What If There’s No Hell? Really?

The recent Time magazine cover story What If There’s No Hell? stimulated debates in the media as well as within the Christian community. Maybe because I was raised in a Buddhist context, or maybe it is an innate problem within the Western way of thinking (i.e. reductionism), I just couldn’t help but see a serious fallacy in both sides of the debates on the subject of hell.

All these debates come out of an assumption—that this world is a neutral place and there is hell below and heaven above, and that God decides to send some to hell and others to heaven based on their beliefs. In order to avoid getting stuck in the same framework, let us look at the issue afresh through Buddhist eyes to begin with.

The Buddhists literally see this world as hell—a place of never ending cycles of suffering. The starting point of a Buddhist is to acknowledge the fact that “life sucks!” But the Buddhists don’t know where human suffering got started. Only the Bible clearly reveals that it started with human sin and that we are living in a “fallen world.”

However, the Western Christians don’t like to bring up the issue of the Fall. They like to stop at the first part of Genesis—that everything God created is good—happy-go-lucky singing, “All things bright and beautiful, All creatures great and small, All things wise and wonderful, The Lord God made them all!

The Buddhists are more realistic in this case. They call this world a “sea of suffering.” The Western Christians need to face the fact that this world is fallen, and stop pushing hell out of sight into a distant future.

On the other hand, the Buddhists don’t have a good solution, except to escape from this suffering world by trying to cease to exist—entering nirvana (nothingness). Maybe that’s the best human beings can come up with. But according to Karl Barth, the Reformed theologian, nothingness is the same as hell because it is equivalent to eternal death. God wants to save us from this sea of suffering and eternal death, and to provide opportunity for us to live happily ever after—that’s heaven.

There are many Christians and ministers alike who stand on either extreme based on the assumption that this world is neutral. From that perspective, God seems to be cruel to send anyone to hell. They ask, “How could a loving God send anyone to hell?” So, in order to save God’s reputation, some of them want to eliminate hell.

However, this world is not neutral. If we realize that this world is already hell, or at least hell-bound, and that all God has been doing is to save us from the hellish reality, then the cruelty of God is just a misconception.

Hell is, simply put, the absence of God, just as darkness the absence of light. Only when we recognize this fact, then God’s work of salvation through Christ becomes Good News. God just wants to shine into our darkness.

M. Scott Peck, a psychiatrist and the author of The Road Less Travelled, became a Buddhist for a decade before returning to Christianity. He said that Buddhism helped him see the present reality. In his bestselling book, he asked people to acknowledge that “life is difficult,” before they can recover from their psychological and emotional problems. “Life is difficult” is what he learned from Buddhism, but like many Americans, he missed it from his church’s teaching. When they do talk about hell, most churches talk about it as if it is only in the future, but it’s right under our noses.

In his second book, Further along the Road Less Travelled, Peck revealed his faith journey. He realized that he had mistakenly wandered into Buddhism for ten years, but he never regretted the experience because he came to appreciate Christianity like never before because of what he learned in Buddhism.

Our elder, Noemy Bancroft once told me, “I don’t want to know about the future hell because I have already lived in hell. This life is hell enough and nothing can be worse.” As a pastor, I have seen many lives that have been through hell. Of course, my childhood has been hell. I am thankful every day for God’s grace in giving me heaven, both now on earth and for eternity.

Heaven is also not just something in the future. It’s the fact that, while we are still living in this suffering world, the hope we received from the risen Christ has allowed us to be able to bear the hellfire of this life. That hope is not wishful thinking, but a conviction through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Because of the Holy Spirit in me, I can feel heaven every day.

Paul said in 2 Corinthians 4:16, “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” (NRSV) This inner nature is the heaven in us and it is going to enter the eternity when our bodies wear away.

So is there a hell? We can see it right here right now if we are willing. Gautama Buddha was a prince of India, who was shielded from seeing life’s tragedies. One day, he passed through a busy street and saw four scenes of suffering: childbirth, aging, sickness, and death. He felt he had seen hell. After returning home, he couldn’t get those images out of his mind, so he left the palace and became a monk and later became enlightened.

However, you don’t have to become a Buddhist, like M. Scott Peck, to see the reality. We just have to stop the denial. The denial will only make our suffering more painful because we falsely imagine this world to be better than it is. Denial will make us blame God for the future hell and fail to embrace God’s gift of salvation.

Pretending hell doesn’t exist will not eliminate the pain. You might be surprised to find the exact opposite to be true, acknowledging it makes life much easier to cope.

There is no “what if” question like “what if there’s no hell?” Turn on the news and you will see glimpses of hell, and open the Bible and you will see glimpses of heaven. The future heaven and hell is just the intensified perpetuation of what we see now.

We just celebrated Easter. The message of Easter cannot be fully appreciated without acknowledging the hell scene on Good Friday—the crucifixion of Christ is the worst example of hell on earth.

As believers, now we have hope because of Easter and because it shows us that our next stop in our life journey is not nothingness, but eternal living—real and full living without suffering but eternal peace, love, and joy at the eternal presence of a loving God. Happy Easter!


Trackback URL for this entry:

No trackback comments for this entry.


Facebook Like

Cultivate Your Life

Only a cultivated life becomes fruitful, only a fruitful life glorifies God, and only a God-glorifying life is worth living!" ~ Sam Stone

Join our mailing list

join our mailing list

Facebook Like Box

Social Media Connections

RSS Feed
RSS Feed

Follow us on the Networked Blogs

Popular tags at this site

Tag Menu