Any mention of hell is interesting to me, in part because I grew up in a conservative evangelical subculture where fire-and-brimstone sermons were standard fare. (Especially at church camp!) Whereas some churches seem to make the doctrine of hell their main focus, others are sometimes allergic to any mention of hell or the wrath of God. So the headline for a recent NPR story caught my eye: Thought of ‘Flames of Hell’ for Sgt. Bales Comforts Afghans.
In 2012, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales massacred 16 Afghans in Kandahar, a crime that led to Bales’ conviction and sentence of life without parole. Among the survivors and witnesses interviewed for the NPR story, one man is quoted as saying that "the flames of hell are 70 times hotter than fire on Earth" and that Bales will someday "be burning in that flame."
The juxtaposition of the words “hell” and “comfort” in the headline made me ask: can hell really be comforting? What if the Afghans’ gut-level reaction to Bales’ murderous rampage actually speaks to a deep truth about the nature of God and the nature of God’s world? After all, what you hear expressed by the Afghans in this case sounds a lot like the imprecatory Psalms that call down God’s wrath on enemies or the judgment scenes in Revelation or - to take an extra-Biblical example - Socrates’ hope that he will find a truly just judge in the afterlife, as opposed to the unjust earthly judges of Athens.
Whether they know it or not, a lot of people are influenced by Nietzsche, who thought talk of morality and hell was a fiction invented by weak people who were resentful about the fact that they were weak. His suspicion shapes how many people, including some Christians, think about hell - it’s a doctrine rooted in a thwarted desire to dominate. Because we can’t dominate people in this life, we’ll come up with an eternal punishment for them.
Because God is avenger, Christians don’t have to be global judge, jury and executioner.
On the other side of things, liberation theology has long emphasized that the poor and oppressed can actually see aspects of reality more clearly precisely because of their social location. So before we reject (or just conveniently ignore) the doctrine of hell or God’s wrath, we have to deal not only with the Biblical text but the gut-level reaction of those like the Afghans who have suffered great injustice. Could it be that unjust suffering helps us see more clearly that there will come a day of reckoning for everyone, including ourselves? That God indeed sees evil for what it is and stands in judgment of it, both now and in the future? That, as Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice”?
As King recognized in his own life and teaching, talking about justice should also remind us that there are some things that God is called to do that we are not. We don’t sit passively in the face of evil, but we do recognize that certain kinds of action are off-limits for Christians. In Romans 12:17-21, Paul tells Christians not to repay evil with evil, to live at peace with everyone and to overcome evil with good. Why? In order to leave room for God’s wrath and vengeance. Because God is avenger, Christians don’t have to be global judge, jury and executioner.
But if there is no judgment to come, then the burden of imposing infinite justice on the world is our job, complete with war songs that call the United States to bring hell to those who deserve it. If God isn’t going to bring hell to those who deserve it, then we have to. Those who refuse to be comforted by hell in the future thereby contribute to making hell on earth in the present.