If you want a thorough-going review of where the concept of hell appears in Scripture and what its function is, I recommend the recent posts by UMC pastor Ben Witherington: Hell? No?, Matthew 10:28 - Why Anihilationism is not Universalism, and And Now - The Case for Permanent Residence in Hell.
I certainly can't do even half the job that Ben did. My only point would be that the broad concept of "hell" certainly does appear in Scripture. Although I think that the popular concept of hell is generally quite different than the many and varied images in Scripture.
So why are so many people getting their virtual knickers in a twist over the debate about whether hell exists and who God might send there other than the fact that Rob Bell has recently written a book on the subject: Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived?
Here are some thoughts:
+++ If you're out looking for converts, it's easier to convert someone who has hit rock bottom in their life and/or is scared shirtless. Evangelists have always noted how relatively easy it is to convert those who are really desperate. One great technique is to try to cause someone to become desperate by frightening the Bejezus out of them. Either convince them that they are a totally worthless human being or that they will go to hell if they don't convert. Literally, we keep trying to scare the hell out of people. Which doesn't work if God doesn't actually hate people enough to send them to eternal torture.I do believe that there are images of "hell" in Scripture. I also believe that these pictures are many and varied and sometimes even contradictory.
+++ In consequence, the popular version of Christianity that many people believe is that The Gospel Message is "You are a sinner and headed for hell but God sent Jesus to die for your sins. If you accept Jesus as your savior, you will be saved." That's what a lot of people think it means to be a Christian, so no wonder they don't like it if hell gets demoted to a non-Gospel issue. As someone once asked me "If we're not certain that non-Christians aren't going to hell, why would anyone want to be a Christian?" Yes, the person who asked me this was someone who was constantly proclaiming how good God is and how wonderful it is to follow Christ.
+++ A lot of us use fear to motivate ourselves and others. You know what? I do this too. Someone recently asked me what I do on days when I feel emotionally overwhelmed and don't want to see patients. I laughed and I replied that, if I'm being brutally honest, what I do is I try to scare myself with the reminder that if I spend days not seeing patients, I'll lose my job. I don't want to operate that way - and it's certainly not the recommended way for a Chaplain to motivate herself - but that was the honest answer: fear is what gets me off my butt. If we remove the fear, we might have to find another motivation.
+++ Many Christians seem fixated on the idea that if God loves us Christians then this love necessitates hating everyone else and sending them to hell. We seem to believe that there is a limited amount of divine love and mercy to go around and that God can only spend it on certain people. Along with many other Christians, I find it to be a monstrous image of God that God would "save" an immoral and unethical Christian who "said the sinners' prayer" but that God is ready and eager to damn a non-Christian who lived a moral and ethical life and who imitated Jesus. (Yes, I know about grace and I know that understanding the Gospel is always a balance of love and grace, but I'm not going into that here.)
I don't believe, however, that belief in God's sending people to eternal torture in hell is an integral part of the "good news" of the Gospel message.
As Christians, we need to learn that there is Good News in the Gospel of Christ without us imposing more bad news on everyone else. My blogging friend, John Meunier, just blogged on Acts 10:34-43. Now, there is some good news. Unless, of course, we think that God can't love us unless God hates someone else.