Hell is what happens when human beings say to the God in whose image they were made, we don’t want to worship You. We don’t want our human life to be shaped by worshiping You. We don’t want who we are as humans to be transformed by the love of Jesus dying and rising for us. We don’t want any of that. We want to stay as we are and do our own thing.
What Is Hell Like? Does It Even Exist?
by N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham in the Church of England
The word hell has had a checkered career in the history of the church. And it wasn’t hugely important in the early days. It was important, but not nearly as important as it became in the middle ages. And in the middle ages, you get this polarization of heaven over here and hell over there, and you have to go to one place or the other eventually.
So you have the Sistine Chapel, with that great thing behind the altar. This enormous great judgment seat, with the souls going off into these different directions.
Very interestingly, I was sitting in the Sistine chapel just a few weeks ago. I was sitting for a service, and I was sitting next to a Greek Orthodox archimandrite who said to me, looking at the pictures of Jesus on one wall. He said, “these I can understand. The pictures of Moses on the other wall, he said, those I can understand.” Then he pointed at the end wall of judgment, and said, “that I cannot understand. That’s how you in the West have talked about judgment and heaven and hell.” He said, “we have never done it that way before, because the Bible doesn’t do it that way.”
I thought, whoops. I think he’s right actually. And whether you’re Catholic or Protestant, that scenario which is etched into the consciousness of Western Christianity really has to be shaken about a bit. Because if heaven and earth are to join together. It’s not a matter of leaving earth and going to heaven. It’s heaven and earth joined together. And then hell is what happens when human beings say to the God in whose image they were made, we don’t want to worship You. We don’t want our human life to be shaped by worshiping You. We don’t want who we are as humans to be transformed by the love of Jesus dying and rising for us. We don’t want any of that. We want to stay as we are and do our own thing.
And if you do that, what you’re saying is, you want to stop being an image bearing human being within this good world that God has made. And you are colluding with your own progressive dehumanization. And that is such a shocking and horrible thing, that it’s not surprising that the biblical writers and others have used very vivid and terrifying language about it.
But, many people have picked that up and said, this is a literal description of reality. Somewhere down there, there is a lake of fire, and it’s got worms in it and it’s got serpents and demons and there coming to get you.
But I think actually, the reality is more sober and sad than that, which is this progressive shrinking of human life. And that happens during this life. But it seems to be that if someone resolutely says to God, I’m not going to worship You. And it’s not just: I’ll not come to church. It’s a matter of deep down somewhere, there is a rejection of the good creator God, then that is the choice that humans make.
In other words, I think the human choices in this life really matter. We’re not just playing a game of chess, where tomorrow morning God will put the pieces back on the board and say, Ok that was just a game, now we’re doing something different. The choices we make here really do matter. There’s part of me that would love to be a universalist and say, it will be alright, everyone will get there in the end. Actually, the choices you make in the present are more important than that.