Last month, I wrote a post called Beginning Again, in which I detailed the genesis of some massive shifts in my seeing, thinking and believing – about God, myself, and others.
I intended to continue reflections from that point much sooner than now, but I got distracted by the American Sniper movie and the cultural conversation around it, and have thus found myself “fighting the fight” of preaching peace and the non-violent ethic of following Jesus (podcast). If you care to, go check out my Facebook over the last few weeks and you’ll see some of the conversations that have taken place.
The battle is real, folks. The mission is here, and the harvest is plentiful within professed Christianity. 😉 Shalom.
Anyhow, today’s reflection is another massive one, in the sense that, at least for me, so much change hinges on what I’m exploring. (This post is longer than normal, too – 15 minutes reading time – please don’t let that stop you from pushing through. These are important things to consider.) It really should be read as a follow up, or next step, after that Beginning Again piece. If you missed that, or have slept since then, you may want to go back and read it. Included there, I recalled where my mindset shift began:
Not coincidentally, what has shifted so dramatically for me has its beginnings in, well, The Beginning. Interestingly, though, I got there by musing on what I had previously considered as more of “the end.”
When I wrote my book, The Path of Freedom last Spring, there were 3 or 4 major hurdles, sticking points, that I had to move through and overcome along the way toward grasping Freedom more deeply. One of these was a re-definition of “Heaven” and “Hell.” Like most western Evangelicals, my prior concept of these was primarily as the (only) two final, eternal destinations of all of mankind. In that way, I had always read references to “The Kingdom of God (Heaven)” as purely that future place where those who believe upon Christ will be… one day.
But as I began to see that the Kingdom was the Gospel that Jesus was bringing – and that this Kingdom was at hand, near, and within us – I shifted away from the paradigm of “Heaven” being a possible future, eternal destination, and into a new paradigm of the realities of this Kingdom of God being lived from, and in… now. It’s not that I rejected “Heaven” as a future, eternal something altogether. It’s more that my eyes were shifted from looking up only, to looking around and within. God. Is. With. Us.
This is where the lie of separation was first exposed to me.
Having moved beyond that little “bump in the road,” I went about the process of finishing my book, and finally, releasing it. Happy with the accomplishment and enjoying the satisfaction of fulfilling a lifelong goal, I pretty much then went about my resuming my life.
It’s funny, because ideally one who writes would be able to capture the whole story in one story (or book). But, at the same time, how boring would that be? All the books would likely already be written. Sometime after having “turned the page” on The Path of Freedom, the implantation of this New Life occurred. And it was related to the idea of “Heaven” that I had written about in the now out there book, but instead, this time, my mind got to musing about the opposite… “Hell.” Specifically, if “Heaven” was not really only a future, eternal destination for those who “believe,” but is more a present Reality called the Kingdom toward those who “believe,” then, what if “hell” is not really only a future, eternal destination for those who “do not believe,” but is more a present (non)-reality for those who are in unbelief?
As you can imagine (and may very well find racing through your head, now), this raises a lot of other questions.
What is “hell?” Is there a “hell” at all?…”
The primary point I went on to make in that Beginning Again post was that of Inclusion – that since One (Jesus) died for all, then all died. All (mankind, everyone, Every. Person. Ever.) were included in His death – the old Adamic nature has died. All (yes, again – everyone) were included in His Resurrection, His Life – the New has come, and is our True Nature, this Light of Life.
This turns the common perception of Salvation and eternal destinations on their heads, and thus brought me back around to the begging question…
…”What the Hell?”
Consequently, since June of last year, I have been spending a lot of time in Hell. Haha. That is to say, I’ve gone from never giving it much thought (if any) at all, to studying it very intensely. After hundreds of hours of study and reflection during this time, I can tell you that my personal understanding and view of “hell” has changed. I can also tell you that I’m certain I don’t have it all figured out, and I’m fairly certain no one does. I think it is wise to remember that doctrines such as Hell should not be treated as dogma. If there is an absolute, I don’t think we’ll find it. Mystery will likely remain. Therefore, it is not my intention, nor ability, to fully cover this topic in this post.
However, something else I have become convinced of during this process is that: just as your view of God ultimately shapes your view of yourself, and others – your particular view (hope) for “the end” goes a long way toward shaping your view of God, yourself, and others – even if not acknowledged.
So, regardless of whether you agree with my current view or not, I would highly encourage every sincere seeker to thoughtfully and prayerfully examine their beliefs of things such as Heaven, Hell, the afterlife, etc. You may just find that what you “have always believed” to be true, is unworkable for you. Maybe you were told wrong. Maybe your belief was misplaced. Maybe, everything is better than you thought. That’s how it’s been for me.
Ok, so a brief background… historically, there have been 3 views of “Hell,” all specific to its afterlife characteristics.
- Infernalism (Eternal Conscious Torment) – This is the belief that I have always held (simply because that was what I was told and taught, and never questioned it), and that most of Evangelicalism holds. It says that if anyone does not “accept Christ” during their lifetime, then their eternal destiny is a “Hell” in which they are eternally tormented, usually in a “Lake of Fire,” or something of that kind of imagery.
- Annihilationism – This belief differs from ECT in that, rather than “nonbelievers” being burned for all eternity, they are instead annihilated. That is to say, somehow, they are done away with, and are no more. They simply cease to exist.
- Universalism – This belief holds to a view that since Christ died for all, then all are “saved.” Ultimately, every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess. Love wins. This can happen in this age, or in ages to come.
Each of these, as you might imagine, have various offshoot belief streams, with nuances from a core. But for the most part, we can ultimately distill afterlife beliefs down into one of these three camps. Critical thinkers will also recognize that there are ample Scriptures that can be used to both defend, and rebut each of these views.
Most of these differing views are a result of differing interpretations of what is behind the english word, translated as “hell,” in most of our Bibles. For me, and for most in our modern day, “hell” has been, or is always read as “hell” – meaning, eternal torment. This is the lens that informs those passages, and so much more. But what are the words behind “hell?” And could they have different interpretations? As Benjamin Corey said,
The first discovery one will make on such an investigation, is the inconvenient truth that the word “hell” didn’t exist in first century Israel. This brings up one crucial problem when translating/interpreting the Bible apart from any scholastic work: we see English words that have specific linguistic and cultural connotations and meanings, and read those meanings into an ancient text which may, or may not, have intended to send the same meaning.
The word “hell” becomes a prime example: the word we use today, doesn’t actually appear in language until approximately AD 725– long after the first century. In addition, the word doesn’t come from Hebrew at all, but rather is ultimately rooted in Proto-Germanic. According to the The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology, the word “hell” was adopted into our vocabulary as a way to introduce the pagan concept of hell into Christian theology– which it did quite successfully.”
There are three primary Biblical themes or imageries which English-speaking people refer to as “Hell.”
- Sheol in Hebrew; Hades in the Greek – These are death, the grave, the outer darkness where men weep and gnash their teeth.
- Fire or The Lake of Fire – God is a “Consuming Fire” (Hebrews 12:29).
- Gehenna. – This is a geographical place (The Valley of Hinnom) just to the south and west of Jerusalem. In Jesus’s day, it was a picture of Judgment; a place where the trash and dead bodies was burned by fire, likely an all-consuming, continual one.
“Hell” is never mentioned in the Hebrew Torah. John never mentions it himself. Paul did a few times, and then only to say that whatever it is, has been defeated. For a great majority of the writers of the New Testament, a concept of “hell” just was not a major part of their theology. So who is to blame for all this “hell, fire and brimstone?” Well, Jesus, and God, for starters.
See, Jesus is commonly attributed with “talking about ‘hell’ more than any other subject, and more than anyone else.” And God, you see, He is the consuming Fire, and “full of wrath and a God of Justice.” But I’ve come to see these as misunderstandings. In Real Life Radio, Episodes 001 and 002, I talk about a different understanding of God, His Fire, wrath and Justice. Quickly, God’s wrath is an extension of His Love, which is who He is. His Fire is Love. Justice from His perspective is restorative, not retributive. So maybe we’ve gotten God wrong? And Jesus too? When He “talked about Hell,” He used the Gehenna word above, and was talking about a very literal place, where upon the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70 (an event Jesus continually warned about), the Roman soldiers indeed dumped their slain opponents bodies in this very Valley, Gehenna, where there was indeed “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” where the “smoke did indeed rise endlessly,” and where indeed, the “worms that ate them did not die.”
You know what Jesus actually “talked about more than anything?” He talked about Life, and Love and Light and His Kingdom. And He talked about His Father, His Abba. You know who this Abba is? Well, when you see Jesus, you’ve seen His Abba. They are One.
More than ever, I am convinced that what humanity most suffers from, is a poor concept of God. “We have a God problem,” Fr. Richard Rohr would say. We must get this clear, together, to see real progress. Is God good? Is He Loving, Peaceful? Does God look like Jesus, who forgave 7×70 times, even to the point of death, and lived a non-violent, non-retributive life? Or… Is God angry? Is He violent and warring? Does God look like the god portrayed in the Old Testament, commanding wars, genocide and destruction? Does He look like a retributive, end-times Jesus who will “kill millions upon His return,” seemingly having a “cut-off point” to His own teaching on forgiveness?
For me, this is where seeing Inclusion forced me to re-examine what I thought about “hell” and the afterlife. It forced me to ask the above questions, and more. While, like I said, I don’t have dogmatic, absolute answers to every question, I do have an enhanced concept of God, one that causes me to love Him more, love myself more, and love others (humanity) more. This is good fruit, and fruit that I must follow.
My understanding of Trinitarian Life, and our inclusion in it, coupled with my enlarging experience of seeing and knowing Abba, Jesus and Spirit, no longer allows for eternal torment to be a viable option for whatever “hell” is, and certainly not an afterlife reality. I just don’t buy it anymore.
Further, while the Annihilation position is a little more tenable, it still does not resonate with Who I have come to know as this Trinity, collectively God, and Their express nature of Love. You just cannot annihilate, or do away with, something or someone that is One with you, can you?
God is not schizophrenic to me. He cannot be a warring, genocidal maniac, and then a loving servant Savior who forgives and includes all – especially the most undesirable – and finally a bloodthirsty, horse-riding, sinner-slayer who enacts “justice” in “the end.” To me, God is. He is who He has been, is, and will be – and in fact, exists “there” simultaneously, outside of ages, time and space.
I am a Daddy. I have two girls who are, to me, as some have beautifully said, “like my own heart, walking around outside of my body.” I cannot conceive of even the thought of subjecting one of my children to any physical, emotional, mental or spiritual pain – let alone an eternity of it – no matter their acceptance of me, agreement with me, obedience to me, choosing of me, or love of me. I just love them, because they are my kids. Nothing could ever change this. Am I a more loving Father than God?
I am married. My bride is, in ways that I cannot articulate, part of me. We are One. I cannot conceive of even the thought of enjoying the bliss of our Oneness, if I were to be a threatening or violent husband, or if I “divorce” her (cease to exist with her). Am I a more loving husband than Jesus is to His Bride?
Does God get what He wants? Does He win? Was Jesus victorious only for a small few?
How do you see God? How do you know Him?
I know Him as Love.
I further know that I (and you, and all) are included in this Love. It is who we are.
Like I said in the Beginning Again post,
When you know who you are, and who you’ve always, already been, you will indeed know the Truth, and the Truth will indeed make you Free.”
Richard Rohr says, “‘Salvation’ takes care of itself when ‘who you are’ is driven home.”
So, while I dislike labels and boxes, in light of the common definitions of “hell,” I suppose I fall in some form of the Universalist camp. But let me clarify what I mean when I say that. I am not saying that there are not consequences for sin (unbelief). I am not saying that one can experience salvation apart from Christ. And I am not saying that I know, without a doubt what happens after we all die. What I am saying is, Christ’s work, His inclusion of all of mankind, was universal. It covered all. He, Himself is Salvation, and He is the Way. By exercising faith, we trust in and agree with what He has already finished, for us, as us, and we begin to make a subjective experience out of an Objective Reality.
I agree with Robert Capon when he writes,
“I am and I am not a universalist. I am one if you are talking about what God in Christ has done to save the world. The Lamb of God has not taken away the sins of some — of only the good, or the cooperative, or the select few who can manage to get their act together and die as perfect peaches. He has taken away the sins of the world — of every last being in it — and he has dropped them down the black hole of Jesus’ death. On the cross, he has shut up forever on the subject of guilt: “There is therefore now no condemnation. . . .” All human beings, at all times and places, are home free whether they know it or not, feel it or not, believe it or not.
“But I am not a universalist if you are talking about what people may do about accepting that happy-go-lucky gift of God’s grace. I take with utter seriousness everything that Jesus had to say about hell, including the eternal torment that such a foolish non-acceptance of his already-given acceptance must entail. All theologians who hold Scripture to be the Word of God must inevitably include in their work a tractate on hell. But I will not — because Jesus did not — locate hell outside the realm of grace. Grace is forever sovereign, even in Jesus’ parables of judgment. No one is ever kicked out at the end of those parables who wasn’t included in at the beginning.”
Will all agree with Christ’s finished work, and His Inclusion into of them into the Trinitarian Fellowship of the Divine? Of course, I cannot dogmatically say that. But I am hopeful.
I am hopeful because I know a Father, an Abba, who defies every custom, tradition and pre-existing standard (especially those of religion) – to hike up his cloths and run toward his (still) unrepentant son. This Father spares no expense to express his delight of his child, and to announce his son’s inclusion in his house, and his feast. I am hopeful because I know that this very same Father will leave his feast and his house, to make it plain that those who stubbornly choose to stand outside – are still included, and have been already – and that the door is open for them to enter in and join the celebration.
I am hopeful because, while there may be gates for Heaven, they are depicted as always open, day and night. They never close. Her gates never shut. The Spirit and the Bride cry, “Come! All who are thirsty, come!”
For those of you who still want labels, Brad Jersak offers one that I think fits well, then, for where I am landing – “Hopeful Inclusionist.”
So, “What the Hell?”
While I cannot be certain that “hell” is a literal, eternal place or not, I am confident that in the afterlife, it is not an eternal Auschwitz, and now reject that idea. Is there a “place” that stubborn refusers of God’s already given Love exist? There may be. It seems it’s called, “outside the gates/house/party.” But as C.S. Lewis said, those who remain in this denial are self-condemned, self-judged, and self-tormented – not from God. They remain darkened in the mind, enemies with God in their own thinking, and naive to their redeemed innocence.
The doors of hell are locked on the inside.” – C.S. Lewis
I don’t see those who reject God’s Love having an end, either. They may indeed be “tossed into the Lake of Fire,” but what is the Fire, and what is consumed there? I am hopeful that God, Himself, is the eternal Fire. He is the Lake. Death and Hades and Hell are tossed into God’s own self, His own purifying, white-hot Love, and what is consumed is all that is of the ego, the false, Adamic self that has yet to be “judged.” What remains is pure gold.
To those who know God’s Love, His Fire is bliss. To those who don’t know God’s Love, His Fire is torment. He is the Fire, and His Fire is Love, either way. We all pass through the Fire – it is only a matter of how we experience It.
So, in terms of an afterlife perspective, that is how I see “hell.” But what about now? I began this muse with a reflection on “Heaven” and “Hell” being more than future, eternal destinations (and dualistically, the only two), that awaits all of mankind. I said that both are also present day realities that we manifest and live out of based on belief or unbelief.
In this way, I strongly believe in a “hell.” I’ve been “there.” I’ve experienced it.
“Hell” is attempting to exist apart from Existence Himself. It is living from a lie independence, of the ego, the false self, and Adam.
It is believing yourself to lack, to be separated, to have need, and in effort to belong or have worth. It is failing to see redeemed innocence and inherent identity.
It is un-beleif.
It is the satanic mechanism of desire, rivalry, mimicking the other and violence. It is pointing the finger at another to accuse or shift blame. It is offering the scapegoat. It is responding to violence with violence. It is trusting in principalities and powers such as governments and institutions and establishments and nation state empires.
It is creating idols and relying on false gods. It is living in worship to gods apart from the One True God, and it is especially living in worship of the god of self.
It is the place that we create to put people we don’t like. It is the projection of our own hate upon someone else. It is using God to justify these.
Yes, I know outer darkness. I know weeping and gnashing of teeth. I know death, hades and the grave. I know the Valley of Torment. I’ve lived it. I bet you have too.
Most ideas of “hell” are medieval fiction or influenced by Dante’s inferno. But there is something horrid that is very real when we reject God’s Love. Make no mistake. “Hell” is real, and in many cases, has real-life, real-time consequences to yourself and others that can be worse than eternal suffering or ceasing to exist. Sometimes our self-created “hell” here in this life makes us wish we could simply cease to exist.
But God loves His kids too much for that. This is what makes what He did in Christ so much more glorious. It was more than an “afterlife elevator switcheroo.” It was “Salvation” in the here and now, over and over and over and over again – every time His Life and Love and Forgiveness is trusted in, and died into. Heaven is indeed to be experienced now. “Hell” too. It’s our choice, either way.
Fire? I know Fire as well. Haha. Gloriously, I know Fire. I even welcome It. Fire burns when It is consuming that which is not really you. Fire comforts and is the Light of Life and Love Itself when It has revealed that which is really you.
Thomas Merton said,
Our God…is a consuming fire. And if we, by love, become transformed into Him and burn as He burns, His fire will be our everlasting joy. But if we refuse His love and remain in the coldness of sin and opposition to Him and to other men then will His fire (by our own choice rather than His) become our everlasting enemy, and Love, instead of being our joy, will become our torment and our destruction.“
So, “What the Hell?” In this sense, “hell” can be God’s own Self, His Fire. “Heaven” is the very substance of “hell.” When we are cast into the “Lake” of God’s own Love, death of the counterfeit and temporal is consumed, and out of the ashes and the smoke emerge the True and Eternal, us.
We can experience this relatively “painlessly” now, or with more “purifying” later. But I hope and trust that, emerge we will.
We will rise, all of us.
And that, is Good News.
You can’t be more loving than God; it’s not possible! If you understand God as Trinity—the fountain fullness of outflowing love, relationship itself—there is no possibility of any hatred in God. Finally, God—who is Love—wins. And we’re all saved by mercy. Knowing this ahead of time gives us courage, so we don’t need to live out of fear, but from love. To the degree you have experienced intimacy with God, you won’t be afraid of death because you’re experiencing the first tastes and promises of heaven in this world.” – Richard Rohr
To end, after studying this subject, I want to repeat (because it bears repeating) that I love God (Trinity) more than when I began. I love myself, and I love you more, too. Why? Because I see that fear and death need not be the motivation, ever, and fear and death are where all forms and understandings of “hell” live. They are all a lie. Instead, I’m choosing Love and Life. These are Truth. These are God (Trinity). These are you. These are me. They are the anti-lie, and they are “Heaven.”
They are to be lived in and from, now, and manifested into the earth for all.
No matter where you fall on the “hell” doctrine, won’t you agree in this, and join me in choosing Love and Life?
You may just find “hell” disappears in the Fire of that Holy choice.