There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” — C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
A boy in my daughter’s school class once told her, “I want to go to hell because you get doughnuts. In heaven you only get cupcakes.”
It was second-grade nonsense, but it understandably bothered her that someone would “want” to go to hell.
I realized that I didn’t know what I’d say if someone asked me what I believed hell was or who (if anyone) was going there. I realized that I was embarrassed of hell.
It can’t be healthy to feel uncomfortable with a major tenet of your religion, so I determined to make my peace with hell one way or another.
When I went back to the Gospels, specifically looking for references to hell and eternal agony, I was surprised by the harsh Jesus I encountered. He had no problem handing out threats.
Of course, many of these consequences come out of his parables, so they can’t be taken literally.
Jesus was fond of both hyperbole and metaphor in his teaching, and his “blazing furnace” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth” are no exceptions.
The word “hell” itself raises questions. It is used to translate the Greek word Gehenna, which was a valley outside Jerusalem. Human sacrifice was believed to have taken place there in Old Testament times. It was also a sort of garbage dump where refuse, dead animals and even the bodies of criminals were burned.
To Jesus’ listeners, gehenna personified everything that was unclean, vile and accursed.
When Jesus threatens wrongdoers with being thrown into gehenna, he could have been using it in the same way we invoke Timbuktu or Siberia to conjure a specific concept (remote and very far away).
As I considered my established images and perceptions of hell, I was overwhelmed by Jesus’ consistent message of impending judgment.
Over and over in his parables the master (or king or bridegroom) returns to dole out punishment or reward.
Jesus may be alluding to an actual single moment in time (his second coming) or the ongoing reality that our daily decisions have consequences. Or maybe both.
The message of all the dire warnings is the same either way: There will be a reckoning.
Significantly, at these moments of judgment there are usually two distinct sides. You are either wicked or righteous. A goat or a sheep.
Anabaptists tend to emphasize the importance of “works” in the Christian life, perhaps too much at times. But there is biblical backing for this.
In Matthew, Mark and Luke, people are always “sent to hell” because of their actions.
The Gospel of John comes as a relief with its focus on eternal life and the singular belief by which it is attained.
Does anyone ever get comfortable with the idea of hell? Is there a satisfactory way to explain that after death there is no more forgiveness?
When asked, “Why do children suffer?” I say, “I don’t know.”
“Is Gandhi in hell?” I say, “I don’t know.”
Perhaps that’s wishy-washy, but it’s the most authentic and honest response I’ve got.
What I do know is that each person’s behavior, beliefs, life and loyalty will be called into account. And there are consequences.
I find peace in God’s justice — and his mercy.
Besides, I’ve never been a big doughnut fan. I’m at peace eating cupcakes.
Sarah Kehrberg lives in Swannanoa, N.C., and attends Asheville Mennonite Church.