Sunday, June 17, 2007

Hell's Problems: An Advocacy of Universal Reconciliation and a Personal History of Reconciliation

The concept of hell has often been an issue of intellectual and spiritual discordance in my life. In my formative years, I was presented with a paradox that I would not acknowledge or face for quite some time. I was constantly reminded of God's love, patience, and grace, and told that I (and all of humanity) was loved beyond a mortal understanding of what love is. Conversely, I was also presented with the notion that this being of infinite love also had no qualms about eternally torturing His children for succumbing to their nature.
In my early teens, not only did this crush my faith, but it actually led to my championing of agnosticism. The Problem of Evil, and most notably, The Problem of Hell, was too much for my weak theological foundations to bear, as the Pentecostal environment in which I grew up never actually advocated thoughtful and reasonable understanding of Christianity, but rather a thoughtless and reasonless understanding of Christianity based entirely on emotion without substance. Ironically, this version of Christianity so steeped in emotion asked of its adherents to focus on very few emotions: we were to love God and we were to fear God with no questions permissable. This church was steeped in American Fundamentalist Christian culture, but never stopped to ponder if this culture did more harm than good.
After I walked away from Christianity, I felt intellectually free for the first time. Little did I know that this intellectual freedom was not because I no longer acknowledged God. Rather, I felt free because I was no longer held within the idelogical confines of that particular church, in which God had been replaced with a culture of self-imposed ignorance and a vehemence toward the progressive. Now, several years of individual study and introspection have led me back to Christianity, but on very different terms. I now realize that faith and intellect aren't mutually exclusive; they must be inherently entwined.
Thus, with this combination of faith and intellect, I felt confident enough to face The Problem of Hell directly. The idea of universal reconciliation was a beacon amidst the fog of my own spiritual anguish. This idea was first presented to me in The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. Prior to reading Lewis' novel, the idea of a non-eternal hell never crossed my mind due to my experiences growing up in a Pentecostal environment.

From Wikipedia's plot summary of The Great Divorce:

"The narrator is met by the writer George MacDonald, whom he hails as his mentor, just as Dante did when encountering Virgil in the Divine Comedy; and MacDonald becomes the narrator's guide in his journey, just as Virgil became Dante's. MacDonald explains that it is possible for a soul to choose to remain in Heaven despite having been in the grey town; for such souls, their time in Hell has been purgatory, and the goodness of Heaven will work backwards into their lives, turning even their worst sorrows into Joy, and changing their experience on earth to an extension of heaven. Conversely, the evil of Hell works backwards also, so that if a soul remains in, or returns to, the grey town, even its happiness on Earth will lose its meaning, and its experience on Earth would have been Hell. None of the ghosts realize that the grey town is, in fact, Hell. Indeed it is not that much different from the life they led on Earth: joyless, friendless and uncomfortable. It just goes on forever, and gets worse and worse, with many characters whispering their fear of the "night" that is to eventually come.

According to "MacDonald", Heaven and Hell cannot coexist in a single soul, and while it is possible to leave Hell and enter Heaven, doing so implies turning away (repentance); or as depicted by Lewis, giving up paltry worldly pleasures — which have become impossible for the dead anyway — and embracing ultimate and unceasing Joy itself."

Lewis' novel helped me realize that hell could not possibly be eternal if there is a benevolent God. Thus, I've become an advocate of universal reconciliation. I believe that everyone will ultimately atone for their sins on Earth, but it most certainly will not be eternal. I accept that some form of hell must exist--otherwise there would be no justice. However, I doubt that hell is the fiery pit in the depths of the Earth, as painted so vividly by works of fiction. I imagine that hell would be not a place, but a spiritual state; a state of separation from God's love. God's love is not always so obvious on Earth, but it is always inherent, regardless of our acknowledgment. However, in this spiritual state of hell, one would actually feel an internal void left unfilled. Of course, God's love for that particular individual would still exist, but this feeling of separation acts to exist as punishment. Ultimately, a time of realization would come, where one would finally understand and work to repair this rift in personal relationship with God, thus atoning for their sins and finding perspective on their relationship with God all at once, ultimately walking a path to heaven.

Thus, as C.S. Lewis said in The Great Divorce regarding the gates of hell: they are locked from the inside.

1 comment:

Tyler said...

So good to read this! Keep it up man.
One question however, do you think it possible that some people are so prideful, so hateful, in fact so want there to be no God, that they would never repent, even in the emptiness of hell?