Today I'm going to talk about something I've never talked about before despite the fact that it is a central aspect of the Christian religion. I'm going to talk about God's judgement. More to the point I'm going to talk about Hell, whether or not it exists, and who ends up there.
I've never talked about this subject before for two simple reasons. One, it's an incredibly sensitive topic for obvious reasons. Two, I don't have many strong convictions in this area. I have some strong opinions, but I'm not entirely sure of those opinions.
However, as long as I remain silent, most people will probably assume that I hold the traditional protestant view. Namely, that Hell is real and terrible and that anyone who doesn't confess their faith in Jesus during their life will spend eternity there. I may not be entirely sure that my beliefs are correct, but I strongly believe this view is wrong. If only for that reason, I should probably let you know what my beliefs concerning the final judgement actually are.
First of all, I have a hard time believing that every single adult* who isn't a Christian at the time of their death will be judged. Far too many people have lived and died having never even had an opportunity to become Christian. Many more people only know of Jesus through the message spread by crusaders and conquistadors, men whose actions contradict and pervert the message of Christ.
It seems far more reasonable to me to assume that they mercy God has shown through Jesus on the cross isn't meant only for Christians. I don't claim to know exactly how far God's mercy extends, but I am very uncomfortable putting limits on it. I am especially uncomfortably limiting it only to those people who hear about Jesus and believe in him while they are still alive.
As I write this, I know that many evangelicals who read this would probably cringe at this suggestion that God's mercy isn't reserved just for them. "If God's just going to let everyone into heaven anyway, then why bother evangelizing?" they would probably ask.
Simply put, I believe that being Christian is about more than merely reserving a seat in heaven. I think that following Jesus has something to do with participating in the Kingdom of God, which has begun and even now is growing silently and invisibly all around us, but I'll save that discussion for a future post.
Second, I have a hard time believing that God would send anyone to an actual, eternal Hell. I once had a discussion with a friend at church who said, bluntly, that the only reason anyone believes in Hell is because of Dante's inferno. This is an exaggeration, to be sure, but it's probably more true than we'd like to admit. I also think Pascal's notorious wager has something to do with why so many people continue to believe in Hell. For many people, fear of Hell is what convinced them to become Christian in the first place.
In addition, there are some deep philosophical reasons why many Christians believe in an eternal Hell. Most Christians believe in the immortality of the soul. In fact, most Christians assume that this belief is a core part of the Christian faith, even though the Bible doesn't make that claim.
Because they have this assumption, when they read about God punishing the wicked, they assume that the punishment must be eternal. They don't consider the possibility that the person's soul could die, even though this punishment is referred to as, "The second death." They ignore the obvious interpretation because of their belief in the immortality of the soul.
A great book to read if you're interested in learning more about alternative views about Hell is The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis. It's written for a popular audience, which makes it an excellent antidote for The Inferno.
So, what do I believe concerning the final judgement? I believe that God is merciful and his judgments are just. I trust that God won't be harsh or unfair in his judgments. For that reason, I have hard time believing the traditional view. The traditional view may provide certainty, but if we really trust God then I think we can handle a little uncertainty.
* Most evangelicals believe that children under a certain age are exempt from judgment. This is called the "Age of accountability". There isn't much basis in scripture for this belief, but most people are uncomfortable with a theology that condemns infants to Hell just because they weren't baptized.