26 March 2011

Thoughts on Hell

I feel that, for my own sake, I need to write a post on hell. I doubt I'm going to say anything that anyone else hasn't said already but I feel that I need to do this for my own benefit.

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.

+++ 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 do believe that there are images of "hell" in Scripture. I also believe that these pictures are many and varied and sometimes even contradictory.

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.


John Meunier said...

Thank you for the link, Pam.

Thank you for grappling with these questions and the links to BW3. I had not read those yet.

I, too, have heard these issues presented as God hating those who are hell-bound. Pastors say that. But I wonder if it changes your reactions at all if we refuse to go along with the notion that God hates those who go to hell. God loves all, but - and I don't claim to fully understand this - not all are saved.

I appreciate as well your thoughts about the magic words of the Sinner's Prayer. I do think you can find in Scripture indications that having the holiness of Jesus is a way into the kingdom even if we do not say - or cannot speak - the magic words. But there are also other places that speak of belief and calling on Jesus as an important part. I've not worked out my own understanding of this.

My son who has autism certainly has me thinking a great deal about the cognitive dimensions of salvation, though.

PamBG said...

I do believe that not all are saved. For instance, I believe that not all want to be saved and I don't think God will force them. Ben W did a much better job of exploring all the angles than I can do.

It's interesting that some folk on Ben's blog saw anihilationism as being the same thing as universalism. I do think that there is much inside our sinful selves that wants God to hurt those who are not part of our team. Many world religions and spiritual systems as well as modern psychology recognize a dualistic worldview as being undesirable but there are still many in Christianity who see dualism as being the way of God rather than the way of sin.

PamBG said...

John, in terms of belef, I'm thinking of a mentor who is constantly pointing out that what we do and how we live our lives is what we actually believe in. As opposed to what we say we believe inordinate what we want to believe in.

In terms of those who can't cognitively "believe" in Jesus, I don't see how it's going to be God's Kingdom if God discriminates against the differently abled. That's what humans do and God had better be that or it's not mich of a God.

John Meunier said...

Thanks for the replies, Pam.

I have great trust in God's love, mercy, and justice, and so rely on that with regard to my son. But I do having this nagging desire to be consistent with myself, so I try to think through these things.

Your mentor's insights and yours are helpful. Thank you.

Ron Johnson said...

Pam, your post reminds me of my experience reading Dante’s Divine Comedy for the first time. Volume One was a page-turner. I couldn’t put it down for a minute, not even while exercising on my Nordic Track (back in the day). Hell was fascinating, not only because all the interesting people were there, but also because God had provided such ingenious accommodations for each of them. Dante’s hell was a place where divine justice and love united, a place where miserable people could be themselves and could go on making each other miserable forever.

On the other hand, reading about heaven (in Volume Three) was. . . well. . . like being in hell. Even the brilliant mind of Dante could not make the place sound worth visiting, much less seeking as an eternal home. Isn’t it strange how the human imagination can make hell sound so terrifying, and heaven so terrifyingly boring?

But my favorite destination was purgatory. No, my heart didn’t race, nor did I feel compelled to turn the pages in rapid succession. But Volume Two inspired me. It referred my soul again and again to its Source. And it is therefore the volume on purgatory that I have reread many times over the years. I’ve had no desire to revisit Dante’s heaven or hell. But his purgatory reminds me of this world: a place where God is everywhere, calling people to repent and ascend—a place where each soul has its own unique burdens, and yet they cluster in communities to spur each other on toward the life of faith.

PamBG said...

Ron, very interesting comments, thank you.

I'm in the middle of reading Rob Bell's book and, as a number of people have commented, there are aspects of heaven in his book that sound positively purgatorial and as if they will be challenging and self-revealing.

I have to confess that, personally speaking, my own revenge wish for those who I believe are unjust, is that they will be given to understand the pain that they have caused rather than that they will be tortured. Of course, if I wish that for others, I can't hope think that God will simply pass over *my* sins.

Ron Johnson said...

You make me interested in Rob Bell's book. Sounds like the kind of thing the British philosopher John Hick has been saying for many years.

Teri said...


PamBG said...

Thanks, Teri