Must a Christian believe in the existence of hell?
There was a time when Christian preaching included an obligatory mention of hell to shake up lukewarm or incorrigible believers. In our day the very notion of such a place of punishment scandalizes people, so incompatible does it seem to be with faith in a God of love. Could Christ really consent to the definitive loss of someone for whom he gave his life to the end?
Any reflection on the meaning of this difficult doctrine must begin with a surprising observation: hell only appears simultaneously with the Gospel! The Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, speak rather of Sheol, the kingdom of the dead located beneath the earth. A place of shadow, the land of forgetting from which nobody returns (see Psalm 88:8-12; Job 7:9), Sheol is basically a transcription in spatial terms of the reality of death. In this sense it is the “meeting-place of every mortal” (Job 30:23), although the fact that God is considered to be absent indicates a certain affinity with sin.
If God is the God of life, however, can he allow death to have the last word? Some believers proclaimed an incredible conviction: “You cannot abandon my soul to Sheol; you cannot allow your friend to see the grave” (Psalm 16:10). Their hope against all hope led some in Israel to look forward to a resurrection at the end of time. And this expectation born of their faith entered into history through the Messiah Jesus, “firstborn from the dead” (Colossians 1:18) and so “the eldest of many brothers and sisters” (Romans 8:29).
Faith in the risen Christ provides the certainty that death is not the ineluctable fate of humankind. God’s love is stronger still, as is shown in the Russian icon where Christ goes down into Sheol to break open the gates and free the captives. As a consequence, the “place of perdition” undergoes a radical change of character. Far from being a place where God seems to be absent, it now manifests the reality of sin as seen in the light of Christ. It translates into spatial categories “the second death” (Revelation 20:6), in other words the obstinate refusal to welcome the love God offers to everyone at all times. The notion of hell thus reveals two essential facets of God’s unconditional love: it fully respects human freedom, and it remains present for each person even when they refuse to accept it. It thus expresses, in paradoxical fashion, the good news that the light shines everywhere, even for those who keep their eyes shut out of fear or vexation.
Is this situation definitive? Seen from within, our hells always appear to be closed circles without end. But does the creature exist who can outlast God’s patience by his or her refusal? As the first of God’s poor, Christ Jesus does not impose himself. But “he will not grow weary or give up” until he has accomplished his mission to bring peace everywhere (see Isaiah 42:2-4), and his weakness is stronger than human strength (see 1 Corinthians 1:25).
Did Jesus speak about hell?
Far from offering literal and objective descriptions of spiritual realities, the words of Jesus want to help us enter into the truth about God and about ourselves. Jesus speaks and acts to communicate the joyful news of what God is undertaking in the world, and to invite human beings to participate in it by a yes that commits their entire being to follow him. In this sense, all the declarations of Jesus are only a development of his first words in the Gospel of Mark: “The time has come and the Reign of God is at hand: change your outlook and believe in the Good News!” (Mark 1:15.)
At the same time, Jesus adapted his message to the condition of his hearers. He did not speak to all in the same way. To make himself understood, he used categories and expressions familiar to his hearers. Like Saint Paul after him, he tried to become “all things to all persons, in order to save some by all means possible” (1 Corinthians 9:22).
And so, when he was confronted by people who refused to take him seriously, particularly the elite of the nation who thought they already knew everything about God and God’s plans, Jesus made use of uncompromising language along the lines of the prophets before him, to try and demolish their illusory arrogance. On occasion he threatened the teachers of religion, who considered themselves above criticism but who in fact were keeping people from discovering God’s ways, with “the gehenna of fire” (Matthew 23:33; see 5:22). Gehenna, or the Valley of Hinnom, was a place near Jerusalem where rubbish was burnt. Earlier it was reputedly the site where the god Moloch was worshipped, among other things by human sacrifices.
If Jesus spoke in this way, it is because he wanted to do all in his power to break through the hardened shell of this or that group. But he never created guilty consciences in people. On the contrary, when he encountered individuals who thought they were far from God—a woman caught in adultery (John 8), a wealthy man with a bad reputation (Luke 19)—he had only words of sympathy and comprehension. One of the criticisms of him was that he was “a friend of sinners” (Matthew 11:19).
We have understood absolutely nothing, then, when we use the harsh words of Jesus to create fear in people, and use this fear to achieve our own ends, even spiritual ones. Anyone who acts in this way presents a caricature of God that turns others away from true faith, and ironically, the most severe words of Jesus were aimed precisely at such people (see Matthew 18:6). The fact that Jesus sometimes mentioned the possibility of being lost for ever is explained in reality by his burning desire to communicate the living water of the Spirit to every human being, by his conviction that authentic happiness is found only in a communion of love with his Father.
Letter from Taizé: 2005/6