Friday, August 28, 2009

The problem with hell for a teenage evangelical



I needed answers to questions that weren’t being asked and I was beginning to sense that, for me at least, some of the answers to those questions that were being asked were seeming just a little too shallow and sometimes dismissive of ones natural intellectual abilities.

I have to confess, I had a little problem with Hell. If we didn’t accept Christ there was only one outcome. Not that the youth leaders or clergy made a big thing about Hell that I can remember. No, it seemed more to be an idea left hanging in the air, the Voldermort of Christianity. We were all aware of it but it was rarely spoken of as sentences trailed off while leaving an inescapable implication echoing in the silence. Of course none of this was helped by the terrifying visions of medieval artists as they struggled to express on canvass an apocryphal idea from print. Yes, the conversations trailed off with a conspiratorial finger to the side of the nose and visions of lakes of fire and eternal agony.

Much better to sing a chorus.

My problem was simple. My dad was a policeman and I knew the theories of punishment: protection of society, rehabilitation, deterrence and of course retribution. I think I understood instinctively that Christian teaching on Hell was in some way linked to the idea of retribution; well it wasn’t going to be linked to rehabilitation was it, what with it being eternal and therefore with no parole to give you the chance to prove that you had been reformed? But I had grown up with another understanding – that of the principle of the punishment fitting the crime. What could anyone do in our insignificant lifespan that could possibly justify eternal torment? So what with it seeming all a bit overblown and out of proportion I felt the doctrine shot itself in the foot rather.

“Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot.” They would say.

Yeah, well maybe.

“Anyway, all sin is sin against God. There is no victimless sin.”

I found it hard to see God as a victim – a generic victim that is not the victim in Jesus on the cross: that was only too real and I understood that bit. God as victim didn’t seem to fit in with Omnipotence and Transcendence and I found it hard to reconcile the idea of an equal punishment for, say, genocide and mild sexual fantasy following reading the inner pages of Playboy Magazine.

Or was it that we were all punished eternally but with different levels of torment? Perhaps if you weren’t that wicked it wouldn’t be the burning flesh falling from your skin and then reappearing only to burn off again in perpetuity. Maybe it would be more like, I don’t know, perpetual repeats of The Antiques Roadshow. Ah, but how would even an Omniscient God be able to distinguish between the various levels of sin? Was muttering darkly at my maths teacher for being obnoxious with me over quadratic equations better or worse than getting away without paying the bus fare to school that morning? And in the cosmic scheme of things did either of them merit that lake of fire and the demonic toasting fork?

“No, what it is, right, is that once you are there you continue to curse God because of the torment and so perpetuate the sin which requires additional punishment. It becomes a cycle.”

“I see.” I didn’t but I was learning not to rock the boat. (I gave that up as I got older.) I just didn’t equate God with being quite so petty and mean-spirited. That’s not to say that I felt we should get away scot-free: after all punishment seems a perfectly reasonable principle and I was eternally grateful to Jesus for taking my sins.

Being a teenager and a Christian, I was beginning to discover, was occasionally the cause of a headache.

Much better to sing a chorus.

“Just trust God. It says in Psalm 11.1 In the Lord put your trust.” I was being told a little too frequently. “Don’t be misled by the wisdom of this age. That is how Satan works to undermine our faith. Remember The Parable of the Sower in Luke 8.”