Last night at youth group (First United Methodist Church of Brighton) was "stump the pastor night". One central topic for the evening was the existence of hell. While I was not stumped when it comes to how we are informed by biblical and extra-biblcal sources about hell, I was a bit stumped by the question. I have an opinion on the existence and character of hell, which I shared. But more interesting to me than the question was why the youth asked.
Living in the reign of God is challenging and intentional discipleship takes daily work. Why, with all the complexity of being a Christian in our society, would youth wonder about the possibility of eternal punishment?
When I asked them about their vision of hell, it was clear that many had been informed by media, fantasy authors and video games. And the picture they described was not biblical, but based on Dante Alighieri's "Inferno", from the Divine Comedy (15th century). Their idea of satan reflected the influence of Christopher Marlowe's play "The Tragical History of the life and Death of Doctor Faustus" (16th century). None of the youth present had read either of these works, but it was clear that these works inform popular culture more than the biblical understanding.
We could guess that they wondered about what would become of them, but I do not think that is true. No one asked about the existence of heaven or what it might look like. I didn't get the impression they perceived themselves as hell-bound. Instead, they were concerned that it would be God's will that anyone face enteral punishment.
Could it be that our nation has become so polarized, politically and socially, that the possibility of a place of punishment must exist for the "other", those who are wrong? For these youth, thankfully, they cannot accept a God who arbitrarily offers mercy only until one takes one's last breath. They see God as creator and caretaker of all people, even those who are not like themselves.
I worry that our youth are coming of age in a time where it is tempting to be "hell-bound". I don't mean bound in the sense that one is headed for flames and the smell of sulfur. We are bound by a notion of hell, when we begin to separate us from them, winners from losers, the saved from the damned. We are bound to be diminished when we lose sight of God's powerful grace for all.