I can’t really wade into a long, deep discussion about hell, because my theological hip boots don’t go high enough.
The Bible doesn’t say a lot about hell, and in it, Jesus says more than anybody else.
That’s kind of how I’d like to leave it. Hell isn’t for everybody, we can be sure, and it doesn’t seem to have been designed for any of us mortals – but rather for the devil and his angels: An eternal place of punishment for eternally rebellious beings. That doesn’t describe us mortals whatever amount of rebellion we display; among us, one day, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess and rebellion will end. And for those whose rebellion would not end any other way: destruction.
To date, the most persuasive item I’ve read about hell is Edward Fudge’s The Fire That Consumes, and I understand that a more comprehensive edition has been released since the second edition that I read. Even so, it was more about hell than I wanted to read – and somehow, in high school, I struggled through Dante’s Inferno!
I tend to agree with his thinking, and did before I read his book, for I had already come to the same conclusion: Eternal punishment for temporal sin does not make sense as justice, human or divine. Scripture speaks of those who are rebellious as being destroyed, an adjective that in every other use in scripture implies a definite end.
For mortals, hell is a short though agonizing stop on the road to oblivion. It is nevermore in a nutshell. It is goodbye.
Going into the deep waters of that premise, Edward Fudge can employ a soteriological scuba suit, however — compared to my little yellow galoshes — and that suits me just fine.
Paraphrasing Karl Barth, I’ve often said that my theology rarely goes deeper than “Jesus loves me; this I know” … and it rarely needs to.
Which brings me to my point, since I said in the title that I’d try to be short.
I don’t like to think about hell. I don’t want it to ever become a motivator for my good behavior.
I want to go back to the childlike innocence that I had when (I can still remember) fighting back tears before the very first smack of a spanking or harsh word of reproval reached me because I knew I had disobeyed – and disappointed – someone I loved and respected.
I don’t want to even have to imagine looking up into the big eyes of the big God who loves and gives Himself for me – even to death on a cross – and knowing even for an instant that I’ve turned my back on that love and walked away; gone my own way instead of His; hurt people I love and whom He loves more.
I want that singular, hopefully microsecond of unfathomable regret to be hell enough for me, and forever enough for anyone.
So I’ll keep talking about what Jesus talked about, far more than hell or sin or failure or remorse: a Father in heaven who loves without ceasing and gives without measure and forgives without a second thought or the slightest capacity to hold a grudge.
I’ll keep on describing the God who gives His Son, His Word, and His very own Spirit to help us understand how good He is … and how good it is to give until you are nearly emptied of self and filled with His nature and character.
I’ll go on talking about the God who runs to the returning prodigal, shoulders the cross, receives the nails and breathes His last surrender to what we desperately need the most.
And I will also go on talking about hell, hopefully to the same degree and in exactly the same way that the Savior did. Why?
There may indeed be people who are at least temporarily beyond the reach of love, and must first be drained empty of self by the evil that is sucking life out of the world around us.
There may be people who need to understand the ultimate consequence of evil and insist on having the reality of sinleadstodeath sinleadstodeath sinleadstodeath rubbed in their own eyes and faces by their own hands until they have seen enough hell on earth to want no atom of it in eternity.
There may even be some who, to their dying breath, would echo Milton’s consummately selfish motto for Satan: “Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.”
But I sure don’t want to be one of them.