It’s not my favorite subject, but October 31st seems like as good a day as any to talk about hell. Hell has always been somewhat of a controversial subject for many reasons. Of late, Rob Bell’s book, “Love Wins”, has got evangelical Christianity all riled up in defense of hell. I have avoided the subject mainly because I don’t like to talk about things I don’t fully understand, but it might not surprise you to hear that I don’t think either the Bell crowd nor the hell crowd has it totally right. Now to be fair, I haven’t read Bell’s book, so maybe I should take his name out of it and just say the Universalist crowd. At any rate, I want to give my thoughts on the controversy over hell.
I can fully understand why so many non-believers and Christians alike balk at the doctrine of hell, or at least the way it has historically been presented by establishment Christianity, because the way it is presented just seems unfair, unjust, arbitrary, too severe, and incompatible with a loving God. The doctrine of hell is often presented as such:
- Hell is the default destination for every person who hasn’t believed in Jesus Christ.
- Hell is basically the same kind of punishment for everyone in hell: burning, sulfur, demons terrorizing you.
- Hell is for eternity: endless days of torture.
Now, it is fundamental to the notion of justice that the punishment fit the crime: the more severe the crime, the more severe the punishment. The symbol of justice is a set of balancing scales. In our justice system a lot of effort goes into determining the severity of the crime: who was the victim(s), was there intent or was it an accident, what was the age/mental capacity of the perpetrator? All of these things determine the severity of the crime and therefore the severity of punishment. However, according to the pervasive doctrine of hell, there is no distinction in severity of either crime or punishment, and so the non-believer says, “If this is your God’s ‘justice’, I reject your God and his so-called justice!” and honestly, I can’t blame him because this strikes against the very notions of justice that God has built into us, and it is contrary to what the Bible teaches about God’s justice.
The teachings of the Bible make it amply clear that there is a complete spectrum of punishment and blessing to be appropriated for the complete spectrum of human behavior from total depravity to ignorant bliss to righteous perfection. Just as in a human court a variety of factors determine the severity of the crime, the same is true in God’s court.
When our actions are judged, how much we knew and what we did with what we were given is taken into account. Those of us who have had the privilege of hearing the truth have a great opportunity, but if we turn from it and refuse to repent, our crime is greater because we know our sin and can no longer continue it in ignorance; therefore, we will be judged much more severely. Those who were not privileged to explicitly hear the truth will be judged on what they heard from their own conscience or from the knowledge of God gained from nature or from whatever remnants of God’s truth is still pervasive in their culture. Most Christians accept the idea of an “age of accountability.” Why? Because we intuitively understand that a child is innocent because a child does not KNOW ANY BETTER. So what we are really saying is that there is not a certain age, but a certain level of knowledge and action required to stand judgment. I believe we are all born ignorant and innocent and therefore not defaulted to hell, but we all have a tendency to sin. Throughout our lives, God’s truth comes to us in various ways. It comes to some in a greater measure than to others, and we all have various levels of opportunity to receive it and do right by it or reject it and do evil. I think Genesis 3 gets replayed over and over again with every life born into this world: we are all born innocent, but we all invariably eat the fruit of knowledge of good and evil as we grow up. Here are some scriptures relating to these ideas:
- Jesus used a contemporary cultural analogy to slavery in Luke 12:47-48 saying that the servant who knew his master’s will, but didn’t do it will be beaten severely, but the servant who didn’t know, will not be beaten as severely.
- In the same passage, Jesus says to whomever is given much, much more will be required.
- Jesus said in John 9:41, 15:22-24 that those who don’t know of their sin, have no sin, but those who have seen and heard the truth about the way of righteousness, but refuse to repent have no excuse for their sin.
- Those who are teachers will be judged more strictly. Why? Because they know more. Jam 3:1
- It would be better for someone at the judgment to be ignorant of the way of Righteousness than to know it and forsake it. 2 Pet 2:21
- God “overlooked” the idolatry of the pagans because they were ignorant. Acts 17:30
- Everyone whether they have heard the Gospel or not is judged by their own conscience and what they learn of the laws of God naturally. Rom 2:15
- In the parable of the Rich man and Poor Lazarus, material inequalities and suffering will be balanced by God’s justice. Luke 16:20
- God judges not by actions alone, but also by the motives of our hearts. 2 Ch 6:30, Psa 24:4
- Those who are wise and lead others to righteousness will be resurrected in glory, but others will be abhorrent and appear shamefully. Dan 12:2-3
- As a man sows, so he will reap. Prov 22:8, Gal 6:7-8
- Everyone will be judged by his works. Rom 2:6, Psa 15, Rev 2:23
I am not against teaching about hell. There is a just punishment meted out to those who do evil, and we should fear the consequences if we reject righteousness and allow our souls to be blackened through wickedness. But I think the way hell is often presented is not an accurate representation of God’s justice according to scripture, and that drives some away from God or at the very least gives some the excuse they are looking for to reject God. God’s justice is not arbitrary nor is it unfair. Our God, the Creator, is a God of laws. All creation is composed of laws. The laws by which we are judged are no more arbitrary than the law of gravity that dictates your acceleration as you trip and fall on your face, or the laws of electromagnetism and thermodynamics that dictate the beautiful colors of a rainbow or sunset, or the laws of molecular chemistry that arrange the pleasant smells of flowers or the unpleasant smells of poop. The laws of nature have produced a vast variety of features and experiences; likewise, the laws of justice and righteousness are producing a vast variety of eternal beings that to a greater or lesser degree stink or shine. What you will become after you die, pleasant or unpleasant, is a function of your thoughts/actions/motives/accountability in this life. God’s justice meting out rewards and punishments is more like an equation found in nature than a grumpy old judge arbitrarily sending some to eternal bliss and most to a uniform endless torment.
Am I saying we are judged by our works? Yes! Where then is grace and the saving power of the Gospel? It is God’s grace and the knowledge of truth that works within and through the laws of God’s justice to transform our eternal nature from something that stinks and should be burned up to something that smells good and is beautiful and worth keeping around. Everything God does, he does through the laws and processes which he has created. He causes the rain to fall to earth through the laws of thermodynamics and he causes a person to be saved through the laws of grace and righteousness. God showed us through the sacrifice of Jesus that our sins are covered by his grace, so it is not about our sins and imperfections separating us from God, it is the condition of our heart in response to God’s spirit and truth. Rain cannot fall unless certain conditions are met and likewise neither can a person be saved. Depending on the conditions it may flood, it may sprinkle, or the sun my scorch a parched earth for months. Likewise, as a function of the conditions of a person’s heart, a person may receive great reward, hardly any reward, a little punishment or terrible punishment. Hypocrites in the church will receive far worse punishment than “heathens” who have never heard there is a God or even atheists who have never met a “real” Christian. Why? Because they knew more and were given more, yet their hearts became more evil.
Am I saying hell really isn’t that bad and most won’t go there? No. Broad is the road to destruction and narrow the road to life – only a few find it. Many go down the road to destruction, but they don’t all receive the same thing at the end of the road. Am I saying there is no hell in the traditional sense: fire and brimstone? No, I’m not saying that. As to what hell really is, I don’t know any more than I know of what heaven really is. I think it is pretty unlikely that heaven or hell are precisely what the stereotypes depict. Is hell eternal? Yes, but what exactly that means, I don’t know. It is impossible to comprehend eternity. Our present bodies are composed of elements governed by laws composed of equations that have time as a variable; therefore, we experience time in a particular way. After we leave these bodies, I have no idea what equations will govern our eternal substance, so I have no idea how we will perceive time in “eternity”.
Another thing that puzzles me about the eternal nature of hell is the “2nd death” spoken of in Revelation 20 which is “the lake of fire”. It is said that all the dead who did not have life will be thrown into the lake of fire along with “death” and “hell”. Now what does that mean to say that death and hell both die along with all those found in them? Does that mean they cease to exist – eternally? I hope so, because this would be a convenient rebuttal to those who argue, “I would never be able to enjoy heaven knowing that somewhere there are billions of people suffering terribly.” All I know about “death” is that it is an end, so the only way I know how to interpret the “2nd death” is to say that hell “ends”. But how does that jive with the verses immediately preceding (20:10)? I don’t know. And that’s why I don’t like to talk about all this – I just don’t know.
I simply take comfort in knowing God is a God of law and order. He is not arbitrary. He is just and every single person’s eternal status is a result of the laws of righteousness in operation – a function of many factors – not merely an arbitrary sentencing by a pissed off old man in the sky. Unfortunately most people merely look at others and judge themselves in comparison to others and think, “I’m not that bad.” But such thoughts show their hearts are not right before God and they need the transforming power of the Good News from Jesus Christ to save them. The righteousness of God is not found in comparing one’s self to others. It is found in forgetting one’s self altogether and walking with a thankful heart in communion with our Creator. It is found in following in the footsteps of Jesus who gave his life for many. We, likewise living selflessly in love will know his fellowship. And as we walk with him, we will be transformed into creatures of glory that endure forever and ever. 🙂