Many people have wrestled and struggled with the Christian doctrine of hell. That some would be excluded from the presence of a God who is good, even if those people had not professed faith in said God, has caused many a furrowed brow and plaintive heart saying "But God, surely you're forgiving enough to let even that one guy into heaven also?"
I had always hoped that maybe at some point those people who did not love God would come to do so when fully in His presence. Maybe on their death beds there is some sort of eye-opening universal experience that removes all doubt and unites all people?
Of course, these considerations are nothing new.
The issue of who exactly winds up in heaven or hell is debated among humans, too often with far too little humility.
And to be honest, I'm not writing here to defend my particular view. I want to delve into the other side of life and give some serious thought to hell as a concept to be denied. For a few weeks ago I took a friend down this road and it was enlightening.
John Lennon expressed this alternative view of life and death well:
Imagine there's no Heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today
As one who has lived and hoped that the afterlife would make sense of the gross injustices, the first line of this song has always bothered me. Imagine no final reconciliation of those who were tortured and mocked with a loving God? Imagine the scales of justice being horribly skewed towards evil? No thanks, my gut would say. At the same time, that there is no hell appeals to base emotions as well. Living for today is a solution to dealing with the complexities of tomorrow.
Of course, tomorrow has a way of becoming today, so living for today per se cannot be the way.
And so we can see that the denial of the basic Christian scheme of heaven and hell has its own appeals and its own detrimental aspects.
For years I had left this comparison at such a coarse focus. It was one day while philosophizing and smoking cigars that this principle was zoomed into sharper focus, and as usual I was humbled by the clarity of thinking about issues on a simple level.
The conversation began with me discussing my openness to non-Christians going to heaven, which is part and parcel of my growing Catholicism. I thought that this friend who is skeptical of Christianity in general would be pleased to hear that there is a variety of opinions on the matter of hell within the community of believers. But I found that this was not true.
My interlocutor asked me to defend the notion of hell, using similar arguments as those that I just mentioned. Is it fair for so and so to go to hell? What about this religion and that? How dare Christians presume to consign a single soul to the flames of hell? Aren't we all made in the image of God? Doesn't He therefore love us all and why wouldn't he save a drowning soul?
It was at that moment that the words of John Lennon came back to me.
I quoted Lennon in the most unintelligibly intelligible manner possible, but my voice was nonetheless clear.
For the scratchy-voiced Beatle (who had nothing on Paul, to bring up an even more unrelated debate) speaks through his grave as a prophet of our modern mindset. Our 21st century digital thoughts claim to be a warmer and gentler view than the "barbarism" of Christianity.
But what of this claim, that the grave brings nothingness?
It was so clear to me at that moment that even if Christianity leads people to say that some go to hell (in varying numbers, depending on your flavor of faith), that what the song Imagine brings us is a world where we are all damned to hell.
Is not hell the separation of a soul from God? If we have denied our soul, we have denied that we ever were close to God. And even when we say that "today" matters, if tomorrow wipes away today, our existence is as meaningful as the sand on the beach. Traceless we ebb away and are forgotten if there is no one to remember us.
Thus, we are all separated from God and each other if we do not exist beyond the grave. So I hope that if I have accomplished anything in this post, that this somewhat rambling thought will lead you to remember that if you do believe in heaven and hell and find your picture of the universe challenged due to "cruelty", remember that your view envisages less people in hell than those who deny the afterlife. For that is the most damning view of all.