There are many of us who sincerely believed all we were taught. We believed in heaven and hell. We believed that anyone else who didn’t believe was headed to a place of eternal torment with weeping and gnashing of teeth where those we cared about and those we didn’t even know would burn forever and ever. Some of us even wondered how that would be worked out. Zoe wondered:
Jesus was love and then He wasn’t. He was the judge. The penalty, the sentence? Hell. What’s it like to love and then just toss even those most wicked of people into the eternal, the everlasting fire. Does their skin sizzle, does it burn off and then mysteriously reappear only to burn off again? The screams of those frying? Do they scream? Are their voice boxes charred to bits in the fire? And the not very wicked? Do they get maybe a cigarette burn and not the whole furnace? If so, how many cigarette burns?
Personally, I always thought it would be the sensation of burning, maybe not actual flames, but still with the aroma of burnt flesh. Smoldering smoke rising all about while untold numbers languished in the agony of their burning. Anyone who’s ever had a third-degree burn would know. That feeling – only consuming your entire being; whatever that might be. That burning sensation that no amount of cold water or ice packs can ever really extinguish. Painful.
We believed this so much and were traumatized by it ourselves from early ages, not necessarily by our parents, but even just the general knowledge that seeped in from church, from television, from society. Even if our parents didn’t dwell on it and teach us this heinous doctrine directly we got the message that hell was horrendous and no one wanted to be there – even if they didn’t know it themselves.
Because of this belief – which we internalized – we did the only loving thing we knew how to do. We preached the gospel. It mattered not if we liked the doctrine of hell. It mattered not if it was reasonable or rational to believe it. We started with the presupposition that God was and that this God was the Christian God of the Bible. If that be true it didn’t matter if we agreed with his form of justice or if we approved. Who was the clay to tell the potter what to do with his vessels? He could break them into a million pieces if he wished; just ask Job.
This literal belief in hell drove us to subject ourselves to abuses beyond what we’d imagined. Moreover; abuse begets abuse. We abused others with the love we lavished on them. We believed this doctrine so much that the trauma it caused was a necessary evil in our minds. If it’s true that non-belief results in an eternity of torment, which is worse? A little trauma in this life? Or an eternity of trauma in the next?
Over the ages people have attempted to reconcile a loving God with the God who created this “justice” system. This doctrine has been twisted and turned in every angle to wrestle with it’s implications. What about children? What is the age of accountability? What about people who have never heard the gospel? What about those who were raise in other cultures and religions who, even upon hearing the gospel, reject it because it’s, well, unbelievable for them?
Rob Bell argues that “at the centre of the Christian tradition since the first church have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins.” Universal salvation. No hell, and if there is it’s educational, and not eternal. Different ‘sects’ of Christianity have attempted, at different times, to get the hell out of their Bibles, only to the clanging cymbals of those who can’t imagine an eternity where there isn’t one.
Then there are those of us – like Zoe, myself, and countless others – who have rethought our position on the whole pursuit. We said ‘to hell with hell and all the rest’. Not before many sleepless nights, many nightmares, much anguish, wringing hands, much study and consideration did we come to our conclusions.
What I would plead with you all to know is; we are sorry. We acted in good faith on what we knew to be true at the time. And we are sorry. We traumatized others with our version of truth and what we were just so damn sure was reality. We literally tried to scare the hell out of our children and others. We have wept over our actions. And we are sorry.
There comes a time, though, when we’ve said we’re sorry enough. When we must stop beating ourselves up over our past failures. If we continue to wallow in the agony of what we did in the past what good have we accomplished? We may be free of those inane beliefs, but we are still prisoners in our own minds.
We may have done some things we regret, but we are surely not the sum of those things. It’s time to forgive ourselves. It’s time to live free.
Excerpt from Love Wins, Rob Bell
*Edited to add citation.