When I was a little kid I thought that Hell was deep in the ground.
And the Devil was there with fire.
And a lot of thirsty people.
No matter who you are, some sort of Hell concept is imprinted in your mind. And whether it was formed by your past or current church experience, from watching pre-1990’s cartoons when you were little, from your hyper-zealous religious friends that you now keep at arm’s length, or from any other cultural reference, there is some sort of caricature of the Underworld each of us carries with us.
I was recently reminded of how pervasive this idea of Hell is in our culture when my almost eight year-old son started asking me about it. He didn’t hear about Hell from my wife or me. He didn’t hear about it from the church we attend. He constructed his idea of Hell from bits and pieces he picked up from television and the internet.
And I actually think this is a pretty amazing fact.
While much of late 20th and early 21st century American Christianity is responsible for permeating our culture with certain ideas of Hell, it is surprisingly pop culture that continues to perpetuate these caricatures. And these caricatures are what Will used to piece together his conception of Hell. One thing I should note here. Will told me that, in addition to the Devil and fire, Hell actually has ice sometimes. Not sure if he has heard the “when Hell freezes over” line, or if he has somehow watched an episode of Game of Thrones (he hasn’t), but I had to chuckle.
I don’t want to pretend as if the idea of Hell hasn’t been significantly influenced by many present day Christians, either.
Because it absolutely has.
I saw an online conversation the other day in which someone, who identifies as a Christian, simply questioned the concept of Hell and then was summarily attacked and ripped to shreds by the Christian hellhounds. For many modern day Christians, Hell is as foundational to belief as the Holy Trinity. And if you question it, you are out of line, at best, or a heretic, at worst. For much of modern day Christendom, Hell is a monolithic, unshakeable idea that should never, ever be questioned.
As one who questions everything, I have always found this fear of questioning by many Christians to be curious. Maybe it is the way I am wired, but I don’t believe something just because it is the only message in town or because someone says I should believe it. It could be the twenty plus years in sales that has made me skeptical of anyone selling anything, but I simply don’t buy the narrative unless I have researched, studied, and asked questions from every angle.
There is a reason why the Scriptures say that the primary posture of those looking for deeper truths in this life is to, “ask, seek, and knock,” rather than taking everything at face value. For if we are to seek and find ultimate Truth, then it is an essential discipline to question everything that stands in the way of that Truth. From my perspective, if the foundations of an idea are sturdy enough to withstand honest questioning, then maybe it is an idea worth believing. But again, I am not going to believe something just because someone tells me to believe it. I have played the telephone game one too many times growing up.
So while it is true that fear is a huge reason why few ask questions about Hell, I also recently discovered another reason which I think is equally pervasive.
The majority of Christians don’t ask questions about Hell because there isn’t, in their estimation, an alternative explanation for “what we are being saved from,” or “why we need a Savior.” From the perspective of many Christians, you have to have a Hell because Jesus had to die for something. And if he didn’t die to save us from Hell, then why did he die?
To me, this is an absolutely heartbreaking perspective.
We have created a faith system in which the sole purpose of Jesus was “dying on the cross” to “save us from an eternity in Hell.” And faithful church-goers perpetuate this narrative because no one is offering a different perspective. But honestly, who is going to offer a counter-narrative when it breaks from tradition and may very well cost a preacher their job.
I guess that is the luxury of my position as a writer and why I can speak without filters, because this isn’t job security for me. I just ask questions, dig to find answers, and call it as I see it. And I am not interested in towing the company line if the evidence points in a different direction. This doesn’t necessarily mean that my conclusions are always exactly right, but it does mean that I am at least honestly wrestling with tough questions and honestly seeking where the evidence leads.
The truth is that I do, indeed, believe that we need to be saved and that we do, indeed, need a Savior. But it’s not from Hell. It has never been Hell, at least the Hell that each of us has grown up with, or that has been caricatured in our culture. We are not being saved from something, but saved into something. And that something is way more beautiful and life-giving than anything you can imagine.
So, if you are fearless and not afraid to ask tough questions, challenge your suppositions, and suspend your beliefs and judgments about Hell, then let’s walk together over the next four or five posts to get a clearer idea about who God is, what Jesus was working toward in his life and ministry, and what the ultimate fate of humanity actually is.
To read the next post in this series, HELL 2, click here.