I don’t believe in Hell. There is a fundamental flaw I see in the theology of hell, because Jesus is supposed to be the only way to eternal life. Though horrific, eternal damnation is still a form of eternal life. Beyond that, it seems terribly human and not at all Divine to think that life is a pass/fail test, and a few wrong turns during the 70 years you’re on Earth can sentence you forever. There’s no grace in that, and radically unjustified grace is the foundation of so much of what Jesus taught.
Last time the subject came up in Sunday school, the kids posed the same question everyone asks: “What if someone says they’re sorry at the last minute?” They followed it up with the even better question: “What if they wait a minute too long?” In response I asked, “Do you think anything can ever be too late for God?” They didn’t think so, and agreed that you probably still had a chance to repent even after death. In fact, they thought that chance might remain there forever.
The closest approximation I’ve ever read to how I view God’s relationship to the afterlife is The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. In it, hell is a lot like the real world, except there are infinite resources to build. So when you don’t like your neighbors, you just move farther and farther away from them. There’s a bus that comes by often, and you are always allowed to ride. It takes you to a sort of middle ground between heaven and hell where things are wonderful and strange and dangerous. From there you have the option to move up into heaven. No tests, no punishments, you can just go. The thing is you can’t take any baggage with you, and people like their baggage. Baggage is everything they held so tight to on Earth. So they get back on the bus and go home. But the option is always there. God’s timeline is not our timeline.
Eternity is a strange idea, and a very inhuman one. It’s part of why I don’t really believe in Heaven either, at least not as commonly depicted. If the Twilight Zone taught us anything, it’s that a world where everything goes right isn’t paradise at all. Therefore if there is an afterlife, it must bear no resemblance to the life we live here on Earth. This is where my love of science runs into my faith. I have this theory that consciousness is a real thing that exists in the universe, just like any other form of matter. And like matter, it can change its state. Right now my consciousness is in the human state. It can do things like control a body and learn from its surroundings and write very long blog posts. But before it was in my body, it was in another state. Perhaps it will return to that state once it leaves my body. Perhaps it will just go into another human, or another animal, or get squished down into a virus (or maybe it has to split up to be a virus, I can’t be sure since I haven’t done any controlled trials). However I think it’s just as likely that it will take on a whole new form. Maybe it takes the form of background radiation in the universe. Maybe pieces of consciousness obey gravity and they pull together when they are freed from the human state. Maybe if enough of them come together they can spark life in a new place far from here. Maybe that’s how we got here in the first place.
The idea that after you die your essence will become a new form – a form that doesn’t remember itself or anything it ever did, a form that may not even realize it exists at all – might be a bit unnerving. But I don’t look at it that way. To me it sounds like a great and grand adventure, possibly one I’ve been on many times before. And as always my God, the God that is the very universe itself, will be there with me.