I love people-watching at the grocery store. Yesterday, an elderly couple—riding two abreast on a pair of motorized scooters—were coming straight for me. I found myself tap dancing back and forth… Not sure which way to go. The lady seemed annoyed by my indecision. She looked at me and sighed, and just before putting me into a position where I needed to leap to safety, the woman said, “Alright… I’m fixin’ to head over to the cheese department,” and then she broke formation, made a hard left, and sped off in search of cheese. That’s the kind of entertainment that you can’t get by ordering stuff on Amazon.
The other day I had an interesting experience in a checkout line. Most of the time I chat with whomever is working the checkout line—usually about the odd assortment of things I’m purchasing. Whenever I go to the grocery store, I never seem to walk out of there with “normal” groceries. It’s never just milk, bread, cheese, apples, eggs, orange juice, and oatmeal.” It’s always some desperately random combination of things—random to the point of being embarrassing—that make me look like I’m some sort of deviant… Or planning some sort terrorist attack… Or both. It’s always like, “Hi, I’d like to purchase these tampons, this tube of goat cheese, these size D batteries, this family sized bag of gummy bears, this can of WD-40, and $38 worth of Boar’s Head oven gold turkey breast.
So, the other day—after just paying for a needle-nosed pliers, an industrial sized vat of Listerine, and a slim Jim—the person behind me in line asked the woman working the checkout, “How you doing today?” And she gave the answer that frustrates me more than any other answer to that question: “Better than I deserve.” You may have heard this answer before… I have heard it hundreds of times since moving to the South years ago. A lot of people associate “Better than I deserve” with Christian financial guru, Dave Ramsey, but that phrase (as well as the theology behind it) have a long history. Other people connect that phrase to a pastor named C.J. Mahaney… But really it goes back all the way to John Calvin and beyond. Many people who use that answer to the question “How are you doing?” will tell you that they are doing it to remind themselves to be thankful… But really–at the heart of it—is a daily reminder of what so many Christians believe we all REALLY deserve… HELL.
Maybe this is the version of Christianity that you grew up with… The version that reminds us every chance it gets that each of us is so depraved—even from our birth—that the just and right consequence for our depravity is an eternity of conscious torment. For many people using the moniker “Christian,” this belief in Hell as an actual place where unbelievers receive “eternal conscious torment with no hope of redemption” is such an integral part of their faith, that for someone to even suggest the possibility of another interpretation is to be branded a heretic (see Rob Bell, and a host of others). But really—at this point in my life—it makes a lot more sense that people like myself WOULD be seen as heretical… We believe very different things. I mean, imagine walking around each day, and with every greeting, reminding yourself (as well as the one saying hello) that we are all such total and complete piles of garbage that we deserve to be tortured–not just for 100 years, or 1000 years, or even a million years—but for ETERNITY. Our understandings of the nature of God are so starkly different, it seems difficult to imagine we could both be under the same umbrella called “Christianity.”
And here’s my problem with the concept of a conscious, eternal, tortuous Hell: It’s completely incompatible with the idea of a loving God. If we can know anything about the concept of “loving,” then we can know that sending a sentient being to get tortured (or creating a system where torture is a natural consequence—ANY torture… let alone ETERNAL torture) could not possibly be defined as “loving” that being. And when you point this fact out to people who hold tightly to the doctrine of Hell, many times they will counter with talk of God’s “justice.” But again, if we can know anything at all of the concept of “justice,” we can know that an eternity of torment could NEVER be considered a just consequence for a temporal offense… Whether that offense was a wrong conclusion made in good faith, or even if that offense is 30 years of outright rebellion. Most of humanity has concluded that torture is beneath us as a species… And yet so many still cling to a picture and a theology that has the “higher” power—God—creating and utilizing a system whereby the vast majority of the human race receives a consequence of eternal torture.
This is the absolute and complete logical impossibility of an eternal, conscious torment that has come to be known as “Hell.”
No one knows what happens to us after we die. There are a lot of possibilities. It’s possible that there is some sort of refining process where we are relieved of all the things that make us broken—And maybe this process eventually happens to everyone (Universalism). It’s possible that when someone dies who isn’t invited into Heaven, that person simply ceases to exist… like a swatted fly or a trampled ant—Our souls and our consciousness are not necessarily eternal… And even if you read scripture that way, Matthew 10:28 speaks of God’s power to “destroy both soul and body” (Annihilationism). And it’s also possible that God made it so that only a relative few would make it to heaven… Through a process that has as many differing ideas as there are Christian denominations—just under 40,000—All while billions and billions of others would spend all eternity suffering in a fiery punishment (Traditional Doctrine of Hell). For a really clear picture of these different understandings of what happens to us when we die, the movie “Hellbound” does a really good job (It’s on Netflix). Also Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” is very accessible and well done. In any event, there is a plausible Biblical case that can be made for each one of these positions.
But only one of these positions is incompatible with the idea of a loving God. Either God loves us, or Hell is an eternity of conscious torment… But both cannot possibly be true at the same time. The traditional doctrine of Hell turns God into a monster… Like an abusive boyfriend who tells a woman, cowering and bruised, “You brought this on yourself.” And we, like that battered woman, say things like, “I had this coming to me… It’s my own fault… I deserve this.” NO!!! That isn’t love. “Love me, or I’ll beat the hell out of you” is NOT love. Just like “Love me, or I’ll have you tortured for all eternity” is not love. Or free will. Or justice. Or anything close to “Good News.” It is abuse. If the concept of “Goodness” means anything, we cannot possibly call this twisted version of an abusive God “Good.” Powerful? Certainly. Terrifying? For sure. But good? Never.
So here’s what I think: If a Biblical case can be made for each of these theological positions (Universalism, Annihilationism, and The Doctrine of Hell), why in the world would we choose the one that turns God into a monster? Tradition? A traditional understanding is what was used to justify slavery for 1900 years. A traditional understanding is what was used to justify beating your wife when she got out of line. Even if you give precedence to the times when Jesus describes God as the great Judger, you still don’t have to end up at a place of people being tortured forever. There is no good reason to hang onto this picture of God. It not only offends our conscience, but it offends our intellect and our reason as well (and for those of you who would warn of “leaning on our own understanding,” I would ask you to consider how your own sense of “understanding” brought you to that conclusion). But what’s more than that, this picture of God stands in stark contrast to the majority of Jesus’ characterizations of God as a “Good Father” who loves us way better than we could ever love our own kids… And I could never send my kids to get tortured—no matter how badly they messed up. Jesus speaks of a God who is merciful. And loving. And just. And who runs to meet us. And who doesn’t repay evil for evil.
“God does not love you because you are good; God loves you because God is good. And then you can be good because you draw upon such an Infinite Source… God is always and forever the initiator in my life, and I am, on occasion, the half-hearted respondent.” ~ Richard Rohr, from the meditation “Implanted Desire”
So I don’t know what happens to us when we die, but I can tell you what DOESN’T happen to us—Not if God is anything close to the “Good Father” Jesus describes. If God is the God of eternal damnation, we are all so very screwed. And if that’s what God is like, then how could we ever love that God? We could FEAR that God… But love? It sounds like the Old Testament understanding of Yahweh and an Old Testament understanding of humanity… An understanding that I believe Jesus came to correct, so that we could finally see God as the Great Lover… and finally see ourselves as the Beloved.
Anyway, I guess I had heard that phrase one time too many—The one that sounds like so much blasphemy to me now—“Better than I deserve.” I told my kids to stay with the shopping cart. And I walked back over to the checkout. And I looked that woman in the eyes, and I said, “I’m sorry to interrupt… Please don’t ever say that. You do NOT deserve terrible things. We are all broken in some ways, but your brokenness does not define you, just like my brokenness does not define me. And even though it sometimes feels like it, your brokenness is not too much for God. You are not worthless! You are worthy of being loved, and you are worthy of every good thing that happens to you. Okay?” And the same goes for you… Whoever the “you” is reading this right now. There are plenty of people going through hell all around us, and where we can, we should alleviate that hell… but Hell certainly isn’t an eternity of torture. And if it was, you certainly don’t deserve to go there.
A few questions… 1) Why aren’t you following me on Twitter? 2) Are you on Facebook and do you also like things that are funny and/or interesting? Well alright then. 3) Do you think this blog is so freaking cool that you want to help support it by becoming a Patron or donating on PayPal? Someone named Tonia did. I know very little about Tonia… other than the fact that Tonia doesn’t deserve Hell either… And also, she helps support something that she believes in. And I think that is really cool.
I hear many Christians speak about hell as if God has no say in the matter. “Well, he leaves the offer of salvation open, and doesn’t want to force his love on anyone.” Okay, great. But if God truly wants everyone to join him in heaven, is there no way he can change the “system” so that no one has to suffer? Christians make it sound like God has no control whatsoever about who goes to hell, and that seems contradictory to the idea of an all-powerful deity.
But then it would contradict his word and he would be bending the rules wich would be defiling his just nature
Not sure if you goal is to philosophy about scripture or find out what scripture says and make that your faith. You seem to put a lot on “IF” since you can not prove through scripture your idea. You can not say, “It is clearly written, there is not hell.”
On the other hand, have you ever read that God keeps His covenant of love with those who fear and obey Him?
Have you ever read that Jesus Himself says that those who did righteousness will be raised to eternal life. Those who have done wickedness to eternal damnation?
Have you ever read what Paul said? Those who sow in the Spirit shall reap eternal life, those who sow in the flesh shall reap damnation?
Do these few scriptures mean anything to you? Or is your goal to come to your own answer no matter what scripture say? I would like to know, if you want to say so.
i like your article, very inspiring, thank you for your post
Boeskool, I’m not a Christian, nor a “believer” nor spiritualistic of any sort or faith, but…I’d like to hear HOW you know that your version of “God” and “Iesus” is correct. Upon what do you base your ideas of “God” and “Iesus” — from what source and/or through which means? How do you know for sure your versions of “God” and “Iesus” are the correct in contrast to, say, the versions you rebut in this article?
Who are you asking? Or is this an open question for everyone.
Hey Joe. There are a lot of parts to that question… One main part is the idea of “knowing” something. There is a whole branch of philosophy called epistemology that deals with the concept of how we “know” anything. If, by your question, you mean “Am I certain?” then no… I’m not. God COULD in fact be a monster. Personally, I believe that there are a whole lot of other ways that God reveals God’s self to us… Other than the Bible, that is. The thing inside of us that lets us know that love is “better” than hate, that bravery is “better” than fear, that service is “better” than selfishness… these things testify to the existence of a higher power (even when we don’t make the “better” choice, we know which choice we “should” have made).
But most of the people who believe this idea of the God of the universe sending the vast majority of the people who ever lived to be tortured eternally have come to this position because of an inordinate amount of weight that they put on one of the ways which God reveals God’s self to humanity: the Bible (in its traditional reading). And when making a case to someone who is from France, it’s probably best to speak French… Which is why I make a lot of my points from the words of scripture. We use our logic to reason our way into the best interpretation of Scripture, and the “version of God and Jesus” that I am making a case for is basically because of this logic: 1) There is a plausible biblical (made from scripture) case to be made for universalism, annihilationism, and the doctrine of hell… 2) The God Who would set up a system like that(eternal tortoise hell) would certainly be a monster… and then 3) Why would we choose the one option of those three choices that exhibits neither God’s love nor God’s justice that was described by the Jesus we claim to follow? It makes no sense.
If I’m wrong, and someday when I die I find out that the “good father” that Jesus talked about was actually a God who would send me to get tortured for all eternity–all for the crime of assuming God was so much better than that–then I’m already screwed. And I might as well go on living like God is so much better than we imagine God could be.
Plus, just in a utilitarian sense, it works for me. I find that I am more loving and happy, and less fearful and angry when I am assuming that the Creator is actually loving and good and just… As I’ve come to understand those words to be defined.
Does that answer your question?
Long-time reader, first-time commenter here.
You lost me on this one. I mean, I get what you are trying to say, but I honestly don’t see why Hell is such a hard concept to believe. It is simply the absence of God. It is not a dungeon that God “sends” us to to be tortured with pitchforks in endless fire. The Bible uses language like this to describe an indescribable place. The complete absence of love and light and good.
Those who go, go on their own accord. They reject Christ. It’s really that simple. Of course, there are complicated issues like the age of accountability and the 10/40 window, etc, etc. We can hash those out if you want, but for most people it is simply a choice. The only way to the Father is through Christ. And if you choose another path, you are choosing to be separated from the Father…. in Hell.
God is all those things you said: loving, good, and just. And Hell is simply the separation from those things.
I think you’ve referenced Mere Christianity in the past, so I’m sure you’ve read it, but it’s a great place to go for information on this topic. God does not force his creation to love him. If he did, we would be no more than robots, programmed to act a certain way. We have free will to accept Christ as our savior or not. Those who choose not, choose Hell.
Hey, Ben. So is Hell–in your mind, at least–forever? And once someone is there–in separation from all things loving and good and just–can someone choose their way out of it? Or are they there for all eternity…
Yes, you’ve answered my question adequately. Your honesty in admitting “Am I certain?” then no… I’m not.” and in admitting pragmatism, “Plus, just in a utilitarian sense, it works for me” is refreshing, commendable, and much more philosophically defensible .
I do, probably unsurprisingly to you, question the vailidity of your, “…a whole lot of other ways that God reveals God’s self to us… Other than the Bible, that is. The thing inside of us that lets us know that love is “better” than hate, that bravery is “better” than fear, that service is “better” than selfishness… these things testify to the existence of a higher power (even when we don’t make the “better” choice, we know which choice we “should” have made).” That becomes subjective and arbitrary, if not a circular, “I know that those are the ways God reveals himself to humans because God has revealed through those ways”. Even “love”, “hate”, “service”, “selfishness”, and “better” are quite subjective, with individuals sincerely holding quite varied ideas of any of those. The weight an individual might assign to each of the “ways” must also be arbitrary. Meaning, your approach would even at best still generate conflicting concepts of “God”. But I admit that, in an objective sense, if exclusively adopted and applied, yours might minimize the harm caused by much of supernaturalism.
I do see a danger in the practical outworking of your approach which I hope you’ll consider in years ahead, and to which I’ve come in my own 60 years.
Regrettably, many if not most supernaturalists will not adopt your approach. History evidences a human tendency toward faiths which incorporate divine consequences for injustice (which, by the way, is one apologetic for “hell”: being, “humans cannot recognize the qualitative enormity of the evil they perpetrate on others by even a single sin of omission as God recognizes the enormity; and God will satisfy justice for each and every act of sin — any and all sin ultimately being the opposite of love; hence, justice requires an eternity of punishment” ).
Consequently, all your voice becomes is an unwitting encouragement to Theistic dogmatists, who while ignoring what you say will merely focus on and make use of the fact that you “believe in God” for a “see, awareness of God is common to humankind, and therefore, building upon that common acknowledgement, we declare ________” support for their sociallly- and societally-harmful dogmatisms.
I like to believe that the idea of “deserving” is a poor attempt to elucidate an idea better communicated as entitlement or privilege. Would you find yourself driven to respond the same to someone who phrased it “better than expected”, “all in all, a net positive”, or “fantastic”?
I think the idea that the phrase attempts to espouse is one of pessimistic optimism, mindful appreciation and reflection on those enjoyable things which occur in one’s life that were not expected or anticipated, just shittily worded.
I would argue, though, that the translation leaves much to be desired.
I halfheartedly believe that at the end of one’s life, when called to account for ones deeds, we’re presented with the experience of living through our life from the perspective and physical sensation of all those whom we have impacted during the moments that we’ve affected their lives. Understandably, that could easily seem like an eternity when compared to the length of our life. It could potentially be either blissful or torment, depending on how we have lived. When we live our life as one of love, the experiences that we create in others would feel like an eternity surrounded in love and light. When we decide to do otherwise, it wouldn’t really be abject torture, nor uncalled for, we’d only be experiencing that which we have chosen to inflict upon others. What would happen after that isn’t something I’ve given much thought to, I’ve been more focused on leaving my world and those I encounter in it slightly better than the conditions in which I found them, which is in and of itself its own reward.
Nice blog, btw, I’ve enjoyed the dozen or so posts I’ve read since discovering it earlier tonight.
Great blog. I like to think of myself as a perfect mixture of total depravity and perfection.
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Okay, so this is what I was taught, and still believe. So God created hell for rebellious angels( the devil and his followers). When Adam ate the apple, he disobeyed God, and as a consequence , we are all sorta cursed with sin, or rather we inherited it. God is loving that’s why he sent his only son so that we might be saved …….. and if we go to hell for eternity, its becuase we sinned against and infinite God, and he gave us an opportunity to get saved. And he is holy, so he cant just sit around and watch us cause this diasaster and he promised his kids to create a new earth, one I will sadly not see. Anyways , that’s my pov.
But then it would contradict his word and he would be bending the rules wich would be defiling his just nature, so I dont think so.
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