To Hell and Back

I’ve received the following comment via the feedback form, in relation to something that I wrote in the 100 things about me. Number 18 of those things was: “I believe that there is no God worth believing in, who sends people to hell”
My correspondent says:

Hi Kelvin,

I don’t think there can be a heaven without a hell; how could we know heaven if we had no experience of what hell could be like? So does God send people to hell, or do they choose to send themselves by their own actions or inactions, and cut themselves off from God’s love?

It is a really good question and one that I thought I would answer here as others may want to chip in.

Before starting to answer the question, it is worth noting that there will be many different opinions about hell in St Mary’s – a whole spectrum of opinion. This should not be surprising really as we have all come from different places and have different experiences to draw upon. Furthermore, we know, because of Eric Stoddart’s research that there is a similar spectrum of opinion across the churches. (I commented on Eric’s research here). Moreover, another reason that this should not surprise us is that there is a spectrum of opinion amongst the biblical writers about hell. Different authors in the Bible say different things. (In this respect, hell is just like marriage! If anyone tries to tell you that they know what the biblical view of either marriage or hell is, they are either a fool or purposely trying to mislead you. There are a number of different voices in the Bible saying different things).

There is a rather weak Wikipedia article on hell which, if nothing else, shows a range of different treatments of hell.

I’ll not rehearse all those different views. Though it is worth noting that belief in the everlasting punishment of the unsaved used to be one of the principle defining doctrine of Evangelicalism. Whether that still holds true is for Evangelicals to comment on. They seem these days to want to be defined by their views on sex, not death.

The Apostles Creed (that we say at Evensong each week) suggests that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell.”

So, how can I reconcile saying that with saying what I said in my 100 things? The way of understanding hell that I rather like comes from Mother Julian of Norwich. She was taken in one of her visions to hell. She asserted that hell was very real. She also said that it was empty.

Hell certainly exists as an idea. I’d define that idea as utter ultimate separation from God. And I don’t believe that God is capable of chosing to be utterly separate from us.

I’m sure that people can try to cut themselves off from God’s love and know some kind of alienation that is the beginnings of hell. But could that be for all eternity. I’m not convinced that a religion that teaches such a possibility would ever satisfy me. Such a God would be a tyrant. Not worth knowing. A god one could never please.

No, for me, I would say that we are loved, blessed, cherished and saved from that ultimate separation by a God who only wills love for us, not punishment.



  1. Oh, there are so many ideas to expand upon, and maybe pull apart…

    When it comes to the creeds, I’m used to seeing a footnote of “Meaning the place of departed spirits”, enhancing the meaning that whatever normally happens to people’s identity after death also happened to Jesus.

    We inherit an awful lot from Jewish interpretation. Like, Gehenna being the name of the burning rubbish-tip outside Jerusalem. Did Jesus use the term only to mean the dump in front of him, as a symbol of rejection, or in an eternal sense? Or even 2 or all 3 of the above? How can I decide between these “mundane” and “extraordinary” interpretations?

    The very idea of a soul being one constituent of a 3-part human existence is also an underlying assumption; you could also see humans as body and mind with the word “soul” being a shorthand for “both body and mind at once” rather than something lurking that both medics and psychologists have failed to find.

    So, if some form of Universalism is true (and I have leanings that way), and there is some kind of afterlife (very optional when you can take all talk of hell, heaven or the Kingdom in the present-tense only, but still a nice idea), the main problem seems to be what happens to those who deny any form of God. Would they recognize God against their will? Would that be a bad thing?

    I can see how ideas such as Purgatory come about from wondering this kind of thing.

    Yes, the idea of God as some kind of mega-Person who needs to be placated is deficient. The idea can be understood in entirety, and must therefore be rejected.
    Beware the models. It should not be glib or easy to understand; any time you think you’ve got it sussed, God turns out to be a whole lot more transcendent.

  2. noxious nurd says

    Wha’s ‘at ? “…..there will be many different opinions about hell in St Mary’s “……. I don’t think it IS hell in S Mary’s……
    but then I’m not the Provost, and I’m sure he knows what he’s talking about……maybe shiny black shoes come into it…
    ….but….. uh oh……… guess you mean “opinions in S Mary’s ABOUT hell”…. Thankfully, God’s immanence transcends all…

  3. Andrew says

    CS Lewis gives us the picture of all those good, worthy, atheists we all know waking up in Heaven and wondering where they are …

  4. The oppression and injustices I suffer from in life are mild when compared to those suffered by the majority of people in the world. So I really don’t think I have any right to get rid of the concept of eternal punishment for those who bring so much suffering to so many people. I think any theology of hell must emerge from those for whom hell maybe regarded as part of their hope for a redemption of their earthly situation. Of course, those who suffer much may decide to forgive much. But that, I feel, is their decision, not mine.

  5. My 8 year old Zac says, “Daddy, people can’t be in Hell, because Jesus loves us too much to let us go there. If we went there, he’d come right down and take us out.”

    Sounds like good theology to me.

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