The Eternal No: Thoughts on Hell

One of our greatest church mystics is Teresa of Avila. As the story goes, she was asked by the sisters of her convent if she believed in hell. She said, “oh yes.” But she qualified it whispering to her friend: “It’s just that no one is there.”

There’s no proof she ever said that . . . it’s legend, but it’s a story about her hope.

It’s my hope too, but I’m not a universalist. A universalist believes everyone makes it in the I believe God’s love is unconditional . . . which means I believe it’s not coercive . . . which means I believe God leaves us with the possibility and the potential to choose What Richard Rohr calls the “eternal no.” 

For God’s love to be real, God has to allow for us to say “no thanks.” 

If we don’t have that choice, it’s not real love. It’s just as coercive as thinking of God as a judgmental, punitive-seeking dictator who sends swaths of creation to eternal punishment just because of the cultural expressions they were born into. 

God allows for an eternal no. I just wonder, once the human soul experiences God’s infinite love, would the soul ever resist it? 

If that thing in us that’s made in the image of the triune God . . . which is what I call the soul . . . once it awakens to the infinite love of God . . . could it, or would it, willingly walk away?

I know that’s an unfair question because what happens after this life is mystery. But it does make me think, “How much agency do we have over what our soul feels and connects to? 

I may not know the answer to this soul question, but what does make sense to me is that there is some form of hell. For God to build a world as if hell is not an option, and we just all make it in the end, just because . . . that’s in its own way a form of hell.

I will add, though, I think it’s illegitimate for Christians to want other humans to suffer for eternity. To need others to eternally suffer forms in us a life of comparison, competition, judgment, exclusion . . . and what Jesus tells us in the gospels is that this kind of comparison, competition, judgment and exclusion has no place in the kingdom of God because it leaves no room for love. 

Condemning people is punitive . . . and it’s why millions reject the whole construct of organized religion. The church has no right to condemn. It is not God. But the church has thought it was. The church has substituted the good news of Jesus for a punitive punchline built on fear. 

And that fear is bound up in what we think might happen in the afterlife. Which got me thinking, “People mostly think of heaven and hell as a post-life reality. When we die we go either way.”

But what if heaven and hell is also lived realities . . . right now?

Examples help: We all know people who are choosing hell and imposing hell on other people. 

Choosing hell is choosing to disconnect from the relation-ality of life. It’s choosing loneliness instead of connectivity.

Hate of neighbor is the most explicit form of hell on earth. Not seeing others in the image of God is a living hell in which someone is choosing loneliness and disconnection saying those people aren’t a part of the whole and neither am I . . . Not forgiving . . . holding bitterness . . . being passive aggressive or mean-spirited . . . lording over someone . . . dismissing someone’s personhood . . . these are all forms of hell on earth . . . and they are daily choices that carry an eternal impact for not only ourselves but the people who receive it. 

Under this idea, Global warming would be considered hell on earth. Every scientist tells us the point of no return is getting closer and closer. We’re 10 years away from glaciers completely melting. Global warming is urgent. It’s real. Our choices have an eternal impact. 

Hell is not a post-glacier world. It’s watching the glaciers melt in real time because some of us choose disconnection . . . from others . . . from nature . . . from God. 

Hell is going on all around us, but so is heaven. 

Mass shootings is hell on earth. Visiting a sick friend is heaven on earth. Corruption, lying, stealing are all hells on earth . . . offering grace to the broken . . . love to the unfriended . . . that’s heaven on earth. 

Hell and Heaven will continue to battle it out in real time because some refuse God’s invitation to experience heaven on earth. Heaven is the feast in which we are invited. And it’s always one choice away. 

But until our soul hears this . . . until we choose to live connected . . . Hell will continue; it will drag all kinds of people into it.So choose wisely. Our choices last an eternity. 

Pastor Barrett