A Hell of a Problem

On the evening of August 14, 1994, two young women were walking together down a quiet street on the outskirts of Casper, Wyoming. Best friends since middle school, Tammy Sloane and her roommate Jennifer Durkin were returning home from their shift at The Rusty Spoon, a local diner where they both worked as servers. They made this same trek nearly every night, and they knew the route by heart. What they didn’t realize, however, is that on this particular evening, a dark blue sedan had been slowly trailing them for several blocks. At approximately 11:21pm, the driver of that car pulled in front of them, jumped out of the vehicle, and abducted Tammy and Jennifer at knife point. When police officers found them nearly 36 hours later, they had been brutally beaten, raped, and left for dead in a ditch outside of town. Both of them were alive, but barely.

For several days, the investigation into this shocking crime had failed to gain momentum. Evidence was scarce. The victims recalled very little. Detectives were at a loss. But after a week of dead-ends, a much-needed breakthrough occurred. 

As it turns out, a recently retired auto mechanic by the name of Frank Matthews had been in his kitchen getting a glass of water on the night of August 14, just a matter of minutes before the crime took place. He happened to look out the window and saw the slow-moving car that was trailing the two women. Wondering why its lights were turned off, he gave the vehicle a second glance and realized immediately that he recognized it. He had done some work on its transmission several years earlier. This valuable piece of information was exactly what the investigators needed. Two days later, the owner of that car, 46-year-old Melvin Whitely, was arrested and charged with the crime.

When the trial arrived, Frank Matthews took center stage. His testimony as an eye-witness was the critical piece of evidence that eventually led to Whitely’s conviction. But as Matthews testified to what he saw that evening, he made a comment that would prove to have dramatic consequences. After vividly and accurately describing the blue sedan, he casually mentioned that he had seen two women cross the street roughly half a block in front of it. Following an extended line of questioning, it eventually became clear that the women had crossed the street at a place where there was no designated crosswalk. To the surprise of the entire court, the judge fixated on this point. He was incensed that Tammy and Jennifer had both broken the law by jaywalking and were not facing the consequences of their actions. He swore that as soon as the current trial concluded, he would seek justice for their crimes.

True to his word, the judge did just that. After Whitely had been sentenced to life in prison for a number of felonies including kidnapping, assault, and rape, the judge proceeded with the trial of his two victims. He threw the book at them both. He convicted them of jaywalking, and to prove a point about his own zealousness for law and order, he gave them the same sentence as their assailant. “A crime is a crime,” he said. “In the eyes of this court, any disregard for the law is as deplorable as any other.” By December of 1994, all three of them – Tammy, Jennifer, and their rapist Melvin Whitely – were all being held in the same maximum-security prison facing life without parole. That is where they remain to this day.

If this is the first time you’re hearing this story, you’re not alone. Most Americans are completely unaware of these events that took place nearly three decades ago in Capser, Wyoming. And with good reason. Because they didn’t. The whole thing is a completely made-up story.

It’s safe to say that if this story were real, you’d know about it. And you’d likely be as incensed about it as I would. Can you imagine the universal outrage that such a miscarriage of justice would provoke? Regardless of religion, politics, or income level, no rational human being could possibly support a judge who treated victims like this. There’s nothing remotely honorable about any of it. For two women who harmlessly walked across an empty street in the middle of the night to receive the same punishment as the man who violently assaulted and raped them is utterly vile and inhumane.

Yet for most of my life, I believed that such a thing was not only permissible, but actually good and just and praiseworthy. I believed that the highest standard of justice in the entire universe demanded that mass murderers receive the same punishment as upstanding citizens who muttered “goddammit” when they stubbed their toes.

This is what came with my evangelical understanding of divine wrath and eternal punishment – otherwise known as the doctrine of hell. Along with millions of other Christians, I held to the conviction that apart from a personal conversion experience of faith in Jesus Christ, every human being is an object of irreversible damnation. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do; even the smallest infraction against the law of a holy God earns you a permanent reservation at the lake of fire. No reduced sentence. No early release for good behavior. No probation if it’s your first offense. The destiny of every non-Christian human being is summed up in one simple equation: if you sin, you go to hell. Forever and ever, amen.

In many ways, this is a convenient doctrine to believe. For one, it’s safe. Nobody in the church who believes in eternal torment believes they’ll have to experience it. Hell is always someone else’s problem. But another reason it’s so convenient is because it’s simple. It cuts off any sense of uncertainty. Every crime, no matter how big or small, gets the maximum punishment. No lengthy legal textbooks are needed. It’s all refreshingly clear-cut and straightforward.

But it’s straightforward in the same way that the fictional judge’s ruling in Wyoming is straightforward. It’s straightforwardly scandalous.

By even the most elementary standard of morality and justice, this sort of thing is unconscionable. How can a jaywalker possibly be subjected to the same punishment as her rapist? How can a teenager who rolls his eyes at his parents be subjected to the same punishment as a teenager who murders his parents? How can a woman who worships in a Sikh temple be subjected to the same punishment as the terrorist who burns the temple to the ground? What makes the idea of hell so simple is what also makes it so troubling. It operates on the assumption that a level of malfeasance not even suitable for a court of human law is somehow welcome in the court of heavenly law.

Now I realize that I’m encroaching on sacred territory here for many Christians. In certain theological systems, hell is a pretty big deal. (I grew up thinking that to deny the reality of hell was to purchase your one-way ticket there. And it has taken me no small amount of time to crawl out from under the fear that idea inflicted.) But I think it’s better to be honest in our search for spiritual truth than it is to be scared into accepting something that clearly runs against the grain of our deepest moral intuitions. We need not keep holding on to any doctrine that reduces God to something less than. And in my book, the evangelical belief in unending wrath for all unbelievers appears to do just that.

Interestingly enough, one of the common questions that comes up for those of us who no longer buy into the dominant evangelical narrative about hell is, “What about Hitler?” In other words, if there’s no eternal place of unimaginable punishment, then what do we do with the really, really horrible people who embody all that is evil? Do they just get a free pass? It’s a good question, and it deserves a thoughtful response. But from my vantage point, evangelical theology has an even bigger Hitler problem than I do. 

Most Christians don’t like to think about it, but according to the standard teaching of the average church, Hitler’s not the only one in hell. Right there along with him are approximately 6 million Jewish children, women, and men – the very victims of the genocide he orchestrated. Because the vast majority of those people died without converting from their Judaism to Christianity, evangelical theology maintains that they, too, must receive eternal torment. Just like Hitler.

To any person with an intact moral compass, this scenario is horrifying. How is it equitable for a murderous tyrant to receive the same punishment as his victims? How does Hitler roasting for eternity alongside a kindly Jewish grandmother who died in one of his concentration camps even come close to rectifying the injustices of the Holocaust? Just imagine walking up to a Jewish man in the gas chamber of Auschwitz and telling him, “This is nothing compared to the eternal suffering you’re about to experience as soon as the gas kills you.” The very thought is barbaric.

And let’s take these ideas even one step further. Presumably, many Nazi soliders were professing Christians who went to church religiously, sang the old Martin Luther hymns with gusto, and defended their country with courage. By most contemporary American evangelical standards, they had a vibrant, saving faith. Are we honestly to believe that the guards who shot runaway Jewish prisoners are now enjoying eternal bliss, while those whom they shot now endure everlasting torture? Are we supposed to see cosmic wrongs being made right by a situation in which the oppressor gets rewarded and the oppressed gets even more oppression – eternally? I sure hope not. If that’s how God operates, I’m not sure worship is the correct response.

God, by definition, is the pinnacle of being, the supreme origin of all that is good, the purest expression of truth, love, and justice. So why would God operate by a system of eternal judgment that would be universally condemned if enacted by a judge in real time in our own world? Yes, God’s ways are not our ways, and we can’t enforce our own concepts of fairness onto the divine. But God’s ways are also higher than ours, are they not? And wouldn’t that imply that we should expect God to be even more just than even the finest human judges – not categorically less so?

This, in my opinion, is a fundamental problem with the idea of eternal conscious torment. In addition to its questionable scriptural support, it violates a universal sense of what we know deep within our bones to be right. It implies that God’s definition of justice is fundamentally different from our own. And if that’s the case, then where does it leave us as God’s image-bearers seeking to cultivate a world of justice that reflects God’s goodness?

Our moral instincts aren’t arbitrary. They don’t arise out of nowhere. So maybe the most godly thing we can do is to trust them. To listen to what they tell us about the world. The Bible itself issues a rebuke to those who call evil good, and good evil. And if we can’t find anything good about the form of justice that conventional doctrines of hell demand, then maybe that’s because it’s not good. We don’t need to pretend otherwise.

If we can look at a non-existent fiasco in Wyoming and immediately recognize the injustice of it, maybe we can learn to look at traditional beliefs about eternal punishment and see the same.

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