The lightening rod that put the topic of Hell on our collective front page was Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins. The book made the pages of local newspapers, news magazines, and religious journals. Some were comforted by its message, and others were downright mad about it.
Whatever the book prompts in readers, hearty amens or calls for the death penalty, Bell does eloquently make the point of the immediacy of hell’s influence on our lives now. He cites the example of children in Rwanda who have had limbs machetied off by guerrilla soldiers to show the soldiers’ contempt for the victims. Bell says, “Have you ever sat with a woman while she talked about what it is like to be raped…or with a wife who has just found out that her husband has been cheating on her for years?” Hell!
Jesus once said of the kingdom of God that it is not detected or made known by big visible events but rather that it is present in the acts of people doing the work of the kingdom of God. So we know about the work of God’s kingdom when we see people doing noble, compassionate, loving things in the name of God.
If, according to Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is in the midst of us, can’t hell be in the midst of us as well? Living among us in the rapist, the thief, the liar, the Ponzi schemer, the gossip, Ratko Mladic, the indifferent, and the self-righteous? Just as the work of the kingdom can be seen in the joy and peace it brings, so also we can see all around us the pain, alienation, and despair that hell brings.
A distraction in the discussion about Bell’s book is whether hell is a place or a state of being. A bigger issue is the awful damage that hell creates both in this life and the next. The wasteland that hell creates is frightful, no matter where that wasteland is.
At the heart of hell’s influence is human choice. Hell is ultimately choice. In his book, The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis helps make this point as fictional bus riders on a trip from hell to heaven talk about the choice of staying in heaven or returning on the bus to hell.
How could anyone make the choice to remain in hell? People do it all the time by electing to live in the awfulness of their lives rather than choose the changes that would give them life in the kingdom of God.