Most Christians I know have a complicated relationship with the doctrine of hell. Many have grown up with a caricature, with gruesome images of an eternal fiery torture chamber with a horns-and-pitchfork devil presiding over the conflagration. This is deemed intolerable by most. Indeed, I am highly suspicious of those who retain this view. They often seem a bit too eager, not to mention selective, in their appreciation of God’s judgment. The rest of us struggle with hell in various ways. Those who accept the possibility of hell wonder how a merciful God can allow it. Those who reject hell outright often still implicitly long for, even demand, some kind of a final justice for those who have done great evil. We hate the idea of hell but we can’t quite let it go. It’s complicated.
My own views of hell have certainly changed over time. I grew up imbibing a pretty severe view of hell—not as terrifying as the caricature described above, perhaps, but still enough to send a shiver down my youthful spine. The older I got, the more I found this view intolerable. I meandered through various approaches to hell before settling, as many do, upon a view most famously articulated by C.S. Lewis in his allegory, The Great Divorce. In it, Lewis portrays hell not as a medieval torture chamber but a grey town where people slowly, but surely are extinguished by losing interest in heaven and isolating themselves from each other and God through their own choices.
Hell, for Lewis, was God’s final ratification of human freedom. I liked this view very much. It made sense of much of the biblical narrative which places great emphasis upon human choice. More importantly, it distanced God from the torture chamber. I had always struggled enormously with how a good God could allow something like hell, whatever it looked like, to exist. How could any eternal punishment be morally commensurate with a finite amount of sin? There’s only so much mischief one can get up to in a handful of decades, right? And how could anyone enjoy the delights of heaven knowing there was a place like hell around to foul up eternity? Conceiving of hell as God’s grudging acquiescence to human obstinance and faithlessness seemed, if not ideal, then certainly a better option than Dante’s Inferno.
But is it really? I’ve been reading Dale Allison’s fine book Night Comes over the past few weeks. In a chapter called “Hell and Sympathy” he’s been poking a few holes in what he calls “the modern view of hell” popularized by Lewis and embraced by so many. Perhaps surprisingly, Allison doesn’t think nearly as highly of human freedom as I have for most of my life:
Yet when human freedom is front and center, God moves to the wings. In the modern myth, our names are on the marquee, and our destiny is up to us. What we make of ourselves here determines what we are to become there.
Should we, however, desire starring roles and such Pelagian freedom? Although not an old-fashioned Calvinist, I think it’s obvious that all of us are broken creatures, that we are selfish and self-deluded, and that we constantly abuse our freedom, which is so often illusory. Because of this, I find little use for a deity who lets me decide my fate. I don’t want to be my own God. Nor do I want the Supreme Being to respect my alleged autonomy no matter what, just as I don’t want the police to respect the autonomy of the despondent guy threatening to jump off the top of the high-rise. I rather desire, for myself and for everyone else, rescue. Our decisions need to be undone, not confirmed. We need to be saved despite ourselves. Even if we’re allowed, in our freedom, to kindle the fires of hell and to forge its chains, isn’t it God’s part to break our chains and put out the fire?
I’m still not quite sure what to make of this, to be honest. I still think that human freedom is a massive part of the biblical narrative. I still think that the things that we choose to do and believe matter immensely. I can’t make sense out of so much of Scripture without a framework in place that asserts a deeply meaningful human freedom. And yet, I find Allison’s reflections here compelling. I don’t want my name on the marquee. I often think that freedom is too great a burden to entrust to creatures as fragile and stupid as us. We abuse and misuse it so terribly. We are, as Allison says, all over the place:
Human beings aren’t unidirectional vectors but bundles of contradictions. Saints are sinners; sinners are saints. Everyone is Jekyll; everyone is Hyde. And everyone is in between. We advance toward God one moment and sound retreat the next, and most of the time we’re stuck in the middle…
The modern hell, however, posits that in the world to come, we keep moving in the direction we’re already headed. Our momentum, so to speak, carries us up to heaven or down to hell. Yet what if, like me, you keep moving in circles?
What if, indeed?
At the end of it all, my misgivings here may simply reflect a pretty typical biographical trajectory. Freedom was attractive to me when I was younger because, well, young people think a great deal of freedom. The world stood before me, a blank slate, ready to be imprinted with all of my blessed uniqueness and autonomy. But then I lived a few years. And I recognized how prone I am to wander, to misuse the freedom I so treasured in my youth. Now I’m not quite so eager for my choices to be ratified by God for all eternity. I need some undoing, some rescue, someone to refuse to respect my miserable autonomy. Someone for whom mercy triumphs over judgement. Someone who said, with his dying breath, “Forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” Someone whose momentum overrides and overrules my own.