Hell: Revisited (Again)

July 3, 2010

So, quite awhile back I wrote a sort-of “Hell Redefined” article in which I explored why I couldn’t hold to the traditional and most popular Christian version of hell (click here to read it).

In it, I explored other avenues of what “hell” could be; throughout Christian history there have been other ways of looking at it. Many popular propositions have stated that it might be a lack of existence–that those who don’t find salvation simply cease to be. There have been theological ideas that propose a sort of universal salvation–either one which sees the saving work of Christ to be definitive and good for the redemption of all creation– past and future–or one which opts for a pluralistic stance that sees different religious paths as having truth within which lead to the same God that Jesus points to for Christians.

I rejected (and still do) the idea that the God I worship would castigate anyone to eternal, unceasing, unimaginable torment. I proposed a view that takes a little from many of the theories I mentioned in the above-paragraph, a view that allows for multiple paths to “salvation”– a freeing salvation from the bonds that try and tie us in this life and a progressive continuance back to God in what comes after this life; I held out that maybe for those that cease to cultivate faith, belief, or love of any kind simply cease to exist if for no other reason than that they never cultivated a spiritual essence in this life that would be left to continue.

Recently I have studied and read much in Islam, through a summer class I have been in. As someone who hopes to someday teach World Religion courses, it’s a religion I’ve studied before but not in as much depth as this course took me through and as has inspired me to dig further into on my own. Unlike many religion courses I’ve taken, both in and outside of my own faith tradition, this course and the reading I did as a result of it, has caused me to step back and re-evaluate much of what I’ve drawn conclusions on. It has caused me to want to devote an intense-focus of my own studies and work on Muslim-Christian relations and comparative ethics and theologies of the two traditions.

Which brings me to this article. I can’t say that the following view is a blanket term for all of Islam, nor would I say that about many views. But from what I understand, a major theory on hell in Islam sees it as necessary yet temporary–at least for the individual.

In Islam, all persons are accountable for all of their actions. Every good and bad deed a person commits must be weighed. Islam is a consistent, logical religion which views all of the universe participating in this ordered, logical and ultimately Just system. So, one is and must be accountable for one’s actions; intentions are weighed in regards to those actions as well– thus, if someone does the right thing for the wrong reason it very well may not “count.” Also, good “weighs” more than bad–as a result, the intention to do good is rewarded, sometimes even when the action doesn’t occur, but the intention to do bad isn’t punished unless the bad action is committed. Furthermore, the good deeds done on this earth weigh more than the bad ones. Which brings us to hell–in Islam, there must be Justice. Living in this world shows us that true justice isn’t always served, however. Sometimes evil people prosper and good people suffer, this is the age-old “problem of evil” that all world religions attempt to deal with in their own manner. Islam deals with this by insisting on accountability in the afterlife. A person whose good deeds outweigh their bad deeds enters into paradise, into the presence of God and the reward for their faithfulness. But a person whose bad deeds outweigh their good deeds must pay for those bad deeds, and so they must enter the fires of hell. What I’ve written so far in this paragraph would likely be affirmed by the majority of Muslims; this next part I do not assume is affirmed by all, but I’ve read it enough to believe it is a popular and possibly predominant view: the punishment of hell is temporary and the fire is more of a “cleansing fire.” This view isn’t reserved to only Muslims, the famous Christian theologian Origen proposed it as well (though he was deemed a heretic, he is now receiving closer re-evaluation from Christian academics and leaders). In this Muslim view, the bad deeds must be paid for but the good deeds must also be rewarded; so, after the fire cleanses the person of their sins, they enter into paradise. Some Muslims believe such a person will be “marked” in a way from their time in hell but will otherwise experience their eternal reward.

This view is far more logical than a view which proposes eternal and unending torment. Views such as that are incompatible with a loving God–punishment that doesn’t reform and that never ends is merely torture and there seems to be no way a God of Love and Justice could order such a thing. Of course, there have been Christian views which propose that a person is consumed in the fire and then ceases to be, but Islam rejects this notion on the belief that existence is non-negotiable and a simple “ceasing to be” is impossible.

This view of hell is also more inclusive than evangelical doctrines which assign all to hell who do not find salvation through “right belief” in Jesus Christ–at least the Islamic view is based on orthopraxis (right action). It holds people fully accountable for how they live in this world, so I see the beauty and sense in it.

It’s food for thought, like much of what I am learning about Islam. Ultimately my own view still lies closer to the one I linked this article to, but that view may still require a bit of re-evaluation for myself. As a Christian, I do not believe any of us can ever truly be good enough to earn or deserve an eternal reward. As a post-modern Christian of the “emerging paradigm” variety, I believe my focus should be more concerned with this world–in doing justice, in loving with kindness, and working to live in the ever-present Kingdom. I believe salvation is as much concerned with this world–in being free from chains of greed, doubt, fear, rejection, consumption, etc–as it is about continuing in the hereafter. I still believe there are different paths to this salvation and I still believe that what truly awaits us when our physical bodies are gone is beyond our capacity of knowledge. But I’m enlightened by grasping ideas in their complexity and logic from other traditions so that I might better understand where the other is coming from and I feel like I’m on a path of life-long inquiry as a result of that.



One Response to “Hell: Revisited (Again)”

  1. charles boteler said

    Good article. I confess that I am a universalist because religion is not a zero sum proposition. Hell is an attractive concept as it allows our enemies to be punished. If God is to triumph over evil,however, all of God’s creation must benefit from eternal union with God. As you point out the real concern is the here and now. Religions seek relationship with God in the present, grounded in the past, and hopeful for the future. There is too much to do now without worrying about eternity. As a matter of faith I believe God is big enough to take care of it.

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