“Daddy, what is hell?”

Sometime during the meandering introduction to the sermon this past Sunday, my five-year-old son turned to me and whispered, “What is hell?”

The service suddenly got a lot more interesting. I don’t think anyone had said anything about hell in that service. But that’s my son: a chip off the old blockhead.

Deep breath. “We’ll talk about it later, ok?” It’s not like he could expect me to explain that subject on the spot, right? Right in the middle of the service! But regardless, I considered, I should take this quiet time to gather my thoughts.

Then I realized I needed to answer another question first: what do I believe about hell?

A kettle full of Jews (with white hats) burnin...

Image via Wikipedia

I have said a lot of things on my blog lately in defense of universalism. So am I a universalist? Well, right now, I’m confident enough that I should defend it against the bum rap it’s been given, and although I’m not confident enough to decide on that question myself (much less to proclaim it as truth), my heart is there.

But even if I do accept universalism, does that answer the question about hell? Most Christian universalists throughout church history have believed in hell. So I still had to answer my son’s question. What do I believe about hell?

At this point, I believe that hell is where we are separated from God. I do not believe that it is a place God sends us to in order to make us pay for our sins (which can never be done, so it drags on and on and on and on…), or a death sentence that will satisfy His sense of justice, or His chosen method of getting rid of those stubborn souls who won’t tell Him how awesome He is. If it’s locked, it’s locked from the inside, as Lewis said, emphasizing that those who stay there are not bound there against their wills. “Separation from God as a result of sin” struck me as a very ecumenical definition of hell that I can find a lot of sympathy for.

In fact, it reminded me of something…something very recent…

Then it hit me. And instead of waiting until after the service, I thought I might be able to give him a starting place in some quietly whispered words.

“Remember this morning when your little sister was screaming and acting really hatefully? She wouldn’t let Mommy or Daddy help her pick out her clothes or do anything for her, and when I tried to talk sweetly to her and hug her, she just kept screaming at me?”

“Yes.” Trust me — we hadn’t seen a meltdown like that one in a very long time. We were late for church because of it.

“Remember what we did? Mommy and Daddy shut her in her room and let her scream until she got it all out and realized how bad it was to treat everyone that way. It didn’t take long for her to realize it, and when we let her out a couple minutes later, she was better, and she really acted very sweet, didn’t she?”

A thoughtful nod.

“That’s what hell is like…”

He perked up, realizing that I wasn’t just reminiscing, but answering his question about hell. “You mean Satan’s world?” Oh man, the dualistic Sunday School teachers have already gotten to him. Undeception has to begin at home, I guess.

“That’s one way people think about it. But what I am talking about is when people who hate God and act mean to everyone die, and God sends them to a place where they can understand how badly they acted and remember how much He loves them and how much they miss and need Him. It’s a really sad place. We call that place hell. Do you know what I mean?”

Another nod. This time he leaned against me, satisfied. For now.

Like I said, just a starting point – and I’m certainly not at the end of my own journey. Perhaps the best part was that I didn’t have to answer my own lingering question: whether every sinner will ultimately leave his or her “room” and enter communion with God. But at least I’ve planted a view of God that my young son can understand.

It wasn’t a view he would have found reflected in the pastor’s sermon about the “gospel” as defined by penal substitution theory, I hate to say. But he didn’t really listen to the sermon anyway.

I just wish the rest of the congregation had been so lucky.

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  • Paul D.

    It seems like you cling to the (admittedly common) notions of immortal spirits that get sent to a non-corporeal place of some kind after death, in order to experience bliss or punishment. With all the questions you’ve been asking lately, do you really think this is likely? Especially given the lack of any focus of such an afterlife in the Bible or early Christian thought, and the orthodox belief of physical resurrection at Christ’s return.

    (Also, how exactly is separation from an omnipresent being supposed to work? Is the “Hell is separation from God” anything more than a modern fiction?)

    • Paul, I make no claims about corporeality, the nature of the soul, or much else. I have closely examined a lot of material on the subject and left unsatisfied with any of the conclusions. My assumption of an afterlife, if “clingy”, is based in theodicy: God has to have a way of making things right, and for the kid who died yesterday of malnutrition, He hasn’t done it yet. I figure that, like many of the later biblical authors, I’d give Him another chance after we die. In the end, we’re talking about an omnipotent God.

    • Oh, and as for “separation from God”, I assume we can only be separated from Him in our minds.

      Paul, I must say, you are coming across as perturbed at the very idea. Am I wrong? If not, why?

      • Paul D.

        I didn’t mean to come across as perturbed. I just keep running into the Hell-as-separation-from-God meme lately, and it usually gets introduced as a sort of way to keep Hell at least in name, and to avoid going full-universalist. If there’s genuine doctrinal basis for it, that’s cool, but it often feels like a cop-out, not to mention paradoxical. I also see atheists co-opting it as being a *good* thing, which is probably not what proponents of the idea intended. (“Permanent separation from Yahweh, destroyer of Canaanites and personal god of George Bush? Sign me up.”)

        • Paul, from what I’ve seen, atheists have more problems with Hitler getting a free pass than they do with a purgative hell, and I see their point. I would like to note that the idea of sin as being something that disqualifies one from enjoyment of God’s presence is hardly just some meme running around these days. It’s a metaphor of discipline, and I dare say it’s not the only one available: I could have said, in more Eastern fashion, that hell is not being sent to one’s room but being draped over God’s knee for a paddling! I reserve many more chances to round out my son’s understanding in the future. 🙂

        • Paul the way you describe this EO perspective is similar to what i thought steve was going to do with his dauther analogy. I was waiting for Steve to descibe hell as the bit where his daughter sat there screaming and refusing the hugs/ consoling of her parents (before being put in her room).

  • Michelle

    Awesome. I have itty bitty girls and I’m involved in the Toddler Ministry at our church. These little ones are too young to be questioning hell yet but it’s only a matter of time. Hopefully I’ll be able to articulate the message as well as you did when the time arrives.

    • Hi, Michelle. Yes, it can be so difficult talking about such things with little children, and my son has a predilection for asking some doozies! Thankfully, we can be reasonably assured that our explanations aren’t set in stone in their little minds forever: their understanding can evolve as they grow.

  • Interesting analogy. Something to think about.

  • You know what, Steve. I’m gonna use this one when my little girl asks the question.

    • Feel free to name-drop me. It’ll impress her. 😉

  • Gusmcattison

    Steve, I was slightly shocked by this in the final chapter of Surprised By Joy last night:

    “On the other hand, while it is true to say that God’s own nature is the real sanction of His commands, yet to understand this must, in the end, lead us to the conclusion that union with that Nature is bliss and separation from it horror. Thus Heaven and Hell come in. But it may well be that to think much of either except in the context of thought, to hypostatize them as if they had a substantial meaning apart from the presence or absence of God, corrupts the doctrine of both and corrupts us while we so think of them.”

    Slightly shocked to think Lewis would perscribe not thinking “much of either except in the context of thought” – if I understand what he means there. This is the guy who tells us to (pardon me while I butcher this with a surely bad paraphrase) trust the purport of the Old Testament images (the anthropomorphic ones and so forth) when they come in conflict with our abstract … uh… with our … something something. He says go ahead and believe in a God with a beard, it won’t hurt anything. Slightly shocked to hear that guy advising us to strip the fire and brimstone away in favor of “separation from God.”

    Not that I don’t like it! And it supports your story to your kid (well done, I should think.)

    Where did MacDonald warn us that “all he fears and more shall come upon him”? Where the night dogs range, and all that. My favorite description of Hell.

    To someone above whose name I forgot: I do not see how “full on” Universalism rules out Hell any more than it rules out earthly suffering.

    • Indeed, to quote the universalist MacDonald on the subject of hell:

      “The man whose deeds are evil, fears the burning. But the burning will not come the less that he fears it or denies it. Escape is hopeless. For Love is inexorable. Our God is a consuming fire. He shall not come out till he has paid the uttermost farthing.
      If the man resists the burning of God, the consuming fire of Love, a terrible doom awaits him, and its day will come. He shall be cast into the outer darkness who hates the fire of God. What sick dismay shall then seize upon him! For let a man think and care ever so little about God, he does not therefore exist without God. God is here with him, upholding, warming, delighting, teaching him—making life a good thing to him. God gives him himself, though he knows it not. But when God withdraws from a man as far as that can be without the man’s ceasing to be; when the man feels himself abandoned, hanging in a ceaseless vertigo of existence upon the verge of the gulf of his being, without support, without refuge, without aim, without end—for the soul has no weapons wherewith to destroy herself—with no inbreathing of joy, with nothing to make life good;—then will he listen in agony for the faintest sound of life from the closed door; then, if the moan of suffering humanity ever reaches the ear of the outcast of darkness, he will be ready to rush into the very heart of the Consuming Fire to know life once more, to change this terror of sick negation, of unspeakable death, for that region of painful hope. Imagination cannot mislead us into too much horror of being without God—that one living death.”

  • Gusmcattison

    Also, Steve, as a guy who grew up with father figures ranging from absent to abusive, I’d like to suggest that the father you are BEING to your kids will do the central thing to them regarding their understanding of Hell, because it will inform them about the goodness of God. I’m not saying (as some do) that this is everything, but it certainly is a lot.

    Remember that Lewis says it is MacDonald’s own earthly father’s goodness that, in the long run, qualified MacDonald so perfectly to learn about and tell us about our Heavenly Father. And we know where GMD landed on the subject of Hell, and that was without being told.

    • Wise words. I find my fatherhood immeasurably challenged and inspired by MacDonald’s understanding of God.

  • nick b

    Thanks for your post (I didn’t vote for your blog, but had I known of such a thing I would’ve…)

    I don’t know upon what basis it feels such, but telling our children what ‘we’ believe seems to be where the rubber hits the road.

    So the next question, especially as it pertains to the ‘undeception’ of your children. Why is it that you feel that the Church (or your particular church) is still the place to be when it requires such undeception? (I think also of your post regarding the discussion around the theology of church choir lyrics as an example of where some more undeception may be required)

    I struggle with this issue myself – most recently of course in trying to figure out which children’s bible I wanted to have my kids prefer. The beautifully illustrated, and wonderfully prosed, but dripping with atonement-theory “Jesus is Whispered In Every Story” bible, or the slightly drier, less theologically-determined “progressive” children’s bible.

    My answer at the moment seems to be that I want my kids to live and breath the texts of the church, to cherish them, without having a literalistic or black-and-white kind of hermeneutic. And I’m not really sure how at age 3 you can have your cake and eat it too.

    • Thank, Nick!

      Yes, I struggle with that question myself. Although I think it vitally important to avoid group-think (the package deals of Fundamentalism and evangelicalism), I find a community of faith, a group of people who know, love, and want to serve God, to be extremely important. As I think about it, what I want my kids to understand is that faith is a journey that’s best engaged in a not altogether homogenous atmosphere. They’re getting old enough now to where I can tell them, “That’s what some people believe, but…” or “We don’t know, but this is how some people try to make sense of things…” I’d certainly rather them have fewer things I found it necessary to correct, but then again, I think one of the primary things I want them to learn is how to learn, and how to be humble in their beliefs, to hold them with an open hand and be open to being challenged. I sympathize with trying to figure out what sort of children’s Bible is best — the one my son most loves has some horrendously bad renditions that I have to try to step around (or paraphrase) when I read it to him.

      So no, you’re not going to get many answers from me (not that you were necessarily expecting to find them here!), but I appreciate having someone to discuss these issues with. If you have any suggestions, I’d be glad to hear them (see why I value community?).

  • I’ve been wanting to give some serious thought to the issue of hell for a long time now. There was a time in my early teenage years when I thought I was going to hell b/c I believed I had sinned against the Holy Spirit. It was a terrifying time. I thank God that he set me free from that little piece of hell. Ever since, eternal judgment has been an uncomfortable belief for me, not seeming quite fair. I much prefer C. S. Lewis’s view in which God says to the individual, “Thy will be done” and releases them to their own misery, like the dwarves in _The Last Battle_, sitting around in their imaginary barn, rooting around in the dark for things to eat. I like this view, but I have yet to see whether scripture supports it.

    I ordered a book recently called _The Fire That Consumes_ by Edward Fudge, who believes in the destruction of souls in hell. It looks to be a good read. He traces the judgment of the wicked from the Old Testament to modern times. Can’t wait to dig in.

  • Edward Fudge

    You say: “At this point, I believe that hell is where we are separated from God. I do not believe that it is a place God sends us to in order to make us pay for our sins (which can never be done, so it drags on and on and on and on…), or a death sentence that will satisfy His sense of justice, or His chosen method of getting rid of those stubborn souls who won’t tell Him how awesome He is.”

    Those options, as expressed, all speak to motive or purpose (“in order to make us pay . . . or satisfy His sense of justice . . . or method of getting rid . . .”). What if we start with your opening statement that hell is where people “are separated from God.” Add to that the fact that only God is inherently immortal (deathless) and that we depend on God every second even for our very existence. Finally, include the fact that in all the Bible, human immortality is always God’s gift to the saved, never an attribute or quality of the unsaved, and that God gives immortality to the saved in the resurrection (1 Cor 15 describes only the resurrected bodies of the saved; it is not a picture of the lost).

    Now look at your first sentence, logically extended: “Hell is where people are separated from God, their very source of being; and, cut off completely from God, with no other possible source of being, they finally do truly “die,” “perish” and “are destroyed” (the NT’s three most common ways of describing the final end of the unredeemed) and forever cease to exist.”

    • I’m privileged to have you comment on my blog, Dr. Fudge! You influenced the early stages of my reevaluation of hell. I respect your position and even agree that this is probably the plain meaning of many of those texts. Eternal conscious torment is hardly anywhere implied in Scripture. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes “death” really just means “death”!

      But that’s not enough for me.

      My hope for universal reconciliation does begin in Scripture, but it does not end there. Despite the expectation of annihilation many of the biblical authors had, I hope to see God’s mercy and justice satisfied even – especially – for those who are too sick to realize their need for it. I would never dream of snuffing out my rebellious child: just hearing her crying through the door was almost too much for me!

      Chiefly, I do not wish to push a metaphor beyond its realm of applicability. The phrase “separation from God” is not even in the Bible, as I’m sure you know, but is a way of pulling together several observations from different passages. I use it in a strictly qualified sense: in my analogy, I was really no more separated from my daughter by that thin wooden door than Jesus was separated from God by that thin wooden cross, although he (like the Psalmist long before him) certainly felt separated when he cried out that God had forsaken Him. As I have put it elsewhere, we can’t (while still existing) be apart from God spatially, but we can and often are apart relationally.

      My main point is this: if there really is any post-mortem state corresponding to “hell”, I can only accept that it is restorative, not punitive. I can’t rule out that some people would choose annihilation over restoration, but I hope that this is not the case.

      Thanks for the interaction!

  • Edward Fudge

    Thomas mentions THE FIRE THAT CONSUMES. I am glad to report that a new, updated, enlarged and thoroughly revised Third Edition is scheduled out this summer from Cascade Books (academic/theological arm of Wipf & Stock), with foreword by Richard Bauckham of Cambridge. In this book, I interact with 17 traditionalist authors of 12 books written since the first edition of TFTC in 1982. For full details and much more on the subject, go (free) to http://www.EdwardFudge.com/written/fire.html