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Omaha, Nebraska, United States
I am more and more convinced that most congregations die from a staggering lack of imagination. Let's change that. Drop me a line on email or leave a comment if you have thoughts on God, Jesus, congregations, the church or whatever.... I look forward to our conversations.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Wondering about "Hell"

This Friday, here in Omaha, I am helping to moderate to a discussion with film-maker Kevin Miller after the premier of his new film Hellbound? This is somewhat ironic, if not downright hilarious, that I, of all people, are trying to help people process a film about something I have never believed in, and probably never will.

I watched the film with my parents a few weeks ago. My parents, around 75 years old, myself, around 50, could never remember believing in hell. They remembered--vaguely--hearing a few sermons about hell back in their younger days, but that is more experience than I have with the concept. My parents didn't seem to believe much in hell, and consequently I grew up in a Christian religious tradition that did not preach about hell.

Obviously I knew about hell from TV and Hollywood growing up, but not from going to church. (And I went just about every week, and I still do--and if someone had preached about it, I would have heard it--I think.) As more and more of the Christian tradition opened up to me I realized that a lot of Christians had--and have-invested a lot of time and energy into hell. Way more than the Bible does. And, since I follow the God of the Bible, I don't put a lot of stock in hell either...just my way of being biblical.

In graduate school at the University of Texas (Hook 'em Horns!) I had a class in 17th Century British poetry. Since I had to write on Milton, I went back and studied a lot of the great literature on hell, focusing mostly on Dante and Milton. I discovered that most of what we know about hell comes from them rather than from the Bible. As much as I love Dante and Milton they don't take precedence over Jesus, or Moses or John for that matter. So I have never found a need to believe in hell...so I don't. (I admit the possibility exists, but I also admit unicorns and vampires may exist...so take that for what you will.)

Miller's film has people in it who believe in hell and believe that it exists. He gave them a lot of room to make the case that hell exists, and I think they are lying to themselves. I have never believed more in Sartre's mauvaise foi (bad faith caused by intentional self-delusion) than in listening to people try and convince me that hell exists. And the folks in the movie didn't convince me because they sounded more like medieval poets than bibilical scholars or theologians...they didn't convince me because they didn't offer any arguments about why God would need hell.

You see, people talk about God being mad at us at times (and in this I agree). God probably does get mad at us when we try to be God rather than human (sin). But that does not mean there has to be a hell just because God gets mad every now and then. There are other ways to respond to anger, and I am pretty sure God knows them. To posit a hell because WE are angry or WE need to have a place where bad people get judged...well, that's just not worth my time.

Now I realize a lot of people believe in hell, but I wonder what we would become if we gave up our belief in hell? What would change in the way we deal with people, our enemies, our fears, our confusions if we didn't have hell to bail us out? What might God be able to do with us if we didn't keep putting this idea of hell in God's way?

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

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