What The Hell?

In order to raise enough money to be able to attend my Yearly Meeting’s annual sessions at the end of this month, I offered to have sponsored blog posts through a GoFundMe campaign.  So many people where so extremely generous in their financial and spiritual support of me, and this positing will be in response to the first query that a sponsor and friend sent to me:

**TRIGGER WARNING** If mentions about Hell touch a very tender or raw part of your heart, or violent images upset you, this blog post is one to not read.

Query: “You are a Christian who doesn’t believe in Hell.  For myself, losing belief in Hell was the first step in losing faith in all of it.  Since non-believers can be just as good as Christians, why have you maintained your Christian faith in spite of losing your belief in Hell?”


Nice and easy question right? Haha…remember that fear I mentioned in my first blog post ever about having something I write being quote mined and held against me forever? Well I have a feeling that this blog is going to cause that…coming from a few different angles. But whateves….I’m not writing this because I hope to convince anyone of anything, or because I want to preach.  So without further ado...we are going to go here together dear readers...

“There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end.”
-James Nayler

I’ve described Quakerism before as a balm that has healed parts of my soul that where left terribly damaged by my previous faith system.  Its been a lot of fun to grow into a new tradition and be able to re-explore parts of my mind that had been walled off and sealed…like the mine in Back to the Future III where the DeLorean was buried…but back to Quakers! There will be an inventible moment, when I am having conversations with people about Quakerism and we’re done with the fun parts, that the question will be asked:

“What do Quakers think about Hell?”

Aww crap…well its time to use some dramatic hand gestures to help make this response clear.

“Ummm…well Quakers are really all (**wave hands wildly**) over the map on that one.  I’ve known Friends from all three of the branches that believe in Hell and don’t believe in Hell.  Most of my peer group within my own Yearly Meeting don’t necessarily believe in Hell, and they don’t really bring that up much with older Friends who do.  However, even with the Quakers who may hold notions of an eternal Hell, I feel like talk about the afterlife is hardly as much of a focus as it is in other denominations, as we are pretty concerned with how the  Spirit would have us live in this life.”

This is often met with a somewhat wide-eyed and appalled face by Christians who have very clear understandings of an afterlife, and a bit of a confused face by atheists or folks from a different faith tradition.  The follow up question though is usually always…

“Ok, so what do you think about Hell? 

Aww crap…time to shove my hands into my back-pockets and look sheepishly at the ground.

“Well I don’t believe in an eternal Hell at all.”

Whhhaaaaa??? An Evangelical Quaker who doesn't believe in Hell?? How can this beeeeeee!!!!

Oh…it wasn’t always that way though dear readers, want to revisit those memories for a bit with me? 


(Hmmm…We may have to blast!)

I remember on my summer vacations growing up that there would always be two constants that I could count on.  One being that I would be spending a week away at Boy Scout Camp, and the other being that I would be spending a week at the Apostolic Faith Youth Camp.  

This story will be about the later. 

Most of the time at Youth Camp was great!  It was fun to show up early in the morning to the church with our sleeping bags and other camp gear.  Before I’d throw my luggage into the carrier truck I’d always rip my new disposable camera out of its packaging to shove into my jacket. (disposable camera?…holy cow I’m old)

I’d give my mom a hug goodbye and then load up onto a big schoolbus. We’d start singing “V is for Victory” by the time the bus would roll into the driveway of the camp.  My cabin mates were usually all friends who I’d known my whole life at AF, or kids who where coming from other churches within the denomination, and my camp counselors were always great guys.  The days were filled with time spent around the swimming lake, watersides, sports tournaments, boardgames, practical jokes, concession stand runs (mmmm…ranch flavored corn nuts), and arts and crafts….I really rocked that arts and crafts cabin back in the day!

There would always be a point though, after dinner was over and the flag was lowered…that I would dread.

Chapel time.  

We would usually make our way to the chapel as the sun was setting, it was a long dull green building, that seemed a little unfinished because the inside walls were just bare wood.  There was a half circle of a couple hundred metal folding chairs that surrounded a small stage with a screen.  I knew that after all the songs were over, that there would be a terrifying message and alter call coming my way.  One evening though stands out in particular for me, when all of us where shown a video.

The lights were dimmed and the image that was projected onto the screen was that of a fire, like you were staring directly into a burning furnace.  Then came a disembodied voice, the voice of a child…

His voice was whimpering, terrified, and he told the viewer how he had died.  The voice was supposed to be a friend of ours.  

He said how he was experiencing a pain unlike anything he imagined before, how it was pure agony,  and how there were others around him who were screaming.  


Towards the end of his monologue, he asked why we didn’t tell him about Jesus when we had the chance to? If we knew that this was what was waiting for him, why didn’t we tell our own friend how to avoid it?

Why didn’t you tell me about Jesus before it was too late?!

That chapel was full of hundreds of kids, the youngest of which being in the 4th grade, and now we were all guilty of playing a part in the damnation of our friends due to our inability to tell them about how to be saved.  There were multiple adults in the room…I wonder how it was that none of them thought that showing us Letters From Hell was a bad idea.  

I. was. scarred. shitless.

I cried. I cried because of how much I was failing my friends, and because of how much I was failing God.  I was weeping, along with so many other children, at the altars that night.  I probably prayed until well after midnight…praying for the strength to always be able to tell people about how to be saved no matter how embarrassed I might be.

Hmm…dear readers I’m shaking my head over my keyboard as I typed that out, because that whole memory reeks of child abuse to me.  

Now back to the present. (I hope by now you’ve gotten accustomed to all the time leaps I make in these posts…I have a feeling thats kind of going to be my style.) 

So I’m asked now if there is no Hell I’m avoiding, why do I bother?

Well…when I think about it now, I feel like its easy to identify a particular aspect of my faith as a child.  I stopped being a Christian when I was 18, but I don’t think it was because I lost my faith in Jesus.  I never had real faith in Jesus. 

I only had real faith in Hell.

Hell was a for-sure, a guarantee one way or the other, a rock that I could build a theology around and justify myself through. 

I was or wasn’t going to Hell.

Catholics were of course going to Hell.

Some Jews might get the chance to not go to Hell....maybe.

Sin once and you will go to Hell.

Everyone would have a chance to hear about Jesus and avoid Hell.

Children who died before the age-of-accountability would be spared from Hell.

Gay people all would go to Hell.

Jesus was more or less a get-out-of-the-oven-free card…or a creepy painting on the wall that the ethnic stereotype children could prance up to. 

Am I making sense? I really think that a Hell-centric theology best describes my faith growing up.  Now of course I would have never described myself that way back then, I would have told you that I loved Jesus and accepted Him as my personal Lord and Savior and would spend eternity in Heaven with him….gee sure does sound nice don’t it? Ha….

Now, out of ALL of the blog posts that I have written, far and away the most controversial one, the one that has made me receive the most private “concerned messages sent in love” was my post called Lets Play Truth Monopoly.  I hinted there that I may not believe in an eternal punishment called Hell.  You know what that makes me think? A whole lot of other Christians out there are stuck in a hell-centric theology.  

Quick semi-related thought experiment. Close your eyes for five second and imagine Hell….

What did it look like?

Something like this?




Or maybe this?



Did it have any of these guys? 


Well for all the Bible-believing Christian readers in the room, hate to be the one to bust this bubble, but that imagery isn’t cannon.  99% of that is Dante….Dante isn’t cannon…sorry.  Its a shame and an embarrassment that that junk has so completely infected the Church’s consciousness about Hell. 

The concerned messages I get usually are quick to agree with me that God is a loving God, but then ask me if I don’t think that God is a just God?

M’kay, well I do think She is just, go on.

Well then shouldn’t Hitler be in Hell? What about child rapists?  What about sociopathic sadists who have locked people in dungeons for years? What about sex traffickers? If God is just then how could these people enjoy paradise huh?! Whats the point of Jesus then huh?!?!

*sigh*….ok, well what I’m hearing you say is that you have a great concern about God’s justice.  However, everything that you are describing to me…sounds a lot like your justice.

A justice system that you would set up.

Now in my assessment, an infinite punishment for a finite crime is by definition, immoral.  

I’ll say what I’ve said to multiple people who try to push this issue with me, and sorry if it sounds harsh, but a god who is in the business of throwing people into eternal punishment, is a sociopath who is not worthy of being praised.

We are told that to love one another is the fulfillment of the entirety of the law.  We are told that God is Love.

God is boundless Love.  

In my mind, an eternal Hell necessitates having a belief in a point existing that is beyond the scope of God’s grace.  I’m at the point now where God’s grace is limitless.  It still shocks me sometimes, and is at other points deeply unsatisfying, but nothing has breathed more life into my faith then that point alone. 

No one. Ever. Is beyond God’s grace. Period.

I’m also asked why I bother with Christianity, if there is no way to be morally superior to someone else.

Well…anyone who knows me much knows I don’t bother much about being superior to other people in any area, I really don’t care.  So, now that I’ve been able to rebuild a faith that is centered around Christ, not Hell, it has become deeply life giving.  I’m fascinated and challenged by this Christ who is alive and still teaching, and I feel like I’m doing the best that I can do when I live into those teachings. 

I pray that my compassion for my fellow human would’t be affected at all by what you believe, who you are, what you’ve done or haven’t done, what you “deserve” or don’t deserve.

Now that sounds all nice, but in practice is really friggin hard! When someone bashes me and my community…well for a microsecond it would be nice to imagine a way for God to intervene and send some “justice” their way. 

That is my way though, and it may be satisfying, but it isn’t grace. 

Finding ways to love my enemies has completely destroyed my formulas for justice, but it has also created some unexpected friends and allies along they way.  

Now if  belief in an eternal Hell still holds an appeal for you, I’d offer this note of caution to take or leave.  Is it possible to invite that belief into your heart, without also bringing aboard something else with it?  Something that nurtures something…less than good…within you?  I leave that for your consideration.

Now we’ve reached the point in the blog where I reveal the big surprise plot twist….

I believe in Hell.

(You’re now thinking…wait what? You said earlier that you didn’t believe in that at all? I’m so confused)

Haha…ok maybe thats a little coy of me, but allow me to unpack.

I don’t believe in a cray cray eternal punishment fire party called Hell, but I believe in separation from God, and I call that Hell.

(ummm…A.J. I’m very confused now)

Have you ever heard people say “war is Hell”?…well in my mind that is a lot closer to the truth than just a simple allusion. 

War, wherein people dehumanize others, destroy and mutilate other life, seems about as far away from God as what I can imagine.  

Vietnam, Hell in all of its terror
Nazi Germany, Hell in all of its inhumanity
Apache attack helicopter in Iraq, Hell in all of its brutality
Syrian Civil War, Hell in all of its destruction



This is the Hell that is very real to me, and what I believe in.  The Hell that exists when someone is being raped, murdered, or otherwise brutalized.  This is the Hell that I pray the work in my life will play a small part in ending, the Hell that I pray will end whenever I pray “Thy Kingdom come”.

Its not a punishment to avoid.  It is a thing to drive far away, and the way that I’ve found helps me is by minding the Light.  My faith is alive and is life giving!  My God is not a monster waiting to dole out divine justice.  Losing a belief in Hell and finding a faith in the Light has been the most incredible and unexpected journey I’ve ever taken.  I’m mindful of places where Hell exists, but Hell will never again inform the core of my faith or how I see the world.  




19 comments:

  1. Well done, I believe that with every grace made real we freeze a tiny bit of hell. Freezing hell completely over is our task. It is doable.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Peggy : ) I couldn't agree more.

      Delete
  2. Okay. A point of clarification, I think. It is unfortunate (though it makes for a curious point about the human race) that Dante's portrayal of hell is where Christians pull their imagery from, but Dante's Inferno is NOT junk.

    On a different note, once I read the final portion of your post, I think I may be much in agreement with you, A.j. I definitely believe in a 'hell' that makes for a separation from God--either a permanent one or a temporary one, I'm not sure. And I believe that only happens when someone intentionally separates from God. But like most of us Quakers, I don't flesh that out much because I don't see it as something I need to focus on, and if I'm wrong about it, I'm totally fine with that. I'm responsible for showing the world who Jesus is through my behavior and actions, but I'm not responsible for people's salvation. That's how I see things, at least.

    Thanks for this post!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Haha...good catch Krissi! Yeah I definitely didn't mean to say that Inferno as a literary work was junk, more speaking to the affect it had on Christian thought.

      Yes we are responsible for loving our neighbor! Not "saving" their souls...wish I could go back in time and tell my younger self that X P

      Thanks for reading!

      Delete
  3. Well said, A.J. For many years my friends and acquaintances were chasing me and telling me about Jesus and a God who would forgive my sins. I started to believe a bit, and was growing in faith, but was often appalled by what people did in the name of Jesus. I was sort of on speaking terms, but very tentative in my faith. My mother killed herself in 1983. The pastor that did her funeral told us, bold-faced, that my mother was in hell for killing herself. That was my ground zero. It was horrible. I told God that if that was true I wanted NOTHING to do with him/her. If it wasn't true, s/he would have to show me, teach me, enlighten me. And God did so. Over the next few years, I was hospitalized with lupus and kidney failure multiple times. I nearly died multiple times. It was during the times of being near death, that Jesus sat with me, held me, spoke to my heart. Our speech was not English-- or any verbal language. It was our hearts speaking directly to each other. We were connected, and we understood each other. Jesus showed me that he did understand and share my pain. Jesus assured me that my mother was in heaven, and waiting there for me. That all her pain had ended and that she is now healed. I understood that the heart connection I shared with Jesus, s/he also shared with Jesus. People have asked me how I could " possibly know that it was Jesus? " I do not have a definitive answer for that question, except I have no doubt whatsoever, that it was Jesus. The most difficult bit after being healed physically was the excruciating pain of not having that powerfully strong connection with Jesus. It took me a couple of years to stop being angry with him for showing me the reality of full connection, and then taking it from me. But I believed even when I was angry. God is. God is good. God is loving, forgiving, merciful, full of grace and beauty and pure, strong, nothing can overcome it LOVE. As I have grown in my faith since then, I believe my experience was real and truthful because it is still LIFE GIVING! You see, I hope Hitler and the abusers, murderers, and people who have committed horrible atrocities ARE in heaven. Otherwise, there is no hope for me or anyone I love. Thanks A.J. Hell is not the core of my faith or my experience of the world. I love you, you are a Light of God. Thank you for sharing your Light.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey Alivia thanks for the thoughtful reply! I'm very sorry to hear about your mother :' ( I can't imagine how hard that must have been...and then to have a person calling themselves a pastor say that to you...just terrible.

      I'm glad that even in our own places of pain, we were both able to have our conditions spoken to. I love you and am thankful for your ministry Friend : )

      Delete
  4. Flapping hands with enthusiastic approval: Well done, A.J. The part that most parallels my experience is that Jesus asks us to live the eternal holy life of which Naylor speaks right here, right now, to love each other and to love God and base our actions in the world on that alone, that's all. I am confident that at the end of our run we will encounter a loving God in a love filled place and there will be some loving sort of accountability. Further speculation about the future only distracts us from our work. Well will find out about that soon enough.
    My hope is to be able to live so that I can say, like a twinkly old traveling Quaker lady some years ago replied to a question about what she thought would happen after she died (which would not be far off): "I have absolutely no idea, but I can hardly wait to find out."
    Love and thanks,
    Joe

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks so much for the comment Joe! I agree that the speculation about what is after seems to be pretty distracting...I can't even begin to put a number on all the hours I spent as a kid stressing out about Hell.
      I love that nugget of wisdom shared by your Friend X ) that is the mindset I hope to approach death with.

      Delete
  5. Joe, I like your old lady friend's quote. I myself have found peace about death by thinking of it in a similar way.

    A.J. - your answer is familiar. Many Quakers answer in similar fashion. My sense is that it comes down to preference. In the absence of evidence that's available for everyone to see or experience, does one prefer to view life through theist lenses or not? And perhaps this is for the best. It leaves modernism behind, and allows people to operate on a preference basis instead of Capital T Truth basis. I'm still struggling to understand post-modern theology, as evangelicalism preaches Capital T Truth in most categories. Faith may leave, but fervert belief in "hard truths that can be known" seems to stay behind. Perhaps the church's greatest sin isn't preaching ridiculous fairy tales. Perhaps it's preaching the notion that there are right answers, there for the smartest of us to discover.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm so glad that we all found some peace in what the older Friend shared!

      Hmm...there is a lot of wisdom to chew on in your response. Without a personal experience, I have no doubt I'd have a different lens. I believe there are "right answers" to seek, like I think treating people equally is a moral "right" answer. However, I'd be hesitant to claim that rightness around every single one of my beliefs, which is a hesitation that I don't think the Church has welcomed in its past. There are so many sins that it is hard for me to choose a greatest, but this has been an interesting blog for me to reflect on the sin of preaching about abusive consequences.

      Delete
  6. And once again, you have beautifully articulated the thoughts I've been mulling over and trying to put to words for years.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks so much Sarai! This question gave me a lot to reflect on, and an Evangelical Quaker author named Phillip Gulley helped me find a lot of these words in a book called "If Grace is True: Why God Will Save Every Person". Its not too long and I highly recommend it if the topic interests you!

      Delete
  7. Thank you for this interesting article. Thankfully I was never exposed to the "letters from hell" type horror that you saw but I nevertheless as a child I had the notion that you had to be a faithful member of the right flavour of religion (which naturally was the one I was brought into) or it was eternal damnation for you! I actually cried when I "realised" that meant my grandparents were no longer faithful churchgoers and therefore hell itself awaited them.

    Later on in life I came to realise that (in spite of impassioned arguments of evangelical Christians to the contrary) ones religion is frequently an accident of birthplace and culture. You might not ever meet someone who would give you a Bible and tell you about their faith. It felt unfair that God (in his wisdom) would just leave such an important thing to sheer luck!

    I met a Muslim at University who told me that he believed you did not have to be Muslim to go to heaven, Allah would judge you on how you have lived your life even if you were a member of another faith. I realised that you'd have to apply the same argument to any other "loving and forgiving God". That was pretty comforting.

    In fact if heaven is the ultimate eternal reward and hell is the ultimate eternal punishment, there is not ONE among us who is good enough for heaven or bad enough for hell. Not Hitler or Mother Thereasa, not you or me. I’m sure that the Divine (in his/her/their/its wisdom) would know.

    If there is divine forgiveness (and I believe there is) then there is no-one in Hell.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No one good enough or bad enough...powerful words friend!

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting : D

      Delete
  8. Personally I try not to project into an afterlife. I find heaven and hell to be a part of our own internal dynamics almost by composition of our lives in the present. I know deceitfulness can feel like hell, and I know we can believe people to be wicked in some sense. I believe we can cure our own hells by accommodations to the present environment, and by stopping the cycles before they burn us alive. I suppose I do believe in a spirit that it returns to the Earth and can resume in the flesh. To me it seems the massive destruction of the hell you depict is not one of moral judgment or a question of humanity but a sadistic assault on human nature. I do not believe gay people go to hell, while there maybe some who would just assume we live in one. I feel the glory of heaven and the descent into hell, begin to cover a very real fact within us, which is that homosexuality is alive, and breathing, and that our present day movement is a salvation to some. It seems very many homosexuals do very well with their own conviction that they will leave no stone left upturned in resolving their own conflicts with being gay.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey Robben thanks for reading the blog and for commenting! I appreciate the little window into some of your thoughts surrounding the whole heaven and hell thingy, and I agree that I try not to spend too much time postulating, far too much stuff to do in the time that I have here!

      Delete
  9. I'm just now discovering this thread, and am profoundly grateful. I want to share this link with some fellow Quakers who endured and survived some of the childhood horrors you so accurately convey here. And the way you describe coming into a personal knowledge of the Loving God, revealed in Jesus as Messiah -- it is touching, it is classic, it is authentic, and it is comforting.
    Thank thee, Friend!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks so much for reading and commenting David! Feel free to share the link with anyone, interestingly, this is my most popular post by far and still gets a pretty regular amount of traffic. I always wonder what the people who stumble across it think after reading!

      Delete
    2. I appreciate your ministry, and look forward to following this blog.
      If you send me your personal e-mail address, I will forward to you some quotes (without names) from several Friends who have already responded to my sharing this link with them. You (or any reader) can write me at: dhfinke@gmail.com

      God Bless!

      —DHF

      Delete

 

Meet The Author