By L. Alfred James
The human race needs the doctrine of hell. Yes, you read that correctly: we need it. It is the only way to end the cycle of violence in the world.
Don’t believe me? Take it from Miroslav Volf, a Croatian theologian who has carefully reflected on human violence. He has been prompted to do so largely because of his own experience of the clashes between the Croats and the Serbs. Volf has seen and experienced brutality firsthand. In fact, one town that was near his own home city, Vukovar, was savagely destroyed: thirty thousand people were either killed or driven out. Thus, Volf has not been merely theologizing “from a distance,” safely ensconced in some academic ivory tower. This issue of human violence is a deeply personal issue. And he has discovered, by his own experience, that belief in hell is the only thing that halts the cycle of violence between warring factions. How so?
If you put yourself in the shoes of someone whose city was just destroyed by an enemy army, you can understand his point: Your dearest loved ones have just been ruthlessly killed. How will you respond?
If you don’t believe that there is a God who will eventually put all things right, you will feel morally obligated to take up the sword (or your guns) to put things right yourself. Your inner being, from the uttermost depths of your soul, will cry out for justice. The honor of your brothers, sisters, parents, and friends will compel you to avenge them. Your love for your neighbors and your family will be a driving force, compelling you to retaliate. And your love for justice will do the same. In fact, the greater your sense of honor, the stronger your conviction will be that you must—that you are morally obligated to—exact revenge on those who perpetrated this despicable deed.
In this very situation, Volf has observed that belief in a God of justice, belief in a God who will condemn wrongdoers to hell, is the only thing that restrains victims of violence from exacting revenge. Only if you are sure that there’s a God who will right all wrongs, who will settle all accounts perfectly, will you have the power to restrain yourself and eventually move towards forgiveness and reconciliation. Otherwise, you will feel obligated to seek justice yourself. Without belief in divine vengeance human beings (especially when they are victims of military violence) have no motivation to restrain themselves. In Volf’s own words:
My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: A Christian Attitude Toward Violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect non-coercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.1
People often say, “If I believe in a God of vengeance then that will make me into a warlike person.” Or, “If people believe in a God of justice and vengeance, that will lead them to commit acts of violence.” In response, Volf essentially says, “You must be crazy! You don’t know what its like.” If you have ever been a victim of violence, you know that you feel compelled to respond to violence with violence. And thus the cycle of violence gets perpetuated. You cannot just let it go. You cannot forgive . . . unless you have an incredibly powerful confidence that there is a God who eventually is going to put all things right, a God who will ensure that perfect justice is achieved.
Here is the sum of the matter: It takes the belief in hell, belief in divine vengeance, for the practice of non-violence to spread throughout the world. Volf says that if you disagree, you only demonstrate you have never suffered serious violence yourself.
1. Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996)