Have you ever thought what your life would be like without hell?
The existence of hell is being questioned with growing frequency. What was once thought to be a “given,” is being examined and reexamined. An increasing number of people are coming to the conclusion that hell is a mere figment of humankind’s imagination.
Of course, these new ideas about hell are being met with firm resistance. Some people who argue for the existence of hell have done their research and bring valid questions into the discussion. Most of the resistance, though, is coming from people who are determined to hold on tight to what they learned in Sunday school. Their argument appears to be confined to the idea, “The Bible says it. I believe it. That’s good enough for me.”
At a later time we might explore some of the arguments for and against hell. Today’s discussion will be centered around two questions: 1). What purpose does hell serve, and 2). What would we lose and/or gain if we don’t have hell?
The Power to Control
Probably the first purpose for hell that pops into our minds is that of control. The threat of hell and eternal punishment has been used by the church since about the fourth century. Hell has been used to control social behavior, strengthen the role of the clergy, stifle discussion, and increase financial support for the church. (Other faith traditions have the doctrine of hell as part of their religious beliefs. I am, however, not a familiar with other religions as I am with the Christian faith, so my arguments and illustrations will come from that faith tradition). Here are some examples:
v Social Behavior–The temperance movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries threatened frequenters of taverns with the possibility of hell to force individuals to give up the evils of alcohol.
v Clergy Power–The doctrine of the “Power of the Keys” gave clergy the ability to forgive sins or declare a person’s sins unforgiven or unforgivable. The power to condemn an individual to hell gave the clergy enormous power.
v No argument–The idea of absolute truth allowed only one interpretation and view point. A person who questioned the truth as proclaimed by the church risked eternal damnation. Remember the inquisition?
v Financial Gain–The promise of avoiding hell by contributing to the capital fund campaign for St Peter’s Cathedral and purchasing an indulgence was greatly appealing to the masses. It was also one of the church practices that precipitated the Protestant Reformation.
Obviously, the threat of hell has been very effective and efficient in controlling people. But is efficiency the bottom line for human actions? Though often practiced by the church, control doesn’t appear to be either a part of message Jesus proclaimed, or a characteristic of his lifestyle. Control was never connected to the kingdom of God that Jesus announced had arrived.
Promise of Justice
We wrestle with the fact that God seems to allow bad things to happen to good people. We get really, really angry, though, when good things happen to bad people. Deep in the core of our being, we feel that such an injustice must be corrected. Hell has proven to be a convenient place to put people like Hitler, Stalin, the grade school bully who tormented us, the boss who demanded too much from us while not recognizing our full potential, and the traffic cop who gave us a speeding ticket. It is perversely comforting for us to think that an unrighteous person might have power and authority now, but they will eventually get their comeuppance in hell.
We don’t want the bad guys to win and it is human nature to want to hurt those who hurt us. Yet, sometimes the bad people do win. Though it is human nature, doesn’t the gospel of Jesus call us to do something different than what is natural and normal? On the cross it is recorded that Jesus said, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” He did not cry out, “You’re going to get yours!”
Excludes the Undesirables
A third result of believing in hell is that it separates us from them. There are the in people–and of course we consider ourselves to be part of the in people. There are also the out people–the others; those who don’t belong. The in people have the correct beliefs, the secret knowledge, and the divine perspective. The out people simply don’t have a clue. The in people go to heaven and the out people go to hell.
Being in the in group makes a person feel good. It builds up our self-esteem. We reinforce the idea that we are better than others. The borders between the in and the out people are changing, though, and sometimes it’s difficult to determine who is in and who is out.
I grew up in the Lutheran Church. As a Lutheran youngster in the 50’s and 60’s I was told that Lutherans were in and people such as Roman Catholics were out. This was difficult for me to understand because a good number of my relatives were Roman and I couldn’t imagine them spending eternity in hell. For some reason–poor theology I guess, the Roman Catholics thought they were in and that the Lutherans were out. There was the same conflict between the Lutherans and the Baptists. Now through ecumenism the doors have been opened and the circles of in and out have been expanded.
In a world where we increasingly realize how much we are alike and how little we are different from others, the idea of a hell for the excluded seems less and less valid.
So, what would we really gain or lose by not having hell?
We would lose control over others. Some institutions like the church would lose some power and influence. This certainly is not a bad thing. Christians could learn to be motivated by God’s love and grace instead of by the threat of hell. Our words and actions could be based on love rather than fear.
It would be necessary for us to come to the acceptance that sometimes there is injustice in the world that would not be addressed on the judgment day. That might mean that we would not be able to be complacent towards injustice, but rather we would need to address it in the present tense. This might entail some risk on our part. At the same time, it would appear to be more similar to the ministry of Jesus, than simply hoping that the unjust will receive their due punishment in hell.
The absence of the inclusion/exclusion lines might offer us the ability to dialogue with others who do not share our same beliefs or perspectives. This might lead to increased understanding and wider acceptance. In turn, that might lessen some of the conflict that is so often present in dialogues between people who see themselves are right and everyone else as wrong.
Personally, I don’t see a compelling reason for keeping hell in our belief system. To do so brings with it too many negative ramifications. Without hell we could be controlled by love, seek justice, and break down the artificial walls that stand between us and so many others on this wonderful place we call earth. Why, we might almost have heaven on earth!