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?