His ashes sit in a carved, mahogany box on the top of one of my bookcases, his life condensed into a 5 pound bag of gritty, gray matter. It's what we all become eventually, so don't suppose me too morbid. I'm only matter-of-fact about it.
Considering myself a Christian, a believer in Jesus, I had to think...really think....about what I thought had happened to my father. He was an atheist. Not only was he an atheist, but he was rather mocking of any type of religion or belief in salvation. So, one couldn't even make the argument that he was an ignorant atheist who had never been exposed to the Gospel. He'd heard it plenty and decided that it wasn't for him. From a Christian perspective, he died without excuse.
I broached this subject once with my brother, a fellow believer, curious how he was handling my father's death. I had already been considering annihilation, and had been reserving my judgment on the matter, not becoming too emotional about the eternal aspect of my father's death. I was sad, but not consumed with images of him being tormented forever. However, I knew, or at least thought, my brother was more conservative than I was. I was afraid of what he might be thinking and struggling with.
He responded that his pastor, a pastor of a Nazarene church, had comforted him with the thought that there's no way to know what my dad was thinking about when he passed. Perhaps he made a last-minute profession of faith or appeal to God for forgiveness and was welcomed into Heaven. I thought the likelihood of that was infinitesimally small, but was not willing to smash this hope of my brother's. I did briefly mention that I wasn't so sure that I believed in an eternal hell anymore, but didn't go into details. It was a conversation that I knew my brother wasn't ready for, and neither was I, honestly.
As I contemplated the comfort my brother's pastor had tried to give him, I grasped the fact that Christians of every stripe really don't want there to be a hell. Who would? Yet, because of certain Scriptures and Church tradition, if we claim to believe in what would be called "orthodox" Christianity, we must contend with the concept of hell, an eternal place of agony or torment.
Each flavor of Christianity has ways of getting around hell. Whether it's through interceding for those who have died in the hopes that you will help them escape purgatory--which is not quite the same as hell, but awfully close--or believing, as the Catholic church does, that people who have never heard the Gospel can be saved even though they are not Christians if they have a sort of natural/general faith in God, or whether Protestants take the God-only-knows route my brother's pastor did, our evasions and manipulations are pointing to a deep problem.
The problem, simply stated, is how do we proclaim a loving God and an eternal Hell? Can those two concepts co-exist and make sense?
Now, this is something that atheists and non-believers take Christians to task for in any in-depth discussion. Often the argument from their side is that a loving God wouldn't let evil exist or have a place of eternal punishment. Their main objection, besides the emotional one that we all have about hell, takes root in a rejection of God's judgment. They not only reject hell, but any concession that God has a right to judge humans, or that humans have somehow committed actions worthy of God's negative judgment.
That is not the angle from which I am reconsidering hell. I am not a Universalist. I don't believe that everyone is "going to Heaven". I don't believe that everyone will have eternal life. I do believe that God will judge people. I do believe that God demands justice. He offers each of us forgiveness through Jesus Christ, but if we choose to reject him, then we stand alone before God.
All that to say....I don't think God is soft on sin and evil. I don't think Hitler will be singing praises to Jesus in eternity with Stalin singing harmony. Evil exists. Consequences for evil exist. God is merciful. He is loving. He is also just, and we must contend with that side of Him as well.
I'm going to try and lay out what I believe about all this, and how I came to believe it, in several posts. I'm still working some things out, so if you're reading this and want to give me some food for thought either for or against the existence of hell, feel free to comment. I find I do my clearest thinking when I am trying to answer someone, discovering exactly how I feel as I simultaneously attempt to communicate it to someone outside of my head.