Hell is a Gift

The Ultimate Unrequited Love

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

Matthew 7:9-11 ESV

Hell, a gift?  What?  Ok, I’ve gone off the deep end now right.  Bear with me a little bit here, though.  I think there is a case for Hell as a gift, and I am going to try to make that in this post.  To really get it, we need to understand why our traditional view of Hell is problematic, what gifts and the giving of gifts really means, and why God’s gifts really are so good.  Let’s start with Hell.

We often paint a picture of Hell as a punishment, generally at about the same time that we insist that it is eternal, meaning Hell will likely never cease to be the home of at least a few errant souls.  I saw an example of that on Youtube in a video titled What’s Wrong with Progressive Christianity on Mike Winger’s channel. 

I actually tend to enjoy Mike’s videos, including this one, where he is joined by Alisa Childers and they attack a Progressive Christian statement declaring that “Jesus was not saying, ‘pick me before you die, or my daddy will torture you for all eternity.’”  This is a form of straw man argument, painting a caricature of traditional Christianity as being bloodthirsty and savage to persuade by emotions rather than logic.  Mike and Alisa rightly point out the problems with this, focusing heavily on the use of the word torture.  Mike goes on to reframe torture as punishment, and Alisa proceeds to describe the Progressive view as one of Universal Reconciliation, essentially that in the end God will save everyone through Jesus.  Both go on to soundly thrash that view from a Biblical perspective.  For both of them, the danger here is in trying to ignore Biblical passages on the eternality of Hell to replace it with this Universalist ideal.

I agree with this aim.  Trying to read Universalism into scripture is wrong or at the least highly unlikely.  But it gets its appeal because it is an attractive idea.  It is very compelling to think that God might, in ways only known to Him “draw every man to Himself.”  But the presence of freedom in our lives implies that we must have, if nothing else, the right to refuse God’s love.  God’s power does not overwhelm His love.   This means that God cannot force us to love him, despite being all-powerful and even though his love itself is perfect.  Any scenario in which our freedom is overridden in any way renders that freedom false.  There are ways through philosophy, theology, and a few select scriptures to both preserve God’s perfection and read the Bible in a universalist fashion, but these approaches are generally a little convoluted and by necessity ignore or significantly recast other scriptural components.  We won’t explore these approaches in this post. 

Since I basically agree with Mike and Alisa’s take on Universalism, what was the problem with their video?  It was Mike’s continued use of the word punishment to describe Hell’s purpose.  Hell as punishment is more a cultural conception than a biblical one, since the passages that describe Hell as punishment can be shown either not to apply to humanity or to be easily and often better translated in other ways. 

So what is wrong with calling Hell punishment?  Let’s look at punishment itself.  The simplest definition of the term in English is the act of making someone suffer for a crime or wrongdoing.  This is, strictly speaking, retribution, and would classically be how we would define what is happening with Hell.  Hell, as retribution, can be seen as an appropriate suffering for the crime of our sins. 

But there are nuances to the term punishment that attend its broader use.  This is best illustrated by considering the people that are most often punished; children and criminals.  In both cases, though the punishment may be retributive, there are corrective and demonstrative or deterrent elements to the punishments they face. 

Take a mother scolding a child for hitting his sister.  The shame the child feels being scolded is retributive, but the intention of the mother is not merely to make the child feel shame.  Rather she aims, through the shame, to adjust the child’s future course.  Further, if she scolds the child in front of his sister or other children, she demonstrates to the others that such shame necessarily attends such behavior, presumably deterring future imprecations on their part. 

So with the criminal.  Society wants the criminal to pay for his crime, but our aim also tends towards rehabilitation after sufficient suffering, and also that others who consider his crimes will also consider his fate.  Even the death penalty presumably has these aims, though if it has a corrective element, it is only possible in an uncertain future.        

Could this be Hell’s purpose?  It could certainly be understood as containing a retributive quality and the Bible does seem to point to this, directly for its non-human inhabitants and indirectly for those humans sent there.   But punishment and even retribution in our experience basically always contain this hope of correction and push towards deterrence.  Can Hell too have these qualities?

Not and be eternal.  If it is corrective, it is not Hell.  It is simply purgatory.  And it cannot be demonstrative, at least not on the part of any given individuals, because we cannot know for certain whether anyone is in Hell.  God alone knows where men have gone.  For our part, we can merely speculate.  I may think of an uncle as a terrible man deserving the worst Hell has to offer, but my aunt might insist in the quality of his last week of life and the fact that he received forgiveness.  I have no right to judge, and that extends beyond family to literally any other individual.  I cannot know the state of their souls.  I remember a song when I was in college called Jeffery Dahmer went to Heaven, based on the serial killer’s alleged conversion while in prison shortly before he was killed.  Is it not plausible that even a Hitler or Judas might have whispered a prayer in the moments of approaching death?  How would we know? 

Furthermore, we have Jesus’ own testimony that Hell’s inhabitants offer no demonstration of Hell’s purpose.  If we allow for the parable of the rich man and the beggar to stand as representative of realities of Heaven and Hell, observe Jesus saying that the rich man’s presence in Hell offers no demonstration to his siblings, If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead (Luke 16:31).  

So the purpose of Hell, applied to those who live there, cannot be a deterrent.  This might account for the attractiveness it has gained recently in pop culture.  From Hellboy to Milton, Hell has gained a certain attraction as an alternative to stuffy old Heaven.  “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” 

The Bible makes it clear, however, that Hell is a horrible place.  Jesus spends much of his ministry pointing this out.  This is where all the eternal fire and worms and weeping and gnashing of teeth come from.  On the other hand, he offers access to the Kingdom of Heaven.  Anyone who buys into any form of the idea that Hell is preferable to Heaven is deluded.

But they have a right to that delusion.  That is freedom.  And that is the gift of Hell, a situation where such delusion can go on indefinitely.  Let’s look at why that might be considered a gift before we go further.    

It is easiest to understand the nature of the gift and the giving of gifts by examining the example of a great gift giver.  For that, I posit my mother.  My mom was the quintessential gift giver.  I read The Five Love Languages sometime in college and while it might be questionable sometimes which of the five me or my friends would fall into, I knew right away that one of my mother’s primary love languages was giving.

As a kid, that worked out pretty well.  Money was tight in our house, but Mom always seemed to be able to find good gifts for us.  Sometimes they were quirky or random, but always at least good for a laugh.  Yet as a child it never failed that in her searches, Mom would find just what we wanted, most of the time in some sale at least six months before the requisite gift day.  I remember more than one year when my mom would buy the next year’s Christmas presents at the after Christmas sales the year before.  Yet, no matter the circumstances of her purchases, they always pleased. 

We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, so how did she do it?  Love, knowledge, presence, and the ability get things.  The beginning was her mother’s love, that deep abiding “I will do anything for you love” that is rare outside of motherhood.  Her love meant she was there, always ready and available.  This constant presence gave her knowledge.  As a child, generally who knows you better than your mother.  She studied us.  She listened to things we would say, watched which commercials grabbed our eyes, held us when we were frustrated because something didn’t work the right way or when we complained because what we had just wasn’t good enough to do what wanted. 

Finally, she took all of that information she had gleaned about us and our wants and needs, coupled it with an uncanny ability to find the right deals and stretch that dollar extra far, and presto… presents!  The absence of any of those elements, her love, presence, knowledge, or ability, would have made her gifts less perfect, but as long as those remained the same, things worked out well. 

But my mom had one major limitation.  She was just a human, thus there was no way that all of those traits could remain constant.  Mom’s love never wavered, and her nose for a deal continued right up to her death, but once my sisters and I left the house, her presence with us was all but non-existent, meaning her knowledge of us became less and less current.  Enter spouses into the picture, for whom that knowledge background is blank and presence has never been, and the makings of a disaster arise.  I can relate one such disaster.  It has to do with the dolls, Raggedy Ann and Andy, and the fact that my name is Andy and my wife’s name is Ann.  Thank God neither of us are redheads. 

Raggedy Ann and Andy were apparently pretty big when my grandparents were young.  They were sort of passé by the time my parents were around, but they still had shows and books about them.  For my generation, we knew the name and picture but that was about it.  In honesty, before we were engaged, my wife and I probably hadn’t thought twice about the cartoon couple.  But the coincidence of our names was too much for most people in my grandparents’ and even parents’ generations.  Relatives and their peers often on hearing our names would just blurt out, “Ha ha, Raggedy Ann and Andy, Ha ha.”  It didn’t much matter to me, and at first it was probably that way for Annie, but over time she began to really be annoyed.  One thing she hates is being boxed into an identity.   If other people heard our names and immediately associated us with the dolls, to her they were simply wrong.  I remember a few conversations to this effect before our marriage.

So imagine our surprise at our wedding rehearsal when my grandmother rolls out a cart with a pair of giant handmade Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls!  She’d apparently poured months into making them and Annie, to her everlasting credit, was incredible.  She smiled and said thank you so naturally that no one had a clue she didn’t just love those dolls, including my mom.  Everyone probably figured we’d have a little Raggedy Ann and Andy shrine somewhere in our house. 

It would never happen.  I loved my grandma, but those dolls went into a box within a few days of that event and have seen light a handful of times since.      

After that, I dropped hints a few times to my mom that Annie didn’t actually much care for Raggedy Ann dolls or paraphernalia, and I thought she had understood.  But Annie and I really did not get much time around my parents for the first few years of our marriage, we actually moved to the other side of the world.  Imagine my surprise then a couple years later when we were visiting for the summer and my parents felt the need to give us a few gifts to catch up on missed birthdays.   

I remember getting to their house, and my mom almost immediately pulled me into a back room, whipped out a box, and with a look in her eye somewhere between a proud but mischievous child and a hunted rabbit, urged me to open it.  I took the lid off and pulled out a hand-crafted Raggedy Ann and Andy wall hanging thing, obviously antique.  It was for Annie, and I could see from Mom’s face that she was both really proud of this while simultaneously knowing inside that it would not be well received.  Part of her knew Annie wouldn’t like it and the insecurity was palpable in her voice as she asked, “Do you think Annie will like this?”

I probably could have ended things there and taken one for the team by simply saying, “no,” but I prevaricated.  I said, “Well, she hasn’t really cared for this sort of thing much, but things change,” or some such drivel.  I played both sides, sliding around enough that I could tell Annie later that I tried to warn my mom off, but also not enough to actually get Mom to stop.  Mom took my answer to mean her fears were unfounded and since she knew the gift was perfect, there must be no problem.  The look in her eye as she packed the craft back into its box told me all I needed to know.  I went to warn Annie what was coming. 

So Annie was prepared when she received the gift and she dissembled magnificently!  I was simply amazed!  But it didn’t matter at all.  Mom’s fears had returned, and she had visible jitters as she handed the gift over to Annie.  She really wanted this to be the perfect gift but was scared because she didn’t really know Annie.  That combination of anticipation and fear meant that Annie’s response was filtered through scrutiny that would make the greatest trial judges look like amateurs.  I really don’t know that Annie could have won that day, even if she had genuinely loved the gift, so not liking it she was doomed, and my mom snapped.    

That wasn’t as uncommon as one might hope.  My dad would say the Irish came out that day, and in my family we all knew how to handle the Irish, yell louder or leave.  But Annie hadn’t experienced that before.  Her parents didn’t explode like my mom did.  The details aren’t necessary.  Suffice it to say there were a lot of unkind words bandied around that day and a lot of hurt feelings.    

In the aftermath Mom took the gift back and instead, hurt written all over her face, gave Annie a gift card to a local restaurant.  That was a declaration itself, because for Mom, the right gift was an elaborately crafted poem, and a gift card was a crummy corporate jingle.  It was pure failure.  It indicated at a best a lack of imagination on the part of the gift giver, and at worst a complete lack of relationship with the other.   

I don’t think Mom was crying when she gave the card to Annie, but it sort of feels that way in my memory.  My mother, based on her past successes, was obviously not a feeble gift giver.  The Raggedy Ann and Andy antique was a great gift and an incredible example of my mom’s gift giving prowess, but it suited a version of Annie that had never been.  Away from us, my mom could convince herself that Annie might like this thing, but as she came near, the disconnect between the real Annie and the one in my mother’s head became more and more apparent.  If there were tears, they were there because Mom recognized that the relationship she and Annie had was not enough to fit her style of gift-giving. 

Yet as I said above, this limitation was only human.  Mom had known Annie for maybe three years at that point and we lived 10,000 miles away.  Mom’s love was more than up to the task, and it kept the two connected and making great strides over the years following this argument to help rectify the shortcomings in their relationship.  But the lack of presence meant a lack of knowledge, which ultimately made Mom unable to work her gift-giving magic.  If there was a failure it is a natural shortcoming of her humanity, part of the limitations natural to all of us. 

Which is a good place to begin a comparison to the way in which God gives us gifts.  God doesn’t have our limitations.  What made my Mom a great gift giver was her love, presence, knowledge, and ability.  God is perfect love, always present, all-knowing, and all-powerful.  Marrying an unknown person and moving to the other side of the world taxed and overcame my mom’s abilities, but it doesn’t faze God at all.  Jonah tried to get away and look where that got him.  God knows us perfectly and doesn’t even need to look us up on Facebook to try and remember whether or not we are currently in a relationship.  The gifts He gives are amazing, though they often take some interpretation.  But give it enough time and we can always find that His gifts were not only those we needed but those at the heart of our deepest desires.  God is always there and always ready.  He is not far from any of us (Acts 17:27b). 

Fair enough, but why call Hell a gift?  It has to do with God’s love.  Those who argue for universalism like to really emphasize God’s love.  They like to point out that since love is willing the good of another and God is the greatest good then wouldn’t perfect love compel the beloved to the greatest good, or to put it another way, wouldn’t constant perfect love wear down the most reluctant rebel given enough time?  To see a passionate form of this argument read Love Wins by Rob Bell. 

The problem is that this assumes love is a force that wears people down.  Does exposure to love soften some very hard people?  Sure.  We can point to myriad stories that show just that from our own human experience without having to evoke the love of God, at least on the surface, but does it always happen?  No.  Curmudgeons still exist and many of them die that way.  There are cases that really seem to be so recalcitrant that no degree of Human love can turn them.  A look through the back pages of any given news website can show that clearly enough, but a really good source is the chapter Rebellion in The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. 

But God’s love is perfect love, not mere human love, right?  It is the very fact that it is perfect love, though, that proves it doesn’t compel.  Frank Turek handles this well with what I would call the persistent guy defense.  Imagine a really persistent guy pursuing a girl.  This guy has decided that persistence pays, and despite the girl refusing his advances, he continues to pursue.  Popular stories might tell us that if he keeps at it, she’ll eventually fall for him, and sometimes that does happen. But it doesn’t always, or probably even often happen that way. If it did, the nerds would have ruled the world long ago.

So, if she doesn’t fall for him, is there any way that he can coerce her that is not at least creepy and possibly grounds for a restraining order?  

Now imagine God as that persistent guy wooing us.  He is constantly showering us with gifts and pointing out the benefits of being with Him.  To say love compels the hardest soul is to say there is some point where God flips a switch in our brains and we are powerless to stop it. 

But we have names for that kind of supposed reality. Hypnotism or Stockholm Syndrome are a couple. Dominating someone else’s will and commandeering it; these are not good things. We know this because the thought of a guy doing that to a girl makes us squeamish. It would rightly be called sin if anyone was able to truly override someone else’s will. Would something we would consider so sinful be good just because God is doing it? No! That opens a world of philosophical issues.

God’s love is perfect.  It will not push us into something we do not want.  For those who truly want God out of their lives, He says, “Ok.” 

Therefore, if being in a relationship with God is the thing a person does not want, and Heaven is where God resides and all are in a relationship with Him forever, why would that person want to be in Heaven?  If they truly do not want to be with Him, that would be a form of Hell itself. But since God is the basis of existence, is it really possible for them to exist in a place beyond that basis?

If such a place is possible, it is only possible because God made it.  I can only imagine that such a place would be rather messy.  We are human beings.  “In Him we live and move and have our being.”  How can we BE outside of being?  Hell is so much worse than a fish out of water scenario.  It would be a place where the order of God’s creation has been replaced with chaos, where the beauty of God’s majesty has been replaced with blandness.  Reality, even now, is filled with constant praise for its king, and Hell is where that music of the spheres falls silent, replaced with the cacophony of madness. 

Jesus describes Hell the way he does to let us know that it is certainly not a place we want to be, but the fact that he describes it at all tells us it is real, that God has created a place where His presence is somehow absent. Jesus tells us what he does about Hell because, as the embodiment of love, He is obligated to let us know what the alternative to loving Him looks like.  He wants us to know that although it is is a terrible choice, in the end it is our choice.

Yet, when all is said and done, if there is anyone who is tortured by the pain and suffering undoubtedly being experienced by those who will live there, who will have chosen that sort of existence, it is the one who loved them enough not only to die for them, but to do so knowing that they would spurn him, that all they ever needed to do make the madness stop was pull their eyes off themselves for just a moment and see what the rest of creation was singing about.  God loved them enough to make a place where they by choice, never again have to feel His love.  He gave them Hell, and His love makes sure that although there are those who may always refuse it, someone still loves them. 

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