A reader writes:
There’s a problem with Rob Bell’s critique of Christianity, in particular, this:
This is why lots of people want nothing to do with the Christian faith. They see it as an endless list of absurdities and inconsistencies; and they say: “Why would I ever want to be part of that?”
Not quite. The problem for most people is not the “endless list of absurdities and inconsistencies.” Life is full of those. The problem is the abuse – the horrific emotional and spiritual abuse embodied in the dark twisted theology that says “God is going to send you to hell, unless…” – and all the guilt, shame and fear that comes after. That’s why lots of people want nothing to do with the Christian faith. That‘s why they say: “Why would I ever want to be part of that?”
That seems dead-on to me. Christianity is a contradiction – life through death, getting through giving without wanting to get – that peerlessly, to my mind, makes sense of the inherently contradictory human condition. And the doctrine of hell became a terrible temptation for those with authority in the church to abuse their momentous power over others’ minds and souls.
But here is a confession. I still believe in hell, not as eternal punishment but as a temporal, phenomenological reality. The human soul can indeed enter dark places and find it impossible to return without grace; evil is real; the banishment of God perfectly possible. The terrible loneliness of depression, of lovelessness, of self-hatred is a kind of hell while it lasts (and we can make it last a lifetime). To banish this spiritual despair from theology would be to put on blinders to our predicament. As a child, I found the idea that this despair could be eternal as beyond horrifying. But if “eternal” means we cannot see out of it, then it makes a kind of sense. If we create a hell in our own souls, we may eventually have nowhere else to live. And then we die. That’s the terror. I feel it. But I do not let others use such truths as means to power over me.
The point of Christianity is not that Hell does not exist, but that grace does too. Grace is the awareness that the force behind the universe loves us, redeems us, transforms us. I have felt it at times break into my life and the lives of those I love. It cannot be explained. It can merely be accepted and marveled at.
I should add at this point that I have rarely been as overwhelmed by an aesthetic rendering of grace as I was transfixed the other night by Terrence Malick’s recent film, “The Tree of Life.” It managed both to examine us humans in our microscopic dignity and insignificance and yet connect us to literally everything in existence, and to the good. It did so without hiding from tragedy or grief, which are at the heart of our lives, but relating them to the miracle of grace – mostly beyond words.
It seems to me that the holiest people are far more riveted by Heaven than interested in using Hell for their own purposes. It seems to me that God’s unconditional love cannot end at death. Because we will know then as we are known. And these former things, including the hell we construct for ourselves, will pass away.