Recently, I happened to hear part of “This American Life” on NPR. They were interviewing Carlton Pearson, a preacher in Tulsa, OK. Apparently he used to have a really large church, was politically active, and somewhat famous - until he decided he didn’t believe in Hell. At least that’s the way I understand it.
From listening to him, it was clear that his perception of his life consisted of non stop “witnessing” to people because he was afraid that they would go to hell. Seems pretty exhausting - and what exactly would he be telling them about? That there is a better way? If becoming a Christian means a life under constant pressure to get new recruits, why would anyone want that? Who wants the weight of the world on their shoulders? It doesn’t matter if Christianity has the best retirement plan in the universe if the job kills you before you reach retirement age. I don’t think that kind of life makes it easy to sell your brand of theology to other people.
As best I can tell, it was this constant pressure that eventually brought him to a place where he decided there is no hell. At least that way, he is no longer under pressure - it freed Carlton Pearson from the constant fear induced selling of Christianity. And it was probably at that point that he first felt the freedom that he claims Christianity brings everyone. You might say he finally got what Romans 8:15 talks about - the spirit of adoption instead of the spirit of fear (Sad to think that certain Christian theologies can induce the very spirit of fear that they claim to eliminate.)
In the NPR interview, the issue came up about Hitler and Heaven - if there is no Hell, does Hitler end up in Heaven? It didn’t seem like Mr. Pearson had a strong response to that issue. While he alluded to the grace of God, he didn’t address the issue of justice - something of obvious importance to those who suffer from evils perpetrated by people like Hilter. Further, he didn’t address the choice of evil and Heaven. I believe there is a simple answer that can deal with these issues.
I believe that Mr. Pearson’s conundrum comes from a commingling of two questions which must be kept separate: Does Hell exist? And does God send people there? I believe that a Hellish condition exists, but I don’t believe God forces it on people. I believe people choose it themselves.
If Heaven exists, both justice and moral purity require that Heaven have entrance requirements. No party can be allowed to bring evil into Heaven. If that were allowed, it would cease to be Heaven. Hence, Heaven must have entrance requirements. If there are entrance requirements, that means that those who do not meet those requirements cannot be in Heaven.
If they aren’t in Heaven, where are they? Do they cease to exist? I suppose that nothingness is a possibility, although I don’t think that any God who would want people in Heaven would resort to that. Nothingness means that that person no longer has the ability to choose. It would seem that a loving God would do anything possible to get as many people into Heaven as (S)He could. This, of course, is where the Christian theology behind Jesus’ death and resurrection comes into play from the perspective of justice. While that sacrifice is legally necessary, it is not sufficient.
Why? Because it does not eliminate free will. As long as persons choose evil, they cannot be allowed into Heaven. The only thing that remains as a barrier therefore is this personal choice - and all the ego issues that often stop us from making the choices we know are right. Romans 2:11-15 makes it clear that the relevant choice is the choice to abandon evil - it is the choice “to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly”1. This choice does not require knowledge of any specific theology.
While making that choice is theoretically easy, since it relies on the innate sense of justice within each of us, it can be practically hard. For those who have made lots of choices for “bad”, choosing for “good” means abandoning much of what defines you as a person. This can be very difficult to do. In many ways, the human tendency towards integrity - a consistent, integrated whole life - makes it hard for us to change because change can mean that what we did before was wrong. And no one likes to be wrong.
An admission of “wrongness” is a blow to pride - that powerful tool that helps us face all the forces that try to tear us down on a day to day basis. To many, any show of weakness - any lack of control - opens a vulnerability. And a vulnerability is a threat to existence - which our tendency towards self-preservation fights tooth and nail.
Unfortunately, pride can lead to a fall2. No one wants to be humiliated - because that is death by a thousand cuts. Yet to let go is to risk just that. This sense of self-preservation can be blinded by fear and fail to realize that removing a cancer is not the same as suicide. If we can understand that it is a gift to be able to see those things in our lives which hurt us, we are more likely to be able to stomach choosing to remove those harmful things - no matter how strongly embedded they seem to be. This still won’t make it easy - but failing to see this makes it impossible.
People faced with such choices may feel powerless. They may believe that they can no longer choose. They may believe that they are “too far gone”. They may believe that they can’t handle the humility. If we are to aid each other in transformation, we must be able to acknowledge our own weakness and show that, just as we survive and thrive, so can they.
Coming back to the original question - does Hell exist? I believe it does. Luke 13:28 aptly describes it - there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. This is exactly the description of what happens to people who find themselves in a situation they don’t like but who either do not or believe they cannot take the steps necessary to extricate themselves. This is the description of people who want to have their Heaven and evil too. Do I believe God sends people to Hell? No, I believe they choose that condition themselves. The Good News is that they don’t have to.
1. Micah 6:8
2. Proverbs 16:18