Hell

My goal here is not really to give any deep insights regarding hell. I’m also not trying to convince you of anything. I’m just giving some of my own recent thoughts on the subject. They are not fully developed or especially articulate. That wasn’t my goal here.

I have trouble believing that God eternally punishes. It just doesn’t seem good. I know we shouldn’t base all our thoughts about God on what “seems” good to us. I know this. But that doesn’t make me feel any better. In fact, I think God cares about how I “feel” and about what “seems” good to me. I don’t think he minds that I struggle with these things. I think it’s healthy.

To me it comes down to God’s love. I think love is the core of who God is. And I have trouble reconciling the traditional view of hell (and even other less traditional/more progressive views of hell) with God’s love.

Brian McLaren begins his book about hell with the following words:

“I believe that God is good. No thought I have ever had of God is better than God actually is. True, my thoughts-including my assumptions about what good means-are always more or less inaccurate, limited, and unworthy, but still I am confident of this: I have never overestimated how good God is because God’s goodness overflows far beyond the limits of human understanding. That conviction gave birth to this book.”

I concur. And it is those thoughts that have brought me to this post, just as those thoughts brought McLaren to write his book. To me it is all about God’s love – his goodness. I think talking about the concept of hell is important because of the implications for how we understand God’s goodness. Any view of hell must reconcile with God’s goodness. It must. Now of course, as McLaren said, we may have an incorrect idea of goodness, but still, we can only go on what we think we know.

George MacDonald writes, “Punishment is nowise an offset of sin.” I agree. It does not make sense to me that somehow punishment offsets sin – that punishing someone makes things right. It doesn’t. What would the purpose be of eternal punishment? A good earthly parent would never do such things to his or her child. We are called to forgive. I think God must forgive far more than we ever can. I do not see how he comes to a place of ceasing to forgive. Again, if we are called to forgive, won’t God do the same?

MacDonald also writes, “…the notion that a creature born imperfect, nay, born with impulses to evil not of his own generating, and which he could not help having, a creature to who the true face of God was never presented, and by whom it never could have been seen, should be thus condemned [to eternal punishment] is [a] loathsome a lie against God…”

So, about hell. Do I believe in it? I’m not sure. I think there’s something to it. I don’t think we can ignore the comments in scripture, particularly the comments from Jesus regarding hell. But I think many of these things are often misunderstood and misapplied. So while I think there may be a hell, I don’t think there is a place for eternal punishment. What about annihilation, you might say. I don’t know – I prefer to think that all will be restored and made right in the end. This seems more in line with the love of God I have come to know – and most importantly, the love of God evidenced in Jesus. I believe God will continue his work of redemption, reconciliation, and restoration until the work is complete. Until ALL is made right.

Can I be wrong? Sure. Of course. But if I am wrong, it must be because there is some greater depth of God, greater goodness, that I just don’t understand.

What about those who don’t think like me? I do hurt for some people who seem to think very ugly things about God. I don’t know how to worship such a being. But I think God can reveal his goodness to and in these people as much as he can to me (even if we never agree). I appreciate what MacDonald says about this very thing: “Some of the best of men have indeed held these theories [about eternal punishment, etc.], and of men who have held them I have loved and honoured some heartily and humbly-but because of what they were, not because of what they thought; and they were what they were in virtue of their obedient faith, not of their opinion.”

I agree with MacDonald. Ultimately the faith we live is for more important than the things I think. May we learn to love and obey the God who loves us deeply – no matter what we may think.

Lastly, a few things I did not say.

I did not say I don’t believe in hell.

I did not say I dislike or disrespect people who have a traditional view of hell.

I did not say I am better than people who have a traditional view of hell.

I did not say that scripture is unimportant. I think scripture must be dealt with. I chose not to deal with it here because I didn’t particularly want to have a debate about the interpretation of scripture. I think scripture is very important. And I think there are some very important verses that speak of hell. But I do think we must recognize that these verses are not clear and/or simple statements – there is always interpretation required.

I did not say that it is no longer important to believe in Jesus or to be a Christian.

I did not say that the way we live our lives is no longer important.

And lastly, I did not say I have this figured out. I definitely do not.

What do you guys think about hell?

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24 Responses

  1. If you want to be true to scripture, it seems to me that annihilation is the most appropriate doctrine on Hell. In this view God doesn’t have to punish people for eternity to prove a point, so we could say that God’s goodness is maintained.

    Sure, there are problems with this view, but it seems to me to be most compatible with scripture and with God’s goodness. Deep down, though, I want to be a universalist because universalism upholds God’s goodness more than any other doctrine.

    Or does it? So Hitler and Stalin get to go to heaven right along with Mother Theresa even though they were wretches of human beings? Where’s the goodness and justice there? I struggle.

    When all is said and done, though, at the very least we must never use Hell as a scare tactic for the sake of evangelism or orthopraxy.

    But then again, you could say that the writers of the New Testament use Hell (or at least divine punishment of some sort) as a scare tactic on more than one occasion.

    Basically what I’m trying to say is, “I don’t know.”

  2. dear adam, i think you are amazing and i am glad i get to read your blog.

  3. Halpin, I agree about your Hitler and Stalin statement. My hope is that God will work as long as it takes to redeem, restore, and make right, even their relationships with God and others. Thanks for bringing that up – it’s an important point.

    And just like you, “I don’t know.”

  4. We’re obviously treading in deep theological waters here, so we have to approach this topic humbly (which seems to be the tone of both these posts and comments so far; thanks for encouraging that, Adam!). Hell is a grievous thing, so it should make us pause. No matter what, it’s not a doctrine that we’re going to like, at least not until we see God face to face and are given complete understanding of who he is and what he does.
    That said, I agree that God is absolutely, utterly good. But that goodness isn’t just a grandfatherly tolerance. His holiness is foundational to his goodness, and holiness can have nothing to do with sin. And his justice is essential to his goodness, and justice must see the fair punishment for wrongdoing. Hell only seems like an unfair punishment when we look at it from a human perspective. “That lie was so little! It didn’t really hurt anyone. What’s the big deal?” But our sins, even the tiniest ones, are against GOD who is eternal and immortal and – in many ways – incomprehensible; so on that scale, eternal punishment is the right result. What is amazing, what floors me about God’s goodness, is that he redeems any of us at all!!! I was running fast in the direction of hell, and my Savior turned me around and gave me himself. What astounding mercy!

  5. I actually think the idea of heaven/hell is really just humanity’s way of qualifying. Qualifying what is up to the individual’s with power, isn’t it? That’s not to say that I think there is no such thing as either one, because I don’t know. But I sincerely hope it isn’t as simple as “accept Jesus= heaven or don’t accept Jesus= hell”. That isn’t really a punishment for evil is it? It’s a punishment for not accepting one ideaolgy, which is entirely different.

  6. The way I understand MacDonald, he does believe in hell. Hell is the “consuming fire of distance from God”. Like you said, Andrea, God’s holiness will have nothing to do with sin. But what is important is that MacDonald allows for repentance beyond this life.

    MacDonald suggests that God keeps us distant from Him (in this life and the next) until we repent from our sin and run into heaven (into the fellowship of Father, Son and all of the Saints). This is a beautiful picture and one that I believe is consistent with scripture – even Jesus’ statements about hell. Is it theoretically possible that some will choose to remain distant from God for all eternity? Sure. But not because God is torturing them for mistakes made in this life, but by their own choice. C.S. Lewis paints a similar picture in The Great Divorce.

    I believe that eventually every knee will bow before Jesus. Not because God will force those who would not kneel, but because ultimately everyone (even Hitler) will come to recognize that Jesus is worthy.

    I could be wrong about all of this, and am just in this to learn along with you guys. I’m really enjoying this conversation. Thanks Adam.

  7. ditto…Andrea

    Like I said in the previous post, I would love to be wrong, but I have not been able to get over the scriptural hurdles yet (not that I have all the scriptures figured out by any means).

    I think the question is turning into…Can God still be good, and eternally punish someone. My human, gut level instinct says “no,” but if I look beyond myself, into the pages of scripture, I see God many times order the Israelites to commit genocide, a God who leads people into wars, and one who promises to come again and stain his robe with the blood of the nations who he will trample (Isaiah 63).

    Is God still good even in the pictures revealed in these texts?

    Is God still good even when you compare contrast with say the story of the woman caught in adultery?

    By faith I say yes, even though it might be beyond my human, and dare I say american, concept of good.

    Great discussion…look forward to more!

  8. “Is God still good even in the pictures revealed in these texts?”

    This is a good question Baylor 2002. Honestly, I’m not sure. I’m not convinced that a lot of the wars and genocide of the OT was what God had in mind at all.

    Also, I think we must focus on the picture we have in Jesus more than the OT. Ultimately, we are Christians, followers of Jesus. Our faith is centered on him.

    Mark, I think your points regarding Lewis and MacDonald are right on – I read them in that way as well. I think Lewis’ argument is compelling. I really agree with it for the most part – if not completely.

    Angela, your comment about ideology seems very significant. I think you must be right. Or God must not be very good.

    Andrea, I definitely agree with you about God’s holiness. I don’t mean to make little of that. I don’t think he is a grandfatherly tolerant God. I think he is the God pictured in Jesus. There are obviously extension of this conversation about hell in the related conversation about the fall. We probably disagree some about the fall – and that is related to how we view heaven/hell, etc. I appreciate that you have put your perspective into the conversation. I think there are many more reading this who share your perspective, but are not commenting about it.

  9. By the way, GK, you started this, so what do you think?

  10. [...] Keep up the conversations about hell (here and here). It’s been [...]

  11. Okay, one more viewpoint here. Let’s just pause to consider how many we’ve had so far. Interesting, isn’t it?

    My views on hell, or the possible lack thereof, are actually based in scripture. Now, let me excuse myself from starting a scriptural debate here. I am NOT an expert on scripture, or hell, or God, etc. I’m sharing what I believe based on what I know of God, what I’ve read in the Bible, and how I’ve heard that scripture convincingly interpreted, and how I’ve personally interpreted scripture.

    I don’t know about hell. I really don’t think it exists as an eternal place of judgment. Yes, the Bible speaks of judgment for sin, but I’ve not seen a case for *eternal* punishment, or eternal judgment, or, for that matter, eternal death. If Heaven is a place of eternal life, then wouldn’t hell be the place of eternal death? If you’re existing in a place for eternity, but you’re not living, what are you? I just haven’t seen a case for an *eternal* existence outside of eternal life. This is part of what sparked my change of mind from the traditional hell.

    The other part was the bit of interpretation from the aforementioned radio preacher (it sounds so hokey, I know.) He said, and I’ve looked into it (I didn’t just follow like a sheep because I liked his argument–”Oh, well if you say so, radio preacher, then it must be so…” =), that most (all?) of the time Jesus referenced “hell”, he said “Gehenna”, which was the town dump outside Jerusalem. (Gehenna was then later translated into hell.) Trash was taken to Gehenna to be burned. The individual pieces of trash did not burn forever, they ceased to exist. They were no more. I think at this point, I believe that those who do not acknowledge Truth in the form of God revealed through Jesus (whether they call Truth “Jesus” or not, I believe there is one Truth, and we find what we truly seek–my belief holds that it is possible some might not know the name Jesus but may still find Truth), those who do not seek/find Truth will, after this life (I don’t know if burning will be involved or not), cease to exist. They will not have eternal life, but they will not suffer eternal punishment. I also believe that Truth is not an ideology; it is not a relative thing. It is not based on my culture or my religion or my upbringing or my location or my point of existence in history, but that it is available to all who seek it. Rocks crying out and all that.

    I also believe that God is good even if there is a traditional hell. I believe that God is good including all the stuff in the Old Testament. I believe that nothing I can know or understand or think or experience about God will change who he is, and he is, by nature of his very existence, good, and love. I personally don’t need to reconcile it all. I totally understand the struggle to reconcile God with all the ugly stuff of the world, but for me, I have pledged my allegiance regardless. This does not make me better or whatever, it’s just where I stand.

  12. Another thing we have to consider in this conversation is our concept of the resurrection. Pop Christianity tends to think that humans have immortal souls. Once our body dies our soul goes on living and has two directions it can go – heaven or hell. But this idea comes more out of the Greek tradition than the Hebrew one, and it doesn’t have much basis in scripture.

    For instance, in the book of Daniel it is not everyone who has ever lived that is resurrected. There are only some who are resurrected. The important thing to note from this scripture is that these folks are dead. They aren’t alive in any sense of the word. God raises them. It is only by his power that they are raised. This has important implications for our views on Hell.

    It seems to me that when we look at texts like Daniel and Jesus’ descriptions of Gehenna, like Amy mentioned, the idea of annihilation fits best. But then again, there are other texts that seem to suggest that God raises people only to punish them in everlasting torment, and I don’t like these texts because they don’t fit into my neat little package of who I think God is.

    Fun topic, this Hell.

  13. I have to say, this is a fascinating conversation.

  14. Just a thought…if there was no hell, there would be no need for the cross.

    If there was no place for punishment (lack of a better word), then Christ would not need to save us from something. Yes, there would still be sin, but the cross necessitates salvation from something.

  15. Baylor 2002 – let me challenge that a little bit.

    Why? Why does the cross necessitate a place for punishment? Could there be a reason for the cross beyond salvation from eternal punishment/hell/etc.?

    Anyone have any thoughts on this?

  16. Although I think that is a very good question, I think the answer is that instead of hell, salvation brings you close to God eternally, and the alternative is far from God eternally. Or even as Amy said, the lack of salvation just brings annihilation.
    Also, isn’t “salvation” a more modern word for the Protestant conversion? I could be wrong (please don’t kill me if I am), but I don’t think “saves” or “salvation” are the actual words used in Scripture. Again, I apologize if I’m wrong.
    Anyway, I don’t think most of us here are arguing there is no hell at all. At least not those who believe in the infallibility of the Bible.

  17. I’m also going to challenge that statement, Baylor ’02. I believe the cross is absolutely necessary to reconcile us to God. The penalty of sin is death, correct? If there is no traditional, eternal, burning hell, that doesn’t mean that physical and spiritual death don’t occur.

    The penalty for sin isn’t something that happens in the future. It’s something we’re experiencing right now. Our world is rife with spiritual death, with the wages of our sin. (I’m not *necessarily* saying God is punishing us with all the bad stuff that goes on in the world, or that anybody deserves bad stuff, but I am saying that bad stuff is a symptom of a fallen world, and of fallen souls.) My view is that we are spiritually dead RIGHT NOW until the Truth of Jesus brings us to life, and then we can continue to live eternally. If our spirit is never brought to life, then our bodies die, but the spirit doesn’t continue to exist eternally in death.

  18. I have written three times and erased…I don’t know why.

    There are numerous theories out there about the atonement. The govermental theory, the ransom theory, Abelard’s atonement as example, and Socinus’s Christ as Martyr are just a smattering. Their is the Christus Victor model, and people who deny the cross because they consider it child abuse. The meaning of the cross has differed for a whole lot of Christ followers.

    My belief about the cross is that it was a substitutional atonement. Christ became sin and died for me, so that I would not have to live in eternal death. I celebrate this everyday as I assume most of you do too.

    I apologize for not saying this well before. I am not even sure that I am saying this well now. I know that we are spiritually dead until the Holy Spirit comes and awakens us to faith, but I am still going to die. I have felt the effects of sin my entire life and I will feel them again in death. However, the cross has rescued me, restored me, cleansed me and ransomed me from eternal spiritual death.

    The point I was trying to make about the cross, was that if there was no eternal spiritual death, what would it be accomplishing. If the answer is that it would just cleanse us from our sin, but there is no alternative, it seems a bit much for a Father to kill a son.

    I am not making a case for the gnashing of teeth, because I would not wish that upon anyone. This is just my understanding of what Christ did for the world.

    Adam, in my opinion, the cross goes much further than that though, it restores us to our heavenly father and gives us a greater capacity to love and sacrifice.

  19. [...] obviously after a great discussion about hell, the next blog topic that comes to mind is The Office. Now Brooke and I don’t watch much tv [...]

  20. Warning: Potentially radical content. I respect all who do not see things like me, and I hope you respect me the same.

    Jesus did use both terms ‘eternal punishment’ and ‘eternal fire’, at least in modern translations. (I have not taken the time to pull up the original Greek scrolls, and then further ponder what the best interpretation of his original verbal Aramaic words were.) I have to wonder if his reference to ‘eternal’ really refers to what we call ‘the afterlife’. I don’t think it does. I think it applies to now. Try reading the passage (starting with Matt 25:14) as if Jesus is talking about now and not the afterlife. Just my view. This is one thing you that could easily be misinterpreted by projecting modern / pagan / or otherwise inappropriate ideas onto scripture.

    I also have a problem with punishment. It doesn’t accomplish anything. Punishment on earth is used to train children and civilians how to live peacefully and successfully. But punishment does not actually change the person’s heart; it just teaches them to behave differently for either or both their own benefit and others’. If you believe we’re born with sin, and I think most Christians do, then you know that the heart is imperfect. We may be trained to behave well, but our original selfish intentions are still there, even if we learn to suppress it or keep it from outwardly manifesting. I do not know if I believe in hell or not. Probably not, but I don’t believe God ever intended us to worry about such a prospect. I can say this: if I’m such a bad boy for not believing in Jesus as savior, and God is so unhappy with me…Punishing me for one second, one year, or eternity will not change me! And even if it did, what would be the point, since I would end up in hell, unable to benefit myself or God from “changing”!?!?

    We have this punishment-rewards mentality that runs deep in our world and especially in modern western culture. It’s a really simple paradigm: you do good, you get rewarded, you do bad, you get punished, etc. But I don’t believe God works that way at all, and I don’t see sending people to hell as justice. A lot of people who have been wronged by someone or who have seen the ill-effects of offenders, want those people to pay for it, but remember from Biblical teaching that all are with sin, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”, etc. So be careful for asking for justice, cause you might not want it!! I don’t wish punishment or justice for Adolf Hitler, or Saddam Hussein. They did terrible things that were all bent on pleasing self, but I am ultimately guilty of the same thing: sin, which is the decision to do things independently of God. Therefore, in a rewards-punishment paradigm, ALL deserve punishment. (That’s actually scriptural.)

    As far as discreet levels of evil / punishment, I don’t believe in that because actions, whether few or many, outwardly harmless, or globally catastrophic, are simply mere manifestations of the same, one, self-serving heart whose collateral damage is determined exclusively by the nature of the circumstance and manifestation, and not by the degree of wickedness of the person. I mean, honestly, if I had grown up in the proper circumstances, I could have easily been a mutilating, suppressing Nazi officer, or a murderous mobster. I am not a Nazi or a mobster, but my heart is just as bad as theirs. I am just fortunate I came into this world in a circumstance where I learned not to manifest my evil in so many outwardly destructive ways, and that I have learned the value of others over myself, etc. But I am no better a person than Hitler or Stalin. It is really easy to create a gamut of evilness, because it is a simple theory that satisfies our human (and unjustified) desire to punish the worst offenders. Jesus would know what I’m talking about–he was always around loving the people you would be calling sinners and even justifying them by saying they weren’t alone in their sin. They were the people all cultures condemned and wished hell on them.

    One of my friends told me today I am going to hell when I die simply because I don’t think like he does. My thing is: are you going to deny my love, my passion for people and unity, my being real with you, and tell me to my face that I’m not good enough for God’s kingdom because I don’t agree with mainstream schools of thought? I have an atheist friend in northern California who has shown more love and compassion than I have seen out of hundreds of Christians I have known. Love is significant, and can’t be ignored! If there is a heaven and a hell, I believe my loving atheist friend will be there over any Christian who condemns others for not “believing the right doctrines”. Good grief. Judgment is not ours! Even if hell exists, as Brian McLaren so eloquently says, it’s nobody’s business who goes there.

    Overall, I think God must be too good to punish us eternally. The idea of true eternal punishment is wrong. There is no love in that. If I don’t even wish hell upon the worst offenders, and care about them that much, shouldn’t a high God also? If God doesn’t love them the same as I do, then I don’t believe in God. I do believe in love, and if love is God, or God is love, then I think we need not worry about hell. Of course, with my Christian upbringing, I can’t help but worry about hell unfortunately. I am trying to change that, but my traditional views are so in-grained and it’s hard to think outside the box, and that fear always pops up. But we all have to accept the fact that we’re all going to die someday never knowing for sure!! Which I think is encouraging. No one has died, gone to hell, and come back to tell of it, which means, it’s probably not worth fretting over if God is really love. Our eternal well-being should not hinge on mere head knowledge and belief systems anyway.

  21. It doesn’t matter what “I” think, or you “think”, or, what we “believe”, or, what “seem’s” right or wrong in our carnal, flawed minds folks! He (Jesus) IS THE PROPITIATION FOR ALL MEN! Repeat — “ALL MEN”whether we “believe” it, or regardless of whether we “think” so or not. Any New Testament doctrine must, by necessity, be found in seed-form in The Old Testament. That we all agree is axiomatic. Right? O.K.? So — try finding ANY clear, unavoidable warning of ANY punishment beyond the grave. IT IS NOT THERE. REPEAT – - IT IS NOT THERE. Now, carry on and go serve your Master and may the Love and graciousness and mercy of God Bless us ALL

  22. You know, until a person is able to stop and simply look for CLEAR and PLAIN language that can in NO WAY be misunderstood and fully comprehended, you’ll only be wasting your time, and probably other folk’s time as well. Just start from the very beginning. Go to Genesis and simply proceed through the Bible. It’s really quite simple. What’s amazing is how people will seemingly allow their minds to shut down and quit functioning and just listen, and sadly, at times, trust the moronic and disgusting filth that comes spewing from other folk’s mouths who’ve simply regurgitated what THEY’VE themselves heard others say as well. Not once simply going to their Bible and CLEARLY verifying what they’ve heard. Sad. That is just sad. Never ming the slandering and damage such things do to the nature and character of Almighty God.

    • Kevin uses not one Scripture or even a reference and is a cultist. EVERY cult denies what Jesus Christ made plain – that hell is eternal and that the rebels in this place of “ETERNAL damnation” (Mk. 3:29) will be conscious for all eternity – “where their worm (consciousness) dieth NOT” and neither is the FIRE of torment ever going to be quenched (Mark 9:43-49). So, who are we going to believe, the cultists or Jesus Christ. No one could honestly read the words of Jesus Christ and deny these truths (Mark 9:43-49). Here’s more biblical proof – “And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up FOR EVER AND EVER: and they have NO REST day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name.” (Rev. 14:11) According to the record of Holy Scripture, hell is for keeps, forever, and those who go there will feel the concious torment just as we feel comfort and pain here and now (Lk. 16:19-31). In 1 million years of earth’s time, not 1 second will have expired from eternity’s time clock. Ready or not – Jesus is coming.

  23. [...] Hell (22 [...]

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