Do We Really Need Hell? – Part 2




This is the continuation of a post started yesterday on the necessity of relying on hell to preach the gospel.

The devil made me do it.

Ever notice how we never say “God made me do it”? It’s almost as if the devil is more powerful than God sometimes.

As Tripp York demonstrated so well in his book The Devil Wears Nada, as evangelicals we give the devil a whole lot of power. Satan, it would seem, is behind every bad thing that happens from a CD skipping in church, to the fender bender we got into on the way to the grocery store, to the great evils in the world like the Holocaust.

This demonic troublemaking is, we believe, part of a larger effort to disrupt our lives, cause us to doubt God’s ability and/or willingness to intervene on our behalf, force us into sin, and ultimately capture our souls for an eternity in hell.

In this narrative, Satan, as the antithesis of God, is essentially God’s equal. Like God, Satan wields tremendous power and like God, Satan has his own eternal domain. Therefore, Satan must be defeated in order for us to be saved from an eternity in hell.

But is that true?

Well, at the very least, it’s not very Biblical.

Despite common perception, the devil doesn’t have a major role to play in the Bible. In fact, outside of the apocalyptic language of Revelation and Jesus’ tempting in the gospels, the devil is barely a blip on the radar in the New Testament and in the Old Testament the devil one appears in two places: the book of Job and David’s counting of Israel in Chronicles.

Now, you may be asking yourself, what about the story of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit?

If you go back and actually read the account of the fall in Genesis you will notice that the devil is never mentioned anywhere. There is a serpent, and certainly popular church tradition has tended to interpret that serpent as being the devil, but the writer of Genesis never felt it necessary to actually include the devil in that story. Since Satan does appear in the book of Job, which was written before Genesis, and the writer of Genesis certainly would have been aware of the figure of Satan and could very easily have named him in the story of the fall, what does it say that there is no devil in that story?

I think it says a lot.

In fact, I think our entire understanding of salvation turns on the absence of the devil in the origin of sin.

Simply put, the writer of Genesis doesn’t include the devil in the origin story of sin because the devil wasn’t necessary. We didn’t need the devil to sin. The devil didn’t make us do it. We decided to sin on our own and are, therefore, entirely responsible for its creation, our own fall, and the horrendous evils we would prefer to pass off on the devil.

If that’s true, then we don’t really need to appeal to the devil or even the threat of hell when we talk about salvation, for it is not the devil and hell that we are saved from, but ourselves.

Here’s why…

In the Garden of Eden, the sin of Adam and Eve wasn’t simply theft. It was idolatry. In stealing and eating the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve were attempting to place themselves, mere creatures, in the place of their Creator. This is why the serpent says “you will be like God.”

In trying to become like God, Adam and Eve were trying to take control of creation, placing themselves as the source of all life, power, and glory, and therefore the object of worship in all of creation.

But they were not the source of life, power, and glory which is why upon being banished from the privileged life of the Garden, Adam and Eve suffer the curse of death. God is the source of life. When we try to wrestle control from God and place ourselves on the heavenly throne as Adam and Eve attempted to do, we remove our source of life. Without that source of life, there is, naturally, only death.

As the heirs of Adam and Eve we continue to suffer the effects of sin, not because two people ate from a tree eons ago, but because we continue to eat from that same tree. We continue to try to snatch divinity away from God and place ourselves on the heavenly throne. Whenever we decide that we know better than God how to live our lives, whenever we decide that our knowledge of good and evil surpasses God’s, then we commit idolatry which is the foundation for all sin and the cause of our own death.

This, of course, puts Jesus’ mission in a different light than most of us have traditionally come to understand it. In his life, death, and resurrection Jesus isn’t defeating the devil, paying the devil off, or satisfying the Father’s blood lust. As Paul describes in Romans 5, by living a life of perfect obedience to God and love for others rather than himself, the very opposite of Adam, Jesus, who Paul calls “the new Adam”, reorders creation and puts humanity back into right relationship with their Creator by putting himself, in the place of humanity, at the feet of God in a posture of perfect worship.

The old Adam sought life on his own terms. The new Adam sought to follow the will of God. The old Adam served himself. The new Adam served others. The old Adam quite literally sought to snatch divinity from God. The new Adam, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,  he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death- even death on a cross.”

It is this act of worship that reverses humanity’s idolatry in the garden. It is this act of worship that saves us from the death that comes from our self-worship. And it is this act of worship that allows for the possibility of resurrection and eternal life.

In short, Jesus saves us, not from Satan or even from hell, but from ourselves and from the inevitable death that comes from self-worship and life apart from God.

This is why the New Testament appeals so much to resurrection. Jesus’ invitation in the gospels, like Paul’s challenge in the epistles, is not a get out of hell free card as if the eternal destination options are life in heaven or life in hell. Rather, Jesus beckons us to accept his offer of life and reject our pursuit of death.

For Jesus, just like they were for the old Adam in the garden, the options are only life or death. Through Jesus’ doxological life, death, and resurrection a life of worship leads to eternal life, just as it would have for Adam and Eve had they not tried to usurp the heavenly throne. Apart from that new source of life, there is only death. In just the same way that without being able to continue to eat from the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve faced death, if we choose not to eat the bread and drink the cup we are offered from our Lord we too will suffer death.

And therein lies the problem with our “need” for hell in our evangelical salvation pitch.

We face death apart from God, not life in eternal torment. If hell is separation from God, and that certainly seems to be how it is described both in the gospels and even in Revelation, then hell is death because there is no life apart from God.

As Paul says in Romans, the consequence of sin is death – not eternal torture in hell. This is exactly in keeping with the Old Adam vs. New Adam motif that Paul uses 2 chapters later in Romans while simultaneously maintaing the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” language Jesus uses to describe the final judgment. For certainly there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when one discovers they face death.

In other words, there are not 2 different resurrections: a resurrection to eternal life in heaven and a resurrection to eternal life in hell. There is only one resurrection unto everlasting life or there is death. And if that is true, then we need not appeal to eternal torment for we are not saved from the grip of the devil or eternal torture, but from the death that comes from our own delusion of self-worship.

The good news of the gospel, then, is not a get out of hell free card, but the gift of God that is eternal life.

This is a much richer, a much more hopeful, and a much more Biblically faithful gospel message than the turn or burn gospel we have for so long proclaimed.

The God we should be proclaiming is a God who’s love drives out fear, not drives it to another level through the threat of hell. It is this sort of God who’s fundamental nature of love, not wrath, compels God to incarnate that love in the form of Jesus, so that creation, though it sought death through it’s own self-worship, might have the chance to live forever with the very Creator who stands ready to welcome humanity back with open arms despite our never-ending attempts to usurp the heavenly throne.

That is love.

That is grace.

That is forgiveness.

That is salvation.

And that is the good news of the gospel.


Grace and peace,

Zack Hunt