Wednesday, April 17, 2013

What the Hell?

The artist has to ask questions in order to create. It is from the questions that the creative life emerges. Artists ask themselves what if questions, and then proceed to ask everyone else if what has come out of their questioning is really art.

Writers of fiction do this all the time. C. S. Lewis asked what God’s reconciling work would look like in a land populated by mythic creatures, and produced The Chronicles of Narnia. Stephen King asked what kind of world people would create if most of the human population was wiped out by a plague, and produced The Stand.

It occurs to me that some of the folks in the Christian world who take a great deal of heat are the ones who ask some difficult what if questions, like: What if God’s love is broader and more generous than we’ve imagined? Or, What if our dominant views about the atonement are limited and not really true to our scriptures? They usually start by asking themselves those kinds of question, and then they ask the rest of us, “What do you think—is this Christianity?”

One of the questions that always intrigue me is about Hell. Suggesting that our traditional views about Hell could be flawed usually creates a firestorm of outrage. People ask if God really assigns both the genocidal maniac and the nominal slob who never amounted to much to the eternal and fiery tortures of Hell, and some folks respond as though the idea of countless multitudes screaming in agony forever is comforting.

The late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus once said something to the effect of, “It’s not that I don’t believe in Hell. It’s just that I don’t want anyone to be there.”

The idea of Hell—at least, the idea of Hell as a tortuous place created to take in all who deserve to go there—has its problems. First of all, the Bible doesn’t speak with a singular voice about Hell. There are multiple images related to where dead people go: Sheol, Hades, Gehenna. We are even told in The Apostles’ Creed that Jesus “descended to the dead” (some versions say “Hell”), causing us wonder what he did while he was there.

But, secondly, we struggle with some other problems as well. Since, according to Revelation 20:10, the devil ends up being tossed into the lake of fire and is tormented forever, we have to wonder: So who torments everyone else? Is it God who receives the worship of the faithful dead with one hand, and stokes the fires of Hell with the other? And he does this forever?

And we’re not really sure what it is that qualifies us for Hell. Is it our behavior, or our belief?

Here’s an example: The 20th century poster boy for pure, maniacal evil is Adolf Hitler, most folks would agree, and we would consign him to the most distant and painful corner of Hell available. But what if, just before he died (and if his girlfriend shot him in the head rather than Hitler committing suicide, just to keep things simple), he repented of his great transgressions and asked God to forgive him and then put his trust in Jesus? Wouldn’t he now be in heaven with all the saints and angels? I suspect that most Evangelicals would vote yes on that.

But if right belief is the ticket to Heaven, then wouldn’t the six million Jews that died as Hitler’s command be languishing in Hell? After all, their belief system would probably not include Jesus. So, really, based on that thinking, we can’t condemn Hitler to Hell for his actions, only for his lack of belief.

I understand that not all people, including Evangelical Christian people, would think that things worked that way. However, the questions should still be asked, and it is, in my view, the vocation of theological artists to do the asking. And when the artists ask everyone else, “What do you think—is this Christian?” we should all stop and say, “Well, I’m not sure. But maybe we should go back and check things out.”

The artist might be wrong, and answer to the question might occasionally be “no.” But the mere act of asking, when the question runs cross-grain to traditional thinking, should not result in a heresy trial.

And if someone asks if there really is a Hell, and even if we believe there is, our response ought to be a tearful one that says, “Yes, but I do wish it wasn’t so.”


WanderingellimaC said...

This is fantastic.

Stephen Rethmeier said...

Love this Mike. Though, my version of hell has always had jazz playing 24/7 (or whatever time reference is applicable). Now I'm left wondering about jazz and whether my abhorrence of it is genetic or behavioral. Can you help me?

Mike McNichols said...

Steve, I'm pretty sure that jazz, for the most part, is not hell. But the never ending sounds of It's a Small World would make the lake of fire start sounding like a reasonable alternative.