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To Hell or Not to Hell?

To Hell or Not to Hell?

From the first days of the Jesus movement, brief statements of faith (often called “creeds”) outlined the essential beliefs of Christianity. Like establishing the rules of a sport, the creeds formed the boundaries within which one could dialogue about God and remain “a Christian.” The creeds establish orthodoxy—right thinking. As such, if I affirm beliefs that are contrary to the creeds, at that moment I have entered a new playing field and I am no longer speaking of Christianity. I am discussing something else.

“Orthodoxy” is essential when dialoguing about hell. For some, hell has been elevated into that realm of beliefs that make someone a Christian, and this is a massive mistake.

We are not saved from hell by believing in hell. We are saved from hell by believing in the Lordship of Jesus Christ. And that is a place of great hope for people like me.

In a number of podcasts and blog entries I’ve seen over the past few months (especially in the aftermath of Love Wins), the salvation of folks who are clearly committed to the divinity and saving mercy of Jesus has been called into question—and it’s not just those who are writing books. Churches have fired staff, lead pastors have led interrogations, and there has been a consistent move to form battle lines as though we were at war.

We need a new path forward. We need to be able to both talk about issues like hell with passion and frankness, and we need to create space for confusion, hesitancy, rebuttal, doubt and even—dare we say—creativity.

Hell is a topic that Jesus said a great deal about. Our view of hell may drastically affect the spiritual formation of ourselves and others, and as such we are duty bound to think hard about the interpretations of hell presently on the table.

1) Hell is a place of unending punishment whose fires torment without end.

This view asserts that in our world, many consciously rebel against God, and when God reclaims creation, such rebels will be imprisoned and punished indefinitely. Dr. Bobby Conway, author of Hell, Rob Bell, and What Happens When People Die, says: “Hell is an eternal place of conscious torment and separation from God, whereby God pours out His justifiable wrath on Satan, his demons and unrepentant sinners. … Scripturally speaking, hell is a place where one is punished for their sins. The greatest sin is rejecting God and His ways. In hell one gets what they want—an existence without God.”

Why would God choose to create such a state of affairs for rebellious souls? In a recent online panel, pastor and author Tim Keller argues: “Anything less than endless punishment lessens sin and the God who has been sinned against. If you take away the infinitude of punishment, everything diminishes.” As such, there is no hope of escaping hell because God’s everlasting judgment on sin falls on those souls who have consciously united themselves to sin as their master. Hell then is the space such souls occupy. Hell entails “being shut out from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thessalonians 1:9) and cast “into the eternal fire” (Matthew 25:41).

There are three primary objections this view of hell must overcome. Some suggest that “death,” not unending torment, is the Bible’s most common description of the future of the wicked. In fact, the Bible begins with God removing Adam and Eve from the garden precisely so they will not eat from “the Tree of Life” and live forever (Genesis 3:22-23). Apparently, living forever in a fallen condition would be awful, so at the outset of the human story God graciously removes that possibility.

Secondly, because God in the age to come will both “reconcile all things to himself” and become “all and in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28), it seems there will be no space in reality for a realm of eternal punishing to exist.

Lastly, we must give an answer to why God feels it necessary to sustain the life of the damned for trillions upon trillion of years. Has the local strip club owner (for example) so violated God’s moral expectations that the best response God can imagine is an eternity of unceasing torment and alienation? (In fact, prior to creation, God would know the names of those who would remain in rebellion, and as such he would have created a large swath of humanity knowing their only possible future would be indefinite agony.)

Critics of eternal conscious torment argue that creating such a hell is vicious and hardhearted, and since the Jesus of Scripture is neither vicious nor hardhearted, this interpretation of the Scriptures must be false. Even if we affirm the idea that those who sin against an “infinite” God deserve an “infinite” amount of punishment (which is certainly questionable), God may want to end such punishments at an appropriate time, either by ending the life of the damned or restoring them by His grace.

2) Hell is a place of rehabilitation whose fires restore the damned.

What I call the rehabilitationist view argues that, though the damned are punished in a state of alienation and torment after death, such fires have reconstructive power. The idea here is that human beings (both the rebellious and the faithful) are immensely valuable to God and He wishes “all people to be saved” (1 Timothy 2:4). As such, hell is a location of transformation. Rob Bell, for example, argues in Love Wins that the phrase often translated “eternal punishment” could be translated “a period of pruning.” Hell then has both a retributive and a restorative function, and it contributes to the vision of Paul who saw Christ “reconciling to himself all things” (Colossians 1:20).

With this understanding, Dr. Robin Parry, author of The Evangelical Universalist, describes hell as “the eschatological climax of God’s wrath against sin. As a manifestation of God’s holy love, [hell] serves both as retribution against sin and as an educative experience, one in which the true nature of sin and its consequences are made manifest. … I see [this view of hell contributing to] the natural climax to the biblical metanarrative of creation, fall and redemption, the climax that makes the most sense of that story—all things are from Him (creation), and through Him (redemption), and to Him (eschatology).”

A benefit of this view is that some find it closer to the character of Jesus and are able, for the first time, to celebrate the doctrine of hell—for not only do such Christians want appropriate justice done, but many long for those chained to sin to find final and decisive salvation. Hell on this view contributes to both. By experiencing hell, the damned are both punished for sin and may move into a saving encounter with Jesus Christ.

Problems with this view focus on the “eternal” ramifications of God’s judgments. Opponents believe that God’s judgments are described as everlasting in their consequences. As one passage suggests, “People are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). Furthermore, Jesus spoke in one parable of a “fixed chasm” (Luke 16) that separated the redeemed and the damned, and this was not unique. Nearly 50 percent of Jesus’ parables are arguably about hell and judgment. We must ask, if hell was simply a continued opportunity to find salvation, why would Jesus spend so much energy on warnings? What is the significant difference between this life and the next?

Another primary problem is that the Bible concludes by describing a “lake of fire” (Revelation 20, 21:8)—a place into which death, the devil and those united to sin are cast. It seems that neither death nor the devil are being rehabilitated in the lake of fire, and so the function of the lake of fire (having been prepared for the devil, Matthew 25:41) is different than the reconstruction of a soul, which brings us to the last contender.

3) Hell is a place of annihilation whose fires consume everything wed to sin and death.

Those who hold the “annihilationist” position argue that only God is immortal (1 Timothy 6:16), and once one is separated from God, they are thereby separated from the source of life itself. This plays out in passages like John 3:16 which concludes, “whoever believes in [the Son] shall not perish but have everlasting life.” Some argue that phrases like “perishing,” being “altogether destroyed,” “vanishing like smoke” and “dust returning to dust” are the most common ways the Bible describes the future of the damned—and these descriptions imply evaporation.

We see this in the words of Jesus, who said that at the end of this age the angels will gather humanity up and those who serve sin will be cast into a fiery furnace (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43)—which to many sounds more like incineration than imprisonment or rehabilitation. Furthermore, Jesus implores us to fear the one who can “destroy both body and soul in hell” (Matthew 10:28). The word here for “destroy” is also translated “execute,” “drown,” “kill,” “bring to end” and “lose” in the NIV. On this view, hell is an “everlasting punishment,” for the consequence of hell—annihilation—cannot be erased. Popular advocates of this view include Greg Boyd and John Stott.

Edward Fudge, whose extensive study The Fire that Consumes has been recently updated and rereleased, argues: “Hell is the place of final punishment—in this case, capital punishment—by which the wicked are destroyed totally and forever. This does not necessarily occur instantaneously, though it might. The destructive process allows ample room for the precise type, intensity and duration of conscious torment that is consistent with perfect divine justice in each individual case. However, in Scripture, the emphasis is not on the conscious pain but on the final result, which is dissolution and destruction.”

Critics argue that annihilation is problematic in verses that imply the continued existence of those in hell. Jesus said, “Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48), and Revelation 14:9-11 speaks of those persons who worshipped the beast being “tormented with burning sulfur. … The smoke of their torment rises forever and ever.” As one writer argues, “If God desires to save all people, as I believe that he does, then when God annihilates a sinner He is, in effect, giving up His attempts to save that person. Rather than seeking the lost sheep ‘until he finds it’ (Luke 15:4), He seeks the lost sheep for a while and then, if it won’t come home, He shoots it.” Furthermore, it must be noted that a majority of both Christian scholars and saints throughout history seem to have held to a traditional view of hell as a place of everlasting, conscious punishment, and it would be awkward to say all such folks were wrong about a fairly important matter. Given the worthy arguments and refutations of the positions above, we might add a fourth take on hell.

4) Hell is a reality whose details have not been clearly told.  

It is not necessarily evasive to say that the true nature of hell is not revealed in a way that is plain and decisive. It could be the case that the biblical language concerning hell gives us a clear warning that without faith in Christ something very bad will happen, but what the details of that badness are we cannot know. It may in fact be a sign of hermeneutical humility to only go as far as the Bible takes us and not overreach.

Critics of what we might call “the agnostic view” contend that the Bible is clear on hell, and that disagreements are either a failure of scholarship or an unwillingness to embrace what the text says. Though even the strongest portrait of hell probably won’t be able to answer every question. It seems even if we have a robustly defined view of hell, some things are clearly unknown.

We must allow disagreements and wrestling within the bounds of creedal thought. Every person comes to the dialogue about God with different pasts, different assumptions, different struggles and issues that the Spirit is working them through—and that is a great good. When wrestling through issues together, let’s allow humility to wash over our thought life.

There is much more to the conversation about hell. Read this article in entirety in the August/September 2011 issue of Neue.

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