Is Hell Real?
- Wednesday, May 10, 2017
- By Father Robin Ruder-Celiz
At some point along the way, the inevitable question will come up during confirmation preparation, “Is hell real?” This question will usually come up if the well-meaning facilitator of the class wants people to feel free to ask whatever question they have been desperate to ask, but felt embarrassed or afraid to ask. This was the very situation that my wife Liz and Bishop Melissa found themselves in recently. During the Diocesan Retreat Day for Confirmands one person asked this very question: Is hell real? You would think by now, that most of us and most clergy should have a standard stock answer in the tool box for moments such as this. But the truth is; we don’t. There is no straight answer for questions like these. Part of the reason why we don’t have a straight answer is because despite how straight forward the question is, this is a deep and complex topic. It doesn’t matter how we respond because every response is loaded in some way.
The truth is there is no one right or wrong answer. It is complex and loaded with differing theology and understanding. Scripture is also less than helpful. No where do we get a straight answer about what heaven looks like or even hell. There are references to both places, but no real description of what they look like. We are left to study and analyse passages such as our Gospel today where we get a snap shot or window into what heaven may look like. Jesus says in today’s gospel, “In my father’s house are many dwelling places (or rooms)” (John 14: 2). Heaven is a place where there is a room that is prepared for you and me. It is a comforting thought to realize that there is a place prepared just for us.
Logically if there is a heaven and we have glimpses of what heaven may be like, then there must be a hell as well. But what does hell look like? Is it a place with fire and brimstone or something else . . . ? Again, we don’t get a straight answer from Scripture. There is talk of the devil and of fire. But fire can be good too. Think of Pentecost and what happens after a forest fire with the ground being rejuvenated for growth. Doesn’t really sound like hell. Between Liz and the Bishop, I think I like what the Bishop had to say. She mentioned that there are many kinds of hell and that everyone at some point or another either creates their own hell or finds themselves caught in it. This can perhaps be helpful if we think of issues around abuse, addictions, high debt load and some of the choices we make for better or worse. With this thinking, hell is not a far off concept, but rather something that we can relate to, see and experience every day.
This same reasoning goes for heaven and fits well with our theology of the Kingdom of God right here with us, not a far off place just beyond space and time. Heaven too is something that we can create or find ourselves embraced in. Think of the positive and life giving relationships in our lives. Places of beauty and awe that surround us in the created order. Whenever we see an act of mercy, compassion, hospitality and acceptance we witness the Kingdom of God here on Earth, in our world, in our lives. Heaven is like a Kingdom, where God is found. This brings me to my understanding of Heaven and Hell.
Perhaps, in part, because we can never fully understand, Heaven are those places in our lives and world where God is found. More than in acts of compassion, mercy and the created order heaven is found in our hearts and minds as well. This is where God is found. So in a way while we help create and bring the Kingdom of God here on Earth, we are also creating and building Heaven on Earth. Heaven then is where we can taste and see that God is good.
On the flip side, perhaps, just perhaps, hell are those places where God is not found. But then again, is there anywhere where God is not found? There may be times and places where God seems to be absent, missing in action. But is God really absent, or is God knee deep in the muck, working in a different way? This brings me to another understanding of hell, one from a colleague. Perhaps there is a hell, but it is empty. An interesting thought. Maybe there is a hell, but it is empty because the God of love and compassion has already come and restored the dignity of all who may have been there . . . Hell therefore is temporary and unstable because the God of love will deliver all who find themselves in hell. As Desmond Tutu mentions, Goodness is always stronger than evil.
I think I mentioned at the start of this that there is no easy or straight forward answer to any of these questions. They are important questions and ones if we haven’t thought of a lot, we know of people for whom these questions can be all consuming. So how do we live with the ambiguity and complexity of these questions? This is where Faith comes in.
Faith is the glue that holds all these questions and understandings together. Our faith allows us to explore and push back at our current beliefs so that we are brought deeper into our understanding of our Faith and deeper into the mystery of God. So, go ahead, ask those questions that you desperately want to ask, and live with the mystery and ambiguity that the answers may bring. This is in part what makes our lives in Christ and God so dynamic and alive; when we come to the realization that none of us have all the answers, and I’m okay with that.