Years ago, when I was doing youth ministry and preparing my weekly Bible study, I decided it was time to bring out the big guns… it was time to talk about Hell. Now, I was never one for beating people over the head with the threat of Hell. I had never taught on it before, and I didn’t feel like it was the main thrust of Christianity, certainly there was no need to harp on it when there was so much more of Christian life to explore. However, I also felt uncomfortable with my English church’s complete avoidance of difficult or negative topics. I was a dyed in the wool Southern Baptist! Hell, the Rapture, and church potlucks were some of the main pillars of my faith! I decided that the time had come to at least approach the subject for the sake of teaching a well-rounded view of Christianity.
Being a devotee of expository preaching, where one teaches on word meanings and context rather than cherrypicking soundbites that may or may not mean what the preacher says, I sat down with my Bible, my trusty Bible study websites and software (yes, I’m old), and a few books and began to study what, exactly, the Bible says about Hell. To my complete surprise, the details were sketchy at best or completely misunderstood at worst. Not for the last time in my Christian leadership career, I ran into a couple of hard realities: 1) the Church deals in half-truths, wrong assumptions, and intentional ignorance, and 2) real study of the Bible many times leads to more confusion rather than clarity.
To my disgust, I must admit that I went ahead with the lesson. I had tied myself in knots trying to make sense of the text and to make it say what I had been taught that it said. I did not let on to the kids or to the adult helpers that I had serious doubts about what I was teaching. I conviced myself that it was better to sound the warning without a clear understanding than it was to ignore the subject and let the young people in my charge face the possibility of Hell unwarned. I felt right about it at the time, I feel ashamed now.
Perhaps as penance (yes, I’m using that word sacrastically), my plan now is to write the next few posts on various issues around the subject of the Christian understanding of Hell. There may be those reading that don’t see the value in this. Why would I bother? After all, if I’m not a believer and Christianity is all fiction anyway, why spend time doing a Bible study on any given subject? Am I not just giving oxygen to fire? The answer is that fear of Hell tortures multitudes of people. From the devout, to the deconverting, to the nominal believer, to the completely unreligious who still have some little flicker of fear in the back of their minds, the threat of eternal, conscious, fiery torment hangs over people’s hearts and minds. If I can unpick and unpack this threat in order to expose it as false, unfounded, and untenable, perhaps I can help to alleviate those fears and bring peace to those afraid to take the next step away from their abusive relationship with faith.
In term if my method, I could, of course, merely state that all of religion is hogwash and there is no need for fear. But, I would argue that, for some, that simple truth does not allay their fears. I believe that the best way to debunk Christianity is to use it’s own ammunition against itself. Picking apart the Bible destroys the basis of the doctrine and gives the individual tools to not only defend themselves against pastors, evangelists, or well-meaning family members, it allows them to turn the tables. The do-gooder will see simple refusal as rebellion against God, proof of their sinfulness, and will goad them on to continue the attack. Actual knowledge of the Bible will shut down the argument and, hopefully, prompt soul-searching and Scripture searching on the part of the believer… and I think we know where that can lead.