How would your understanding of Christianity have to change if you didn’t believe in eternal damnation? What if you didn’t have the prospect of eternal conscious punishment to “scare the hell” out of people? Did Jesus come to save us from…Father God?
Twitter exploded on Saturday night over a recent article decrying Rob Bell’s upcoming book entitled, “Love Wins: Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.” Broadcast by tweets from influential theologians/pastors such as John Piper bidding “Farewell, Rob Bell,” the article’s writer is convinced that Bell can no longer claim the title of “Christian” because he suspects Bell of universalism (this decision being made, it seems, simply by viewing the video above and reading the publisher’s summary rather than, you know, reading the book first). Meanwhile, the rest of Twitter collectively scratched its Fail Whale while wondering who in the world #RobBell is and why is he trending?
It sounds so elementary, doesn’t it? This is basic Christian doctrine! Of course, there is hell and that is where bad people or people that do not “accept Jesus into their hearts” go when they die. How is it that people claiming to be Christians are not sure about something as basic and entrenched in our belief system as the doctrine of hell?
But here is the quiet truth: this is a big topic of conversation among many of us – new Christians, seminarians, atheists, long-time faithful and all in between. And it has been for centuries.
Is there really a hell?
Will God truly condemn all of humanity – with the exception of the faithful (or elect, depending on your theology) – to the lake of fire for all eternity? Is Jesus the “good cop” to God’s wrathful “bad cop?” As far as Rob Bell is concerned, we don’t know what he states yet because the book hasn’t been released. (So I’ll leave that for other bloggers/pastors/theologians to rip apart gleefully when the time comes.)
But here’s the thing: I don’t believe in hell. Or at least, not as it is traditionally understood.
This may be as good a time as any to let you know that I am not a universalist though. My heart wants to be – meaning that I really, really want to believe that everyone that ever lived will spend eternity in God’s Kingdom living life as it was meant to be lived. Even though I want to believe that, I can’t justify it scripturally.
I lean towards annihilation or conditional immortality. I believe that we are finite creatures only given eternal life through the breath of God, meaning eternal life is only ours as it is given to us. At the final judgment, those in Christ will remain in Him and in his life eternally. Those who are not in Christ will simply cease to exist—forever and eternally apart from God, forever and irrevocably amiss from their created purpose. The final total end of a life is eternal punishment itself – spirit, soul, mind and body, as in keeping with biblical beliefs about whole personhood. So yes, because I am a follower of Christ, I am “going to heaven” as are those that are also disciples of the man from Galilee. But those that are not simply do not live eternally in either heaven or “hell.” It is a tragedy that there must be such an end—a tragedy that not all will receive God’s gift of eternal life.
This probably isn’t the space for me to get into all of the painstaking research and reading, prayer and spiritual wrestling that has occurred in our home as we challenged our traditional understanding of hell – truly with the heart to learn – and emerged from the discussion on the other side of orthodoxy. It’s kind of a scary place, to be honest. I am very aware of the fact that I could be wrong on this one (after all, hundreds of years of church history tell me so) so my self-identification with annihilation is held loosely in my hand. And I still have a lot of questions unanswered.
Here is the thing though. The reaction of most people to my doubts about hell isn’t immediate condemnation (unlike what Rob Bell is experiencing).
Most people immediately ask me with disbelief: “But then, what is the point?”
Meaning, why would one bother being a Christian if it wasn’t to escape hell?
Isn’t that the whole reason why we use the word “saved” to begin with? Isn’t that why we go to Sunday School, why we marched up the aisle to sign the commitment card, why we give money and sacrifice and don’t drink/swear/have sex outside of marriage and so on? As the inimitable (and fictional) Rachel Lynde once wrote about a minister, “…And he says he doesn’t believe all the heathen will be eternally lost. The idea! If they won’t all the money we’ve been giving to Foreign Missions will be clean wasted, that’s what!”
Obviously, given my beliefs about annihilation, I’ve had to truly grapple with these questions. What is the point? And in a way, the absence of hell has freed me, giving me the eyes to see life in Christ as a truly rich eternal one. I can more clearly see the heart of God towards his children as expressed in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as He invites my own soul and the lives of those around me into the fullness and abundance of life in Christ. There is no motivation of fear in my decision to follow God. It is entirely motivated by His love and the invitation that He has given me to enter into relationship and be a part of his Kingdom come to the earth now and even for eternity – one of wholeness, justice, mercy, healing, love, peace, joy, gentleness and faithfulness etc. And part of that means making a way for God’s Kingdom here, showing how the world, according to God’s purposes would work, engaged in the holy work of restoration with a true Father-heart.
The point is not hell – its absence or reality – but life, here, now and for eternity, in Christ.
So just indulge me, friend.
What if your “Get Out of Hell Card” and escape from Dante’s Inferno were not a factor in following God?
Is your choice to love and know God based on your belief that if you didn’t, you would suffer horribly for all eternity?
Is life in Christ to the glory of God, in fact, the point?
Or this one: Would you bother to tell people about Jesus and the richness of life in Christ without the prospect of hell?
What if every story your life told about life in God (spoken and unspoken) had to communicate what you are saved to as opposed to saved from?
For those that are curious, here are a few other blog posts on the immediate topic that I appreciated.
Glenn Packiam brings it home from a theological standpoint: Before you dismiss Rob Bell, let’s learn some terminology. (And plus I’m a big fan of Glenn – we knew him way back in the day as we went to university with him – he’s the real deal.)
Rachel Held Evans Heaven, Hell and Rob Bell
The message was clear: Ask questions about heaven and hell and you will be cast out.
But as Bell’s pre-orders soared and many rose to his defense, it became clear that that what John Piper and Justin Taylor failed to realize is that we are already asking these questions. We are asking them in our dorm rooms, at our kitchen tables, over coffee, in classrooms, at Bible studies, at church, in our journals, in our hearts, and in thousands upon thousands of tearful, faithful prayers each night.
There is no meaner, more hateful person on Earth than a Christian who suspects you have gotten your theology wrong.
Ed Cyzewski Loyalty to God and One Another: A Heresy
Defending a doctrine ahead of a person saves us from all of the trouble that love requires.
And here are a few books that touch on the subject matter that I have appreciated as I learn:
- He Loves Me! by Wayne Jacobsen
- The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard
- The Shack by William P. Young
- Dangerous Wonder by Mike Yaconelli
- Two Views of Hells: A Biblical and Theological Dialogue. “The Case for Conditionalism” by Edward William Fudge
- The Fire That Consumes by Edward William Fudge
- The Tale of Three Kings and The Divine Romance by Gene Edwards
- Abba’s Child and The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning