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"Oh, Hell!" by Eric Zahnd

For the past several years, I have had the privilege of leading a Sunday morning Bible study with middle school students at Second Baptist.

I try to utilize the Socratic method during our discussions. While I always have an endpoint in mind, my goal is to ask students questions that enable them to gain a deeper understanding of the Bible through their own dialogue rather than merely providing them my view on any topic.

I am consistently surprised by the deep insights these young people—sixth, seventh, and eighth graders—have about some of the most difficult theological issues.

Last week, our study centered on Biblical teachings about Hell. “Oh Hell,” I thought when I first saw the topic.

The concept of Hell does not lend itself naturally to a particularly uplifting discussion, and one of my goals with our group is consistently to remind students that God loves us all. I want these young people to know that, even though things in this world will sometimes be hard, God’s love will ultimately triumph and the future is bright.

“So how do I put a positive spin on Hell?” I wondered.

Yet as I read the suggested scripture passages (Matthew 10:26-33, Mark 9:45-50, and Luke 16:14-30), I began to think about how an informed concept of Hell can actually feed optimism for Christians. As additional preparation for leading the discussion, I reviewed some writings of C. S. Lewis and a few other theologians on the topic. Their thoughts helped me further determine the direction I hoped our discussion would take.

Still, I was uncertain about whether our students would get there, because I assumed their initial reaction about the topic would be similar to mine:  “Oh Hell.”

I introduced the topic by asking students what they thought Hell was. After some discussion, we settled on the idea that—whatever else Hell was—it was apart from God.

One of the students then quickly focused on one of the enduring questions of Christian theology: If God loves everyone and yearns to have a relationship with us, why would God send some people to Hell?

After some additional discussion, we turned to the concept of free will described in Matthew 10:32-33: 

If you tell others that you belong to me, I will tell my Father in heaven that you are my followers. But if you reject me, I will tell my Father in heaven that you don’t belong to me.

As we discussed what it means for people to be able to choose whether to follow Christ and what implications that might have on Heaven and Hell, I invited our students to consider some of what C.S. Lewis had to say on the concept of free will.

Many of those present were familiar with Lewis as the author of the Chronicles of Narnia book series, but few knew he spent most of his time as a professor at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities and that he remains one of the most influential Christian theologians of the past few centuries.

I read this passage from The Great Divorce:

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”  All who are in hell choose it. Without that self-choice, there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who know it is opened.

One of the students immediately observed that God does not send people to Hell. Instead, we choose our course in life, and we choose whether we want to pursue Christ-like lives or not. It is our choice, not God’s, that determines whether we live with or apart from God. In the end, we choose Heaven or Hell.

It was wonderful to hear a middle school student come to the conclusion that we have the free will to choose the good life of Christ. In a discussion of Hell that could have been dominated by fear, our sinful natures, and a seemingly vengeful God, we instead arrived at an optimistic vision of our God-given capacity to choose a life pursuing faith, hope, and love. Thank Heaven  .


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