In my last post, I showed how hell can be understood both as destruction and as a state of conscious suffering, but that its ultimate purpose is rehabilitation. I showed how the concept of everlasting conscious torment (ECT) is an aberration from what Jesus really taught, and how hell, while very real, is probably not eternal in the way we usually think of eternity.
When we look at eternity through the teachings of Jesus and the love of God, it would seem that there is always hope – even for those in hell!
Why, then, does Jesus warn us about hell in such stark terms? If there’s always a chance for repentance and renewal, then why the hell?
The way I see it, there are at least three good reasons that Jesus warns us of hell:
One reason we should avoid hell is that it’s exceedingly painful. Even if it doesn’t last forever, the suffering of hell is bad enough that no one should ever want to go through it.
In my struggles with chronic depression, I have gotten a glimpse of what hell is really like. I know what it’s like to be engulfed in a grief and despair so deep that I cannot escape from it, even if I’m drunk or asleep. I know what it’s like to wish for death and not receive it.
I also know what it’s like to be tormented by demonic forces who would like nothing more than to keep me trapped in doubt and fear. And I know what it’s like to feel that this agony will never end.
To say that these experiences are unpleasant would be an incredible understatement. I wouldn’t wish this level of existential misery on anyone, even for a moment!
This is why Jesus tells us that it would be better to cut off an offending eye, or hand, or foot than for our whole body to go to hell.
Think of it like an illness: it’s far better to treat it as soon as the symptoms appear than to wait until things get worse! Likewise, it’s better to take on the comparatively light burden of faith and repentance now, than to endure the more drastic remedy of hell-fire later.
Hell also involves a profound sense of loss. Even if the fires of hell do serve to reconcile some people to God, at least some parts of the person will be destroyed in the process.
Contemporary Westerners tend to think in dualistic terms, seeing people as a body and a soul (or spirit). The New Testament, however, speaks of personhood in five terms: soma (physical body), nous (mind or conscious thoughts), kardia (heart, the center of feelings and emotion), psyche (the soul, or conscious awareness of self), and pneuma (the Spirit, which is eternally linked to God).
The body, as we know, is lost at death and doesn’t return in the same form. But there’s much evidence that the other parts of a person (mind, heart, soul, and especially spirit) live on after what we call “death.”
And this is why Jesus warns us not to fear those who can only kill the body (soma), but to fear the one who can destroy both body and soul (psyche) in hell (Matt 10:28).
The soul, or psyche, is where our conscious sense of self comes from. Another name for it is the ego. When people say “I did this” or “I thought that,” it’s usually the ego that they are referring to.
The ego is neither good nor bad in itself; but it must be kept in check by the rest of the inward person (mind, heart and spirit) for a fruitful life to develop. Left to its own devices, the ego would take over and crush anything that might threaten its desire to rule.
The uncontrolled ego is what the New Testament means when it refers to our “sinful nature” or “the flesh.” It must be converted, or at least kept in place, for us to enjoy communion with God or with other people. If a person’s ego will not be converted, it must be destroyed in order for the spirit to be set free from its imprisonment.
This, then, is what’s destroyed in hell – the ego, otherwise known as individual consciousness (or simply the soul.) And this is a profound loss – especially for those who have spent their entire lives building up the ego!
In the words of Rob Bell, “Jesus makes no promise that in the blink of an eye we will suddenly become totally different people who have vastly different tastes, attitudes, and perspectives. Paul makes it very clear that we will have our true selves revealed and that once the sins and habits and bigotry and pride and petty jealousies are prohibited and removed, for some there simply won’t be much left” (Love Wins, 50).
If a person has spent his or her whole life resisting God, in other words, what makes us so sure they will embrace God after death? Such a person may find it harder, rather than easier, to come into God’s presence at that time – especially if there isn’t much left of this person’s consciousness!
Our souls will be purified, of that we can be sure. But whether that happens gently (through daily surrender to God) or more violently (through the destruction of the ego in hell), is up to us. Our spirits will live forever either way. But it will be far better for us (and everyone else) if we are consciously aware of this.
One final reason for Jesus’ urgency is that much of our suffering here and now can be avoided.
In a very real sense, many are already in hell before they die – already experiencing profound spiritual suffering because of the choices they or others have made, or because they simply aren’t aware of how loved they are by God.
Much of this suffering can be relieved simply by choosing to accept the love God is already showing us.
This kind of acceptance can be difficult at times (hence the language of removing an eye, a hand, or a foot); but it is far preferable to the sort of suffering that comes upon us when we try to “go it alone!”
All of the choices we make in this life have consequences – both for this earthly life, and for whatever lies beyond it. Thus it is vastly important that we choose wisely in this moment, and allow God to change us into more loving, whole people. There may come a day when the choices we have made render such a change impossible!
Nevertheless, I am convinced that God’s last word is always one of hope. Hell will one day come to an end.
Hell is very different from heaven in this regard; for while heaven can be experienced everywhere and in all times, hell is limited to a certain point in time and space. Hell can never truly be “eternal” in the same way heaven is.
While it’s not actually a physical “place,” hell does have a location, so to speak, in the spiritual realm – and a limited one at that.
When we know just where the hell this is, we will be better equipped to avoid it – as well as to help those who are currently in hell to leave it.
(Coming Next – Jesus and Hell, Part Four: Where the Hell? (Gehenna’s “Place” in Eternity)