A Hell of a Tone of Voice (Some thoughts on how we talk about what happens after we die)

A while back, I was asked to participate in a panel answering questions about heaven and hell. The group had spent a couple weeks in a series looking at what Scripture says about what happens after we die. They were asking questions about heaven and the various ways people have understood “hell”: is hell eternal conscious torment? Is it annihilation—a case where we are, and then simply are not any more? Is there a case to be made for Christian Universalism – where after a time of suffering, all souls are restored to God? What about Martin Luther’s idea that death was sleep? Was CS Lewis onto something when the faithful Taarkan (a Muslim-figure) is allowed into Aslan’s eternal Kingdom in The Last Battle (whereas Susan Pevensie, who wore lipstick, was not?And why would a good God allow for a place like hell, anyway?

I had several other teaching commitments that week and so declined the invitation, but even if I hadn’t been busy I possibly would have said no, anyway. My sieve-like memory knows that I studied this stuff  before, but the content is mostly gone. It’s been a long time since I read up on the various theories of eternal punishment, and I would have had to brush the dust off some of my theology books and do some serious reading.

But the invitation itself got me thinking: what have I believed about this? And, are there reasons to revisit this topic now? I certainly grew up believing that hell was a place of eternal conscious torment, but some of the Bible scholars and teachers I have learned from don’t agree. And certainly, given how upsetting and offensive the idea of eternal conscious torment is (It’s the ultimate version of “my way or the highway”, isn’t it? Even for people who never got a chance to hear about God’s way…), I resonate with the desire to understand this in a way which reflect God’s goodness and mercy and compassion , which annihilation and christian universalism both seem to allow for.

I was a little surprised to find myself thinking: it doesn’t matter what conclusion I come to on this.  Not really. God-fearing people have come to different conclusions on what the passages referring to Hades and Gehenna and punishment mean, and I don’t know that I can sort it out with a new, independent rigorous study of my own. But what matters more to me is this: the tone of voice we discuss this in. Because even if I’m not sure what Jesus meant by the all the hell talk, I’m sure of this one thing: whatever he meant by it, he considered it VERY important to avoid, and a VERY good reason for people to trust in him instead. It’s better to suffer egregious bodily harm in this life (lose an eye! or a hand!) than to have two eyes and two hands and go to hell. Whatever hell means (and Jesus would know), he warns people to go to ANY LENGTH to avoid it. He went to hell himself to keep us from there. Whatever hell means, he assures us it’s not somewhere we want to be. Weeping and gnashing of teeth sound awful, even if they’re hyperbolic.

So even if it is true that we are annihilated, or we suffer a while and then are reconciled to God (and maybe this is the case, I don’t know), Jesus doesn’t seem to think that those options should be something which, when explained, we should feel we are comfortable with. If anything, one of the ways we might know we’ve come to the right conclusions about hell is that we respond the way Jesus says we should respond: with urgency. with grief. with seriousness.

I remember Dave, one of my campus pastors, teaching a few of us students twenty years ago about how to prepare and teach a small group bible study. We were discussing the passage in 1 Thessalonians about the Lord’s coming, and someone in our group got a little “firestone and brimstone-ish” in his conclusions. Dave commented that even if everything my friend was saying was true, he’d missed an important thing in the passage: 1 Thessalonians was written to comfort believers, not to threaten them. And so, whatever we made of the content of the passage, the tone of our conclusions on the paragraph should be wrapped in the comfort of the letter’s context.

I’ve carried those words with me since: we need to pay attention to the tone of voice of the speaker. I still don’t know what exactly happens after we die: how our spirits and bodies might be separated or joined again at resurrection, how conscious we’ll be, what the first and 2nd resurrections might look like, or what hell is like. But I’m sure about Jesus’ tone of voice on which I want for me, and which one I definitely don’t want for me or anyone else. And that is sobering as hell.


Photo credit: free stock photos from Pexels.com

What God Wants From You

He is carving new words into the contours of my soul_ %22Come.%22

A few friends have chosen a theme word for their year: thrive. rest. courage. knock. I chose one last year: anchor, and given the horrendously stormy start last year had, an anchor was just what I needed.

I’m not usually a person who limits herself to one, or even a handful, of words – but I do see the value in sometimes boiling something down to one essential truth to meditate and mull over. This morning I was thinking about some specific words to try and nail down what was on my heart for a couple people, so I could pray for them.

For one, the word striving came to mind: always reaching, working, on the go-go-go, and as I prayed, I found myself asking for rest for her, and that she would hear God’s invitation to sit with him and just be.

For another, the word lonely was there, and I found myself praying that she’d know God as Emmanuel: the one who is with us

For another, even though I’ve prayed for this person for years, it was a completely unexpected thing to find the word Fatherless coming to mind, and so I prayed that they would know God as their Father, even though I’d never seen them as an orphan-in-need-of-a-parent before.

And, as I thought about these (and more), it struck me how much my understanding of what God really wants from us, and for us, has changed. My one-word prayers were no longer “help them to do better”, but “help them to draw near.”

I don’t know if I would have put it quite like this, but I think for the longest time I thought God’s message to us—in a nutshell—was this: “Repent and toe the line.” Yes, he loved us enough to make a way to forgive our sin; and yes, he was gracious and all that… but I think I had absorbed a belief that unless I was making an effort to toe that proverbial line, the love and grace was out of reach.

It takes waves a long time to carve contours into rock; and I think the contours of my soul have had to have God’s truth wash over me again, and again, and again (sometimes crashing! sometimes just rinsing out debris with a gentle tide), but I see a new contour, and I see God’s handiwork in this. For these days, if I had to summarize God’s message to us—in a nutshell—I think it would be this: “Come.”

He is a Father waiting with open arms. A Lover who can’t wait to see the face of his beloved. A Shepherd who sees us when we are harassed and helpless, and has compassion.

Come, he says.

More than anything, I believe that’s what he wants from us, and what he wants for us, because he knows that rest, and joy, and life-to-the-full, and meaning, and purpose are all found in him.

Image credit: Bill Richards/Azure Window (Flickr Creative Commons), edited by Bronwyn Lea using Canva.