A good question: Is hell for real?
One question, four answers
‘We have made hell in our own image’
For real? No. Of course not.
Jesus, walking through the dry, open reaches of Palestine, thought up wonderful stories that he prayed we would have ears to hear. One of those stories contained the dignified, hurting, all-forgiving Prodigal’s father. If you have ears, you have to throw out hell. It has no valid place. It doesn’t fit with the reality of God, as Love, revealed in the complexity, intelligence and beauty of Jesus’ stories.
I have counselled people who have clung to hell all their blighted lives. Some, faced with the evident unfairness of the world, detest the notion that grace falls alike on the just and the unjust. Some, nagged and bullied into feelings of worthless shame by religion and family, feel destined to end up there. Some poor, unfree souls, hold both damaging positions at the same time…
Lucy Berry is a poet and minister. Her latest poetry book, Church of Snails, is available here
‘What difference does it make to my life?’
The simple answer is that of course I don’t know. Jesus does talk about a place that we have come to understand as hell. Eleven times in the New Testament, he talks about Gehenna – a cursed valley near Jerusalem where children used to be sacrificed in Old Testament times and fires raged to destroy the sewage and refuge from the city.
So often when we talk about the nature of hell, we tend towards debating whether or not it is a physical place and theological battles have been fought about what that place would be like. But the question about whether hell is real is not fundamentally about whether there is a physical place where ‘bad people’ go when they die. Instead, it is more about the question of what difference it makes to my life – in the here and now rather some distant reality – if it is real…
Chine McDonald is a writer, speaker and broadcaster and Head of Media and PR at Christian Aid
‘For real but not forever’
The fourth-century bishop Basil of Caesarea commented that most of the believers in his region espoused apocatastasis or ‘universal restoration’ – the understanding that in the end, all will be saved. Contemporary Christians are often surprised to hear this, and are unaware of the plurality in the New Testament witness which allowed for a diversity of views on hell in the early Church. As well as the references to post-mortem torment we are familiar with, the New Testament contains many references to a universal salvation (eg 1 Corinthians 15:22; Romans 5:18; 1 Corinthians 15:27-28; John 12:31-32).
We may wonder how these universalist Christians understood the biblical references to an eternal hell, as we can be sure they were as familiar with the scriptures as we are, if not more so. … the Greek word for punishment, kolasis, was originally used with reference to the pruning of trees; it was understood remedially, rather than retributively…
Carmody Grey is Assistant Professor of Catholic Theology at Durham University
‘It keeps me on the straight and narrow’
‘I don’t smoke, but I keep a matchbox in my pocket. When my heart slips towards a sin, I burn a matchstick and heat my palm. Then I say to myself: ‘Ali, you can’t even bear this heat. How would you bear the unbearable heat of hell?’ This quote, from the late Muhammad Ali, helps me to understand that while hell (Jahannum in Arabic) is not a nice place to be, it exists for those who commit sin, oppression, shirk (creating partners with God, idolatry) and those who fail to follow God’s commands.
The concept of hell helps me to keep on the straight and narrow. This can be very difficult at times though, because the attraction of taking shortcuts is far stronger than the desire to hold on to the rope of righteousness…
Anjum Anwar is a teacher. She worked as Dialogue Development Officer for Blackburn Cathedral from 2007 to 2016
These are extracts from an article that was published in the April 2020 edition of Reform