What in hell is going on?

The Walrus, a magazine not renowned for a sustained interest in Christian thought, in its April number commendably features a review article of a book about, of all things, hell: Marq de Villiers, Hell and Damnation: A Sinner’s Guide to Eternal Torment (University of Regina, 2019). Villiers is a Nova Scotia-based journalist whose previous books discuss wine, water, and, inevitably, the Bluenose. But now he turns to the history of theology.

To review this book, The Walrus called upon the services of…another journalist. Michael Coren is known to many Canadians in one or another of his successive personae: political journalist, shock jock, evangelical TV show host, right-wing Catholic pundit, and now a left-leaning Anglican on the barricades for various LGBTQ+ causes.

Michael (whom I have met and with whom I enjoy a cordial acquaintance) has recently completed a Master of Divinity degree at Trinity College, Toronto—a school with an illustrious heritage that has not, however, retained what one might call a robust connection with Christian orthodoxy. So let’s see how hell shows up in the hands of these journalists in Canada’s aspiring magazine of ideas.

Alas, reading the first few pages of Mr. Villiers’s volume tells me all I need to know about what kind of book it is: cheerfully uninterested in orthodoxy of any kind, versed in sources almost entirely gained from the Internet, and with no apparent connection to any of the scholarly literature on the subject. (It’s not evident to me why a university press—even a little, struggling one—would publish such a book.)

Readers hungry for a volume calculated to jolt and amuse while confirming bien-pensant prejudices toward those awful, silly churchpeople and their outlandish ideas will eat it up—perhaps with a nice pinot noir. Serious people will devote their reading hours to the likes of philosopher Jerry L. Walls’s Hell: The Logic of Damnation (University of Notre Dame Press, 1992) or the collection of theological essays presenting Four Views on Hell (HarperZondervan, 2016).

As for Michael’s own review, I don’t want to pick on someone who has barely earned his first theological degree. So let’s just tidy up a few things.

The article says that “Hell has had many rulers…. In Christianity, it’s Satan.” Well, no, it isn’t. Satan is identified with hell because that’s where he’s going to end up (Revelation 20:10), but the Bible calls him “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31) and hell will be his just deserts for a long, long lifetime of wickedness. God is in charge of hell…

…as Jesus frequently made clear. Despite Michael’s suggestion that hell is a subject we’re well rid of, with “voluntary goodness…far more synchronized with the original teachings of Christ,” the Gospels record Jesus speaking about hell more than anyone else in the Bible. Perhaps we should take it seriously after all.

At the end, however, Michael gets right what really matters. He quotes Villiers’s saying, “Hell is just a state of mind, a radical separation from god [sic]” and replies, “This idea I like.” Well, “just a state of mind” can be left aside as a vacuity, but “radical separation from God” is exactly what hell is.

Hell is the logical termination point of a life lived on an arc away from God. God doesn’t have to send anyone to hell. We are either on the path of life or we’re not. God is the source of all that is good in the cosmos, so the final situation is binary. Either you’re connected with the life-support system that is God, or you’re free to do the only thing left to you to do: suffer and die.

Christianity offers the good news that Jesus Christ suffered and died in our place. If we re-connect our life with his, we will find him to be what he said he is: the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). But if we don’t avail ourselves of his lifesaving offer, we end up where we cannot but end up: bereft of all that is good.

Michael understandably is unhappy with the history of Christians trying to scare people into conversion. Avoiding disaster isn’t at the gospel’s heart: embracing Love is.

But that loving embrace is the alternative to a horrific end, a destiny so awful that the ancients used the horribly appropriate images of fire and darkness to depict it. So, no, hell isn’t a Gary Larson cartoon, or a Hieronymus Bosch painting, of naked people getting punctured or eaten by demons.

It’s worse.

And taking that so seriously that you try to help other people avoid it is the very definition of love.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).