Writer / director Kevin Miller has recently released a documentary discussing some different conceptions of Hell within Christianity. The Bible clearly makes several references to this lake of fire as the final destination for unrepentant souls, but to Miller and others, the traditionally held notion of eternal damnation seems to contradict the omnibenevolent conception of God. As interfaith ministers of the Universal Life Church, let us look at arguments presented in the film, passages of the Bible, and minister responses to the ideas to critically examine Miller’s points.
For many Christians, Hell is the natural destination for us all as a result of our imperfections. The Bible says the punishment for sin is death (Romans 6:23), and sinners will go away to eternal punishment (Matthew 25:46). This serves as the major deterrent for wronging others. According to this view, humans are born fundamentally flawed; God is the only perfect being, thus insofar as we are not God, we are imperfect. The job of those who become ordained as Christian ministers is to guide sinners away from our tendencies so as to help us avoid being damned to Hell.
For Miller and others, this consequence seems wildly out of proportion to the sins that warrant it. The relationship between God and creation is somewhat akin to that of parent to child, and detractors from the traditional view liken eternal burning as a wage for sins to a parent locking up and torturing his child for the rest of her life for sassing and tattling. Hell doesn’t seem to serve a clear purpose for folks like Miller. If there is no hope to be reprimanded and change, why exact unending punishment?
These Christians tend to focus on the tone of the message of Jesus Christ. One story that Jesus told was of workers in a vineyard, who represent believers. After a full day of laboring, a newcomer joins their efforts just in time to line up, and he receives the same pay as everyone else. When the others protested, the landowner claimed he did not treat anyone unfairly, reminding them that they agreed to the wages and asked “are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20). This story is meant to evoke our reaction to the notion that some will serve God all their lives and some will genuinely seek forgiveness on their death beds, and both will be spared from Hell just the same.
We have a notion that Adolf Hitler wouldn’t be in Heaven, even if he genuinely sought forgiveness. But individuals being deemed “too sinful” to ever be forgiven is exactly the lesson Jesus preached against! Combine this with the fact that anyone suffering in Hell would likely genuinely beg for forgiveness and we are left asking what sets those cries apart from the man on his death bed a.k.a. the final man in the vineyard? Timing. Certainly men and women become ordained or join a Christian church because of the message of love and hope, but God sending someone to burn forever over a timing issue rails against these concepts for Miller.
It seems arguments and questions along these lines are to be expected. The head of the Westboro Baptist Church has released a video response to Miller’s documentary, and he brings some convincing scripture with him. “Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like moral human beings…” (Romans 21). His rebuttal is essentially that what seems to make sense to us doesn’t have bearing on the way the universe actually works. He also mentions verses that describe the end times, when people who haven’t seen the power of God begin to question the logic of His ways (2nd Peter 3). It is a common notion that one of Satan’s biggest lies to us is that he doesn’t exist, or that Hell and consequences don’t exist.
The doctrine of Universalism offers that people do their time in Hell as proportionate with the sins done in life, then they all pass on to join God in Heaven. That seems to escape the points of the Westboro Baptist Church while also embracing the forgiving nature and compassion of Jesus. Scholar Richard Beck has yet another response. He offers that we need the extreme language of hell to conceive of the disappointment of God and understand that we deserve consequences for our actions. Whether or not it actually exists is beside the point for Beck. We are told what we need to hear to give us the incentive to act right and to make a free choice. The Universal Life Church certainly isn’t taking a stance on the actual existence of Hell, but we do agree that ideas like Hell can provide us with a means of calibrating our moral compasses, regardless of what faith sets forth these ideas. Indeed, the very words we choose to live by encourage such deliberation in any faith: “do that which is right.”