My college roommate Steve (I don’t know if he was pulling my leg) insisted that the original dust-cover of a book popular in our fellowship had its titled printed as “What Is Hell Like? – Sermons By Jimmy Allen.” Later, he said, it was changed to read “- And Other Sermons By Jimmy Allen.”
It seems that Brian McLaren’s latest book The Last Word and the Word After That has stirred the controversy to life from the embers once again. (I haven’t read it. I haven’t read any of the series. It’s not really the book or series that I’m blogging about here; so please don’t expect a review or summation. I’m just pointing out the ripple effect which inspires people to dive back deeply into scripture to re-examine why they believe what they believe.)
The book is reawakening a controversy that goes back to at least the time of Constantine about whether hell’s torture is permanent, or just hell is permanent. Eternal punishment vs. annihilation after punishment that destroys. Is it just the fire and the worm that are eternal, or are those whom they consume eternal as well?
I don’t have a clue. To me, it’s clear that the Bible speaks of hell – at least of a lake of fire – as a permanent fixture in eternity; and that eventually death and Hades (the place of the dead) will be thrown into it; and that the devil, the beast and the false prophet will be tormented there forever. Whether that applies to others I can’t say. However, that last part is in a highly interpretable prophetic passage, the Revelation to John. Here’s my question:
Why do we limit the discussion to basically only two alternatives?
What if the body we are given after death – designed to be eternal – is slowly and painfully consumed in punishment for sin? How long would that “slowly” have to be not to seem like forever? A year? One year for each one we lived in sin? A million years? What’s the difference if it all ends anyway? Will it really be a relief to know that it’s all temporary; or to know how many demons can dance on the head of pinhead when the pinhead is me?
What if that body is destroyed, yet a spirit endures – separated forever from God? Separated from pain, yes … but also separated from delight; from the feast at the table of heaven; from the hearing of eternal songs of praise; from the seeing of God’s children around His throne; from the ability to voice our penitence – all due to a lack of body: eyes, ears, tongue. Is that kind of non-existence any less torturous than fire and worm?
Is this possibility really all that different than knowing the punishment is finite, and at some indeterminable time in the unforeseeable future we’ll cease to exist – knowing all along that we could be at that table, in that choir, at those pierced Feet?
What if God graciously forgave all and ushered us into the heavenly kingdom – but many of us would have eternity to look back on all of the lost opportunities when we could have chosen to live a life that spoke of His Son? Whom would we want to sit by at the table of heaven? Would we huddle down at the far end from God with the rest of the ungrateful and ungracious, creating castes of people forgiven by God – but, in varying degrees, not by themselves?
What if God ushered us all in, rebuilt our self-esteem, wiped all of our tears away, and kindly explained that He had just expected too much of us; that He loved us all and forgiveness should not have been conditional on our gratitude for Jesus’ sacrifice? Wouldn’t there be a part of you that would make you wonder: “Then, You sent Your Son to the cross … for nothing?”
Would that really be heaven? Or a tin-foil and tinsel-decorated imitation? Or hell itself?
Are those possibilities somehow more “humane” or “just” or “merciful” or “Godly” than a place of eternal discipline for the lifelong rejection of God’s eternal Holy One? How can we possibly fully perceive and comprehend what is divine justice or divine mercy – both eternal qualities of God – in a finite and imperfect world?
And as for eternal punishment for the ever-existing sinner … well, Steve used to point out that even people who liked being spanked would tire of an eternal spanking after a few billion years.
Do any of those possibilities about the nature of hell give you any less of a case of the heebie-jeebies than I’ve got right now, writing about them?
To me, it’s the whole concept of eternity that makes ALL of the those possibilities hellacious. Because whether we would last in hell forever or not – God ain’t there! And we could have chosen to be where He is.
No matter how you interpret hell as presented in scripture, it’s not a pretty picture.
Maybe we’re not given all the details in this life because – if we knew them – we would desperately and irrevocably wish that we couldn’t know them. It would force our hand in life’s greatest choice – and choice was one of the first precious gifts God gave us in Eden. If we could see all the cards now, the hand we choose to play wouldn’t be so much a choice as a foregone conclusion.
On the other hand: perhaps the same would be true if we knew and understood every glorious thing to be known about heaven.
I think that’s why we’re given the gift of faith. Like any gift, we choose what we do with it. Some people are more motivated by love and grace; some by fear and punishment. Hardly anyone can resist the persuasive power of both. If we can see God in His handiwork and hear of His love in the Story of Christ and still choose self, we are – as Romans 1 says – without excuse.
Just being there and knowing that would be hell enough for me.