As a fiction writer on the side (“on the side” of my apologetic and comparative religion studies which are “on the side” of my full-time day job – which means I barely ever get time to work on it), I once started work on a novella similar in theme and purpose to C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. In fact, my short pitch for the story was that it was “a simultaneous tribute to and argument against C.S. Lewis.” Without digressing too heavily on the details of my own story, during the first revision pass I realized that my heaven was not heavenly enough and my hell was not hellish enough. Oddly enough, that’s precisely my main complaint about The Great Divorce. Before starting the rewrite in earnest, I wanted to do some research on different takes of heaven and hell from a Christian worldview. My goal was to give portrayals of both that were biblically accurate while giving, to the best of my ability, a clear sense of the thrill and wonder or horror of heaven or hell, respectively, and at the same time showing why the Christian doctrine of hell is more than just divinely authorized sadism. Among my planned reading were gems like Randy Alcorn’s Heaven, Dante’s Inferno, Francis Chan’s Erasing Hell, and Hank Hanegraaff’s Afterlife. Also among them was a little book that I’d stumbled across on Amazon, My Hope in Hell by Jens Reuter. The book had very few reviews but a high average and was only $8. Why not, right?
I was expecting a defense of the doctrine of hell as a necessary means of satisfying God’s justice. Boy, was I wrong.
Rather than a defense of a particular interpretation, or a systematic examination of what the bible says about hell, I very quickly found that My Hope in Hell would be more accurately described as a structured version of a confused and emotionally loaded journal entry, the thoughts and summarized studies of someone wrestling with an aspect of his faith that he finds unacceptable.
It’s clear that Reuter has done a lot of reading on the concept of hell. The pages are flooded with quotes from sources as varied as church fathers to the famous Christian preachers and theologians of history to the influential theologians and authors of today all across the conservative/liberal spectrum as well as many southern preachers, bible commentators and bloggers - many of whom I've never heard of before. Origen, Justin Martyr, Augustine, Spurgeon, Edwards, C.S. Lewis, Billy Graham, Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland, Max Lucado, Francis Chan, and on and on and on. This serves to show that despite there being a general and large consensus on this issue throughout church history there has also been a great diversity of thought, if historically on the fringe. Some of these positions are more defensible than others and some are just completely bizarre. Rather than a defense or critique of any one particular view, the book serves as more of a survey of historical and modern views on the subject and how they relate to the big, ultimate question that must be dealt with when talking honestly about hell: How can a good and loving God condemn someone to torment and misery forever? It's clear almost from the first page that the subject of hell is something that the author struggles deeply with, is still exploring, and trying to make sense of himself. He even says as much in the conclusion where he seems to come to an uncomfortable and tentative position of believing that hell is real and possibly eternal but that there may be more people there than we think. In this, the book is honest, vulnerable and heartfelt. In many places, the book has the texture of the author's private journal as he tries to figure out how to reconcile "the quote from that guy" with "what this verse says". It's the confessions of an average Christian trying to deal with one of the most emotionally difficult doctrines in Christianity. I say that Reuter is “average” because there’s no indication given in the text or the “About the Author” section that he has had any sort of formal theological or philosophical training.
This is both the book's strength as well as one of its greatest weaknesses. It is the author’s honesty and vulnerability that compelled me to keep reading a book that, under normal circumstances, I would have thrown in the trash after only a few pages. In this case, doing so would have felt akin to interrupting someone in the middle of a tearful confession.
My Hope in Hell is flawed at best or an incoherent mess at worst, and I say that with all the compassion and respect I can muster.
First - and I feel like this is the smallest quibble - the title is misleading. As I’ve already mentioned, I originally bought this book because the title, My Hope in Hell, gave the impression that it was going to expound on and defend a view similar to my own: that hell (properly understood) is still a horrific and tragic doctrine of orthodox Christianity, but at the same time is indispensable from the biblical narrative and solves more problems than it causes. I was looking for a book that would build on that line of thought to see if I was off-base. Instead, Reuter’s book is, as I said above, a personal exploration of the doctrine that only just barely comes to any sort of conclusion and, even that, very reluctantly. Very little “hope” is offered.
As I mentioned, the author has done a great deal of reading on this issue, but it's not clear that he's doing it well. John MacArthur once noted that the heart of Reformed Theology is that any position must be rooted in and backed up by scripture. I think this is advice that Reuter would do well to consider. There doesn't seem to be any sort of weighting done when considering what one person said versus what another person said versus what the Bible says. He quotes Rob Bell's infamous "Ghandi" story in a fashion that is clearly ignorant of the actual life and beliefs of the historical Ghandi and, like Bell, struggles to understand how a loving God could send Ghandi "who loved God and loved Jesus" (he did neither; Ghandi respected Jesus but was a Hindu through and through and rejected the non-negotiable Christian concepts of sin, a personal God, the deity of Christ, judgment and others) to hell while Ted Bundy and Jeffery Dahmer get to go to heaven on reported Death Row conversions. Spurgeon is placed against a fairly obscure 16th century mystic, scripture is ripped out of context and misapplied while other more relevant passages are ignored, Francis Chan is quoted and on the very next page Reuter perpetuates a myth that Chan debunked in the very book he quoted, and on and on. In one particularly bizarre piece while analyzing the nature and abilities of angels or demons, Reuter quotes a bible teacher (whom I've never heard of, not that that necessarily means anything) who claims that demons could destroy the entire universe with a breath. Two pages later, the author seems to take this as factual. No scripture reference is given for this outlandish claim or any sort of logical defense. Only a vague "apparently, they can do this". Apparent to who? The backwoods country preacher you quoted? Why should anyone care what he thinks?
Along those lines, the author seems to give more credence than is merited to fictional works like C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce or Dante's Inferno, or even John Milton's Paradise Lost. C.S. Lewis is great and all (he was eloquent, a sharp apologist and a poignant observer of human nature), but he was neither a trained theologian nor a trained philosopher and very few of either camp take him all that seriously. Dante himself has serious theological problems in his Inferno and Milton has long been criticized for portraying Lucifer/Satan as a sympathetic character. These are great works of western literature, but they’re not the sort of thing you look to when doing systematic theology.
Furthermore, an inordinate amount of space is given to quoting "his friend 'Jacob'", an anonymous blogger that (as far as I can tell) is little more than your average village atheist. I do not, and I don't think anyone else should, give any thought to what "Jacob" thinks since it seems "Jacob" is more interested in perpetuating idiotic Facebook memes than dealing with what Scripture says. In one particularly offensive piece, Reuter quotes "Jacob's" retelling of the Prodigal Son parable wherein the son does not return home and the father instead comes out to find him only to inform that he's been disowned and he can go die in a corner since the father doesn't want him anymore.
Something else that concerns me is something I see very often in any discussion of hell, that being the “Is Ghandi [or whoever] in hell?” question. Too often assumption is made that because people like the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, the quiet and polite gay couple down the street are all wonderful people who are upstanding citizens or, in the case of Mandela, working tirelessly for their entire lives for equality, peace, and freedom, that they should go to heaven. Underlying this, however, is a fatal assumption that being good gets you to heaven, which, of course, is in direct opposition to what the bible actually teaches. This is similar to the old humanist argument that “you can be good without God”, embracing a vague moralism and missing the point of Christianity entirely.
Lastly, it is clear that Reuter is thinking about this subject primarily with his heart and not his head. The key to working through difficult aspects of Christianity (or all of life) is to do the heavy lifting objectively and systematically when you don’t have a ton of personal involvement in the subject. Working through why God allows pain and suffering when life is going relatively smoothly is much more productive and provides a strong intellectual foundation to stand on when your world falls apart. Trying to figure these things out while you’re still grieving the loss of a child or dying of cancer is a recipe for disaster. Reuter seemed to be in such a place while he was writing this book, simultaneously struggling with his emotions and his intellect. In such a situation, emotions almost invariably take center stage. As an example, Reuter (rightly) points out that Jesus is often portrayed in the New Testament as a Bridegroom trying to romance and woo people into a relationship with him. He then (rightly) points out that a relationship where the premise is “love me or die” is abusive and evil. The problem is that this is NOT the premise of Christ’s relationship with His church and to equivocate in this way portrays Jesus as little better than the average wife-beating dirt bag. A more fitting analogy would be something along the lines of “I love you, but you’re standing inside an infectious pit of death and disease that I MUST destroy for the good of all. I can’t wait forever and, if you don’t come out, then you’ll force me to destroy you with it.” The fact that Reuter is equivocating in this fashion shows that he started with a faulty doctrinal foundation and has built on it with faulty emotional structures.
My Hope in Hell is loaded with quotes, sometimes as many as five or six lengthy quotes on a single page, but lacking seriously in citations. This is highly problematic in some cases because the quote being referenced is something very controversial that demands fact-checking or a look at context, but nothing is given regarding when or where someone can find this quote to double check it on his/her own. As an example, Billy Graham is at one point quoted in a way that seems to imply that Graham is open to some sort of Christian Universalism, but no reference or citation is given. Is this another quote ripped out of context? For all the reader knows it could be nothing more than a rumor that someone heard from someone else that someone famous like Billy Graham said one time. With as many quotes and sources that Reuter pulls in this book, it should have been nearly twice as long just with proper citations.
The biggest problem, however, is the inconsistent formatting, typos, grammatical problems, jumbled sentences and other proofreading issues that made the book an eyesore. Line breaks appear in the middle of quotes, paragraphs are not always clearly separated from each other, sometimes the author quotes in italics, sometimes not, sometimes in oddly aligned breakout quotes, sometimes not. In a few cases, it was clear that the author started saying one thing, stopped and decided to say another mid-sentence but never rewrote the first half. In others, it seemed that the Autocorrect function of whatever program the book was written in changed the word to something else entirely which made the sentence unintelligible. Even basic things like proper punctuation sometimes make it difficult to tell when a quote ends. In many places the author gives website notations directly in the text. This can be acceptable, such as when it's relevant to the point he's making ("The Westboro Baptist Church whose website is…") or simply giving background or credentials to the person he's quoting ("[Person] who blogs at [website] once said..."), but in others he gives the full website reference complete with all the “http://”, forward slashes and “.htmls” right in the middle of the sentence. This wouldn't be acceptable in a high school essay, let alone a published book.
A quick look at the inside of the front cover lists the author as the publisher which shows that the book was entirely self-published. This in itself is fine, but even self-published books still require the fine-tooth comb of beta readers, proofreading, editors and even a simple F7 Spell Check pass which this book seems to have not received at all. It is primarily for this reason that the book, in addition to the muddled thinking and wandering structure, was just plain painful to read.
Writer, artist, lay theologian, student of comparative religion.