One week before my father died of cancer, I received an email from a family friend— we’ll call her G—wanting to know if he had been “saved” yet; the implication being there wasn’t much time left before it would be too late. By that point, Dad had succumbed to a comatose-like state, with occasional hallucinations and unintelligible ramblings. In other words, though technically still alive, he had already left us—and if this “friend” knew him at all, she’d have known he was never comfortable talking about religion.
That email sent me down a rabbit hole of anxiety, which I’m still wandering through, nearly two years later. Having been involved in evangelical church groups for years, I knew G probably had good intentions. In her view, the most loving thing a Christian could do was warn nonbelievers about their eternal fate, but her timing could not have been worse. As far as I know, my father died as the agnostic I always knew him to be.
Considering my entire family is Jewish, you would think the doctrine of hell would have kept me from becoming a Christian altogether. Indeed, it is one of the most exclusive, horrifying, and offensive aspects of the Christian faith from an outsider’s perspective, yet I never allowed myself to think about it. I was instead drawn to the person of Jesus, the radical Jewish teacher who flipped tables and pissed off the righteous gatekeepers of religiosity. He was a feisty mensch, like me. By my sophomore year of college, I had made the decision to count myself among his followers.
The next several months post-conversion were a whirlwind of learning new prayers, new doctrines, and new lingo. When my new Campus Crusade friends learned of my background, and when I offered up prayer requests when Dad’s cancer returned (as it tended to do on a regular basis ever since I was twelve), they asked me if I’d “shared the gospel” with him yet. Like G, they pressed me with a sense of urgency: “You don’t know how much time he has left.” In hindsight, I’m not sure why I wasn’t scared away right then and there. Christianity as a whole was still new to me, so perhaps I wasn’t ready to take hell seriously. It still seemed to me like a place from a dark fairy tale.
Today I no longer have the luxury of ignorance. Today, I’m easily triggered when someone mentions the passing of a relative, how “he has gone to be with the Lord.” I’ve had acquaintances ask me if my father was a “believer.” My curt answer—if I don’t immediately choke up with anxiety and panic—is, “He had beliefs.”.
I can’t hide the doubt anymore. Everything I know about Jesus, everything that led me to want to follow him in the first place, cannot be reconciled with this idea of eternal, conscious torment. Everything Jesus ever taught about grace, about loving one’s enemies and forgiving them seventy times seven times, seems contradictory to fire and brimstone on every rational level. And yet, those verses referencing hell are there in Scripture, and I don’t know what to do with them. I don’t know what will become of my faith if I can’t make sense of them. I don’t know how I can hold on to all the good things about Jesus that radically changed my life if I cannot make sense of this other critical piece that is part of the Christian “package.”
As a bookworm and theology nerd, I did the only thing that made sense, short of giving up altogether: I studied. I bought books from various theologians of all stripes—Gregory Boyd, Benjamin Corey, Jonathan Sweeney, C. S. Lewis, to name a few—and studied their thoughts and interpretations of hell. I studied the hell doctrines of several denominations and traditions. I learned fire and brimstone is just one interpretation: some Christians and scholars believe in annihilation, or ceasing to exist, which is the traditional Jewish teaching about the fate of people who “reject” the God of Israel.
Considering Christianity was born from Judaism, this teaching—with scriptural references from the Old Testament talking about “destruction” in the Psalms and “ceasing to exist” in Ecclesiastes—gives me some hope, but the agony of not knowing for certain still keeps me up at night.
For all my doubts about Christianity, I have never doubted whether or not there is a God. And if there is anything keeping my faith grounded, it’s the fact of God’s goodness. The God who created the earth and everything in it, who gives and sustains life, has to be good. I have to trust that, because if I can’t, then it is the final straw that will break my faith. And if God is good, and has grace as big as the Scriptures promise, then surely this is reason enough to be optimistic about eternity.