One of the first real difficulties to present itself to me when I was young Christian was the concept of Hell. In the fundamentalist Christianity I was reared in, this was a literal place brimming with fire and brimstone and which once entered - or perhaps I should say tossed into - was eternal. That is, that one wouldn't die or pass away into nonexistence, but remain conscious and sentient for all eternity.
Not a pretty picture. And very haunting for a child. Besides that, everything my inner voice seemed to tell me rejected such an idea as being part and parcel of the benevolent Creator I believed in.
As a teenager I started seriously studying the various Bible passages that spoke of Hell. It really struck me as odd that the Old Testament did not have a teaching about post mortem torment as I had been taught. A ray of light and hope flickered.
Then I learned from my Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias about a place outside the city of Jerusalem called Gehenna, a place which Jesus often referred to referencing the subject of divine punishment, which served as a garbage dump, fired continuously for incineration.
By around my twentieth year I was gifted by my then wife with a complete set of the writings of the early Church Fathers. I devoured these hungrily.
It wasn't long before I stumbled upon Arnobius, who seemed to teach a form of conditional immortality. In short order I also found other of the fathers who seemed to envision an eventual reconciliation for sinners.
Later still I checked out Augustine's massive City of God from the public library. I began a study of his thinking and was further pleased to find this pillar of orthodoxy admitted: "There are very many in our day, who though not denying the Holy Scriptures, do not believe in endless torments."
"Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty I'm free at last." Well, actually I don't remember saying or think that. But I do definitely remember that I felt fully justified in discarding the common understanding of Hell. And I did, without apology.
Throughout my twenties, as unbelief steadily took hold of me, I discarded the Bible as an authority altogether. Fairly soon my belief in an afterlife was just about completely overthrown, and with that the question of Heaven and Hell as literal places became moot.
Now, these many years later, I am finding my way back to a faith worldview. I am again grappling with and looking more favorable at life after death. (More about these things in future posts.)
I ask myself now if anyone who understands civilization's need to establish a penal system can really object to Hell. Ideally reformation should be the goal sought. I wonder now if, given the existence of God, Hell might seem reasonable after all?
If Hell was the first problem to catch my young attention, the way to avoid it was a close second. I reasoned then that a just God couldn't make "the way" to Heaven much less than crystal clear and then damn those who missed it to an eternity of torture.
In studying that matter as a young Christian I soon took note of the fact that every time the great Judgment Day at the end of time was mentioned, humans were to be judged "according to their works." If so, I reasoned, it wasn't what you know that made the difference but rather how well you lived your life.
Working my way back as a much older man now, I think was on the right track. I suppose that makes me something of a universalist and a religious pluralist.
I tend to believe we humans are hardwired to believe in God and follow a moral code written on our hearts, which to say, our conscience.
Now obviously for some folks something (or some things) go wrong and lead them astray. This "sensus divinitatis" can be drowned out and maybe even obliterated. But the widespread religious worldview seems to suggest this isn't easily done.
I hope the above will serve for those who are interested in knowing as a framework for understanding how I think about the subject.