Where, When, Why and How Does “Hell” Ever Exist?

Posted on May 9, 2011 by


The cover of the April 25, 2011 Time magazine featured, in bold letters, this question: What If There’s No Hell? The question was being raised relative to an article in the issue by Jon Meacham, entitled “Is Hell Dead?”,  addressing the controversy and consternation swirling among many Christians in the wake of a new best-selling book – Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. The book seems to be especially troubling for conservative and evangelical Christians because it is written by one of their own — Pastor Rob Bell of the 7000-member Mars Hill Bible Church, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Bell says he was moved to write the book after a quotation from Mohandas Gandhi, which was part of an art exhibit held at the church, drew this response on a note that someone stuck next to the quotation: “Reality check: He’s in Hell.”

Really? Bell recalls thinking. Gandhi’s in hell? He is? We have confirmation of this? Without a doubt?

The charismatic pastor, who wonders if a great shift is coming to U.S. Christianity, says he is just raising the possibility that theological rigidity and dogma are dangerous,and produce a faith of exclusion; that he is not certain that the heavenly promise of the Christian tradition is limited only to those who satisfy the demands of the church; that every person who ever lived just might have a place in heaven – whatever that turns out to be – through the loving grace of GOD.  He says belief in Jesus should lead humans to work for the good of the world, living with the mystery of what happens next, and being honest that we are “speculating” about what happens when we die. “Because we are,” he says. “When we get to what happens when we die, we don’t have any video footage.”

The so-called evangelical community has come down hard on Bell’s thinking, calling it “theologically disastrous,” subversive, even; that it leaves the church without its most powerful sanction; that it erases the distinction between the church and the world – “then you don’t need the church, and you don’t need Christ, and you don’t need the cross,” one Southern Baptist official argues. Surely, they must be wondering what theological disaster or “subversive” issue might be next; what great shift might be lurking beyond the horizon.

Seems to me that the Black church is way out front on this issue, based on my very limited exposure, particularly at funerals, where more often than not it is asserted that the deceased has gone to “a better place” – thanks to the love of GOD, no matter how shallow or shady his or her character seemed to be while among the living.

On the other hand, I was present for a youth day worship service in a Baptist church here in Bible belt Virginia, and the pastor was delivering a rather fiery, dogmatic, emotional exhortation. Turning his attention specifically to the few teens and tweens who were present, he admonished them that they had better realize and embrace the truth and wisdom of his words, adding, “Because I ain’t going to Hell for none of y’all.” As if to say: What I’m inspired to say to you is the only truth you need to know; as if to dismiss or rebuff any impulse or query that he imagined them (or anyone) needing to explore.

But what if there is no Hell?

The Time article asserts that the Bible is the product of human hearts and minds, as are the theological perspectives arising from it, including the great variety of opinions regarding the existence and nature of a literal or figurative Hell that exist throughout Christianity. The article also asserts that Eurocentric concepts of Hell are fueled by the works of European artists more than by Biblical teachings. Additionally, the wide variety of view-points regarding after-life punishment (or not) among the spiritual traditions of the ancient and contemporary world range from eternal to temporary; from beyond thermonuclear hot to beyond the coldest cold into which no energy can flow and obliterating explosion is the end product. It might be said that Hell is in the eye – the heart and mind — of the believer and his/her spiritual community.

(Why do I hear Minister Louis Farrakhan’s well-know phrase right here?: “The White man’s Heaven is the Black man’s Hell!”)(Yet another’s words seem appropriate here also:Through clever and constant application of propaganda, people can be made to see paradise as hell, and also the other way round, to consider the most wretched sort of life as paradise.”  — Adolph Hitler)

In ancient Kemet (Egypt) – perhaps humanity’s most influential civilization ever — the “democratization of religion” within the tradition of Asar and Aset (Osiris and Isis) offered the prospect of eternal life to every follower. Moral fitness was the dominant factor in determining a person’s eternity, as decided by a communal spiritual tribunal presided over by forty-two divine judges. The person judged to have lived according to the principles of Maat (truth and right living) was welcomed into what we might call a heavenly eternity. If found guilty the person was thrown to a “devourer” and didn’t share in the heavenly eternal life, was subjected to terrifying punishment and then annihilated and/or required to return to try earthly existence yet another time. But the significant bottom line in the tradition was always the possibility of Divine pardon at judgment. From Christianity to Judaism to Islam to various African traditions and beyond, in some form or fashion, these pioneering spiritual perspectives of our worthy ancestors continue to have impact.

In more recent times, a profound perspective drawn from the broad spectrum of African spiritual traditions gives the significant context (in my opinion) for this question of Hell; presented in Ayi Kwei Armah’s book, “2000 Seasons”: “. . . there is a great force in the world, a force spiritual and able to shape the physical universe, but . . . that force is not something cut off, not something separate from ourselves. It is an energy in us, strongest in our working, breathing, thinking together as one people; weakest when we are scattered, confused, broken into individual, unconnected fragments.”

In this context, whenever we speak of GOD/NTR/ORISHA, etc., we are inherently, to some degree, speaking of ourselves. In that context Hell is, indeed, the product of the hearts and minds of humans who have lost – by one means or another — the vision, strength, determination and wisdom for working, thinking and breathing together as one people to produce, protect and perpetuate the greatest good for the greatest of their numbers; who have lost the consciousness of their right and responsibility to do so; who have lost awareness of and respect for the traditions established by their ancestors for that great undertaking; who cannot see themselves as bringers of significant light and truth to the arena of the whole human family but become, in a very large and pathetic sense, the volunteer victims of the visions and definitions – the theologies and traditions – of others. I’m with those who hold that the Almighty Omnipotence that cannot be harmed by anything in creation is not in the business of condemning souls to an eternal damnation. That would be something of our own making.

In this context, the perspective of prolific Christian apologist [C.S.] Lewis is pertinent:  that the doors of hell are locked from the inside rather than from the outside; that if escape from hell never happens, it is not because “God” is not willing that it should happen. Instead, residence in hell is eternal because that is just what persons in hell have chosen for themselves.

Additionally, this perspective from Jewish teachings looms relevant: Being out of alignment with “God’s” will is itself a punishment according to the Torah.

The following words from one of our worthy ancestors — George Washington Carver, taken in their most expansive application, put a large and substantive punctuation mark on the subject: “When our thoughts – which bring actions – are filled with hate against anyone, Negro or white, we are in a living hell. That is as real as hell will ever be.

Ankh, Udja, Seneb!

–Bro. Mxolisi