What the Hell?

Anastasis (Harrowing of Hell, or Christ in Limbo), Parekkl… | Flickr
Anastasis (harrowing of hell), 1310-1320.

It is a familiar story. One that has been told for millennia, passed down from generation to generation across various ethnic and racial backgrounds. Despite the relatively recent debates in the past few centuries regarding the “historicity” of the story (which, I would argue, is not all that important), the creation myth as told in the Hebrew Scriptures (and a somewhat similar yet different story as told in the Qur’an) remains at the forefront of what the world’s Abrahamic religions believe about the beginning of the world. While the arguments regarding “how” the world was created continue in circular debates, the story that many in Judeo-Christian cultures are familiar with (that is, Genesis 1-3) is perhaps best understood as describing who and what happened as opposed to exactly how it happened. Contrary to many pagan creation stories, Genesis 1 tells the story of a God who “created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1, emphasis added). Notice the word heavens, as well as the verses that follow it. As God creates, the text says that “God set [the lesser light and the greater light] in the vault of the sky […]” and the birds were placed in the sky (1:17, 21). Two chapters later, right after what is traditionally referred to as “the Fall,” the Scriptures say that God “was walking in the garden in the cool of the day […]” (3:8). This is a very important theological claim: God is not absent, aloof, or in other words distant from Adam and Eve, even in their sin — He is walking in the garden, seeking them. If we see “heaven” as being “God’s place” and “the heavens” as being the sky and beyond (e.g. space), then we can reasonably assume that, at least in the beginning, “heaven” was indeed on earth. Whatever we say about hell from a Christian perspective must be said in light of the creation story, in which whatever “hell” is was not there in the beginning, and, perhaps even more provocative, God himself is described as being in the thick of it when Adam and Eve find themselves in a hell of their own making. A platonic understanding of Christianity, and subsequently of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, has for centuries led to an interpretation of the story that is deeply anti-creation, resulting in a theology that resembles that of the Medieval Age rather than that of the Early Church. In his book The Day the Revolution Began, New Testament scholar N.T. Wright argues that, “we have platonized our eschatology, moralized our anthropology, and have therefore been in danger of paganizing our soteriology.” This is clearly evident in the “ticket-to-heaven” theology that assumes Genesis 1 as saying, “in the beginning, God created heaven, earth, and hell.” The earth, then, becomes a place to escape from, or at the least an “in-between” space where people wait to go “beyond the blue.” While this purely afterlife focused theology has clear ramifications for those society would deem as “damned,” such as those experiencing poverty, oppression, addiction(s), etc., it also has psychological ramifications for those who believe it (as well as those who find themselves in a society, culture, and/or subsect that holds to this or a similar view). Unfortunately, the predominant understanding of Christianity in the West is one that upholds a platonic view of the world, in which the Church’s missiology has for centuries been about “saving souls,” traditionally implying being saved from eternal conscious torment, as made popular by Calvin and Anselm. Historically, this retributive eschatology (that is, a retributive and punitive understanding of a post-mortem hell), has been coupled with a penal substitutionary view of the atonement (the idea that Jesus was punished to satisfy God’s wrath toward sinners), a view often accredited to Calvin and popularized in fairly recent American history by evangelists such as Jonathan Edwards. Luckily, many theologians and laypeople have come to different conclusions and understandings of God, one of whom was George MacDonald, a pastor and author during the time of Edwards, who stated, “I love the one God seen in the face of Jesus Christ. From all copies of Jonathan Edwards’s portrait of God, however faded by time, however softened by the use of less glaring pigments, I turn with loathing. Not such a God is he concerning whom was the message John heard from Jesus, that he is light, and in him is no darkness at all (MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons). While I recognize my own bias toward revolting against such a retributive understanding of God, I believe the evidence suggests that such a theology not only has ramifications on the individual (such as religious angst), but also has effects on politics, family dynamics, social issues, the role of the church, and an array of other matters.

A Retributive God?

In his book Jesus and the Undoing of Adam, Dr. Baxter Kruger writes, “Adam projected his own brokenness, as it were, onto God’s face […] God did not change […] but Adam had changed, and he now projected his pain, his anxiety, onto God, thereby creating a mythological deity, a legendary god, and standing before this mythological god, this projection, Adam could feel only the most dreadful fear, for he believed himself to be standing before a god who is a hair’s breadth away from anger, judgement and utter rejection” (Kruger). Kruger is in no way claiming that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a mythical deity; rather, he is simply stating that the psychological phenomena of projection applies not just to our relationships with each other, but to our relationship with God (or the gods). While the theological claims behind Kruger’s statement can and have been argued elsewhere, the point he seems to make is clear: not only did Adam experience his own fear and judgement, but he believed that is what he would receive from God, as noticeable in his hiding from God in Genesis 3:8. The fear that Adam and Eve experience is perhaps best understood as shame; in his book, The Soul of Shame, Curt Thompson describes the paradox of shame when he says, “when we experience shame, we tend to turn away from others because the prospect of being seen or known by another carries the anticipation of shame being intensified or reactivated. However, the very act of turning away, while temporarily protecting and relieving us from our feeling (and the gaze of the ‘other’), ironically simultaneously reinforces the very shame we are attempting to avoid” (Thompson, pg. 13). Because shame is such a relational and embodied emotion, it makes sense why it seems to go hand-in-hand with ambivalent attachment, which is what we see in Genesis 3 between Adam, Eve, and God. There is a desire for vulnerability and intimacy, while simultaneously a fear of punishment and condemnation. And so in their own shame, self-loathing, and scapegoating, Adam and Eve thrust upon themselves the very contempt that they think God has for them. Unfortunately, many have come to understand shame as being something from God, perhaps insisting that God was indeed ashamed of Adam and Eve. But to make that assumption is to begin the retributive view of God that I wish to dispute; before making our own judgements regarding the judgement of Adam and Eve, and thus making judgements regarding the character of God, there is a particular verse that has the potential to deeply affect one’s understanding of God, and thus likely affect how one lives in relation to his/her belief in that God. This verse is one so often read in the Adam and Eve story that the implications of it are or perhaps have often been glossed over; it is possible for familiarity to produce apathy, and because of that it might be wise to assume an unfamiliarity with the text as if engaging it with no preconceptions. The specific verse is Genesis 2:17, where God speaks of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and says “if you eat its fruit, you will surely die.” Notice what this verse does not say. It does not say, “if you eat its fruit, I will kill you” but “you will die.” The “punishment”, then, is not retributive but rather the natural result of a choice made (whatever the choice is that is represented by eating from the tree). Had the directive by God been “I will kill you, punish you, beat you, etc.,” Adam would have every reason to hide from God. Like a toddler running away from the parent to protect himself from being spanked, Adam fled out of fear and shame. And yet, in doing so, he ran right into the death produced by the fruit he and his wife ate. Or, put another way, the death he experienced was first and foremost relational — a sense of estrangement and distrust toward both God and his wife (although it is important to note that God did not turn from him but actually continued to pursue him; thus the feeling of separation and brokenness did not come from God, but from Adam’s own sense of isolation and hiding). This is important, because it points to a deep truth: the result of our sin (both individually and systemically) is not a beating from God, but death in all its forms, perhaps most notably relationally, emotionally, and physically (not just biologically, but in cases such as wars and other forms of violence). The theology behind this statement in Genesis 2:17 is expanded on in Genesis 4; moments before Cain kills Abel, God tells Cain, “sin is crouching at your door, ready to devour you.” Sin is described as a kind of beast that comes to steal, kill, and destroy, or in other words oppose the creation labeled as good. ‘Punishment’, rightly understood, is not what God does to us when we sin but rather the self-inflicted wounds of sin itself. To say this is to say that sin is far more of an organic problem than a judicial one; we do not need sin to be “punished” out of us but rather to be healed and rescued from the very wounds sin has inflicted upon ourselves and each other. To bring the analogy of the parent back, most parents would not say, “if you walk into that road, I will kill you”; however, they might say, “if you walk into that road, you might get hit by a car.” There is then a warning of the possible consequences, and the parent longs to protect the child and grieves when he/she is hurt. But the parent does not inflict the suffering upon the child. Another beautiful, yet often glanced over picture of this in the Bible is found in the book of Daniel with Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego. While many who grew up in Sunday School know the story of King Nebuchadnezzar, who threw the three Jewish teens into the furnace for not bowing down to him, many of the same Christians believe that is precisely what God will do to those who do not bow down to him. Thus, one act is evil when done by a nation-state and “just” when done by God himself. But is that true? In his book, Her Gates Will Never be Shut, Dr. Brad Jersak critiques the use of the fear of punishment in evangelicalism when he writes, “if my faith depends on fear of punishment, what will happen to my faith when perfect love (Jesus) comes to cast it out (1 John 4:18)? If God thinks that fear of punishment is something to be ‘cast out’ […] then our Gospel and preaching better not rest on that foundation […].” Jersak makes extensive theological claims steeped in Scripture for the advocation of universal redemption and a cosmic view of restorative justice (which, he argues, are more in line with the beliefs of the early church fathers), and his quip regarding the fear of punishment being incongruent with the character of Jesus perfectly summarizes his book, which is that whatever is said about judgement, justice, salvation, hell, or any other eschatological/theological topic must be worthy of the love, mercy, and grace seen in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of the crucified one named Jesus. Any theological claim in Christianity that contradicts with the character of he who is eternally gracious and merciful must be directly challenged, not through the use of power and coercion but rather through the subversive power of love. To paraphrase Wright in his book How God Became King, the kingdom of God advances not through the love of power but rather the power of love (Wright). To think that God would call us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44) while he goes on to burn his own enemies is not only inconsistent with the life of Jesus, but also contradictory to Paul’s message that we imitate God (Ephesians 5:1). Jersak perfectly describes this when he says we should, “note the irony and incongruence of the Church utilizing the very place where God became violently offended by the literal burning of children as our primary metaphor for a final and eternal burning of God’s wayward people in literal flames” (Jersak, pg. 65). If we are to believe that God is a malevolent, violent, retributive deity, then it can be said that in some ways Christians have done a good job of imitating him, as in the case of the Crusades, the Salem witch trials, and abortion clinic bombings. Of course, that is not the end of the story, for Christians have historically played major roles in prosocial movements, such as in health and medicine and in the civil rights movements (unfortunately, Christians could be found on both sides of the civil rights movement). The Bible hints at the idea that we become like the God we worship (2 Kings 17:15), and this is certainly true when we consider theological assumptions such as penal substitution and an infernalist view of hell. In episode 80 of the Inverse Podcast, Dr. Brad Jersak states that, “our penal system is a reflection of our theology,” a statement which makes sense considering that the gospel is often explained in judicial terms (Hart & McKenna, 2021). The ramifications of this penal, retributive view of God, then, seems to be a retributive view of justice. And so, when this theology becomes the status quo, the very Christians who promote the mercy and love of Jesus cannot imagine justice as being anything but retributive; justice then becomes the very “eye for an eye” code of Hammurabi (and Moses, albeit differently) that Jesus directly confronts and exposes in his message of forgiveness and enemy love, as laid out in the Sermon on the Mount. This is not simply of theological importance; the breadth of psychology over the past century and a half highlights the benefits of core values such as empathy and unconditional positive regard. In his book on trauma, Bessel van der Kolk writes that “[traumatized people] learn to hide from themselves”; a characteristic that is seen in ancient texts such as Genesis 3 (Van Der Kolk, pg. 97). To engage in any form of intimacy is to be vulnerable, and vulnerability by its nature is accompanied by risk. As Bilbo Baggins once said, “it’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your front door” (Tolkien). And yet, it might be more of a risk to never be vulnerable; a few pages earlier in The Body Keeps the Score, van der Kolk says, “in an effort to shut off terrifying sensations, [PTSD patients] deadened their capacity to feel fully alive” (pg. 93). For those experiencing shame, self-contempt, anger, and/or perhaps a host of other emotions projected onto them from others (and we must keep in mind that emotions are often embodied), self-defeating/destructive behavior/habits are in some ways inevitable. It could even be said that the very shame/contempt toward oneself is in itself a self-destructive behavior that must be challenged by the receiving of kindness, love, and mercy. While it is true that those sitting in counseling offices (hopefully) are met with kindness and grace despite their beliefs, cognitions, or behaviors, I worry this cannot be said among many sitting in pews on Sunday mornings, due to what I see as an incongruence between the dominant theology of the day and the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Of course, this is not to say that there is not a time for judgement, for indeed there is; but the question is whether this judgement is punitive or restorative, and judging by the Christian hope that God will one day be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28) and that all will be made new (Revelation 21:5), as well as the subversive nature of God’s kingdom and the disturbing beauty and mystery of Jesus, one would hope that the judgement of God is always for the purpose of restoration and renewal. In Psalm 139, David asks God to search his heart and test his thoughts (139:23); surely, this is not for the purpose of inviting punishment onto himself, but instead to invite the kindness of God to lead him to a better way of living (139:24). In fact, if we are to believe, as I argued earlier, that ‘punishment’ is actually the natural consequences we bring upon ourselves when we choose to not abide in love (such as the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15), then we could actually say that David was being rescued from his own propensity toward self-destruction precisely by accepting the judgement of God. This, however, likely requires a fundamental rethinking of what we think about judgement. To speak of the Prodigal Son, we could say in one sense that the son experienced “judgement” when the father allowed him (with grief in his heart) to suffer the results of his own choices, and thus make a hell of his life. And yet we could say the son experienced judgement in a  different way when he returned to his father, and yet the judgement was not the wrath of his sin but the loving embrace of his father signaling forgiveness and reconciliation. But perhaps the self-inflicted judgement of the older son is even more provocative; in his refusal to understand the scandalous grace of the father toward the younger son, he sentenced himself to a prison of his own bitterness, envy, and anger; in other words, he made himself a hell. And yet, “his father went out and pleaded with him,” revealing a father who wishes for all — even those gnashing their teeth in a sea of their own bitterness — to experience his tender mercy and outrageous love (15:28). In The Brothers Karamazov, Elder Zosima asks himself, “‘what is hell?’ And I answer thus: ‘the suffering of being no longer able to love’” (Dostoevsky, pg. 322). Perhaps it would be wise to ponder the words of one of Dostoevsky’s most famous novels; being saved from a literal, infernalist interpretation of hell opens the door to a wide variety of ways to contemplate what “hell” is, one of those ways being the ways in which we make “hell on earth” through the endless use of violence against ourselves and creation. I end with the words of pastor and author Brian Zahnd: “if you want to know how to find hell, follow the path set by the rich man [and the brother of the prodigal son]…you’ll get there” (Zahnd, pg. 135). Whatever the hell it is, I believe it is not an after-life torture chamber of a retributive God but rather the destructive nature of our individual, collective, and systemic sins — and I believe the God revealed in Jesus, who was and is reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19), longs to make all things new, and the gates of hell (whatever they may be) shall not prevail.


Dostoyevsky, F., Pevear, R., & Volokhonsky, L. (1992). The Brothers Karamazov. Knopf. 

Hart, D., & McKenna, J. (Hosts). (2021, March 21). Dr. Brad Jersak: Nonviolent Atonement Series (No. 80). [Audio podcast episode]. In Inverse.

Jersak, B. (2010). Her gates will never be shut: Hell, hope, and the new Jerusalem. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.

Kruger, C. B. (2003). Jesus and the undoing of Adam. Jackson, MS: Perichoresis Press.

MacDonald, G. (1989). Unspoken sermons. Eureka, CA: J. Joseph Flynn Rare Book Pub. in association with Sunrise Books. 

Thompson, C. (2015). The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About  Ourselves. InterVarsity Press.

Wright, N. T. (2016). How God Became King: the Forgotten Story of the Gospels. HarperOne, An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. 

Wright, N. T. (2018). The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. New York, NY: HarperOne.

Zahnd, B. (2017). Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God: The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News. Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook.

van der Kolk, B. (2015). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Books. 

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