I have a soon-to-be 8 year-old at home, and despite the best efforts of his mother and I, he is inevitably learning curse words from friends at school. He will come home and ask about what certain words mean, and I’m grateful that we can discuss them by their first letter designations (e.g. the “d-word,” “s-word,” “f-word,” etc.) The strange thing is when as an adult you try to break down the meaning of these bad words they often do not make sense. Although we think we know what we mean when we use them (and yes I’m sad to say they occasionally escape the lips of your minister), the words are often said in ways that make little grammatical sense, much less any other kind of sense.
When it comes to the “h-word,” things get complicated. Unlike other curse words that refer to bodily waste or anatomical functions, “hell” is used in a lot of different ways, most of which people (myself included) don’t take much time to think about. Take, for instance, the title of this column: “What the hell?” (My apologies to anyone offended, but I felt like it would at least grab your attention.) If you think about it, despite its cultural connotations, the phrase doesn’t really make sense, at least not grammatically. Depending on its context it can indicate confusion or resignation (the latter can range from weary to bemused).
I think that confusion and resignation are probably adequate ways of describing how we use the term “hell” in its more grammatically appropriate manner too. When we speak of “hell” as a place where people go for eternal punishment, we usually imagine underground caverns filled with lakes of fire and damned souls undergoing torment. Yet, those images have little to do with any portrayal of hell in the Bible and more to do with Milton’s Paradise Lost, various medieval paintings and in my case, the Bugs Bunny cartoons I watched as a kid. When we actually look at the Bible passages that refer to life after death, we find very little that is clear, thus we read into it two millennia of changing theology. Because these passages are so unclear, confusion and resignation set in—or perhaps a false sense of confidence .
In the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, there is a common belief about an abode for the dead (Sheol in the Hebrew Bible and Hades in the New Testament—both often mistranslated as hell) where the souls of the dead remain in a shadowy existence. Later Jewish thought and Christians along with them came to believe in a general resurrection of the dead when God would let all the souls out of this waiting room and then judge between the righteous and unrighteous. What happens after judgment? That’s not clear. Some texts (for instance some parables of Jesus) seem to describe torment (e.g. “wailing and gnashing of teeth”), but it’s not until later Christian writings from the second century forward that we really get a developed picture of eternal torture. The Bible itself remains vague.
Today, after centuries of changing theology, doctrine, philosophy and culture, we tend to speak about an eternal soul that either goes to heaven or hell. Somewhere along the line we stopped talking about waiting until the end of time for a final judgment. Perhaps waiting that long for a loved one to be at peace proved unsatisfying, just as waiting until the end of time for our enemies to get what we consider to be their just punishment also proved frustrating. Yet, we are no closer to explaining what really awaits people after death than our spiritual ancestors. Explaining the meaning of the phrase “what the hell?” is probably an easier task.
A recent book by the delightfully provocative megachurch pastor Rob Bell, Love Wins, has sparked debate about whether hell is real or at least whether God really sends anyone there. I haven’t read the book, but I’m enjoying watching the charges of heresy fly around. The debate is not a new one. Christians have long debated whether salvation is universal or particular and whether God elects some for salvation via predestination or if humans choose their own eternal destinies via free will. Similarly, in Jesus’ day people were debating whether or not there would be a resurrection of the dead. What strikes me as ironic is how quickly everyone involved in such debates is to condemn their opponents to hell while being so sure of their own salvation.
I know many would call it blasphemy, but I remain unconvinced there is a hell or at least unsure who will end up there, if anyone. What I am sure of, however, is that I have experienced a gracious and merciful God who regularly gives each of us more than we deserve on our own merits. I remain convinced that it is God who holds our souls in God’s hands and it is God who determines what will become of me and others after death. I believe it is not my limited theology, church membership or so-called good deeds that get me into heaven, but rather it is God’s grace alone that I must depend upon. So, I will speak, teach, preach and most of all live depending on what I do know rather than upon what I do not—I may not know much for sure about hell, but I do know a God whose grace I dare not underestimate.
Grace and Peace,