Why we need a hell

These days, books about heaven are very popular.

Write one about how you died for a few minutes and experienced a momentary jolt of nirvana beyond anything you ever imagined and publishers will line up outside your door ready to print it. They know the book-buying public is eager to get a glimpse through that scary curtain called death…so long as what’s on the other side meets with their preconceptions.

Ross Douthat is a columnist for the New York Times. In a column titled “Hell’s grip on religious imagination weakens,” he wrote, Even in our supposedly disenchanted age, large majorities of Americans believe in God and heaven, miracles and prayer. But belief in hell lags well behind, and the fear of damnation seems to have evaporated.

He says near-death stories are quick to sell. “The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven” tells of a child’s return from paradise. However, “you’ll search in vain for ‘The Investment Banker Who Came Back From Hell.”

Douthat blames this disenchantment, this unbelief, regarding hell on “growing pluralism,” among other things. Meaning what?

Meaning that people of all religion live on our block, go to our schools, shop in our stores, and are no longer abstractions to us. So, when we consider the question whether those-who-do-not-believe-in-Jesus go to hell, we are asking about some very real people we know personally and not the impersonal heathen of some dark continent.

Can we talk about hell for a moment?  I’m convinced there needs to be one.

You may recall when a Navy SWAT team dropped in to Islamabad, Pakistan, to take out Osama bin Laden. They shot this terrorist twice, then gave him a prompt at-sea burial to prevent his body from becoming a relic of worship or martyrdom to the Islamic world.

Americans were quick to react, almost all enthusiastically endorsing his dispatching. Religious leaders chimed in. Hardly a Facebooker resisted the temptation to say something about bin Laden’s execution. I said a couple of things about it myself.

Scripture says God takes no delight in the death of the wicked. Maybe not, but I’m betting He came mighty close this time.

It was facetious, of course. It was simply my attempt at humor while registering my own pleasure that this evil man, this mass murderer, was living and breathing on this planet no more.

My next Facebook note went like this:

Those who say they do not believe in hell may be having second thoughts now. After all, bin Laden’s one death cannot begin to pay for all the hundreds of deaths he has accounted for. Without some kind of hell, there is no justice in the universe.

Back to Douthat’s thought-provoking article. He takes up the tendency of modern–we would say ‘liberal’–preachers to dismiss hell as an antiquity, as something religion has outgrown. “Doing away with hell…is a natural way for pastors and theologians to make their God seem more humane. The problem is that this move also threatens to make human life less fully human.”

Got that? Okay, stay with us.

“If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise, then none of our no’s have any real meaning either.”

Say what? Douthat is referring to the universalism that says a good God will take everyone to heaven, period.

Not so fast, he writes.

If we are automatically sentenced to heaven–there being no possibility of hell–he writes, “(That’s) like home runs or strikeouts in a children’s game where nobody’s keeping score.” Pointless.

So there is no incentive to do right. And therefore, no moral order in the universe.

Douthat writes, “It makes us prisoners of God himself. We can check out any time we want, but we can never really leave.”

So, now, he makes his case for the doctrine of hell. I find this fascinating.

The doctrine of hell, by contrast, assumes that our choices are real, and that we are the choices we make. The miser can become his greed, the murderer can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so.

He likes what Anthony Esolen wrote in the introduction to his translation to Dante’s “Inferno.” The idea of hell is essential to Western humanism. It’s a way of saying “things have meaning.” That earthly life is more than just one trivial thing after another, and that the “use of man’s free will, at one moment, can mean life or death…salvation or damnation.”

Bottom line–for me at least–is this: if there is no hell, meaning if Osama bin Laden and his ilk of mass murderers are in heaven, then nothing has meaning, there is no justice in the universe, and we are fooling only ourselves with all our religious talk.

This does not mean we have to like hell. We hate hell. But it’s a necessary element in a moral universe.

Now, I’d like to do two things: a) encourage God’s people to quit speaking of hell as though they themselves are the gatekeepers and able to determine who goes there, and b) have their hearts broken by the very idea that some people we know will be residents of that place of eternal torment forever.

Let us not threaten lost people with hell. The temptation to do that must be avoided at all costs. I don’t see in Scripture anywhere that God speaks of hell to the unsaved. Instead, it seems to be the religious bunch who gets that warning.

You serpents, you generation of vipers, how can you escape the damnation of hell? (Matthew 23:33)

That little broadside was aimed at the Pharisees, we remind ourselves. And they were the keepers of orthodoxy, the most conservative-minded defenders of God and morality on the horizon at the time.

That’s enough to make us shiver.

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