In light of the recent kerfuffle over Rob Bell and his alleged universalism, I thought it might be a nice time to scratch down a couple of my thoughts on hell. Now whatever you think of Bell and his not-yet-explained “love wins” thesis, he definitely puts his finger on the crucial issue, namely, that what’s at stake in these matters is ultimately the doctrine of God. So, merely to argue for or against hell on the basis of certain biblical passages without also inquiring into the God who suffers its existence is to fail to follow exegesis through to its proper terminus.
I say all of this because in what follows, I’m going to perpetrate just such an exegetical failure. I’m going to offer an account of the matter without explicit reference to the doctrine of God. I’ll admit, it’s bad theology – but on the plus side, by doing it this way I can hopefully retain the much-needed plausible deniability that blogging requires.
So as I see it, the NT (esp. the synoptic gospels) is fundamentally about a clash of two kingdoms: the kingdom of this world, and the coming kingdom of Christ. Accordingly, the passages in Scripture which speak of final judgment seem to me to exist primarily to expose this dynamic. It follows that if they also give us insight into actual future events, then we must grant 1) that they do this only secondarily and 2) that they speak of such events only to explain and clarify their primary interest. It’s my wager that the primary interest of the judgment passages is apocalypse, which I understand in the sense of showing us what’s really going on.
Take, for instance, the story of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25:31-46. Note how the passage begins with an image of the Son of Man holding court as every nation is gathered before him for judgment. The important thing to remember is that this immediately precedes the account of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, i.e., his public humiliation at the hands of the Empire. The effect, therefore, is something like this: the one to be subjected to judgment is himself also a judge. This is a reality to which our eyes must be opened. That the world is a functioning kingdom is obvious; that there is a rival kingdom is not. Such is the burden of the parable.
Then comes the judgment itself, the criterion of which is the treatment of the downtrodden by those standing trial. Why the downtrodden? Because they are the ones who are the least invested in the kingdom of this world; indeed, they are those whom the world has rejected. This, then, is why the Son of Man identifies himself as king with the hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless, and infirmed, for to the extent that the kingdom of this world fails to entice universal allegiance, ground is thus ceded to another kingdom – the hidden kingdom of Christ. The imperative of the parable, then, is this: choose now which kingdom you will serve. For those who choose the kingdom of this world, the way of Christ will always appear foolish and humiliating, since going that way entails forsaking the structures and systems which make living in the current order a pleasant affair. Nevertheless, the teaching of Jesus is that what appears counterintuitive according to worldly logic is in reality the wiser route, for the enduring kingdom is not the present kingdom; indeed, it will soon be overtaken. Or, to put it another way, throwing in your lot with the kingdom of this world is like signing up to fight for Muammar Ghadafi just because he promises you a free Mercedes.
How, then, does this “kingdom hermeneutic” bring into focus the meaning of v.46, which reads: “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into life eternal”? Well, again, the location of the passage invites us to consider the contrast of the two kingdoms. What we are about to witness is not the wicked’s, but Christ’s punishment; it is he who will receive sentencing before the throne of the world in the next few chapters. Yet this parable narrates the precisely opposite scenario: the judgment of the nations before Christ. When viewed in light of this contrast, a particular feature of the parable stands out, that is, the qualitatively different nature of Christ’s judgment from that of the world. Specifically, whereas the world’s judgment takes place in the midst of the struggle (recall that Jesus wasn’t the only “Messiah” to be executed), Christ’s judgment occurs at the end – it is, so to speak, the last word in the clash of kingdoms and is in that sense “everlasting.” When the kingdom of this world receives its sentence, it won’t just be gone for three days, it will be gone for good.
So what of those who align themselves with this passing kingdom? As I mentioned above, I think it’s entirely appropriate to ask such questions, so long as we respect the text’s primary interests (which I’ve identified, in this case, as the superiority of Christ’s kingdom viz. the world). So here’s my suggestion.
Christians are those who have in faith thrown their lot in with Jesus. As such, they have renounced their identities in the current world order and thereby possess a heavenly citizenship, as Paul suggests. Consequently, Christians live as “strangers and aliens” in this world, i.e., they are here, but they don’t belong. Hell, I’m suggesting, refers to a state of existence which is quite similar. When the kingdom of the Son is revealed, those whose citizenship is not in heaven, that is, those whose citizenship is bound up with the kingdom of the world, will be then what Christians are now: aliens and strangers. Far from being annihilated or thrown into an eternal cosmic prison, they’ll rather live forever “alongside” the kingdom of God as non-citizens. Like Tom Hanks’ character in “The Terminal,” the wicked will arrive in the Son’s kingdom only to be informed that their homeland is no more. Yet unlike that character, whose country was eventually restored, and unlike Christians today, who are homeless not because they lack a home, but because they are far from it, the wicked will exist in a state of perpetual homelessness, eternally conscious that their “country” has been erased by the final establishment of Christ’s kingdom. This, I think, is what hell is.
I realize that I’ve attempted to explain a metaphor by appeal to another metaphor – but perhaps that’s for the best. What’s real is Christ’s victory, and how that should be narrated in terms of future events is a tricky affair from this vantage point.
The interesting thing about this understanding of hell, I think, is that it has space for both particularist and universal forms of salvation. But I’ll just leave that there.