All shall be well, and all shall be well,
and all manner of things
shall be well.
Julian of Norwich
I don’t believe in hell anymore.
I don’t think believing in hell makes us very good at loving our neighbor.
It doesn’t makes sense to believe in hell given what we know about human development and trauma and psychology.
And mostly, I don’t believe in hell because I think that God comes for us all. The name of God is Love, and God can’t betray God’s own name.
I don’t believe in hell because I think that it’s grace, all the way down.
Tales of a Tiny Missionary: Evangelical Objectification
I didn’t used to be a hell skeptic. I grew up in fundamentalism, and I believed everything they taught me. I believed in hell so deeply that I wanted to be a missionary so that I could save as many souls as possible.
I was eight when I started practicing, and backed a tiny neighborhood friend into our garage, enthusiastically reading out loud from the Children’s Story Bible. She was uncomfortable, but I was persistent. The next day at Sunday School, I announced that I had “told a neighbor about Christ” and that she “really wanted to hear more about Jesus.” (Reader – she did not). When I started working in restaurants, I used to stay up all night praying for my co-workers, asking God for moments where I could turn the conversation to Jesus (poor Brandon, who had to finish mopping the floor and thus could not escape my triumphant theological trump card – Lord, liar, or lunatic, Brandon??). In college, I hoped that my answers in philosophy class would show students and professors that Jesus was the answer for their meaning-haunted lives. I prayer-walking the campus at midnight, laying hands on brick sorority buildings, praying for revival.
I was so earnest about converting people because I was so scared for their souls, and loved them so much, and truly wanted to save them from being punished for the rest of time by the God that I loved. Every conversation with a non-Christian was a chance to witness, and every friendship with a non-Christian was missional – which is to say that everything that was supposed to be intimate became goal-oriented. Neighborhood BBQ’s were Jesus MLM’s. Politely asking about church was an opening to the Gospel. Most horrifically, when people shared their losses or suffering, those heartbreaks and rock-bottom moments were retold in prayer group – because when our non-Christian neighbor suffers, it means they might just be closer to finding Christ. I’ve sat in those prayer groups. I’ve held hands and thanked God for bringing more “openness” through suffering for people I barely knew.
In our defense, in whatever defense we have – we were so scared.
We were so, so scared.
Imagine looking at your sister, your mother, your next door neighbor, your coworker – good people that you loved! – and believing that they’re only an inch away from eternal damnation. If we did see non-Christians as salvation projects, it was because we loved them so much, and were so scared for them.
In our fear, though, the people that we loved became a project to fix, and whether we intended all these relationships to become manipulative or not – once we have particular outcomes in place for conversations and relationships, that is manipulation. As we try to mold those around us, we stop loving them fully, as they are, without requirements and without strings attached.
I guess if we think that God only loves people with strings attached, why shouldn’t we?
The beginning of doubts about hell got planted during my brief, chaotic, glorious season as an angry atheist. Shortly after leaving Christianity, I got coffee with one of my old philosophy buddies. He was smart and kind and loved Jesus, and was one of my dearest philosophy teammates at our secular university.
While I told my story, Derek got more and more uncomfortable. He twisted in his seat, anxiously interrupting me. He had answers to questions I wasn’t even asking. He may have even dropped the big Lord, liar, or lunatic. I was startled and confused, wondering why our honest, vulnerable conversations had become like like this. Then I realized that I was a non-Christian now. I used to be a whole human being who did beat-the-clock drink challenges with him at Libby’s or took silly pictures at Wagon Hill. Now I was only a project.
Looking back, I know that Derek was just scared. He didn’t have any tools to deal with his faithful Christian friend walking away from absolute truth. It wasn’t his fault. But it broke my heart. I felt unseen and betrayed. I cried the whole way home, at first because I was angry, and then because I knew I had done this to every non-Christian I’d ever loved. I had betrayed them, too.
When I eventually wove my way back to Christianity, that conversation with Derek stuck with me. I stayed uncomfortable with the idea of hell. I still took the Bible seriously if not literally, and the New Testament seemed unflinching about eternal punishment. But something didn’t feel right.
Beyond the objectification of “friendship evangelism,” the idea of hell seemed to have done a lot of damage for a long time. I started to interrogate the idea of “missions” – hell has been the cover for colonization and oppression and white supremacy, as we break into people’s countries, wipe out their cultures, steal their wealth, and insist they accept a God who apparently could not be bothered to speak to them in the culture and with the language they already have.
Hell may be true, but believing in it seemed to be very bad for our souls.
Chaplaining: Stories and Trauma and Cracks in Our Souls
When I worked as a chaplain, hell stopped making sense in another way.
If there is a hell, the criteria for escaping it can’t be just “accepting Jesus before we die.”
When I started working as a chaplain, I really thought that we had a lot of choices about who we are and who we become, but the more I listened to people’s stories, and the more I studied generational trauma and family systems theories, the more it felt like few of us have may fully “free” choices at all.
The reason that some people “accept Jesus” and some people don’t is chance mixed with generational trauma plus cultural baggage plus personality plus the stories we carry with us. I met people who will never go to church again because of an abusive pastor or abusive church community. They’ll never “accept Jesus,” and I can’t imagine any compassionate God blames them for that.
Beyond “accepting Jesus,” the reasons that we seek the good in healthy ways or find ourselves trapped in unhealthy patterns are often also outside of our control. I sat with people with serious mental illnesses like narcissism, formed in them by abusive parents before they could walk. There is no therapeutic treatment for narcissism. A narcissist is hurt so deeply at such a young age that they grow up to do almost infinite damage to everyone around them, because they don’t know how to love or be loved.
Does God really just allow all narcissists to go to hell?
Even though they didn’t choose this? Even though they can’t choose otherwise?
The sins of our mothers and fathers do a number on our souls. Sin makes sin, and hurt people hurt people. Generational wounds and wickedness spill out onto innocent kids, who don’t stay innocent, but grow up to turn those wounds into swords. This doesn’t mean we don’t hold people accountable for evil. It just means that at the root of evil is a deep wound, and some people have fewer choices than we like to admit, in this culture of rugged individualism and bootstraps.
Fully free choices just aren’t an option for everyone on this side of heaven.
Some of us do find a way to healing. But for a lot of people, healing won’t happen, because of terrible luck, because of an unjust system, because of systemic racism, because of generational trauma, because of abuse, because of overly indulgent parents who never taught healthy boundaries or consequences, because of a thousands decisions that were made before they were born that shape who they are.
I can’t believe that Jesus just lets those people go.
God’s grace is either coming for all of us or none of us – otherwise, we’re all just one traumatic childhood way from being cast out of the Presence.
Annihilation itself is no death to evil.
Only good where evil was, is evil dead….
That alone is the slaying of evil.
When I started letting go of the theology hell, it astonished me how angry some Christians were about it. Wouldn’t it be a good thing if this weren’t true?
But in their anger, I hear an echo of the workers in the vineyard, who showed up early and then watched in shock and rage as the ones who never even went to church stream into the Kingdom of Heaven.
I hear an echo of the older prodigal son who couldn’t believe that this punk kid was getting a party when “I have been good for so long.“
Sometimes I wonder if Christians are angry at the idea of universalism because they don’t actually enjoy being Christians. Their faith is a Get Out Of Jail Free Card, and if they have to tolerate the misery of religion in order to get to heaven, how dare anyone else get in without it.
We need the bad people to be punished, otherwise why did we work so hard??
If you take away hell, it forces us to reexamine why we’re Christians at all.
If we’re only Christians because of fear, then universalism will crush our entire religion.
The mark of a mature faith, though, is not one based around fear of punishment (1 John 4:18). In a faith based on love, not fear, we’re Christians because it is good to be here, because we’ve found something true and beautiful in the Person of Jesus Christ, because our lives are stronger and richer since we’ve met Him, because we have found Love.
If I found out today that there’s no eternal reward for loving Jesus on this side of death, I would still love Jesus, so very much. I would still show up at church. I would still write words trying to help us all encounter a God who aches to encounter us. I would still believe in the deep, deep love of Jesus, in this life even without the next.
“This much is certain –
that we have no theological right to set any sort of limits to the loving-kindness of God which has appeared in Jesus Christ.”
I do believe that there’s another side to this life, and I believe that in that new heaven and new earth, every one of us will be gathered into Love.
But what about free will? Do we get a say at all?
I don’t believe in a God who is chasing us down and forcing us to worship God when we decide we don’t want to. What an awful idea. Consent matters.
But God isn’t an angry, punitive father figure, a divine top cop hunting for people to love Him or to suffer the consequences.
If the name of God is Love, then God is the One who sustains everything that ever is and ever will be through love. Everything that has ever tasted like joy is God. Being gathered into Love means that for the very first time we’ll be entirely free of our own broken souls that keep hijacking us to chase power or lust or greed. For the first time, we’ll actually be able to make a free choice – without the defensiveness and rage and fear that has always seemed to keep us from loving and being fully loved on earth.
Maybe there is always a choice to reject God, but if our souls are whole, cleaned of our baggage and woundedness – would a fully healed person ever say no to a God whose name is Love?
I do believe in a just God, a God who cares about the poor and oppressed, a God who does bring judgment to people who do great evil.
But God’s judgment is restorative, not punitive. If Hell is just a place people get sent to punish them, to separate them from God without chance of reunion, than Hell is just another kind of human prison system. But our God is an abolitionist. God is not a God of arbitrary punishment – God’s justice heals the wounds that causes the evil in the first place.
And I don’t believe that this God, who heals instead of hitting, whose justice is in service of love – I don’t believe that this God ever encounters a wound that this world made that cannot be healed.
I have crossed the horizon to find you /
and this does not define you /
I know your name.
My favorite Disney Princess story is Moana. I love the Gospel moment at the end, when Moana walks through the parted sea towards evil, because she knows that evil is just goodness that has lost its name and misplaced its heart.
On this side of the Kingdom, people doing terrible evil need to be stopped to protect the innocent. There is human judgment on this side of the Kingdom, and it’s necessary.
But in the Kingdom whose name is shalom, I don’t think there are limits to the restorative, healing justice of the God whose name is Love.
Jesus never stops crossing the horizon to find us all, every one of us.
Jesus knows our name – the true name that grace gave us, the name that’s underneath all our anger and evil and wounding. Jesus will never stop walking towards us, through the sea, until the end of time, to return our heart and speak our true name, Beloved, over us.
This world has really hurt a lot of us, and has failed to be safe or kind, and for some people, there may not be redemption this side of heaven. For some people, the wounding is too much and their resources are too low and they might never be able to hear their name when God speaks it over them. But God is stronger than the world, and grace is stronger than our broken stories, and Love always has the final word.
Grace never fails the ones whom this world has failed so deeply.
Some book recs on this for further reading: The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis and The Last Days of Judas Iscariot by Stephen Adly Guirgis are both allegorical stories about hell and grace that I hope everyone takes time for. George McDonald’s theology on universalism, and Julian of Norwich’s theology of sin and Divine Love, have both shaped my theological imagination as well. For an overview of universalism (even if the Biblical exegesis is a bit sloppy), Love Wins by Rob Bell is very good, too.