lesmis2012I first saw Les Misérables, the musical, in Singapore in 1996. Saw the movie recently. My favourite scene: When Marius sings “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”. Really hit me hard, especially in 1996, because of the losses I was struggling with in my own life. Second favourite scene: When Javert takes his own life. Well, “favourite” may not be the right word, but it was a scene that impacted me because it helped me to understand hell a little.

Here is what he sings before he takes his life:

Who is this man?
What sort of devil is he?
To have me caught in a trap
And choose to let me go free?
It was his hour at last
To put a seal on my fate
Wipe out the past
And wash me clean off the slate!
All it would take
Was a flick of his knife
Vengeance was his
And he gave me back my life!
Damned if I’ll live in the debt of a thief!
Damned if I’ll yield at the end of the chase.
I am the Law and the Law is not mocked
I’ll spit his pity right back in his face
There is nothing on earth that we share
It is either Valjean or Javert!

How can I now allow this man
To hold dominion over me?
This desperate man whom I have hunted
He gave me my life, he gave me freedom.
I should have perished by his hand!
It was his right.
It was my right to die as well
Instead I live, but live in hell!

Many, including those within the family of faith, struggle with how a loving God could “send people to hell”. Maybe God doesn’t send people to hell. Maybe people are there because they choose to be there. Like Javert, they choose to reject grace offered.

The doctrine of hell has always been difficult to accept and defend. A recent editorial in The Economist says this: “For hundreds of years, Hell has been the most fearful place in the human imagination. It is also the most absurd” (Economist, December 22nd, 2012–January 4th, 2013, 25). The article discusses the concept of hell in various faith traditions, pointing out various absurdities in the concept. I thought this was poor scholarship because the definition of hell differs from faith to faith and each religion’s understanding of hell should be evaluated on its own merits/demerits. The writer concludes that the concept of hell “should have been sunk long ago by the weight of its contradictions” (Economist, December 22nd, 2012–January 4th, 2013, 28). My response: Which hell? Hell is understood differently in the various faith traditions. The article concludes that the concept of hell has one redeeming feature—it acts as a necessary counterpoint to the concept of heaven. Again, my response is: Which heaven?

I note that the topic of hell was important enough to become a front-page article of the Special Holiday Double Issue of a major paper like The Economist. Interestingly, I rarely hear this topic preached in church. I wonder if I have ever preached on this topic in my almost 40 years of preaching. The closest I have come to doing this was when I taught about the afterlife in some doctrine course. The doctrine is not a simple one to understand or defend without falling into over simplification.

At its simplest, the doctrine of hell is part of the teaching on what happens to people beyond the final judgement. “The righteous enjoy unending fellowship in the community of God, whereas the unrighteous suffer eternal banishment from fellowship with their Creator” (Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994, 641). The unrighteous end up in hell.

Clearly metaphorical language is being used since hell is as hot as burning fire (Mark 9:47–48) and as cold as outer darkness (Matthew 8:12). What is clear is that this is a place or a status you want to avoid. The horrors of hell are told to us for precisely this purpose—that we would make decisions that would avoid our ending up there. It must also be stated clearly that God takes no delight in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23) and His desire is that none should perish (1 Timothy 2:4).

Why hell then? I think it has to do with judgement and the ability to make choices. The late Stanley Grenz writes:

. . . God has granted to humans the power of choosing whether to respond to God’s love. Our capability to spurn reconciliation is as eternally consequential, as our willingness to accept God’s offer of fellowship . . . God takes us so seriously that he will not force his will on anyone, not even in all eternity. (Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 641.)

Our choices matter. (Javert could have chosen to embrace the chaotic logic of grace.) Otherwise it makes nonsense of the choices we make in our lives. If choosing to love and choosing to kill makes no real difference in the end, life would be ridiculous and unworkable. Which brings up the subject of judgement. As N. T. Wright correctly points out:

Faced with the Balkans, Rwanda, the Middle East, Darfur, and all kinds of other horrors that enlightened Western thought can neither explain nor alleviate, opinion in many quarters has, rightly in my view, come to see that there must be such a thing as judgment. Judgment—the sovereign declaration that this is good and to be upheld and vindicated, and that is evil and to be condemned—is the only alternative to chaos. (N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, New York, NY: HarperOne, 2008, 178.)

If there is the power to choose, if some choices are good, and some evil, we can accept that there is a hell.

There is another twist to the tale. As it turns out we are all under judgement. We were all destined for hell. But God suffered hell on our behalf when Jesus died on the cross. And now He extends to us His hand of grace. We can be a Valjean that accepts grace and is transformed. Or we can be like Javert.

It is either Valjean or Javert.