Raising Hell

In my “Beginning at the end” post, GK expressed some uneasiness with the concept of hell and challenged me to share my own thoughts.

I’m a little hesitant to do so. Mainly because whatever my view is, it’s definitely not traditional. And oddly enough (at least it seems odd to me), some Christians can be very defensive when it comes to this issue. As if questioning hell is equivalent to questioning God. Or as though rejecting the traditional view of hell is like rejecting God altogether.

So because of the strong feelings associated with the traditional doctrine of hell, I have been hesitant to explicitly address the issue. But as you can tell, I’ve decided to start this discussion. Not because I want to be radical. Not to be provocative. And certainly not to be divisive. Rather, I have decided to weigh in on the issue because I think one’s view of hell significantly affects the way a person views and understands God. And that’s important.

So here’s a little biography to get us started.

During Christmas break my first year of college (I think that’s when it was), I read C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce (GK – didn’t you happen to read it at the same time?). Now I grew up with a pretty traditional understanding of hell. Something along the lines of Christians go to heaven (paradise, eternal life, good times forever) and everyone else goes to hell (eternal torment, gnashing of teeth, and no way out). So when I read The Great Divorce I was immediately surprised by two things. First, C.S. Lewis didn’t seem to agree with my traditional view of hell. And second, I couldn’t believe that conservative, traditional Christians let Lewis get away with his view of hell. I never will understand how Lewis is so widely popular while holding some pretty non-traditional views at times. Anyways, I read this book and loved it (it’s still one of my very favorite books – on multiple levels). It seemed to lift a burden from my shoulders. Scales seemed to fall from my eyes. I could see things in a new way. Maybe I’m reading more into it than was really true at the time – but it was certainly an important moment for me. Even though reading The Great Divorce was very influential, I still was pretty traditional in my understanding of hell. I was much more open, but my beliefs hadn’t changed a lot – at least in ways I could clearly articulate.

At the time of reading The Great Divorce I was not familiar with George MacDonald. MacDonald is actually a character in The Great Divorce but at the time I didn’t know anything about him. However, later that year I started reading MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons. No other book has changed me and influenced me so extensively. If reading The Great Divorce was like a burden being lifted, then reading Unspoken Sermons was (and continues to be) like being lifted off the ground and carried into another world. Since then I’ve read and been influenced by a few other authors, but really MacDonald’s perspectives have framed my understanding of hell more than any other.

Well, I think I might stop here for now. I think personal history is important. Maybe having read this will help you as I go into more specifics with my next entry (hopefully in just a couple days).

Before we get into any specific discussion about hell, is there anyone else who is struggling with the issue? Do you want to share any of your history?

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17 Responses

  1. I love Lewis & MacDonald, but their views of hell give me serious qualms. I’m looking forward to most likely being a dissenting commenter (hopefully a gracious one!) on your upcoming post(s) on this topic. Hell is not a fun topic, but I think it is part and parcel of our understanding of God, so it’s important to wrestle with in a considerate way.

  2. My views on hell have changed drastically, too, and so I look forward to hearing what you have to say on the subject. My ‘history’ as far as the subject is concerned has to do with much less auspicious teachers than Lewis and MacDonald. I listened to this radio preacher while living in Tyler, and one of the reasons I liked him was that he was down-to-earth and gave very logical, scripture-based thoughts on relevant issues, like abortion and hell. Many times what he said caused me to really evaluate what I thought, such as in the instance of hell. Because of his re-evaluation of several scriptures I (and all the religious institutions I’ve been a part of) used to defend hell, I no longer believe in hell, or certainly not as the eternal judgment of those who don’t believe on Jesus. I’ll share more later. I’m glad we’re getting into this discussion.

  3. C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, and Brian McLaren have given me a lot to think about regarding hell. Right now, I just don’t know, but I definitely have serious issues with the “traditional view” of hell. It is hard for me to imagine ever being “certain” about hell again. But I think it is important to talk about in love. I think eschatology does have an impact on the way we treat people in this life, even if on a subconscious level.

    My experience has been that people do react strongly when you question traditional views about heaven and hell. I remember one summer at church camp (I was probably 12) when a scandal broke out about the radical beliefs of a certain camp counsellor. Rumor had it that he didn’t believe in hell. I had never heard of such a thing. The prevailing view was that he would find out soon enough.

    So, good luck Adam!

  4. Even this weekend while listening to 1 Cor. 13 put to music, I got another confirmation of MacDonald’s view; ‘without Love, I am NOTHING.’

  5. ive been really comfortable with my views on hell (or lack thereof i suppose) for the last year or two. but when the topic comes up or when someone can tell i do not share their opinion, i refuse to say anything. i do not want to argue with anyone, ya know. but i have been wondering if it were time i started doing some thinking so that i can share my thoughts with people (people i know respect me enough to at least listen of course). not sure where to start, though….maybe i will revisit the unspoken sermons you gave me. or write a paper for my theology class. what have your conversations about this looked like??

  6. Bart Campolo raises some excellent questions about Hell and Universalism in his article “The Limit’s of God’s Grace.” I don’t necessarily agree with him on everything, but this is a particularly helpful read. Here’s the link:

    http://www.thejournalofstudentministries.com/articles/LimitsOfGodsGrace-Campolo.pdf

  7. My views on hell have also dramatically changed in recent years. I think the reasoning behind the change is based more on who God has been to me in my own personal experience and a feeling that this experience is at odds with the traditional idea of hell. To say it plainly; I have a hard time believing that the God that i have come to know, the God that is Love, could send anyone to ‘hell’. Which raises another question; If we were to decide that there is a hell does that mean that God created it? Another reason for me to believe that there isn’t a hell.

  8. Halpin – yes I came across that article somewhere along the way. I think I even blogged about it. Let me go see…

    I can’t find it…

    But anyway, yes, that article resonates with me very much.

    From what I hear, Bart was personally attacked pretty vehemently for what he wrote in that article.

    To all of you: I’m really looking forward to the interactions we can have with this discussion. Let’s follow Andrea in her call to graciousness – thanks Andrea. I appreciate your heart – even in dissent.

  9. Halpin – Thanks for the link to the Bart Campolo article. It takes a pretty couragous guy to write an article like that. I had never read it, and it was very encouraging to me. I don’t know if he is right or wrong, but Bart and I worship the same God. In fact, reading his words makes me want to worship God. That’s the funny thing I find as my views on hell change – it doesn’t affect my desire to serve God in the least. But isn’t that what is behind our biggest fears about questioning the traditional view of hell?

  10. “After all, without the fear of their unsaved loved ones’ eternal damnation, how would they motivate one another for outreach and missionary service?” This was the only thing that really rubbed me the wrong way in the article. I’ve known (and know) several people who believe in the traditional idea of Hell, and it is NOT their only motivating factor in life. That kind of blanket statement is one of the few things I’ve seen in recent discussions (I’m thinking of the new Brian McLaren book, too, what I’ve read from Mark’s synopsis of it) that, well, rubs me the wrong way. I get it–I really do–and I have known people who truly considered (and, worse (?)) presented Jesus as fire insurance. Blech. But I do not think that ALL–maybe not even most–people who believe in traditional presentations of Jesus, or in the traditional view of Hell, live their lives motivated by fear and despair. I’ve known too many people who don’t do that.

    Having said all that, I too felt that the article was very relevant to this conversation, and I appreciated what he had to say. I don’t know that I entirely agree with his reasoning, but I don’t have to.

  11. That’s a great point, Amy.
    It seems sometimes that parts of the Emergent conversation are more of a reaction against pop Christianity (or as Dr. Olson calls it, “folk religion”). It’s not so much a reaction against conservative theology but against the way that this conservative theology is used in some circles (i.e., the fire insurance mentality).

    I think we need to be more honest about our reactionary tendencies. When we are honest about these tendencies, I think we tend to become less radical in our approach.

  12. Amy – I agree it is tempting to paint an extreme picture to argue against in these kinds of discussions. We need to be careful not to do that. Campolo is wrong to suggest that there is no other way to motivate people besides hell. But people do seem to be afraid that removing hell removes our ability to motivate others.

    And you are right, very few people live their lives in fear and despair, regardless of their religious beliefs. But I think it is important to point out that the threat of hell really is still a motivating factor for many people.

    I was raised to believe that avoiding sin and practicing “spiritual disciplines” (prayer, communion, singing, church attendance, bible study, etc.) were important, at least in part, because the Bible teaches it and we need to obey God to ensure our eternal salvation. I didn’t live in fear or despair, but the thinly-veiled threat of hell was an important part of my faith (until I became a heretic of course).

  13. I probably fall in the boat with Andrea. To be clear, it is not the boat that I would choose to sail if I had a choice, but I can not. The God revealed in the Old Testament, is the same God revealed in the New Testament. With Jesus, God is revealed in a more clear way, but nothing about the attributes of God were changed. He is in the Old Testament a God of love, justice, mercy, wrath and compassion, as well as in the New.

    Would I mind if I got to Heaven and God really did save everyone? No, I would be ecstatic!

    Would I feel cheated? No, I am not worthy of anything!

    Can I from any scriptural viewpoint back this up? No, I can’t even in scripture back up Stott’s anhilation theory.

    I look forward to interacting and graciously commenting with everyone else. What a great way to learn and apply theology to life

  14. Baylor 2002 brings up an interesting point. If there is no hell, does God save everyone? This question raises another for me. Is it necessary to question the existence of heaven along with our questions about hell?

  15. I think your second question is particularly good Aaron. I think our ideas of heaven need some revising as well. And if there is a hell, which i think there is something like it, then i think the distinction between the two might not be as clear as we think (Lewis writes along these lines in The Great Divorce).

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

  17. Hello: Here’s a novel idea to try on for size — Find where God (it would obviously be at the earliest point in human history) clearly lays before man what is to occur to him after he dies if he has been an unrepentant sinner. The obvious starting point would be the Book of Genesis. You will find there is no such clear and irrefutable warning whatsoever.Nada. It simply is not there. Beginning with the worlds first murderer on down through the Great Flood; Sodom&Gomorrah; and on and on and on ad infinitum. So, you might be wondering, where the heck did this monstrously abominable disgusting and perverse idea come from? You guessed it! Man himself! Read the thoroughly sweeping and comprehensive masterful pieces by Edward Beecher “History of opinions on the scriptural doctrine of retribution” or, “The Bible Hell” by J.W. Hanson, along with the authoritative and scholarly treatise by Thomas B. Thayer “The origin and History of the Doctrine of endless punishment”. These thoroughly articulated and magnificantly well-reasoned works are all one need to read to be forever certain of whence the blasphemous and insidiously evil doctrine came and how it slithered into Christendom.

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