Unorganized Thoughts About Heaven And Hell

With all this talk about Rob Bell and where everyone goes when they die, I wanted to present my own random thoughts on heaven and hell. This is not a position, it’s not an argument, it’s just some of the thoughts I’ve had about this topic in the past couple of weeks or so. If you’re looking for a polemic, you’ll be disappointed:

Universalism as Oppression

If universalism is true, then it seems like it would almost be oppressive. By this I mean that there are those out there who are repelled by the idea of being united forever in an eternity with God. Christopher Hitchens seems to think that would be sort of like North Korea. Christians would disagree with that, but Hitch seems pretty convinced. If he’s really certain that he does not want to go to heaven, then it would almost seem cruel to send him there. If everyone goes to heaven regardless of anything, and if there is no choice in the matter then, well, that would really seem to be as bad as Hitchens thinks it would be. There probably has to be some kind of opt-out. So I’m not hoping or advocating for heaven for those who are fairly certain they want no part of it.

Promises And Promises

A number of particularly Reformed bloggers have suggested that if what is taught about hell in the Bible (as classically interpreted, etc., etc.) is not true, how can one believe the promises about heaven? I suppose the simple response here is that when something terrible is promised we are relieved when that promise is eased. What’s more distressing is that there seems to be an implied almost desire on the part of some. It seems that some Christians would well and truly be disappointed if they got to heaven and found out that hell was empty. What would you do if you found out that God had compassion on those otherwise bound to hell and allowed them to enter heaven or be annihilated or something that you did not expect? Why is it that I get the sense that some Reformed bloggers would feel tremendously cheated by this?

Certainty

Why are we so certain about who is in hell? Christians like to have some kind of assurance of salvation, but who can say what happens to anyone else? Even if they outwardly appear as Christians, who knows. Yet it is not uncommon for there to be evangelical announcements about who is or is not in hell. Really, what do we know about who is or is not in hell? I think it’s abundantly clear that we are not the arbiter of this.

Justice vs. Wrath

I’ve often heard it said of hell that people were sent there because God is just and cannot countenance their evil being in heaven. Now though we get a great deal about wrath, which seems more intemperate and vengeful. I guess wrath is an important thing if you are going to believe that people are going to face eternal conscious torment, because it’s hard to see that as just for all but the most extreme cases (you know, the ones you studied in 20th C. history). All this wrath talk tends to avoid dealing with the more garden variety sinners, the ones who would be indistinguishable from your average churchgoer. It’s not that these people get a less crushing judgment on them than a mass murderer, no, they get the same thing. The exact same thing.

Why is it that most systems of justice enshrine proportionality as a principle? No one gets dragged to death behind a pickup truck for unpaid parking tickets – such a punishment would be regarded as barbaric – yet this is what we are proposing for everyone who does not claim to be Christian (and, according to some, at least a few who do). Eternal wrath is said to await those who have led merely mediocre lives. Eternal. Not 80 years of misery for the 80 years you were a screw-up on earth, but eternal.

So if this is orthodoxy, then it’s orthodoxy, but why does it fill me with unease? I suppose that how you answer that probably says more about your own theological commitments than anything else. Maybe this is all like Abraham being told to sacrifice his son, but then, not so much.