Hell, we are told, is a place of eternal damnation, where everything that fulfils a person is absent, and most terrible of all, when we should be enjoying the glorious sight of God forever, He is absent, forever. All in all, to end up in Hell is simply the most awful fate that anyone can ever suffer.
We don’t need to envisage Hell as a place of fire and demons and awful screaming, no more than we need to envisage God as a white-bearded old man. These were old and simplistic ways of emphasising aspects of the spiritual mysteries. Perhaps better to think of Hell as just an awful boring, cold, grey, desolate wilderness where the occupants wander aimlessly about, never finding any solace or meaning to their lives. And never means never – eternity, without end.
The problem for God is that although He has made us for Himself, to live in His love forever, He cannot force Himself on us. He has already given us eternal life and there is a place for each one of us in His kingdom of love. But we are radically free to accept this gift or to reject it, and He has to respect our life choices. This is why Hell must exist – it is the very condition of our freedom.
We can be sure of this: God doesn’t want anyone to end up in Hell. If we look at it from our perspective, imagine if someone you love was to end up in Hell – how would you be able to spend eternity in Heaven knowing that your loved one wasn’t there? How much more terrible for God who is the greatest Lover? For someone to be in Hell would be an eternal wound in the heart of God.
Traditional theology and practice have tended to suggest that one single act, one serious sin, could effectively send us to Hell. In that case, Hell would be very crowded indeed. I think we can now reject such an unrealistic and negative doctrine. What then is the entry qualification for Hell? I think it would have to be a deliberate and sustained life stance of hating and wounding other people, and that such a person never repented before their death. This would be the conscious and total rejection of love in favour of hate. I think we can all think of historical people who might fit this bill: infamous and powerful individuals who caused widespread suffering and death. This suggests to me that the population of Hell is in fact quite small. Might it actually be zero? In other words, Hell exists but the entry qualification is way too high…
I think two things are clear from Jesus’ own teaching:
~ if anyone truly repents at the very last moment of their life then God forgives them;
~ we cannot ever say that any one person is damned to Hell.
The Church of course canonises individuals who lived a saintly life – effectively saying that these folk are in Heaven. The Church never says that a specific person is in Hell.
I’m suggesting therefore that few if any people are in Hell. Yet let’s be honest, some of Jesus’ statements would tend to suggest that it’s the other way round: “Small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7: 14) Does this statement not contradict what I’ve been saying? I don’t think so. I think Jesus is talking here not so much about eternal life but life here and now. In other words, he’s acknowledging that few people seem to radically respond to God’s Spirit and live a life of holiness – before they die.
Ultimately the only entry qualification for Heaven is… God’s mercy,
in His love,