Why Would a Loving God Send People to Hell?
Let’s talk about hell.
A man who lived a bad life finds himself ushered into hell. He sees everyone standing up to their knees in filth and sludge. “Oh no,” he thinks. “I knew I was in for a punishment, but this place is awful, but I guess it could be worse.” After five minutes the demon in charge announces, “Okay everyone, breaks over. Time to get back to standing on your heads.”
There are a lot of good hell jokes, but it’s a challenging topic and one we’d often just like to not think about. But really understanding what means can have important lessons as we minister to ourselves and one another. I experienced this.
In the late 90’s a friend of mine I had known from Boston contacted me to let me know he had AIDS. Eduardo was a guy who was always a happy-go-lucky guy, kind to everyone always with a smile on his face. Not long after he told me, his friends contacted me to let me know my things didn’t look good and he wanted me to visit.
When I got to his apartment it was full of friends and his parents who themselves seemed embarrassed by the whole thing. When I got to his bedroom I didn’t see Eduardo as I knew him but, instead, it looked like a completely different person down to his skin and bones. I thought that he looked like a little old lady.
Friends reported that he’d outlived every prediction of his death. When he and I talked he explained to me, “I can’t die, Rich. I’ve sinned. God punishes sinners to hell. My parents keep telling me this. If I die God will condemn me to suffer in the fires of hell.”
I shared my view of hell, which I’ll share with you today, and encouraged him to let go. I asked his father for help. They had a conversation that put him at ease, and he passed a few days later.
What struck me in this difficult situation was that his Christianity and church instead of playing a healing and loving role in his time of despair only tormented him.
I’m hoping that talking about hell today will be of comfort.
The good news is that there’s another view of heaven and hell and what happens when we die.
As we have been doing each week in this series of challenging topics, let’s look to the Bible first, then for Swedenborg’s insights and then from our experience.
The Old Testament hardly mentions hell and at all but does refer to Sheol a dark underworld people go to when they die. In the book of Daniel, we first read about a divine day of judgment for those who have passed. “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.”
When we move to the New Testament Jesus talks about hell a lot. You might remember him talking about separating wheat and chaff, sheep and goats “32 … he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left…“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
In Jesus’ teachings hell is a place we go based on how we treated others.
Many Christians believe that when you die your soul waits for centuries until the final judgment day when everyone will be lifted out of their graves and face judgment. But Jesus tells the parable of a rich man sitting in hell. He begs God saying “Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
On the cross, Jesus turns to the thief next to him and says “I say to you today you will be with me in Paradise.”
From these passages, we get the impression heaven and hell happen right after we die.
But most churches have latched on to metaphorical descriptions in l Revelation describing a fiery pit. In this understanding of hell anyone who doesn’t profess a belief in Jesus or who has sinned will come before a throne of judgment and be thrown into the fiery pits of hell as revenge and punishment for their actions on earth.
Swedenborg the mystic had a vision and tells a different story along the lines of what Jesus said that we go right to go into the next world three days after death.
While traditional church says we are all headed to hell unless we are saved by proclaiming our belief in Jesus, Swedenborg tells us just the opposite that all of us are created toward heaven. The Lord and the angels will do whatever they can to get us there. However, God gives us the freedom to love or to hate, to be selfless or selfish. The choice is ours. Given that choice, some people on earth burn with a life of selfish love. They care only about themselves, their self-righteousness, their wealth, and power over others. This love of self is a hellish love.
In this understanding, no one is condemned to hell. But some people choose it. There are opportunities to be guided by angels after death, but, most often, we’ve pretty much chosen our greatest and love. You could boil to one phrase: You are what you love– and you can love evil.
Hell must exist. much like a cosmic prison Swedenborg says,
‘Otherwise, they would infest communities of good people and inflict violence on the system of order established by the Lord, which ensures the welfare of the universe.”—Secrets of Heaven §967
Swedenborg gives us a peek into hell as well. He meets with one person in hell where his entire community is made up of dictators and authoritarians each vying for power, burning with rage. One inhabitant reports to Swedenborg:
“I live there is a community of two hundred people. It is the single most important community of all. All of us there are emperors of emperors, kings of kings, dukes of dukes, and princes of princes. No one there is just an ordinary emperor, king, duke, or prince. We sit there on thrones above thrones and issue commands to the entire universe and beyond.”
He meets another community where people are perpetually counting money on a table. He asks, “Do you believe that you possess all the riches of the kingdom?” They responded, “We do possess them.”
Here’s the crazy part, most people that he meets in hell are not unhappy about where they are. Where they are is connected to their greatest delights from the earth.
How about the fiery pit? Swedenborg explains it is a metaphor for the burning lust and rage of those living there. But when you read his images of hell, he describes what seems to me like a bombed-out city or village that smells. There are as many hellish communities as there are for selfish desires.
Hell exists as a choice for anyone seeking to separate themselves from God’s love. That choice is made through thousands of the decisions of a lifetime. Anyone who can be steered to heaven is.
There’s some good news in understanding hell.
First, it reminds us that God is love and wants nothing but good. The angels in your life seeking to guide you to heaven are you, advocates. When they see you, they see your greatest good potential and can hardly see your faults. Given the slightest opportunity, they will work for whatever good you are offering. When you pray, “Lord guide me and help me,” in times of distress they are close by.
This is quite different from a vengeful God who seeks to punish you for getting things wrong.
This teaching also gives us insights into the demon forces that surround us as well, pulling us in the wrong direction. One of their great tricks is to tempt us into doing something we shouldn’t and then making us feel ashamed and guilty about it forever. When we hear voices telling us how horrible we are we should recognize that this voice is not from God but from the hells seeking to torment and tempt.
The good news in this understanding of hell is that I can have a conversation with a cameraman at the church a few weeks back who shared he’d been raised in fire and brimstone preaching and that turned him away from God. I could offer him a different perspective.
The good news is that this can be very comforting to people facing death like my friend Eduardo when demons scare them about the horrible punishment they will face next.
Finally, it is a reminder to us that heaven and hell are not in our future but in our present. We are wrestling and struggling with dark forces while being blessed and guided by good forces. Remembering that, we can, when we feel down or depressed or lost turn to God in prayer and ask for strength, mercy and we will be supported.
And in a world that often feels in despair it’s good to know that each of us has angels working on our behalf, leading to improvement, to be better and kinder and begin to experience the peace of heaven right now.