There’s this misconception that people who believe in hell are really excited about it. That misconception exists for a reason. Some people come off all too giddy to not only defend the doctrine of hell, but to tell you who precisely who will be there.
In high school, I had a friend who committed suicide. I was devastated. That week, the star quarterback presumed to know my friend’s eternal fate scoffing under his breath, “that boy went to hell.” I wanted to pull him by the neck off the rail he sat on but I was paralyzed with unbearable sadness and the fear that maybe he was right.
At the funeral, a youth pastor went into some convoluted Garden of Eden rewrite suggesting that my friend, whose body lay at the front of the room, had taken the bait and followed Satan. How dare he? At a funeral service, no less. That guy, that jerk, thought he was standing up for the truth of the Bible by telling us in no uncertain terms that hell was real and that my friend was already there. What did he know?
Even if we concede that hell is a literal place of eternal punishment, we cannot also know by name every soul who goes. What the Bible does say is that for anyone to evade hell and enter into heaven they must pass through Jesus Christ. That’s why they call him The Way. If a person dies without accepting Christ, the consequence is eternal separation from God; but what do we know about what happens to someone before they die, in the moments leading up to their death? Nothing.
The desire to proclaim the truth is a noble but easily corrupted one. Consider Westboro Baptist Church. Westboro is an exquisite example of the Charlie Sheenery the church is capable of: they relish in their notoriously hateful rhetoric, absolutely certain that this is their divine calling. There is no divine calling to spew venom. That calling comes from someplace else. I think they call it hell.
An interesting conversation developed on my Facebook last week after I posted a link to a story about Westboro. The general consensus was that there was a special place in hell for those people. A lone voice emerged in the comments asking if we really, truly hoped for the eternal suffering of Westboro. This voice was calling us to think about what we were saying.
At a time when the church is at war with itself and Christians on all sides of any issue will tear each other apart, we need more voices like this one.
At a time when the church is at war with the world more than ever before and Christians are represented more often as lunatic fringe or Jesus Taliban, we need more voices like this one.
In the wake of death, tragedy, addiction, alienation, famine, war, disaster, and all other foretastes of hell, we need more voices like this one.
Such voices call us toward reason, humility, grace, and justice. They are unafraid to share truth even when that truth is unpopular. They do not yell or belittle their opponent. They do not delight in the defeat of their enemy. Such voices await expectantly for redemption, always holding out hope.