This was the question that first drew my attention to a little crack in the Christian worldview wall, back when I was just twelve or thirteen years old. That crack would only grow bigger and more troublesome over time, until I was finally forced to consider the possibility that maybe it represented a serious foundation issue.
Sure enough, the walls fell down, the foundation crumbled, and I was left alone and trembling in a desperate state of faith, exposed to all the elements. Now I’m busy trying to rebuild, one brick at a time.
This is also the question that readers of my book, Evolving in Monkey Town, seem most eager to talk about. I’ve received multiple emails and Facebook messages about it, with a lot of folks saying they might as well have written pages 92-93 themselves:
After we finished the last pages of The Diary of Anne Frank in middle school, Mrs. Kelly informed the class that Anne and her sister died of typhus in a prison camp, thanks to Adolf Hitler. I was horrified, not just because of the prison camp but because everything I’d be taught as a girl told me that because Anne was Jewish, because she had not accepted Jesus Christ as her Savior, she and the rest of her family were burning in hell. I remember staring at the black-and-white picture of Anne on the cover of my paperback, privately begging God to let her out of the lake of fire. For weeks, I prayed diligently for her departed soul, even though I’d heard that only Catholics did such a thing. I was a pretty intense kid, actually…
In Sunday school, they always make hell out to be a place for people like Hitler, not a place for his victims. But if my Sunday school teachers and college professors were right, then hell will be populated not only by people like Hitler and Stalin, Hussein and Milosevic but by the people they persecuted. If only born-again Christians go to heaven, the piles of suitcases and bags of human hair displayed at the Holocaust Museum represents thousands upon thousands of men, women, and children suffering eternal agony at the hands of an angry God. If salvation is available only to Christians, then the gospel isn’t good news at all. For most of the human race, it is terrible news.
I can’t tell you how encouraging it has been to learn that I’m not the only one asking these kinds of questions and not the only one deeply troubled by them. It’s hard to believe that I was once terrified to write them down because most of the Christians around me at the time said that my concern for the damned represented a weakness of faith, that I was “oversensitive,” “soft,” and “humanistic.” But your response has emboldened me to continue putting faces and names to issues that can so easily drift into abstract theological debates.
I don’t’ pretend to know exactly what happens to people when they die, but my most instinctive and visceral sense of right and wrong tells me that a good and loving God would not torture Anne Frank for eternity. Yes, I know that this raises some theological objections for certain evangelicals, and yes, I know that I could be wrong. But I’m finally beginning to believe that the thing inside of me that compels me to ask uncomfortable questions like this one is worth listening to now and then, that maybe it’s not a weakness but a strength.
How do you respond to this question? Does it make you uncomfortable?
And—perhaps most importantly—how can we pose troubling questions like this in a way that strengthens rather than weakens faith?
Rachel Held Evans is author of Evolving in Monkey Town and a forthcoming experimental memoir about biblical womanhood. Read more from Rachel at her website.