This past week I was invited to lead a book discussion on The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. In this book Lewis explores the afterlife and the possibility of Heaven and Hell. The book is a fable about a bus ride from Hell to Heaven. On this trip characters must decide whether to go deeper into heaven or return to where they came from. As I prepared for this discussion I spent a lot of time reading about hell. As you might expect there is a whole lot of stuff out there. It covers the entire spectrum of opinion, thought, and theology. If you want to find an opinion on the afterlife that fits your suppositions, it’s out there.
I grew up in a time when the idea of hell was used as motivation to get me into heaven. The logic went something like this: I could die at any time. If I died did I know where I was going? This worked.
What struck me as I prepared for this discussion is how little the bible actually says about what happens after we die. However, the bible does say a whole bunch about how we should live right here, right now. The themes are pretty consistent- loving our neighbors and enemies and praying for those who wish to do us harm. This God who we serve loves us enough to let us make our own decisions – this is Lewis’s thesis.
I find it interesting that Jesus didn’t seem to be all that concerned about hell or the afterlife.
So why do some people of faith focus so much on hell? Based on my experience as a child, all I can come up with is that the concept of hell is a great motivator. In some cases I might even go so far as to say there are people of faith who have used their imagined concepts of hell to manipulate and control their congregations. Others secretly want a God who gets even in the end. The idea that all the really bad people will suffer forever has a strange attraction.
If my study of hell has made anything clear it is this: what happens after death is mostly a mystery. If you read the bible through the perspective of a judgmental God, it is a frightening mystery. If you read the bible through the lens of John 3:16, a loving God, then the mystery is kind of exciting.