t know”, and use the term “mystery” quite often? 
How could Jesus be fully God and fully man?  I don’t know.  It’s a mystery.
How could a man who is also God have any limitations and still be God?  I don’t know.  It’s a mystery.
How could He be fully man, born of a fallen woman, and not have a fallen nature, a bent toward disobedience?  I don’t know.  It’s a mystery. 
How could Adam and Eve, created perfectly good with no bent toward evil, decide to choose evil?  I don’t know.  It’s a mystery.

When I was considering abandoning the Christian faith and turning to atheism, mysteries bothered me.  Trying to build a system of thought on things I couldn’t explain, things I didn’t know, on questions rather than answers, seemed to me an odd way to approach life.

Until I found out that atheism had its share of mysteries and unanswered questions and riddles and anomalies as well.  It’s not that atheists weren’t intelligent.  They just didn’t have all the answers and they didn’t even have all the answers they thought they had.

No one does.

Mysteries are not a problem.  They are a part of the way the world is.

I don’t need to have the answers to all the mysteries of the world or of the Christian faith.  I became comfortable with not knowing, with being a limited finite being.  I need to accept and embrace mystery when it occurs – and give praise to a God who’s far bigger than I am.  That's a big part of what it means to "glorify God as God".

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