Americans are much less sure of the existence of Hell than of Heaven. Hopefully this is because they have had such glimpses of the Divine that Hell seem fuzzy to them. There seems, however, some chance that it is because they have become too nice to believe anyone is in Hell.
In chatting with regular folk, not the sort that teach at colleges, often one only need mention Hitler to convince them that someone must be in Hell. Do we really want to ruin Paradise by potentially having Adolph (and Eva!) as neighbors?
This argument might be effective, but it is not an argument Christians can use. Called to love even our enemies, we know somebody is in Hell, but really shouldn’t root for any particular person to be there. With the exception of Judas, Christians don’t know that anybody is there for sure. It is none of our business and given the nature of Hell there is something inappropriate for wishing for a specific man to go there.
If this is so, then why do Christians believe in Hell?
First, God told us Hell exists and He is in a position to know. You might not want a place to exist, for example Cleveland, but you might be reliably informed it does exist. God told us Hell exists in the Bible and that some humans will be thrown into it, so we accept this as a given.
Second, wicked actions deserve punishment. Hell exists to punish sin that has not been forgiven. Justice demands that if you want the benefits of freedom, you should be willing to pay the price. We have been warned that certain deeds are wicked and are happy to enjoy what pleasures come with them, so we shouldn’t complain too hard when the bill comes due.
Some argue that it is unjust that the pleasures of sin are so short and the wages so long, but this seems a mistake. Sin is a bad deal, but God has done all He could to warn us against making such a deal. God insists on treating us as if our decisions mattered and of course if He did not do so, then people would complain about this!
If we don’t wish eternal torment, we need merely avoid doing the things that will lead to eternal torment.
Given the way humans are, though, we seem very apt to sin . . . to do one of the things that deserve punishment. Is it fair that sin is so easy to commit? It is certainly not fair, but it is the result of our inherited nature. We are not born as a blank-slate; all of us inherit traits or tendencies from our parents. One such trait is settling for what we want instead of what we should want. We settle for passion when we could have true love.
Even a small crime warps the soul of a man further and no warped thing can enter into the Kingdom of God. God is not willing to ruin the perfection and joy of Heaven by ignoring our self-created stench.
This is tough, but that is the way it is. This is why God cannot merely “forget about” our sins. We are broken and we would go on being broken if He did nothing about it. He simply could smite us and start over again, but He loves us and would save all He can of the good work He made in the beginning.
We must be “born again” . . . which will include the “legal” acquittal for our sins, but also will result in the Word of God coming inside us and changing us. The best analogy to the process is being “born again” so that we can start over with a new parent (God) and a new family (God’s church).
God suffered in order to make a way for man to enter this relationship. God came and became fully human; He did not just put on a skin suit like Zeus or the pagan gods. He lived out a perfect life, but then allowed us to kill Him. The God-man could die as a man, but God-man could not stay dead. He came back to life and created a new set of possibilities.
Men and women are separated from God by their actions and their heritage. God will forgive their actions and give them a new spiritual heritage.
When younger, I worried often about those who never got a chance to experience this new relationship. Wisdom finally taught me that I did not know any such people exist. The hypothetical “person who never heard in x” (insert the distant land of your choice for “x”) is a speculative proposition. Name one. Who is that person? What ideas did they hear? What was revealed to them in their dreams? What happens to a man or woman at the moment of their death? I don’t know for sure, but for all I do know all are given a chance to see clearly and to choose wisely.
Given the charity of God, there is no reason to assume that any man is not given a choice. They cannot hear without a preacher, but if those of us who know the truth fail them, there is no reason God cannot preach His own sermon or allow His holy angels to do so.
What of those who lived before the coming of the Christ?
Christians believe that the dead before Christ confronted Christ when He died and the faith of some saved them. This was certainly true of Abraham. What of those not under God’s covenant with Abraham? What of the noble pagans like Plato?
There the mind of the Church has been divided. Scripture says nothing for certain, but there are two big ideas to keep in mind. First, God desires that nobody should perish eternally. Second, some people will perish eternally and those people will perish in punishment for their sins and because they are unfit for Heaven.
Plato cannot go to Heaven simply because he was better than most. Paradise is not gained on a curve. The joys of Heaven are too awesome for us if we have not been changed. The beauty of Heaven would burn us as surely as the fires of Hell, and be unfitting on top of it, if we remained the little souls that dabble in the “pleasures” of sin in this life.
Could Plato have been born again before the coming of Christ?
Justin Martyr put Plato in Heaven, because Plato loved the Word and lived before the Incarnation. He walked in all the light he had been given. Dante put Plato in Hell, because Plato had never been changed from the inside through baptism. If a man is not born again, then he is not fit for Paradise.
Who is right?
A charitable man roots for Justin, but a thoughtful man suspects that Dante is correct. Why?
It is faith and an appeal for mercy that will save us, but Plato may be too sure that his works will be enough. In Republic he accepts that there must be punishment for evil, and even eternal punishment for some badly broken souls, but he does not think his soul is that badly broken.
We are badly defaced, monstrous, according to Plato, but he hopes the dialectic might save us from doom. Sadly, there is not time enough and even following the Word as closely as possible cannot fix the rot. It goes too deeply.
But perhaps, just perhaps, the end of the Republic indicates that Plato knows this. He appeals to religion and myth in the end and might (if one reading of the text is followed) combine a hope in God with the dialectic. If so, then Plato may have seen what needs to been seen: we need mercy and not just good works.
In any case, Plato is where he is and my worry about him may be a false one. It might distract me from working out my own sanctification with fear and trembling. Plato will stand before the judgment seat of Christ, but so will I. I can do nothing for Plato, but I must realize that my problems, my sin, goes so deep that I can do nothing that matters for me.
I fear Hell. I fear separation from all that is good, true, and beautiful. I fear the end of the dialectic in the static narcissism that is the fate of the damned. I would not lose the good of the intellect for the glories of this present age.
I must daily pray: Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.