THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 127
Burning in hell - for ever?
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I heard the other day some one say that he hoped that when he arrived in heaven he would not find Allah waiting for him! If you are a Christian then it is a Christian God you expect to find up yonder. If you are a Hindu or a Buddhist then of course your ideas will be different and you will expect a different outcome. But what if there is a Jewish God up there? Might I just scrape in?
It is a silly line of thought, of course, because I know that ‘my’ god will be in charge. Well, he must be, mustn’t he? I believe in him, have recognised his influence in my life, have felt his presence, sung his praises, known his guiding hand. And yet there are going to be all these other people in heaven. I mean - just think of the variety of Christians quite apart from the remaining millions. There will be Pentecostals, and High Churchmen (and women!). There will be Greek Orthodox with their lovely bass voices. And Russian Orthodox with their robes and incense. Then there will be the Chinese - the three Self Church people and the house church people, and the Nigerians, each one holding their bible tightly to their chest. There will be Ethiopian priests and Indian Christians of all shapes and sizes. All of them with all sorts of contrary beliefs. So many different takes on life. So many divergent theologies - all allowed in.
But what about the folks who don’t have the words ‘Christian’ stamped across their foreheads? Some of these will surely be accepted, because of their integrity even though they have never heard of Christ? Looking at the following verses there are some Christians who would want to suggest that eventually all people will come to know God and acknowledge him as Lord: John 12.32, 1 Cor 15.28, Gen 12.3, 1 Tim.2.4, 1 John 4.7, John 3.16, 1 John 2.2, 1 Cor 15.22, 2 Cor 5.19, Phil 2.9-11, 1 Tim 4.10, Rev 15.4 .
So there will be some odd types around in heaven! Not all will be paid up members of a Christian church! Perhaps there will be people who I would not feel completely at home with (assuming of course that I arrive in heaven!) They will have followed the light of Christ even though they may never have known whom it was they were really following.
As for all the rest of the population - well, they will all be doomed, of course. They will be for the high jump - their fate is sealed. After all they have somehow refused the light - either consistently or on just the one occasion they were given. They have turned away from God (that is, the Christian God, you understand) and gone their own way. So now they will have to pay the price - and they will rue the day they made their wrong choice! They probably didn’t realise the enormity of what they were doing when they turned away, but turn away they did and therefore, that’s it.
They say that these people will go to hell. Not very clear about hell except that it is definitely a place to be avoided! Indeed, we are told by one who knows - the Pope - that hell consists of genuine everlasting fire. These people are going to burn in everlasting hellfire. He told a parish meeting in the northern suburbs of Rome last month that hell is a real place where sinners do really burn in everlasting flames. Hell really exists, he says, and it’s flames are eternal.
It always puzzles me where hell is located - and why we can’t observe it, because it must be a very hot place somewhere or other. We can detect stars - so, if it is a real place, why can’t we locate hell itself? It must be big to deal with the millions of human beings consigned to its everlasting fires.
I suppose hell might be one of the burning stars? Yes, that must be it! It has to be really hot because it has to burn these people for ever. The Pope is saying - quite categorically and clearly - that a person burns in hell - which has real flames and is very hot - for ever. I think the theological term for this is ’everlasting torment’. He spoke about this recently in Rome. He was quite clear on the matter.
Is God getting his revenge for not being accepted by the condemned person? Or is it just that they have had their chance and blown it? I am not clear why the torment is everlasting. I would have thought that just being in the fire until they were all burned up would be sufficient. I would have thought that the folks in heaven would smell the burning and feel a little uneasy. Or maybe they will side with their righteous God and peer over the side of heaven and say ‘You deserve what you are now suffering’. Still, it does seem odd that the happiness of those in heaven is untouched by all the suffering going on below - especially as both states are everlasting.
After all - isn’t a Christian God supposed to be loving and forgiving? But I suppose there has to be a ‘cut off point’ - a point beyond which you cannot change your mind. So, come the moment of death, and you are either in or out!
But then that too has problems too because this God is supposed to be a just God. And some of these condemned people would have tried to be good all their lives but were turned off by the Christianity they saw around them.
It is a big problem! - but it is a great comfort to know that the unbelievers will burn in hell - and burn for ever. That helps us a lot because we now know where we stand. There is a God and there are these hellfires that we would all be wise to avoid if at all possible. So I had better make my peace with him. Perhaps I ought to remuster as a Roman Catholic, then I could be really sure of avoiding hell. I don’t want to become a Roman Catholic however, because I don’t like incense and they really do rather go to town on incense. It makes me sneeze! But I guess if I want to be sure - really sure - then I ought to switch. I suppose Roman Catholics don’t go to hell - they are exempt I guess.
I wonder how the Pope is so sure about these things. Perhaps a message from God? Maybe he really believes all this stuff about burning in hell - in fact I am sure he does,. He wouldn’t say it if there was any doubt in his mind. Perhaps he has got it from the last book of the bible - Revelations. He seems in no doubt, so I suppose he must be right. After all, he is the Pope, isn’t he? He ought to know. And he says it with such certainty, so I think we all ought to believe him.
But I still wonder about what Jesus said. Of course, we should accept the Pope’s understanding of what Jesus is reported as saying. After all he is the repository of two thousand years of tradition and reflection on these matters and no doubt knows the text of the bible better than most. But I do wonder about Jesus and how he portrayed his Father in heaven. After all, no human father would throw his children into a lake of fire, no matter what they had done - or not done. Not literally. And then there is all that stuff about forgiveness. It is all very puzzling! I guess I will just have to go on thinking about it until I can accept the Pope’s version.
But suppose there is no ‘cut off point’ in this life? No moment of final choice. Suppose God has set himself the task of seeking and saving the lost - the hearts of men and women - all of them - and suppose he refuses to accept defeat? After all, can God be defeated? Can his purposes be thwarted? Suppose he refuses to give up on even the most recalcitrant of cases? Suppose he has some other way (of which we know nothing) of allowing such people another opportunity to accept his way? After all, it is very human-like to say that there must be a cut off point. Why cannot God have another world tucked away somewhere where such people have another chance to choose - the right way this time? It is very human to say that it is now or never. That we must decide in this life or miss the boat. We human beings like that sort of finality.
The more I think about it the more I recoil from an everlasting hell burning with real flames - which is what the Pope has asserted. Of course I see the danger - that people will say ‘Well, if I am to have another chance in another life, I will do my own thing in this life and leave it till the next before I decide to change.’ Perhaps that’s why we have this idea of this life being the final opportunity.
I think that I prefer to believe in an omnipotent and all loving God who does not commit people to burning fires. Who, in some way that is totally mysterious to me, goes on offering himself to them until they want, of their own volition, to come into relationship with him. It is all a mystery - but the presence of mystery should not make us opt for a hell burning for ever. I can see that logically, as we humans have free will, there is the possibility of someone finally refusing to change. But maybe God has more patience (and love) than we can imagine.
We do not know what happens after death, nor how people can still make a free choice to be in relationship with their creator once death has taken place. But I believe in a God who is omnipotent and therefore I believe that it is possible that he can take his purposes a further stage beyond death in a way that I cannot conceive of here and now.
These ideas of hell being eternal and hell being a place of real flames - I believe that they have sprung from the imaginations and fears of men many centuries ago. I do not believe that they are from God. I can see why they have arisen - I can even see the human reasoning behind these ideas: to make people concentrate their minds and face the fact that there is a God and that there is a need for decision about him. We are, of course, all accountable and perhaps the idea of hell and all its attendant terrors was an early attempt to express that fact.
I accept that human beings are accountable, I believe that God is pure love and that there is no evil or compromise in him at all. Of course our sin and failure is forgiven in Christ - we could not survive the transfer to heaven otherwise. We have to face the fact that our sinfulness and our sins must all be dealt with before we can rest in God’ presence eternally.
Past saints have warned us against believing in the wrath of God. It is an expression that has been used by some to strike fear into the hearts of sinners. But the wrath of God in this sense is something conjured up in the minds of men. It is not a part of the God revealed by Jesus. It is a product of human anger, fear, superstition and sickness and evil. It is something we project onto God - making him in our own image. The message of Jesus is that God is filled with love and forgiveness. And we know that it is only love and forgiveness that is effective in changing anyone. If they change their behaviour because they are afraid then they have not changed at all. They are still the same person they were.
Maybe, one day, I will regret my unbelief in what the Pope is asserting. Maybe one day I will be cast into a lake of fire - a real fire and an everlasting one too! If that happens I shall count it better to perish like that than to live in a heaven where we can smell the stench of human flesh burning in hell just below us.