A Freelance Opinion Essay
All my life I have wrestled with some of the very questions that are addressed here on the Tekton site. At this point in my life I consider myself to be a "skeptical Christian." This means that while I do believe in the existence of God and in the salvation of souls through faith in Jesus Christ, I really can't say that I know for certain what it means to have a "personal relationship" with God. Yes, there are times when I do have vague feelings that there is a divine presence in the universe. But to be honest, sometimes I hang on to my faith simply because of what I call The McNugget Factor. What this means is that due to my strong Pentecostal upbringing, I was inculcated at an early age with the idea that if I did NOT believe in God and in Jesus Christ, that I would spend eternity being fried like an Infidel McNugget in an enormous vat of fire.
I was also taught that infidels would not be the only ones slated for eternal punishment; no, apparently hell would also be populated with other entrees such as Demon McNuggets, Homicidal McNuggets, Gay McNuggets, Burglar McNuggets, Gigolo McNuggets, Communist McNuggets, Drunkard McNuggets, and (ahem) Wiccan McNuggets. Yes, I know there are many Christians who have set forth various interpretations of what hell is "really" like. Some have suggested that hell will be the ultimate annihilation of consciousness for the damned; others reject the idea of a literal lake of fire altogether. Some Christians completely avoid the whole subject, and many non-Christians wish we would!! But people who do believe in hell generally concur that it will be A Very Unpleasant Place.
Visions of what hell might be like have been a staple of literature for centuries. Such literary suppositions have ranged anywhere from the dark musings of Dante, to the poetic descriptions of Milton, to the utterly wimpy assertion by Sartre that "Hell is other people." (Did I mention that I was also taught that hell might also contain Existential McNuggets?) Even one of my own personal literary heroes, C.S. Lewis, presented a fascinating vision of hell in The Great Divorce that is "locked from the inside." While I consider Mr. Lewis to have been an apologist of the first order, I have deep misgivings about his portrayal of hell as a place that could be escaped by its inhabitants. Not because I don't like it, but because it sounds too good to be true. In fact, I have deep misgivings about any literary supposition of what hell might be like that deviates too widely from the biblical references.
To be sure, I have often bristled at the very notion of eternal punishment. When I was an atheist many years ago, I felt that it was inherently unjust to impose an infinite amount of punishment for a finite number of sins. It struck me as ludicrous that the "good news" was that all I had to do to escape eternal torment and receive eternal bliss was to believe that approximately 2000 years ago a man claiming to be the Son of God turned water into wine, walked on water, cast out demons, raised the dead, and somehow came back to life himself after he was killed. What sane individual wouldn't question any of this?! And yet I do believe all of it for reasons that never quite seem rational to me-- no matter how cleverly someone explains it. I wonder how zealous many Christians would be in their faith if weren't for The McNugget Factor. I wonder what I would believe if it didn't seem to come down to a choice between eternal happiness or eternal misery. It's quite possible that I would still be an atheist today.
But let me make it clear that the doctrine of hell is not the ONLY reason I am a Christian. Fortunately there are other less dramatic reasons why I believe. Nevertheless, The McNugget Factor is pretty high up on my list of reasons. I am sure that I am not the only Christian that thinks along these lines. If the consequences of rejecting the miraculous stories about Christ (particularly The Resurrection) are really that dire, If the penalty for disbelieving in the biblical God really is eternal torment--or "soul death"-- then it is safer just to believe, right? Many atheists would call this intellectual cowardice. Many Christians would call this common sense. They both have a point. Pretending that the doctrine of hell is entirely irrelevant to the Christian faith is just plain stupid... it can make all the difference in the world. After all, it is written that Jesus himself said:
"And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell." -- Matthew 10:28 (KJV)
"So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, (a)nd shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Jesus saith unto them, Have ye understood all these things? They say unto him, Yea, Lord." -- Matthew 12:49-51 (KJV)
Is it morally just to use fear to frighten someone into accepting what you believe is the truth? I have often thought that it is an abominable practice, an offense for which many preachers should be flogged. When I was an atheist, I didn't like to hear about hell. When I was an agnostic, I didn't like to hear about hell. Even now, as a Christian, I still cringe when I hear or read about hell. On the other hand, I'll never forget an anecdote that was presented to me by one of the Pentecostal preachers of my youth. "Suppose," he said "you had to tell your neighbor that his house was on fire? Would you refuse to tell him simply because it would frighten him? No! You would do everything in your power to help your neighbor save his house. How much more important is your neighbor's soul compared to his house?" Indeed. Such reasoning leads me to conclude that as a Christian, it might be my moral responsibility to occasionally make judicious use of The McNugget Factor, even if it is unpleasant.
What else does the Bible have to say about hell? I would imagine that people who are even remotely interested in a Christian Apologetics site such as this one already know a great deal about what the Bible has to say about hell... and it is surprisingly little. In fact, a quick search through my handy-dandy PC Reference Bible shows me that there are only 54 scriptures in the entire KJV Bible that actually contain the word "hell." A quick computer search of the NIV Bible reveals only 14 scriptures with the word "hell." Only 14!! There are, of course, other direct and indirect references to hell in both translations; even taking this into consideration, there is an extremely small number of scriptures on such an important subject. As my old Latin teacher would say: Parvus sed potens. Small, but powerful. Or was it Parum sed potens? I need some ancient Romans to practice with...
For those of you who feel like cracking open a Bible, here's a few scriptures to think about: Matthew 5:22, Matthew 18:9, Mark 9:45, Luke 16:23, Revelation 20:14. My buddy J.P. Holding has also provided other content and helpful links in various places on the Tekton site related to this topic. Some of you might find it interesting to know that I first met J.P. in the 1980s under rather colorful circumstances. Suffice it to say that I was a somewhat militant atheist at the time, and J.P. was the only one willing to publicly butt heads with me. I didn't exactly convert to Christianity on the strength of his arguments, but he certainly gave me food for thought. Now that we're more or less "on the same side," I'm happy to see he's still thumbing his nose at some of the same silly arguments I used to have as an atheist, and he still has the same quirky (uh, weird) sense of humor.
Lest anyone charge that I have approached the subject of hell in a flippant and/or blasphemous manner, please let me assure you that I do take it very seriously indeed. Sometimes I take it so seriously that laughing is the only way I can cope with it. Call it gallows humor, if you will. I often contemplate the existence of hell in much the same way that a man who contemplates a funny epitaph can still take the subject of death very seriously. Personally, I would like my own gravestone etched with the following words:
"Can't See You... Can't Hear You... Do You Exist?"
Wherever I end up after this earthly life, I hope to leave at least a few thoughtful people giggling in the cemetery.