Hell, Comparative Religion and Other Thoughts
There are plenty of reasons offered as to why people say they reject Christianity. Sometimes it is a bad experience with Christians. Sometimes it is displeasure with certain doctrines. And sometimes it is misunderstanding of various religious truth claims.
One writer to this web site offered all three reasons in one short paragraph as he declared his atheism. As all three are important and deserve a serious response, I have penned this article. It is hoped that this piece will not only provide some helpful answers to this correspondent, but will be of more general help to others in a similar position.
The first reason offered has to do with a bad experience of religion. The writer says that he experienced “Christian education for 12 years” and then “came away an atheist”. Now I of course know nothing about this education: what sort of “Christian” education it was, what it entailed, how it was taught, and so on. It may not have been a genuine Christian education at all. But assuming it was, a few points come to mind.
Unfortunately it must be said that way too often people are put off by Christianity because of lousy Christian examples and role models. Christians have a huge responsibility to not only talk, but to walk, like Jesus. We of course all fail in many ways, as none of us obtain perfection in this life. Still, we are all called to live a life that reflects as much as possible that of our faultless Lord. It is a very noble and serious calling indeed.
Having said that, it is also true that while Christians often disappoint, Christ never does. I would encourage all seekers to look to Christ, examine his teachings, consider his life and work, and make a decision based on who Jesus is and what he said.
Even if some followers of Jesus leave a bitter taste in the mouth of the seeker, many other followers do present, with God’s help, a real hint of what Jesus is like. So I encourage my correspondent to not let this period of education be his final assessment of Christianity.
His second objection has to do with the doctrine of hell. His understanding of Christianity is this: “Follow the word of Christ, or burn in Hell for eternity.” Well, the gospel is not quite so harsh nor reductionist, but the issue of hell is a stumbling block for many. How can it be defended?
First, it does no good to pretend it is not an integral part of biblical truth, or can simply be dispensed with. Jesus himself said more about hell than any other New Testament figure. Thus if the founder and foundation of our faith makes so much of a doctrine, we dare not just ignore or belittle it.
But how might a Christian understand such a doctrine? It really needs to be understood in a much wider context. The gospel is essentially a love story. It is about a God who created men and women to have relationship with him. His creatures instead said no, and sought to live life without God. Much like trying to run a car without petrol, trying to live a fulfilled and meaningful life without the one who made life and knows what is in our best interests is a lost cause. It cannot be done.
Fortunately for us, God has not left us in this dilemma. He has made a way for us to be reconciled to Him, but in a way that takes seriously our rebellion, and does not lessen his pure righteousness and majesty. He did so in a most unique way, sending his own son to suffer on our behalf, taking the punishment we deserve so that we might be once again restored to relationship with God.
Thus no one need ever to go to hell because God has done all that is necessary for us to spend eternity with him. Yet if we reject that one and only way, we have no other options, and we condemn ourselves. He does not damn us – we damn ourselves.
But look at it another way. Heaven really is simply about being in God’s presence forever. And since God alone is the source of all that is good, loving and kind, then to reject God is to reject those qualities. As C.S. Lewis put it, “”If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows…then we must starve eternally.””
If people reject God and his offer of a way back to him, God is not responsible. He has done all he can. The opposite of love is selfishness. And hell is a place for selfish people who have refused to renounce their selfishness so that they might get back to harmonious and loving relationships: with God and with others.
So yes, to end up in a place where there is no love, no kindness, no possibility of close relationships, that is indeed hell. That is where God is not. But the choice is totally ours.
The last objection offered involves a misunderstanding of comparative religion. That is, my correspondent misrepresents an article I wrote on Islam, in which I say the main option for outsiders is to convert or die. (Actually a third option, dhimmitude, or perpetual servitude, is also available). But my point was that in Islam, conversion is a one-way street. People are free to convert to Islam, but those who dare leave Islam suffer greatly, often with their life. The death sentence is a very real consequence of apostasy in Islam.
But my correspondent says, “I can’t see how the Islamic ‘convert, or die’ mantra is any different to the Christian “Love God (ie: convert to Christianity), or burn in Hell’ mantra.”
Two misunderstandings arise here. Islam has been spread by the edge of the sword throughout much of its history. This began with Muhammad himself, and has extended for the past 1400 years. Christianity, by contrast, seeks to win people by the love of Christ. Forced conversions are an oxymoron in Christianity. You cannot force someone to love God.
True, Christians have sometimes tried to force people into the faith. But they have been wrong to do so, and have acted contrary to the teachings and example of Jesus, and the New Testament. But if Muslims seek to convert unbelievers to Islam by force, they have justification from the Koran, the Hadith, and the history of Islam. That is quite a difference.
And second, the issue of hell, as I have already mentioned, is ultimately the personal choice of the unbeliever. No one is ever compelled or forced to go to hell. People arrive there by their own volition. C. S. Lewis again comes to mind here: “There will be two kinds of people in the end: Those that will say to God ‘Thy will be done’ and those to whom God will say ‘Thy will be done’.”
That is, if we relinquish self and say yes to God, we get relationship with God and heaven thrown in to boot. But if we insist on our own way, God will not violate our free will, and we will arrive at an eternal destiny of our own choosing – one apart from God, which means apart from love, happiness, hope and peace. Hell, in other words.
So my article had to do with how coercion is a part of Islam. The Christian religion has nothing to do with coercion, but everything to do with our freely-made choices.
So despite whatever negative and unfortunate circumstances my correspondent may have been through, even at the hands of those who call themselves Christian, the choice still remains with him. It is my prayer that the beauty of Jesus will draw him to himself. It will be the most important choice he can ever make.
6 Replies to “Hell, Comparative Religion and Other Thoughts”
Great reply Bill. You may not have converted me yet, but you definitely have put things in perspective over the last few months of my reading your site.
Matt Page, Melbourne
I appreciate your incisive comments and questions. Keep them coming. I can’t promise to have all the answers or all the wisdom needed to properly reply, but I will try my best.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
Thanks Bill. I really enjoy your articles. I must say that as a result of an education in one of our ‘formal christian schools’ here in Australia, when I completed my education I remember saying, “Well, if there is a God, he definitely is not the Christian one! I found the portrayal of God distant, formal and felt he was quite uninterested in my personal life, even though I heard that he was a God of love. The prayers every morning were impersonal and held no meaning for me as a young person. However, when I was twenty and living & working overseas I met a bunch of wonderful, warm and loving Christians – I went home that night so impacted by who they were and what they said about Christ. In the car I said, “God, if you really do exist, you can have my life”. I met Jesus that night and the warmth of His love has changed me forever. That was 36 years ago last month!
Diana Hallas, Canberra
Interesting reading this article and comments after reading the article on the Velvet Elvis. Must admit, I haven’t read it yet but have been interested in the whole ’emerging church’ thing recently – plenty of blogs with lots of opinions! I think the whole issue of ‘relevance’ comes down to something like what’s written above – “will somebody who says they’re a Christian actually connect with me where I’m at, answer my questions honestly, and admit – and act like – they’re a human being like me, rather than trying to ‘defend their faith’ or play ‘pretend religion’?”
Regardless of our traditions or trends, we *can* be people who connect with other people and draw them to Jesus.
There will always be people who present Christianity in a terrible way, whether it be through their own personal life, or through incorrect teaching of the Bible. The first pastor I had after becoming a Christian was a total ‘sicko’. He was far from the mark of what Christianity is supposed to be – and we know what Christianity is supposed to be by reading and understanding what’s in the Bible.
Two things that have really helped me in my Christian walk are, firstly, a free course called BSF (Bible Study Fellowship) and secondly, spending a lot of time reading through the articles on this site whereby Bill covers a vast array of topics with great clarity, wisdom and balance.