Ken Burns is challenging my thinking about the Lake of Fire. In the last few years I’ve moved from an orthodox understanding of hell to some form of universalism. As I wrote in my book, Stumbling Toward Heaven:
The idea of a literal hell is horrifying to any compassionate person, especially when you recall that hell isn’t about rehabilitation. It isn’t about restitution. It is eternal punishment for temporal sins, including the sin of sincerely believing the wrong things about God (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). The words of Billy Joe Shaver are straightforward and disturbing, “If you don’t love Jesus, go to hell.”
But what about the justice of God? Doesn’t it require him to be tough on sin? A hallmark of justice is that the punishment should fit the crime. This is central to the Mosaic Law and every other judicial system. Granted, sin is heinous, but so is torture. Torture is a vindictive practice that is hard to reconcile with the nature of God.
Enter the filmmaker Ken Burns. I watch documentaries while on the treadmill and I’ve recently gone through his nine-volume series The West and his seven-volume The War about WWII. I’ve also seen much of The Civil War.
These sweeping sagas strip the veneer off civilization and expose the depths of human depravity in gory detail. Not just the reprobate deeds of twisted tyrants but the systemic sinfulness of whole societies. America’s pernicious treatment of Native Americans and other ethnic groups displays a wide array of wrongdoing. And we’re the good guys compared to Alexander’s conquests, Attila’s empire or Hitler’s Germany!
The Bible teaches that human wickedness has been dealt with by Jesus, who “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). But what about the criminal nature? What about miscreants who don’t want to be forgiven? Will there be a reclamation process after physical death that overcomes recalcitrance and morphs all sinners into saints? (This is why the Catholics invented Purgatory.)
An unquenchable Lake of Fire would be an eternal memorial to the failure of God’s love and grace to overcome human infirmity and evil. As Rob Bell says,
Restoration brings God glory; eternal torment doesn’t. Reconciliation brings God glory; endless anguish doesn’t. Renewal and return cause God’s greatness to shine through the universe; never-ending punishment doesn’t.
But forcing people into heaven regardless of their chosen condition would be a repeat of fallen Earth, not the redemption of it.
The Great Divorce
C. S. Lewis offers a possible scenario in his speculative fiction, The Great Divorce. Wikipedia has a good plot summary:
The narrator inexplicably finds himself in a grim and joyless city (the “grey town,” which is either hell or purgatory depending on how long one stays there). He eventually finds a bus for those who desire an excursion to some other place (and which eventually turns out to be the foothills of heaven) …
Shining figures, men and women whom they have known on earth, come to meet them, and to urge them to repent and enter heaven proper. … Almost all of the ghosts choose to return instead to the grey town, giving various reasons and excuses. Much of the interest of the book lays in the recognition it awakens of the plausibility and familiarity, along with the thinness and self-deception, of the excuses that the ghosts refuse to abandon, even though to do so would bring them to “reality” and “joy forevermore.”
Lewis suggests God doesn’t send people to hell, they choose it over the changes required by heaven. But his hell is a “grey town” that gets worse by subtle degrees and his heaven initially causes “immense pain” to visitors.
It’s one thing to disbelieve and disdain God now but to remain defiant in the flames if Paradise is an option seems inconceivable, even for a Stalin or Hussein, much less an honest agnostic or devout Hindu. I know a bit about pain and can’t fathom embracing it forever instead of acknowledging a Father who extends loving forgiveness and eternal bliss. Can you?
I don’t know how it will all work out but along with Abraham, I trust that while not “treating the righteous and the wicked alike … the Judge of all the earth (will) do right” (Genesis 18:25).