Thoughts On Hell, Sin, Grace, Works
by Mark Knox
I was raised by a United Methodist minister and so, while my father saw to it that theological matters were frequently the topic of discussion (and debate) within our home, the topic of hell rarely came up. Methodists are often known for their outspoken position on many subjects but hellfire and brimstone is not one of them.
Imagine my discomfort, then, when recently my eleven year old earnestly asked me for my thoughts on hell. I knew there was much more hanging in the balance of her question than I was equipped to answer on 30 seconds’ notice, and so I did the only prudent thing I could think of – I asked her for some time to think it over.
That night, I remembered the one time I decided to pigeon-hole my own father into an answer on the subject. We were alone in a boat in the middle of a mountain lake, the day was beautiful and silent and I felt it was the perfect time to spring an ambush; and so I asked. He obviously wasn’t expecting my question, but he just slowly exhaled through his teeth as he so often did when he thought deeply on something. When he finally gave me his simple answer, I found it to be so quietly profound that it would shape my thinking on the subject for years to come.
He said he had no idea what hell is truly like; whether or not it actually resembles Dante’s vision of a lake of fire with capering demons tormenting dispossessed souls with pitchforks. He said that to him hell was simply the awareness of, and the desire for, God while being completely and irredeemably separated from the presence of God. He said that if that was indeed the nature of hell, there was really no need to threaten him with Dante’s eternal fire; the cold reality he imagined was, to him, far worse.
So in answer to my daughter’s inquiry, I sat down and began to sketch out my own vision of hell, or at least the mechanics involved, based on my emergent theology. When I was finished, I found I had actually drawn up a fairly concise summary of the core of my beliefs, not just around hell, but also on the nature of sin, God’s relationship to mankind and my own (again, very simplistic) answer to the old “grace vs. works” conundrum.
So here is a summary of my serendipitous discovery- my personal theology in a nutshell. If someone stumbles across this post, is gracious enough to read it in its entirety and wants to take issue with any portion of it, please do so. I am still (and always) learning, though I do I feel these points are scripturally based and not some “Oprah-fied” version of Christian thought. Finally, while I reached all of these conclusions on my own, I know none of this is uncharted territory. As in G.K. Chesterton’s analogy of the man who sets out to discover a new land and ends up “re-discovering” Europe a few miles from his own home, I know this has all been covered before, somewhere; but here goes-
1. Scripture tells me- and I believe- that God is perfect in his Goodness, and as such, does not dwell in the presence of sin.
2. God has created and ordained man to reflect both his nature and his will here on earth. Christ himself made this clear. Our true “human”-ness, that which is the better part of our nature, is therefore also our “Godly”-ness.
3. Because of these two points a person cloaked in sin does not reflect the nature of God any more than a dingy, dust-covered mirror can reflect the morning sun. (C.S. Lewis has a great analogy along these lines but I can’t seem to find the quote right now.) Sin, for want of a better description, makes a person opaque. But more than just opaque, sin creates a barrier that precludes the very presence of God in the sinner’s own heart. God, in his perfectness, chooses not to abide in the presence of sin; we, as humans, are free to choose whether or not to allow sin to take root in our lives.
4. As humans we are to pray (converse with God) worship (experience God) and attempt right living (demonstrating God) in order to banish sin in our own lives and “polish” the spirit, therefore more fully reflecting God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.
5. Works, therefore, are merely part of right living as we assimilate into God’s nature. I believe we are saved by God’s Grace, but in that saving, we are expected to continuously define ourselves by doing God’s will in our world. In other words, as we are forgiven a huge debt through Grace, we should actually live as someone who has been forgiven a huge debt. This outlook and practice is how the world should most clearly distinguish God’s people from others.
6. Heaven then becomes less of a reward, at least in the classic “carrot and stick” sense of the term, and more of a natural extension of one’s relationship with God and one’s continued refinement of the spirit. Someone might counter that this is “salvation through acts” but that is not actually the case, unless one is contrasting this way of life with the alternative of doing absolutely nothing and merely waiting for the kingdom of God.
7. Hell, therefore (and this is where I know I will run afoul of more fundamentalist viewpoints) is less a recompense and more of a logical conclusion to our own actions. God has given us free will, and just as I have afforded my children free will, this means allowing us to live with consequence. When my children choose to break one of the rules my wife and I have set for them to live by, they know with no uncertainty what the consequence to that transgression will be. Though we may be angry or disappointed in their behavior, the consequence itself does not arise out of our anger or disappointment, but rather their own actions. It is not retributive; it is simply cause and effect within the framework of our family.
So when one purposefully chooses to allow sin to dominate their life, they are simultaneously allowing God’s presence in their life to be diminished. When God’s essence is irredeemably extinguished, either by personal rejection of God or by death in sin, that person simply no longer has a place in God’s kingdom. God’s condemnation, therefore, comes from the framework of free will he has created in his universe, not from a vengeful spirit or personal retribution. We walk ourselves into hell of our own accord because we have extinguished God from our lives. To say otherwise is, to me, a refutation of Christ’s assertions that ours is a God of love.
8. Mankind is not perfect as God is, and therefore we are incapable, on our own, of adequately banishing sin to the point where we might reflect something as perfect as God. Thereby the atonement arising from the sacrifice of Christ’s humanity, even within his own divinity, becomes the mechanism through which God and man can be reconciled. God experienced life as a human; man experienced a human who represented what our true nature is intended to be.
So that is it; at least as of November 2012. I’m a neophyte, both in writing like this and in my newly discovered faith. I don’t promote this blog yet because I don’t really feel I write well enough to ask people to read it. However, if someone happens across it and wants to critique these thoughts I would be extremely grateful for any constructive input.