In May this year an unrepentant Ian Brady, the Moors murderer, died. Terry Kilbride, the brother of a victim, hoped that Brady would “rot in hell”. Perhaps we agree: Brady would appear on many people’s short list of the wicked.
We sympathise with Kilbride’s immediate reaction. But then, perhaps, we think about it. If you were charged with deciding Brady’s punishment, how long would you think he should be tortured? Would a week be enough? Or a year? Or would you dismiss torture altogether as a barbaric punishment always to be condemned?
But if we look at the descriptions of hell as they appear in Scripture, we find that a year would scarcely meet the case. Indeed, after 14 billion years (the age of the universe) the pains of hell would not really have got started. They go on forever.
So how do we cope with a God whose apparent moral approach is grotesque? The descriptions of hell in Scripture are explicit and, in many cases, put into the mouth of Christ.
We must deal with it in the same way that we deal with the statement that the world was created in six days. At that time, in the absence of a modern judicial system, criminal punishments were typically brutal. Take your choice between hung, drawn and quartered, broken on a wheel, buried underground, or burnt at the stake. In that culture hell makes a little more sense. We have to settle for the reality that God is infinitely just and merciful – and leave it in his hands.
Why does this matter? I want to take you back 76 years: imagine a seven-year-old boy cleaning his teeth in the washroom at boarding school. He is desperately trying to avoid swallowing any water, which would have broken his fast, as he feared he would not have the courage to avoid Communion in front of his friends. Yes, it was me. Some years later a teenage pupil was drowned: we were much relieved to hear that he had been to Communion that morning – and so not bound for hell, as we probably were.
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