The doctrine of hell is a tricky one. One who respects the counsel of Scripture cannot easily assert that the writers of the Bible did not want us to believe there is a state of hell altogether. There are just too many verses in the New Testament that shape the contemporary understandings of hell that the Church has. That said, we believe the Bible because the Bible so clearly reveals to us the grace of God that is found in Christ. And many versions of hell-teaching today lack in their ability to make sense with the non-retributive character of God as it is revealed in Christ.
So how do we best maintain a belief in hell without undermining our faith in the generous goodness of God’s heart?
Some respond by essentially claiming that hell is the same place as Heaven — where the “all-consuming fire” of God’s zealous love torments those who want to resist it. See John Crowder’s discussion of this idea, or this summary of Greek Orthodox thought related to this the subject. William Paul Young also gives a nice take on this sort of viewpoint in a recent interview he did here with Brian Zahnd.
Some say hell is chosen by people and not by God, and that it is merely a miserable separation from the Divine for those who want to live independent of Him. Tim Keller recently shared this article on Twitter that he wrote years ago, espousing this idea. I thought it was a well reasoned and well articulated view of this sort of “eternal conscious torment” version of hell.
Some say that hell is actually the death of a person’s consciousness, the end of their existence. I previously shared one of Bruxey Cavey’s sermons about this a while back, which does a great job of grounding this perspective in Scripture. It’s worth checking out, along with Preston Sprinkle’s podcast episodes such as this one discussing this viewpoint.
And of course the list goes on of other interpretations of this doctrine. It is helpful to listen to and learn from multiple viewpoints, so as to have a more “big picture” perspective on this debate. The Bible itself is not nearly as clear-cut and straight-forward about this topic as many conservative evangelicals have pretended in the past. It’s worth doing our research on before we come to any kind of conclusion.
No matter what stance we take, I would like to offer a few thoughts that we might agree upon:
1.) Jesus is much more opposed to hell than we are. He came to bring us abundant life and to destroy the works of the devil. His passion for our well-being is way greater than ours ever has been.
2.) Preaching about hell is not necessary to preach the Good News itself. The Good News is about Jesus and His Cross and His love. It is about reconciliation, not about threats of suffering.
Hell is not part of the good news; it is its shadow. My shadow is always there when I’m sitting or standing in light. But my shadow is not me. Anyone who would treat my shadow as part of me would be ludicrous. I would say “Get away from me!” (if I thought they were serious). So it is with hell. It is the shadow of the gospel but not part of the gospel itself.
3.) John tells us that “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
We ought not use a narrative of hell to inspire fear in others as a manipulative means to get them into the Faith or into a certain lifestyle. God’s goodness and kindness is what draws us to repentance (Romans 2:4), and sharing the goodness of the Gospel alone was powerful enough for the early apostles when they called people to Christ in the Bible. We can trust that it is likewise effective to follow their model today.
4.) The Lord does not want us just to be concerned about our future state of being, but to walk in union with Him in the here and now. Further, it is our responsibility to bring His Kingdom to bear on others in our sphere of influence in this life — bettering this world every chance we get by the power of His Spirit. We must not be too consumed with theories about the afterlife if they are distracting us from being present to people around us in an Christ-like manner.
All that said — let’s take our theology of hell seriously, and make sure to wrestle through the text of Scripture to get a truly New Covenant understanding of what we believe about hell and why. We can further seek to have everything we believe agree with the truth that God is always and only good, merciful and loving — even in His justice.