As far back as I can remember, hell was a basic assumption in life. I can't say I never questioned it as I grew older, I just knew my objections paled against something so huge, something so overwhelmingly accepted. Truth be told, the very idea of hell made sense. And I'm not saying this just because I was raised as a church-going boy. To be sure, it played a definite part, but not having belonged to one of those hellfire-and-damnation-preaching churches I think I heard just as much about hell from the world around me. In fact, I think I learned more about hell through other ways and means than by having been schooled in its formal doctrines.
What did I really learn about hell in my growing up years? How about the fact that simply speaking the word (depending on those in earshot) was considered either forbidden, disapproved, religious, daring and/or cool? The word itself commanded attention. It would not be ignored. All of which demanded that the substance behind it must be powerful indeed. The decrees issued from one to another to “Go to hell” automatically called upon the divine judge or some kind of universal force to penalize the offending person to a really, really unthinkably bad consequence. The return challenge by the other insinuated that God himself must judge between them, with each assuming he would be ultimately vindicated by the divine. I learned that although the prospect of going to hell scared me silly the power to condemn another for his words, thoughts or actions against me made me feel good. It demands that I am right and you (should you oppose me) are wrong.
I propose that hell, by whatever form or name it takes, has found its place within our perceptions because something within us (whether we're religiously oriented or not) already accommodates it. In other words, I suggest that this underlying principle dwells in the mind of man causing each individual's experiences to have demanded some form of divine retribution, with no belief in God required.
The basic components of the hell doctrine are, after all, not distinctly Christian. Oh no, this demand for judgment has followed mankind around like a plague, accompanied by conflict, strife, hatred and war. I'm not saying it's unfounded, but it is twisted. For it accords with man's skewed judgments based upon his continual need for self-justification.
Just look around you, there are examples of man's twisted judgment everywhere. It can be observed in most situations, especially those dealing with good versus evil, right versus wrong, my way or your way, etc. Of course, you don't have to look outside yourself to experience it. All you need is to really listen to your own reactions. Either way, it won't take long … if you're listening, that is.
One of my current observations comes through my 7-year old grandson as he watches certain movies. “Is he the good guy/Is he the bad guy?” he'll ask repeatedly. Somehow, he has already learned, despite my challenges, that there has to be a good guy and a bad guy. There just HAS to be. Not surprisingly, he finds it difficult to discern which is which, hence the continued questions. He needs to confirm his own judgments, and this is a must because he wants to make sure he's rooting for the right side. Of course, the storyline usually includes its own bias so that the identities of the good and bad guys are mostly assumed. And then, there's always input from the rest of the family, school mates, etc that helps fuel these questions. Heck, I'm sure I've said a few things that encourages it, too. :) Not one to provide a simple answer (even to my own grandson) I'll usually respond along the line, “Well, it's based upon what you think. If you were one of those people you would think he was the good guy, but if you were one of the others you would think he was the bad guy.” Lately, I've been hearing him exclaim, “That's what he gets! That's what he gets!” and I'll know that the bad guy just suffered some deserving consequence. Of course, his own ability to so accurately judge the situation must preclude the fact that he considers himself a partner with the omnipresent judge who makes sure that what goes around comes around.
So what does this have to do with hell? Only that such observations reveal an incredible similarity between how we pass judgment on a daily basis and how we perceive future judgment. Yes, yes, I am familiar with the numerous places in the Bible that speak of God's judgment upon the “wicked”, the “unrighteous”. Despite what it may seem I am not disputing it. However, I am questioning the foundation and structure upon which doctrines of final judgment have been built.
We must ask ourselves if it is possible that our views of hell might be more influenced by a biased, religious reasoning that has stood upon man's twisted judgments rather than being based upon God's thoughts as recorded in the Bible? Along these same lines, how is it that “pagan” civilizations have imagined an afterlife that so closely resemble that is taught by many Christian preachers? What I'm asking is who really borrowed from who?
Now I know some of you reading this are having great difficulty hearing anything other than your own reactions to what you think I'm proposing. And it's fine if you want to disagree with something I haven't said yet, just don't let your speculations stand as some kind of proof. Who knows, you may have me totally figured out and have already accurately predicted where I'm heading with all this. Of course, if you really know me you should already know where I'm headed, though hopefully you'll be blessed in the path I take to get there.
Look, I'm not asking you to ignore what the Bible has to say about the matter, for I plan to examine much of it with you in upcoming Shoveletters. What I am asking is that you dig past your own assumptions and reconsider the doctrine as it has been passed down and developed through the centuries. I am not expecting to answer everybody's questions, for I know that I may end up causing more questions than answers for some. However, a few good questions are worth much more than truckloads of religiously-accepted answers. What I'm suggesting by this is that some of your questions are attached to some bogus suppositions and therefore cannot be answered. Oh, I'm sure someone already has a palatable answer if you want it bad enough, but I'm not speaking to those who only want to satisfy their need to have all the answers. I'm speaking to you who, despite all the contradictions, have a life that will not be satisfied with the answers that satisfy human logic. I speak to you whose life is Christ.