Looking back on twenty-six years of ministry, it is easy to divide the time by periods of activity in certain roles. There were the youth ministry years, the praise and worship years, even the full-time attempt at evangelism years. Then there was associate pastor and senior pastor, and all the while the side periods of radio ministry, local television ministry, regional television ministry and finally national television ministry. I’ve travelled around the world in service of the gospel, moved my family to one side of the country and then the other, following the voice of the Spirit that beckons us onward, to monthly home group meetings, weekly bible studies and more digital platforms for audio and video than I could have ever imagined possible.
In the midst of all of these epochs, there is another stark line of division, and that is the full revelation of the finished work of Christ and of the grace of God. There is the version of Paul White that preached prior to that moment, and the version that lives on now, a sort of post-revelation Paul. That watershed event, which actually happened over the course of many years and then picked up steam over a few months before the eruption began, has marked what I have become, and has colored everything I do.
Ideologically, more has changed than I either care to examine or admit. I have turned over so much theology that sometimes I lose track of when I believed what I used to believe, and find it harder and harder to remember why I believed some things so passionately in the first place. I have been through periods of knocking things down and building things up. I’ve been dissatisfied by other people’s seeming inability to drop ideas that I think they should drop, only to find myself dropping my own ideas and adopting others only months later. I’ve journeyed through the pride of feeling as if I have accomplished something, and I’ve endured the humiliation of learning that I wasn’t as enlightened as I thought I was.
On the subject of time periods, dividing lines, and theological wranglings, there is another stark contrast. There was a time when I never heard much debate or question about some theological points. Some of that had to do with the fact that some questions were discouraged on the grounds that questions may indicate doubt, and doubt indicated a lack of faith, and a lack of faith indicated spiritual backsliding, and, well, you get the point.
Now, it seems that nothing is off limits, that everything is up for question and debate, and on the whole, I would imagine that is a good thing. At least it is good as long as the questions lead to hard-fought answers, and true wrestling, coupled with humility and a sense of awe at topics and information so formidable and deep. Tough questions are valid when broached by those who have the foresight to know the ramifications of all the possible answers to those questions, and the humility to know that just because you never thought to ask doesn’t mean no one else has. A common mark of the intellectually immature is the sudden revelation of a subject followed by the question, “Why is no one talking about this?” Do not be so presumptuous to assume that your eye-opening moment is unique. While your attentions were focused elsewhere the rest of the scholarly world has studied, debated, shed blood and died for nearly 2000 years for answers to the questions we just realized we should ask.
The topic of hell is one that falls within that stark contrast for me. There was a time in ministry when I never fielded a question about hell, at least not as it pertained to its existence. Now, that question, along with follow-up questions about possible interpretations is par for the Q&A course. It also fits that description of questions people now ask that they are pretty sure have never been asked before.
Here’s a sample:
Is hell a real place? Do people go there and burn forever? If they do, what does that say about a loving God? Is it possible that hell is restorative, that people there are purged and then redeemed? Could hell be about annihilation, where you meet your final end? Is hell a construct of the medieval era? Do we owe more to Milton and Dante than the Bible? Is the word hell actually in the Greek? Didn’t the translators use the word widely? Aren’t the Greek words translated as hell actually words like Gehenna, Sheol and Tartarus, and don’t they mean different things? Wasn’t the hell the New Testament speaks about actually a trash dump outside of Jerusalem where bodies were burned? Could hell have been about the judgment that was to come on Israel in AD 70?
As you can probably tell, most of the questions I just listed betray my feelings on the subject. Wherever you land on the topic, the least informed and possibly worst landing spot is, “The Bible clearly says.” If we want to get serious about the topic then we need to consider that some of the answers just cannot be known, at least not on this side of eternity. We are speaking of eternal topics in a temporal realm; we look through a glass darkly. We should also admit that some of our hardline stances are arguments from silence, more than arguments from Scripture. Take, for instance, the Scriptures that speak of people not inheriting the Kingdom, or not being allowed to enter into the joys of the Lord. We tend to infer what happens if you don’t enter in, which is developing a doctrine from what isn’t there rather than digging in to what is there. To get to the heart of the matter, maybe we should have deeper discussions on what the Kingdom is, and what it isn’t, rather than creating an opposite destination for those that miss it.
In any case, all that I’ve said in the above paragraphs will do very little to add or take away from the mountains of scholarship that has been produced by far greater minds than my own. So I will focus on something else, something I can handle. It’s the question I like the least; the one I wrestle with the most; the one that people are less satisfied with my answer than with any of the other questions:
“Do you believe in hell?”
The reason I don’t like the question is because no matter my answer, assumptions are made about me that I’m not comfortable with. If I say, “Yes,” then I can easily slot in with the majority opinion about eternal conscious torment. If I say, “No,” then I can be quickly written off as a heretic, and told that while I may not believe in it now, I will when I get there. Each answer on it’s own, without more context to the question, is a lose/lose proposition.
So, I answer, “Yes, but maybe not in the way you believe in it, or in the way you expect me to believe.” So maybe my answer should be, “No.” Confused yet? Yeah, me too, at least sometimes. Truthfully, there is a lot I don’t understand about the topic, and a lot I really don’t wish to pursue, because I’m not sure I can find my way out of that rabbit hole. Instead, I have pursued a path I’m more comfortable with, one which speaks to both the visible and the invisible, and one that affects everyone, not simply those who investigate the Greek and the original texts, and first century geography.
I believe in hell, because I believe in heaven. I believe in a hell that is real, that can be touched and that touches us. I believe in darkness so deep that death seems to be the only escape. I believe hell is real, not because I believe in a place you go after you die where you burn, but because I have watched people burn while they are alive. I have watched evil and malevolence, cruelty and abandonment, lust and vice drag people down into chains of addiction and hopelessness. I have watched hell manifest itself through poor decisions and choices, and through no fault whatsoever. I would have to be blind to believe that hell on earth is not a real concept, and I would have to believe that heaven on earth were impossible, to deny hell the same privilege.
I believe in the valley of the shadow of death. I know that the good shepherd does not lead me there; he doesn’t have to. Sometimes I wander into it myself, and other times, life sends me in with a hard shove. The same Psalmist that painted that picture also declared that if he made his bed in hell, God would be there. He said that because he knew that in that valley of the shadow of death, comfort is possible, and a table is prepared.
We have done much on our planet to improve our lot and to make the world a better place. At the same time, we still have pockets of unimaginable horror. The Bible has little to say about heaven as a destination, and a considerable amount to say about heaven as a Kingdom. Jesus put the kingdom in our midst, and declared it to be “at hand,” in his day. He declared that the kingdom had come upon them, and also prayed to his Father, “Thy kingdom come.” His dual message of a kingdom that is here and a kingdom that is to come has been debated for centuries. Maybe, Jesus is indicating that the kingdom starts and never stops. It arrives and never stops arriving. Heaven shows up and then shows out.
If the present heaven is a kingdom reality, then the present hell may be the same way. One could counter that heaven as a kingdom does not negate a future heaven as a destination, therefore, hell as a present reality doesn’t negate a future hell as a destination. That seems a solid enough argument, until you realize that the kingdom of heaven is supposed to swallow up the other kingdoms. Only one kingdom gets to be eternal. Only one kingdom gets to win.
So while we are here, we are agents within that heavenly kingdom. We would have to shut our eyes to the plight of our neighbor to come to the conclusion that hell is not a reality. In every place where light has penetrated darkness, heaven has overcome hell. For every person who has come out of the valley of the shadow of death, either to a glorious victory on the other side, or into a newer, wiser, more enlightened version of themselves, heaven has won the day. Where heaven wins, hell is pushed back. Where the life of the heavens is not implemented, hell encroaches, like a jungle that has been cleared and then grows back. Just as Jesus said, when the man is delivered, he needs something to fill the void, or his latter case is worse than his first.
Consider the parable of the man who wanted to know the secrets of heaven and hell. He was taken into a large banquet hall of great beauty, with a long table full of the most glorious food. Seated around the table were men and women, who were obviously famished and in need of nourishment. On the plate in front of each person was a heaping helping of food, but not one bite had been eaten. It was described to the man that this was hell. He was confused, until he realized that each person at the table had no elbows, and while they could grip the spoons and forks, and fill them with food, they had no way of bending their arms to their mouths, and thus, they were starving. The sustenance they needed was close, but the ability to take it in was absent.
Then the man was taken to heaven, and it too was a great banquet hall of immense beauty. There was that same long table of glorious food, with people sitting in front of massive plates. He noticed that they too lacked elbows, and had no more ability to put food in their mouths than the inhabitants of hell had, but these had learned to reach across the table and feed their neighbor, so everyone participated, and everyone had all they needed.
Columnist Steve Leder writes, “Hell lacks what heaven has: the ability to look outside oneself, to see and care about others who are starving too.” One could probably sum up hell in those first two words, “Hell lacks.” The separation in heaven and hell is not location and appearance, but it is what one has and one lacks. When Jesus spoke to the rich, young, ruler about inheriting eternal life, he said to him, “One thing you lack.” The man left discouraged, heading right back into his hell, for the thing you lack is all the difference.
Ancient Jewish rabbis, in their imaginings about the Ten Plagues of the Exodus ask how dark was the darkness of the ninth plague. They answer that it was so dark that Hebrews and Egyptians could no longer see the humanity in each other. That insight is relevant today, in a polarized and divided world. We are so convinced of the character of those with whom we disagree politically and ideologically that it is difficult to see their humanity. In the midst of the greatest time to be alive in the history of the world, a veritable heaven on earth, we are slowly doing all we can to demonize the other side, and put a little hell into the mix.
The wonder of Jesus is that he has no side. He doesn’t lean one way or the other. He simply is the I AM. He is light, and as John said, “In him is no darkness at all.”
Thankfully, he has chosen to dwell in us, so when we find ourselves in darkness, we have a light inside that brings meaning to our chaos, and life to our death. Truly, we can find some heaven in the midst of our hell.
So when someone asks, “Do you believe in hell?” I must admit, yes, I do, and people experience it everyday. But better news is that I believe in heaven, and I don’t think you have to die to go there.
Grace to you.