People are always coming up to me on the street or in a restaurant, and asking, "John, you have more theological knowledge in your little finger than Augustine Aquinas could fit under that whole weird hat he wore. Won't you please tell us whether or not hell is real?"
"It's not Augustine Aquinas," I gently if exasperatedly correct them. "It's Arminius of Abelard." Then I snag one of their onion rings.
But the point is that I do have an answer to the question of whether or not hell is real. And here it is:
Asking whether or not hell is real is like asking your teammates in a football huddle during a game whether or not they think it's possible, from your guys' current position on the field, to sink a three-point basket.
Missing the point.
Here's something I hate: conversations that ostensibly are about answering a question to which, in fact, there is no knowable answer. Getting stuck in a conversation like that transmogrifies my medulla oblongata into a crack-snorting hamster on a wheel. I instantly become a crazed prisoner surreptitiously searching for a hole in the fence he can slip through and run.
So, to state something so obvious I should be embarrassed to type it: No one has any idea -- none, zero, zilch, nada, void, total blank -- what happens to anyone after they die.
Could be heaven awaiting. Could be hell. Could be a Dairy Queen; could be a dentist's waiting room; could be a six-room ranch-style igloo; could be interplanetary pinochle tournament.
No. One. Knows. It's. Not. Knowable.
And if at this moment you're inclined to grab your Bible, stop yourself. It's not in there. You can pretend the Bible tells you what happens to people after they die, but you wouldn't be fooling even yourself. Paul enjoins us to give up childish things, and you can't get more childish than pretending the Bible is a magical window that lets you see beyond life. It isn't. It doesn't. You can't. Trying to use the Bible as proof of what happens after we die is like trying to use a telescope to row a canoe. Wrong instrument. Wrong purpose. Only results in you still haplessly floating about.
The only thing we know for sure about what happens to us after we die is that in this life we don't, can't, and won't have any idea what happens to us after we die.
I believe God made and sustains this world. So for me the All-Time Great Question is: Why not? Why can't we know what happens to us after we die?
Why did God set up this system, in this way? Why that colossal mystery?
What is God trying to tell us by so resolutely not telling us what happens to us after we die?
If while wandering around the inside of an art museum I come across a door that's solidly locked shut, what do I do? Well, if I'm emotionally immature, I might wrestle with the door's handle, or maybe fall to the floor and try to peer beneath it. I might throw a tantrum because I can't get into that locked room. I might squat beside the door, fold my arms, and determinedly try to imagine everything inside the room. There are all kinds of ways I might waste my time outside that door.
But if mature, I will simply assume that those in charge of the museum know what they're doing, and for whatever reason don't want people going in that room. And that would be good enough for me. So I would turn away from the door, forget about the room, and go back out into the museum, where all that wonderful art was waiting to enlighten and inspire me.
I think locking the door between this life and whatever is on its other side is God's way of telling us to get our butts back in the museum.
I think keeping the afterlife a complete mystery is God's way of telling us to pay maximum attention to the life we have on this side of the door. That the ever-fluid now of our life is where the action is. As clearly as he possibly can, I think he's telling us to with full and focused consciousness be in our lives. To love our lives. To believe in our lives. To trust that within every single moment of our lives is virtually everything that we could ever want to know.
When I wrote the founding document for ThruWay Christians, I made this its tenth tenet:
The question of whether or not hell is real is properly subsumed by the truth that a moment spent worrying if you'll be with God in the afterlife is an opportunity missed to be with God in this life.
Or, as we have it in the teen version of that same document:
If you're worried too much about the afterlife, you're not worried enough about this life. Living a life of love means not having to worry about hell.
I refuse to pretend to take seriously the question of whether or not hell is real. I think entertaining the question of what happens in the afterlife is an insult to God and all that he has given us in this life. When we need to know, we'll know.
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