Blogmatics: Hell

blogmatics2

(Photo courtesy of Photonopticum)

This is the thirteenth part of a series I’m calling Blogmatics. It’s an attempt on my part to lay out as best I can in as brief a manner as I can all the theological assumptions behind my blog posts. This post is adopted for two previous posts I have written on hell

 
The story of Abraham is a curious one.

Though he was called out by God to enter into a special covenant that would lead to him becoming the father of the world’s three major faiths, he was a deeply flawed man who was constantly screwing things up.

However, what I find particularly curious about Abraham is not what we read in his story, but what’s missing.

There is no mention of hell anywhere in the story of Abraham and his famous covenantal relationship with God.

Now, you might be thinking to yourself, “there are plenty of stories in the Bible that don’t mention hell.” That is true. But as Evangelical Christians this should be a bit of a problem, for we lean heavily on the fear of hell in our salvation pitch, every bit as much or more than we do the everlasting arms of Jesus.

So much so, that I often wonder if we’re more not afraid of hell than we are in love with Jesus.

The gospel pitch that we give and have been giving for generations is that sinners should “come to Jesus” or “believe in God” so that they won’t burn in hell. It’s that fear of eternal torment that pushes people into what the Bible would call a new covenant relationship with God.

Yet, hell plays no role whatsoever in the story of Abraham “believing in God” and then entering into a covenantal relationship with that God. It is because God first chose him, blessed him, and took care of him that Abraham chose to follow God, not because he feared that God would torment him in hell for all eternity if he didn’t accept God’s offer.

In fact, such fear of eternity in hell has no role whatsoever in any of the Old Testament characters and their relationship with God. Instead, it is their love for God, never their fear of hell, that drives them to worship, devotion, and faithfulness.

Such timing, though, is out of sequence for the modern Evangelical gospel. According to the Evangelical gospel the foremost reason to “come to Jesus” is not because Jesus first loved us, but so that God won’t send us to hell. We may tell people they should love God because Jesus saved them from hell, but it is that fear of hell that is supposed to spur our love. We can “love” God only because we have “faith” that God won’t be sending us to hell.

It’s this gospel that gives rise to the fiery church services and turn or burn preaching that so many of us are so used to. It’s this gospel that leads us down to the altar, over and over again, to “give our hearts to Jesus” in order to ensure our eternal destination. It’s this gospel that rips the church apart at her theological seams out of fear that believing the wrong doctrines will anger God and sentence us to an eternity in hell.

But is this gospel of fear really “good news”?

Or perhaps, in light of the story of Abraham, the real question is “Is this gospel of fear even necessary?”

I’m not sure that it is.

In fact, I’m pretty sure that it’s not.

Fear of hell is certainly a powerful weapon to wield in the crusade to “win” converts. It’s brutally efficient in its ability to slash deep down into our innermost fears. But if that is what spurs us to “faith,” then our faith isn’t really faith at all.

It’s fear.

Abraham didn’t come to faith in God because God showed up one day and told Abraham he was going to hell if he didn’t enter into a covenant with God. Abraham came to faith in God because God first loved Abraham. It wasn’t fear of hell that drove Abraham to the sacrificial altar. It was love for a God who didn’t have any reason to love and bless Abraham, but chose to do so anyway.

To me this is a God truly worth worshiping. To me this is a God to enter into covenant with because this God stands ready to bless, not to damn. To me this is the God who “demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners Christ died for us.”

But what about if choose to not enter into that covenant? What if we choose not to worship that God?

What happens then?

Do we burn in eternal torment for all eternity?

To answer that, I think we need to look at another Old Testament character – Adam.

In my Blogmatics post on sin I talked about how I understand sin as an act of idolatry in which we try to put ourselves, mere creatures, in the place of our Creator as lords of our own lives. When we do that, like an emancipated child we strike out on our own and sever our relationship with God. Or to put it in Abrahamic terms we break our covenant with God, a covenant that for us, much like it was for Abraham, is the source of life.

This severing from the source of life puts us on the path to death.

In my Blogmatics post about salvation, I talked about how I believe 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.

I believe 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 just 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, the so-called “new Adam,” the eternal options were the same as they were for the old Adam – life or death. Through Jesus’ doxological life, death, and resurrection, his life of worship opens the door for us to experience eternal life. 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.

Based on what I see in Jesus’ teaching in the gospel and what I read in Paul’s epistles, I believe 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.

Otherwise, for us to remain essentially alive in eternal conscious torment, God would have to me the one maintaining that life and to me, not only does eternal punishment for finite sins seem grossly unjust, but a God that sustains life simply for the sake of suffering and torture seems to me like an incredibly wicked, vindictive, and persevere God.

A God altogether different than the Jesus we encounter in the gospels.

As Paul says in Romans, the consequence of sin is death – not eternal torture. 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, I do not believe that there are 2 different resurrections: a resurrection to eternal life in heaven and a resurrection to eternal life in hell. I believe 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 ceaseless 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 God’s gift of eternal life to people who deserved death.

I believe 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.

That said, I do not believe whatsoever that we should cease warning people about the consequences of sin or the death that awaits us should we choose to reject the Source of Life.

However, I do believe that first and foremost we should be proclaiming a God who’s love drives out fear, not a God who drives our fear to another level through the threat of eternal torture. It is this sort of God whose 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 its 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, I believe, is the good news of the gospel.

 

Grace and peace,

Zack Hunt

 

***I updated this post with a couple of sentences to clarify why I think eternal conscious torment is problematic.***

 

17 Comments
  • Mark
    August 9, 2013

    I come from a faith tradition that never accepted a literal hell as a place of everlasting torment, so it is an easy matter for me to agree with much that is written in this piece.

    There is ample evidence that the popular concept of hell came from pagan roots in classical Greco-Roman mythologies. I find it interesting that many of the world’s mythologies don’t have a concept of hell until one is introduced from an outside, foreign source.

    A while back I read a book by the title “Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews” co-authored by a Jewish and Christian at Harvard Divinity School. In it the authors explain what the ancient Hebrews and (later) Jews believed about death and the afterlife. You write in this piece that Abraham wasn’t motivated by fear of hell, and that is quite true, because for him and his people they had no concept of hell.

    I am in full agreement that fear and love are incompatible. God simply cannot use fear as a motivation because is it manipulation, and love cannot employ those means.

    I appreciate your efforts in putting together these posts.

  • Dan
    August 9, 2013

    The story of Abraham is a curious one. Indeed. thoughtful. so where does Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son come in?

  • Karen
    August 9, 2013

    You might be interested in this illuminating podcast on the history of the doctrine of hell (and differences East and West) in the Church:

    http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/carlton/hell_a_modest_proposal

  • nooma dude!!!
    August 9, 2013

    I like my sinners like I like my s’mores — burning.

  • LB Milton
    August 9, 2013

    Hi Zack, love the blog.

    I have a few questions if you have some time to answer:

    What about God sustaining life for satan and the demons so that they are in everlasting torment?

    Also, what about, “the place the worm never dies.” Is God not sustaining that life for torment?

    Why would God sustain an unquenchable fire?

    And finally, the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, who was clearly portrayed as alive and in terrible condition-what is your interpretation of his torment?

    Thanks! Really enjoying this series.

  • Tyler Francke
    August 9, 2013

    The vast majority of what the biblical literalists I’ve encountered believe about hell doesn’t seem to be based in scripture. Great post, Zack. Thanks for providing a more nuanced view. I do believe that God repays evil; he promises that he will so clearly throughout both testaments. So I do imagine there is some kind of punishment for the wicked. But God is just. It seems as reasonable a possibility as any that those who were basically good but who also received an accurate presentation of the gospel and ultimately rejected it might simply be spared the resurrection altogether, as you suggest. In a sense, they chose death over life eternal, and God might just grant them their wish.

  • Katie
    August 9, 2013

    I actually had someone question whether or not I was really saved because I “did not accept Jesus because of a fear of hell,” and since I did not have that fear of hell, I obviously did not understand sin so how could I really be saved.

    Thank you for this well thought out, Biblical/theological post.

  • daryl carpenter
    August 9, 2013

    “I updated this post with a couple of sentences to clarify why I think eternal conscious torment is problematic[!]”

    Problematic, indeed.

    One would like to think that moral, rational humans wouldn’t need any explanation as to why a belief in eternal conscious torment is “problematic.” The fact that people have gone centuries believing it reasonable and billions still believing it today (and I’m including Muslims here) suggests that a large percentage of the world’s inhabitants have several screws loose.

    “As Paul says in Romans, the consequence of sin is death – not eternal torture.”

    Exactly. This is definitely a point that goes ignored by many: Paul’s epistles in general are rather quiet on the subject of hell. You would think that most evangelicals would take more notice of the Protestant Messiah, wouldn’t you? But I’m not sure about saying Jesus’ “wailing and gnashing of teeth” language is the same thing as Paul’s. Jesus spends quite a lot of time talk about the punishment awaiting those who won’t accept his teachings. Now, some of the sayings may just imply annihilationism (perhaps Ghenna is where the bodies of the dead will simply be consumed, and not eternally roasted) but it’s all rather unclear and ambiguous. I think you’ might be harmonising the teaching of Jesus with the one you actually prefer, the teaching of Paul. This is something many Protestants (not all) do re. the faith versus works debate; incorrectly I think, because Jesus in the gospels puts a lot stress on doing good works to aid salvation. But getting back to hell, I think it’s a stretch to suggest that Paul and Jesus are on entirely the same wavelength on this subject. But you never know.

    Anyway, it’s interesting that the Jehovah’s Witnesses, that bastion of enlightened and rational thought, chucked out the doctrine of hell a century ago on the basis it depicted God as being unfathomably cruel and sadistic. I then, for one, applaud the possibility of a few evangelicals catching up with that most noble and forward thinking of religious organisations.

  • Jay
    August 9, 2013

    I’ve been saying the same things for quite some time, but you sir say it with much more grace than I. Thank you.

  • Megan
    August 9, 2013

    I love everything you said about needing hell in the “evangelical salvation pitch.” I hate the way we have to convince people that they are sinners first, so that we can tell them that they need saving from those sins. Instead of salvation “from,” we should talk about salvation “to” life in Christ and the community of believers. Some people already believe that they are inherently bad and need a savior – fine. But I don’t think we should waste effort trying to persuade those who consider themselves “good people” that they are actually terrible sinners and deserve eternal torment when there is so much goodness to call them to instead.

  • Kevin Holtsberry
    August 9, 2013

    I think a lot of the issues and problems here are addressed with a narrative-historical reading of scripture (elements of which seem included in this post). I think Andrew Perriman’s approach has a lot to offer: http://www.postost.net/lexicon/hell-unbiblical-doctrine

    Scott McKnight has also noted how evangelicalism has minimized the gospel by making it about a decision (and frequently seem insistent that the decision is unlikely without the prospect of hell). But in order to squeeze scripture into this way of thinking we do real damage to the larger story and meaning. The good news is that you don’t have to have a philosophical/theological argument about whether God would torment someone in hell for all eternity because that is not a biblical account the authors were offering.

    The story isn’t about saving sinners from hell but God acting in history to safeguard the integrity and existence of a people called to be a witness to the nations; to reflect the one true God, maker of heaven and earth, and speak to the eventual renewal of creation.

  • Sharon Gunter
    August 10, 2013

    “It’s this gospel that rips the church apart at her theological seams out of
    fear that believing the wrong doctrines will anger God and sentence us
    to an eternity in hell.”

    Wow. I’ve never connected how belief in eternal damnation puts the highest possible risk on being ‘wrong’, which in turn feeds the common Christian obsession with being ‘right’, and that imperative to be right leads to such division in the church with no room to accept variations in belief. Fascinating.

    Loving a little insight on a Saturday. Thank you.

  • Andy Klempner
    August 10, 2013

    I agree with LB. My main problem with the topic is that God sends no one to hell, he allows them to make their own choice, hence “Free Will”.
    I do agree that the fear of hell should not be the motive for being saved.
    Enjoy your blog! Thanks

  • Dustin Ryman
    August 16, 2013

    Dante might be turning in his grave if he knew how much fear would come from his vision of the Inferno once the Roman Church incorporated it into their doctrines.

    Fear, manipulation and control. One of the greatest human fears is fear of the unknown, followed by fear of death, and fear of the afterlife. Hell combines all three into one powerful Fear based belief system. It has been used to get people to submit to religious authority for thousands of years.

    You are spot on: A LOVING GOD WOULD NOT ALLOW CONSCIOUS ENDLESS TORTURE!

  • Jesse
    August 23, 2013

    Idk it’s ok, but I think your going the wrong direction like Joel olsteen preaching what will make other happy. I’m still young and maybe a year and a half since I became a Christian, but I think you should preach it how it is. Sins cannot go unpunished, our God is a JUST God and also a jealous God, do not test him or provoke him to anger. Hell is weeping gnashing of teeth, also mentions a dark abyss, and the lake of fire.

  • Jesse
    August 23, 2013

    With fear though we can glorify The Lord so we may be able to turn to The Lord to save ourselves from hell and his just judgment, but also the grace of Jesus will grip our hearts at the same time leading us to more and more love for Jesus Christ who did die to save us from our sins.

  • Curiosity killed the cat
    October 6, 2014

    Hell as a place of torment is scripture. It doesn’t matter how we think we can interpret this or try to discuss it away because “hell is such a negative topic”. To bring people into a relationship with a loving God doesn’t rule out the existance of hell. I don’t see a conflict there. We can’t discuss a fact away no matter how much we desire it, no matter how much it serves our own conscience to imagine there is no hell. Do you also believe that Satan is just a poetic expression for evil?

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