Why the hell?

Why the hell?

I told someone in a coffee shop today that I don’t believe in hell and she thought I might go to hell for that. She wasn’t sure about much theology or even what she believed about God, but she was pretty sure that I was supposed to believe in hell if I was a pastor.

Why the hell? Why did we get shackled to this extra-biblical idea of eternal souls and punishment? It was Jesus who said, “Whoever believeth in me shall not perish but receive everlasting life” right? If everyone already has an everlasting soul, then what kind of promise is Jesus making to Nicodemus in John 3:16? Is everlasting life something we receive or is it something we have already by nature of our humanity? Is “the afterlife” a given for everyone and it’s up to us whether we spend eternity in the bad place or the good place? I don’t think so, but it’s remarkable how much staying power this idea has.

Rob Bell’s book was aight

I just read Rob Bell’s supposedly scandalous book from 2010, Love Wins, which precipitated his departure from his megachurch and his exit form the evangelical mainstream. In the eyes of his critics, the worst thing he did was question this old script of eternal punishment. But I agree with his argument. Without the presupposition of the eternal soul, all of the scripture references to “hell” (Sheol, the grave, Hades, the pit, the lake of fire) can be interpreted very differently. Circle of Hope pastors have considered this here, here, and here. Bell’s book was not a revelation to me. It was, however, an artful, empathetic, and pastoral invitation to an alternate view. I think many people need to hear this Good News, still.

I might join Bell’s critics when he suggests that salvation can come to people through Jesus even if Jesus is not named as their Savior explicitly. He is pegged as a Universalist now. He hints at the possibility that by other faiths and traditions individuals may arrive at a way of being that Jesus desires for everyone. Maybe that is what he is trying to say but I am not sure Rob fits perfectly in that Universalist shoe. It seems to me that Jesus is still very much his personal Savior. But his nuanced language is not definitive enough for most people. Theologians, and Christians in general, seem to want more certitude. There is comfort in certitude. They fear that “mystery” might be the means by which Jesus is depersonalized into the “Force’, or the “Source’, or the “Universe,” or something else that robs him of his proper place. People do abuse “mystery” this way, but not all do, and I don’t think Rob does.

We want some people to go to hell, tho.

Some people find a lot of comfort in the fact that the bad people are going to hell. They need justice to be done, and the only thing bad enough is eternal punishment. Other people find a perverse sort of comfort in the probability that they themselves are going to hell. At least the universe makes sense if bad people (even if that’s me) get what they deserve eventually. I think the idea of hell is comfortable, like a toxic relationship that we don’t have the energy to change or escape. But we don’t get what we deserve–not now and not after we die. Jesus offers us everlasting life as a gift, not a reward for good behavior.

Isn’t this Good News? I don’t have to earn anything. I’m getting off the scale. Measuring up is no longer my goal. My performance is now for art sake, and not for the reviews. I am free. This demand for merit is what made me not free. That cosmic calculus is what made me a slave. This Truth is taking root in me and it has changed and will continue to change my life.

Let’s get some real Good News!

Let’s keep undoing that story about hell and eternal punishment. Jesus came not to condemn the world but to save it. You can receive that salvation and inherit eternal life, or not. If you don’t want a life with God, okay–you don’t have to have it. Why the hell would God die for you so that he could reserve the right to torture you forever? That just doesn’t make sense. And demanding that it make sense undoes all the other Good News that comes with Jesus’ death and resurrection. Judgment day is coming but the verdict has already been given and the sentence has already been served. Punishment itself died with Christ. Now that is Good News! You can have it.


2 responses to “Why the hell?”

  1. Overall, I deeply appreciate this conversation. I also like the the conclusion of your thoughts, Ben, wherein you noted “Jesus came not to condemn the world but to save it.” Yes, at the heart of everything lies Jesus! However, I cannot find myself able to ignore some of the things that he said, because I understand his words to have that extra weight (because he is God Incarnate!). I find that I need to wrestle with them and seek to understand them more deeply. I can’t pass them by though. And so here are some of my thoughts regarding the theme of this conversation.

    Regarding the Soul:

    Is an understanding of a soul that survives death simply an invention of Greek philosophy? I would beg to differ. Jesus infers that there is something in us that survives the death of the body (cf. Lk. 12:5; Jesus doesn’t call it an immortal soul, but he does say that there is something of us, which is personal, that survives and he calls it “you”.) Secondly, just looking at the entirety of the Bible, we see a growing understanding within Scripture regarding exactly what happens after death (does one simply cease to exist, as some OT texts suggest [cf. Ecclesiastes 9:5], or does something of us continue on after death, as the NT suggests [cf. Acts 7:59]. Also, something of interest to note is that extra-biblical texts from the inter-testamental period show a shift in the Jewish peoples’ understanding of the afterlife which implies an understanding of the soul continuing on after death; cf. 2Macc.12:38-46.).

    Regarding Hell:

    Furthermore, regarding “hell” I know that many people are averse to the idea of it (probably because a very specific understanding of hell has been shoved down peoples throats). But I cannot ignore the number of references to it – even by Jesus himself! The question seems though as if it would perhaps be better put: exactly what is this hell? My concern with saying no-one will go to hell is not that I want people to go there. Rather, I think that if we say God will not allow people to choose hell we have effectively let go of free will. Another way of putting this would be to say God “loves” people so much, that he will force them to go to heaven. But if this is the case we may have to let go of the truth “God is love” (1Jn. 4:8), because love can never force itself upon a person (cf. 1. Cor. 13:4-8). It lets the other – the beloved – choose to love in return. Otherwise their love is no true love; it is a farce, since its origin is not within their own heart. In short, my concern here is that we could develop a form of predestination that is simply an opposite of that found in Calvinists’ double predestination.

    But this still does not explain what hell could be. Is it a place of fire, brimstone, various forms of torture that are equal to and match a persons proclivity to a certain set of sins, such as Dante envisioned? Probably not. The Bible certainly does use imagery such as “fire” (Mt. 5:22) when it describes hell. However, I would posit that such imagery is meant to portray a sense of the intense suffering that is endured in hell. But what is hell? Perhaps it would be better to view it as a state of being than a place. I would suggest that since God permits us to choose for or against life in and with God, to choose against God – to choose against life and the source of all being and joy – is itself hell. One chooses separation from God and that existence in separation is itself one’s hell in eternity.

    Also, as a final note, I would note that I believe that Rob Bell is generally right in saying that (as you paraphrased him): “salvation can come to people through Jesus even if Jesus is not named as their Savior explicitly.” I would give that some more theological nuance, but I essentially agree.


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