A Better Way To Talk About Hell

Damon Linker laments that “the way many American Christians think and talk about hell” keeps those who might otherwise embrace the faith, especially young people, from doing so:

[T]he most theologically cogent view of hell found in classical Christianity maintains that it is the state Andrea_di_bonaiuto,_cappellone_degli_spagnoli_05of mind (or soul) of someone who is alienated from God. Living a life that is out of harmony with God is painful, and to die and be confronted so decisively with the error of your ways — to be made to see that you made a wreck of your life by separating yourself from God, and to have to learn to shatter your pride by reforming yourself in his divine presence — is, one imagines, excruciating. But it is intrinsically painful, not externally imposed by torturers in some fire-and-brimstone-filled dungeon.

Or in the words of theologian David Bentley Hart, “What we call hell is nothing but the rage and remorse of the soul that will not yield itself to love.” In refusing to “open itself to the mercy and glory of God, the wrathful soul experiences the transfiguring and deifying fire of love not as bliss but as chastisement and despair.”

This is what hell must be if God is truly good.

I, for one, find this far more plausible than the popular vision of hell as a torture chamber run by sadistic demons. And I suspect that at least some young religious skeptics might, too, if only committed Christians would rise to the challenge of making the case.

Jonathan Merritt finds that some shifts already are underway, claiming that “many Christians have begun to refine their message to attract new followers and not repel skeptics,” and so downplaying the idea of a literal hell. One reason why:

[One reason] people are hesitant to discuss hell, [pastor Brian] Jones says, is because the only people who talk about it are hateful Christians like those associated with Westboro Baptist Church and “creepy Christians that no one wants to hang out with.” By contrast, he says, most modern believers want to be perceived as kind, loving, and gracious.

“There aren’t very many models out there for how to talk about hell winsomely, so Christians are frozen in their tracks. It’s hard to do something when you haven’t seen it modeled well,” says Jones.

Jason Boyett, author of “Pocket Guide to the Afterlife.” Echoes Jones’s sentiment: “I think some people hesitate to talk about hell because they don’t want to continue to deliver only bad news instead of something that is encouraging and inspiring. The existence of hell is difficult and a challenging part of Christian theology. If you think too much about it, it is really kind of frightening.”

(Image: Andrea di Bonaiuto’s “Descent of Christ to Limbo” via Wikimedia Commons)