Hell is really bad. Thanks Captain Obvious, I know I know. But one would think that hell is so terribly horribly painfully bad that no one would ever want to go there.
Recently, Dr. Justin Bass (1042 Church) debated Dan Barker (Freedom From Religion Foundation) on whether Jesus is Lord or Legend. In that intriguing debate Barker took most every swipe at God-belief he could till, in the closing minutes, he conceded that if God exists and God made hell then he’d willingly choose hell.
Why Would Anyone Choose Hell?
This is the very heart of hell doctrine, not that there’s a place of torment for nonbelievers in the afterlife–that’s true too–but rather that people will prefer it over heavenly fellowship with God. It’s an important part of the doctrine of hell that people aren’t just sent to hell by a malevolent deity but rather people commission themselves for hell by rejecting their benevolent heavenly Father. That anyone would prefer hell over heaven, however, seems odd, even ridiculous.
Yet, it’s not surprising to hear Barker say this since he’s been saying this at least since his 1992 book Losing Faith in Faith. He says, “Speaking for myself, if the biblical heaven and hell exist, I would choose hell. Having to spend eternity pretending to worship tyranny would be more hellish than baking in eternal flames. There is no way a Bully will earn my worship” (pg. 331).
Now Barker’s confession is soaked with emotion laden moral indignation. There is, of course, a deeper question here about God’s character and how God could be “all good” and yet create a place of eternal torment? That’s a good question somewhere in line with the Problem of Evil or even the Problem of Suffering. I don’t intend to “solve” the problem of hell here, so this bigger set of questions will have to wait.
On the doctrine of hell, though, it would seem odd for an all-good God to even make such a place except that some folks don’t want heaven. Some folks would rather feel “right” than happy. Some folks prefer their white knuckled grip on pride rather than humble contentment. Some folks would rather reject the only rightful King than admit that, in reality, they are subjects. Some folks believe intractably that they could do a better job in God’s throne than God does. Some folks don’t just reject God, they hate the idea of Him. Barker’s righteous indignation sounds kind of compelling, and if the story of human history ended in this chapter of the book, his presumptuous bluster might even sound persuasive.
But let’s look away from Barker for a moment and imagine what kind of argument the Devil might muster when standing before the judgment seat of Christ. Do we dare assume that the Devil can’t muster a rational-sounding argument to explain why his moral compass is better aligned than God’s? I don’t think reason, logic and rationality are on his side, nor do I think they are on Barker’s side, but I am saying that they do their moral calculations without factoring in submission to the only hope of transcendent moral goodness. Their rationality is intrinsically skewed because they are trying to complete the moral puzzle without the centerpiece. They want a quaint home without the only foundation available. The only abode they can abide is the lonely solace of their one-man kingdoms.
In a more humorous light, it’s jokingly said that if you can barely endure one hour praying and singing to God it would be torture to have to do that all the time. Folks like Barker prefer the self directed torment of hell over an eternity in heaven. He will not believe in a benevolent King, so he’s left with only the option to flee perceived tyranny.
What Is Hell?
What kind of place is there outside of God’s heavenly kingdom? What is hell?
Metaphysically speaking, theologians debate over how concrete-tangible hell will be. Some good theologians think most of the descriptors are metaphorical but some real sense of a place called hell remains. I tend to think it’s more literal than that. While my position is a little harder to jive with our intuitions, it’s not impossible.
Perhaps hell is nothing more than people getting what they want when they don’t want God. God’s fellowship and gracious protection is removed and every cell in their body now undergoes true independence from God’s sustaining grace. There is no more divine intervention to occasionally penetrate the clouds with rays of light, hope, comfort, peace, or joy. There is only a total independence which, although that may sound like liberation, is actually anarchic destruction in perpetuity. The darkness of hell is the lack of God’s light. The isolation of hell is the lack of God’s fellowship. The burning and rot is one’s eternal decay down to a cellular level when God no longer sustains your orderly existence.
Hell is a fierce and difficult doctrine and I understand why many people have a problem accepting it. Nevertheless when we study our very own souls and see what recalcitrant pride hides inside, the doctrine of hell makes a little more sense.