I’ll be releasing an episode soon with the title “Considering Hell and Confronting Sin”. Even though that sounds like it will be something of a downer I’m hoping it will be informative, useful, and even edifying. But I’ve realized the episode will be quite long and that many people won’t want to listen through the whole thing. Fortunately there will be a transcript with section headings that should make for easy skimming and skipping around. But I decided I should also make a tl;dr (too long; didn’t read), summary version. So that’s what this is.
First of all, why study Hell? The main reason I took up the topic was because it’s a stumbling block. It’s an objectionable and even offensive idea. There are many reasons to object to the idea and reject it. Of course, if Hell is real, rejecting the idea of Hell won’t do much good. But there’s a bit of a catch-22: Hell is horrible so it is important to believe in it and respond to it, but because the idea of Hell is so horrible it keeps people from believing in it. My reason for taking up this topic was to address this stumbling block.
What is the Christian doctrine of Hell? I look at two major sources: scripture and tradition. As I kept digging deeper into the subject I realized that it wouldn’t be possible to start with a conclusion and then go looking for supporting evidence. In the first place that’s not a very good way to do things. In the second place there was too much evidence to contradict any single conclusion. Instead I had to cast a pretty wide net and gather up from a broad range of perspectives. The bulk of the episode consists of quotations from scriptures and theologians on the subject of Hell.
Theologians quoted include: Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Origen of Alexandria, Cyprian of Carthage, Gregory of Nyssa, Jerome, Augustine, Fulgentius of Ruspe, Thomas Aquinas, Dante Alighieri, John Calvin, Karl Barth, C.S. Lewis, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI.
Some important questions about Hell include: How many people will be in Hell? Will they be there forever? Is it possible to repent once in Hell? Do you have to be Christian to be saved from Hell? Does it matter if you die as an infant before being baptized? Does it matter if you never hear the Gospel? Does it matter if your exposure to the Gospel is only cursory? Do you have to have a detailed understanding of the metaphysical nature of God? The quotes I have collected in the episode lend themselves to various answers to these questions.
Since the scope of the episode is more encyclopedic, more of a catalogue than a tight argument, I don’t really have a conclusion to summarize here. Instead, my main takeaway was the effect that this study had on me and that I hope it might have on others. Joy and awe are what primarily motivate my worship and contemplation of God. But while studying the topic of Hell I’ve come to appreciate another aspect of Christian experience: the seriousness of sin. Sin is not pleasant to think about but it is very real and very serious. Sin is destructive of everything we are as living souls. The process of moving toward God and becoming more holy is also a process of moving away from sin. So that in a very real way the joy and awe of Christian experience is consistent with rejection of sin. Studying the different passages and quotations was interesting for me intellectually but what I found most valuable was the personal reflection on my own sins and how my religious practice addresses them.
I’ve especially come to notice the way Christians confront sin in the practice of prayer. Many Christian prayers repeatedly call our sins to mind. It might seem strange to find peace in the recitation of prayers that place emphasis on your sins. Our sins are those things that are wrong with us and are, by themselves, very upsetting to think about. But I think one reason that these religious practices bring peace is because they open us up to healing. Hiding our sins away and not doing anything to heal from them doesn’t do any good either. The purpose of these prayers is not to dwell on sin by itself or to bring shame. It is to be redeemed from our sins through the power of Christ.