by Layton Friesen
There is a lot of discussion about hell in Christian circles today. A big difference is made when we decide whether hell is an arbitrary punishment that God designs to make bad people suffer, or the natural consequence of choices we make here in this life. Try this analogy. It helps me think about hell.
White-water canoeing is not for everyone but a few people just can’t get enough. It is precisely the possibility of great drama that makes canoeing so intoxicating for these rare people. If we take these rapids right, there will be breathless laughing and back-slapping around the fireside tonight. If we do it wrong, then a canoe wrapped around a rock and us walking out of the bush is one of the happier outcomes.
Canoeists warn each other with the tale of the expedition that took these rapids back in 1954 and were never heard from again. Leaning against the canoes watching the sunset as tales of the day are told, no one minimizes the day’s drop in elevation or the insanity of the chutes. It’s the real possibility of utter loss and thus the high demand for impeccable skill, safety awareness and river-sense that makes white–water canoeing the heady experience it can be.
Or so I am told by braver people than me.
Human life as God created it has this kind of drama. Hell in the Christian tradition shows the real possibility that life can go badly wrong fast. To be born is to be launched onto a treacherous river that alternates between calm, sleepy currents and the ear-blowing roar of narrow canyons. We could wish God created life to be a kiddie pool with hyper-active lifeguards clamping down whenever anything exciting happens, but apparently God disagrees.
Life is dangerous, it takes the best of what we have, and to live as a fool is to court real disaster according the wisdom literature of the Bible (see Proverbs 5:5). Hell is not an arbitrary punishment God contrives, the stick to God’s carrot. It is the one real hazard down the dangerous river called life. No one sleepwalks into Eternal Life.
But getting it right makes the heart soar.
Salvation (triumphing through the whitewater) demands patient learning from the old-timers who have run these falls before (the saints who have gone before us). We better be using the best guidebook, because some rocks cannot be seen before it’s too late (the Bible). We better take seriously the lessons learned in a class 2 rapid (childhood) so we have a chance at surviving the class 4 smoker coming downstream (adulthood). We better know when to portage Temptation Canyon rather than running it. We better choose our fellow canoeists carefully because our lives depend on them (friendship, and Christian marriage).
This is how Christianity has brought an unparalleled dignity and value to the individual. In no other thought has the person had such a fierce and awful freedom—in no other philosophy can one go so wrong, or so right.
Hebrews 12:1-2 claims this river of life was considered completely unpassable until one glorious expedition in 33 A.D when a Master Waterman miraculously shot His lone kayak through Hell’s Gate. Others have done it since, but His path is the only one anyone has ever survived.
Hell is the infinite loss that finally cannot compare to any earthly disaster. But no trip captain apologizes to the trippers for the danger of the river. They only apologize for sloppy preparation.