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?
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.Hell • salvation • soteriology • universalism