Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Why so much concern about Hell?

I've yet to go to Hell and back -- Hell, Michigan that is!   

With that bit of humor I thought I'd weigh into the big debate surrounding hell and universal salvation that has been stirred up by Rob Bell's yet to be released book entitled Love Wins (Harper One, 2011).  I've yet to read the book, so all I can go on is the video, which I've already posted, and the Harper publicity efforts that promise a provocative read (one thing people need to understand about the publishing industry is that if they hope to sell books in this day and age, then publishers have to get provocative). 

With that said, I'd like to ask a question:  Why are people making such a big deal about Hell (not the village in Michigan this time)?  Why do some people think that without a doctrine of Hell the Christian faith crumbles?   
    
If you read the New Testament closely you'll notice that they give at least some attention to an afterlife.  Resurrection is an important doctrine in early Christianity.  The promise of union with God in the heavenly realm figures prominently in the gospel proclamation.  If heaven is part of the equation, so is judgment. 

From the earliest days of Christianity there have been differences of view regarding God's ultimate purpose for humanity.  Some voices seem to hold out the promise of a universal reconciliation (e.g. Rom. 5:18), while others believe that at the very least those who do not believe in Christ will cease to exist (annihilation) if not eternal torment in hell.  I won't go into details here about the nature of all these positions, lets just all agree that there are texts in Scripture that promise judgment and punishment (whatever that may entail).  I will only add that the picture that is in the minds of many as to what this eternal punishment owes more to Dante's Inferno than to Scripture. 
I understand that there are texts that seem to promise eternal punishment and that theologians have taught it down through the ages.   I've been part of the conservative evangelical community.  But, having that said this, I want to ask the question:  why all the fuss about Hell? 

The answer most will give has to do with God's justice or God's honor.  Some might even ask why Jesus even needed to come to earth if there is no hell to rescue people from.  When I was teaching this to college students years ago, one of the responses was simply -- if there's no hell then why bother being a Christian?  I mean if there is no threat of punishment why bother with religion?

I'll confess here and now that I don't believe in hell and I've not believed in hell for close to 30 years.  I abandoned this belief a long time ago (back when I was studying at an evangelical seminary) for several reasons, one of which was that I didn't find the idea of an immortal soul present in Scripture.  Therefore, if one experiences judgment, and then fire, then shouldn't you cease to exist?  But ultimately there was another reason why I could no longer abide the idea that God consigned human beings to eternal punishment in hell.  I could not square this belief with the confession that God is Love.   

So, although I've not read the book, I'm in agreement with the title of Rob Bell's book -- Love Wins.   Think about it for a moment.  Jesus tells us to love not just our neighbors but our enemies (Matt. 5:38-48).  If God expects us to love our enemies and do good to them and for them, then should we expect less of God?  If we believe that a parent's love should be unconditional (yes there's room for discipline, but discipline is designed to restore not exclude) then should we expect less of God?  I simply cannot fathom the idea God's sense of honor or justice is somehow enhanced by the eternal punishment of someone for simply because they either didn't hear the gospel or didn't find it compelling (because of our lives and presentations of it).  If Jesus rejects the "proportionate justice" of an "eye for an eye" then what manner of evil does it take on our part to deserve eternal punishment in a place called Hell?  How does this enhance God's majesty or glory or honor?   If this is heresy, then so be it? 

In closing, let me put it this way:  The argument for universal salvation ultimately rests not on a specific set of biblical texts, but rather it rests upon one’s definition of God’s nature.  If it is assumed that God is love, then is it possible that God would, in the end, discard anyone?  To put it another way, if God is portrayed as a loving parent, can we truly believe that God would reject one’s own child – no matter what they had done?

35 comments:

Brian said...

People are scared. There is part of me that is still scared of hell, and I'm more 'liberal' than even you on the issue! When a child is taught that the whole purpose of Christianity is to avoid hell, it is hard to shake this. These seeds are planted deep into a child. Further, the child is taught this by parents, Sunday School, etc.

I was raised Disciples, so my congo wasn't fundamentalist, but my parents come from mid-20th century rural Missouri. They were taught the hell-fire doctrine. They still believe it.

I think those who leave Christianity d/t critical thinking tend to come from hell-based faith. Those raised in more moderate/liberal churches may stop going to church, but won't have the anger toward Christianity.

Again, it comes down to fear that is deeply planted. As liberal and 'enlightened' as I may be, I still have the feeling of fear in my gut. There is still a gnawing feeling that I may be sent to hell for teaching heresy. I know this is not true, but those old fears from childhood never entirely go away.

Gary said...

Bob,

Like all heretics and infidels, and you are both, you are assuming God is other than He has revealed himself to be, and you are holding God to your standards of morality, which are not the same as God's.

John said...

I once challenged an interim pastor here on the issue. I don't know if he ever forgave me. In a bible study I was leading he told of performing two funerals as a new pastor at a church, one for a aged and surely sainted pillar of the church and the other for a drunken ne'er do well. He said there was no joy at the latter's passing because he was surely lost to an eternity of punishment.

I just couldn't let that stand, and I was after all leading the class, so I challenged the point. I argued that I didn't believe that God ever gave up on one of his children, that when we take our last breath, then we pass from the realm of amateurs in the business of saving souls to the realm of the perfect expert, in whom all things were possible. The deceased were now in the hands of God, whose will for our salvation never ceases, and that it was for those of us who cared, to pray for the continuing work of God to finally bring true healing to this tortured human being.

We agreed to disagree on the subject.

Gary said...

Bob,

Why are my posts not appearing in the comments section?

Gary said...

I signed out, and am trying to sign in again to see if that helps.

John said...

What must I do to inherit eternal life? Sell everything, give to the poor and follow me.

Here and elsewhere in the New Testament the desire and the promise and the hope of life after death appear to me to be present, and are nurtured by Jesus and the Gospel writers. While the substance of eternal life is not disclosed, I believe it is endorsed. Jesus, together with he Pharisees distinguished themselves from other Jews in part by their belief in life after death.

John said...

I agree with you that there is no place in God's economy for hell (or the devil for that matter).

One way of looking at it is to consider that before Jesus tore open the veil in the Temple upon his death, Jews understood that with death came the healing peace of annihilation. Most Jews still believe this.

But we believe that Jesus brought good news, of eternal life.

According the hellfire and brimstone theology Jesus' news is not so good. The children of God are no longer promised an eternity of rest, but instead, under the newly designed afterlife, a few will receive eternal bliss in the presence of God while everyone else received eternal punishment in the furnace of Gehenna. This is good news? That a few randomly chosen folks receive the gift of grace while everyone else from now on will have to suffer for eternity. Why is this good news? It certainly is bad news for most.

And since the chosen few receive their salvific selection as a function of divine caprice (which we like to call "grace") and can do nothing to earn it and receive no explanation or justification whatsoever for their selection, how can we place hope in that? Is this any different than buying lottery tickets.

And if we are seriously encouraged to love one another (which we certainly are) how can we square that love with the certain knowledge that ourselves and almost all of those whom we love and cherish are destined to suffer eternal punishment? How can we love a god who has created a salvific economy where most are certain to suffer for eternity? How can we sanely encourage others to love such a God?

We are told that God loves us, but if God loves us why would he redesigned our post-death experience to include the certainty of an eternity of punishment? That is not what love leads one to do for the beloved.

Such is not a theology of compassion, nor of justice, nor of love. It is a theology of retribution not restoration. And since salvation comes through the grace of this notional god, and cannot be earned, it is not even a theology of rewards, only punishment.

This is not he Good News which Jesus brought to us, but the corrupted teaching of those whose world view cannot accept the notion of genuine forgiveness on the scale promised to us by Jesus on the cross.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Gary,

Your comments have been caught in the spam program -- they're up now. I see them in my email, so I'll keep checking to make sure they're up.

Bob

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

I wanted to add, since it was Rob Bell's publicity that got this whole internet wide conversation going -- I don't know exactly where he stands. The video raises questions and doesn't really offer answers.

I don't believe in a literal hell to which God consigns people for eternity. But there is a sense in which we create our own hells due to our unwillingness to embrace the love of God and love of neighbor. I'm looking forward to the book so I can work through some of these important ideas.

Glenn said...

Bob,

I find your character heart-warming. First Gary maligns you. Then he asks for your help to make sure his insults are posted. You respond by politely going out of your way to make sure it happens. This just really makes me smile.

John said...

It appears that Gary's posts are still only sporadically getting posted.

David said...

Hell, it's just a figure of speech,

I figure Hell is the feeling you get by not leading a good life while you could have. It's got to be sad, even if forgiven. It has to be a step down from being able to truly be part of the ultimate victory (of love's triumphs).

There are plenty who qualify though- A Google news search on "pastor arrested" shows too many current hits to post-

http://www.kypost.com/dpps/news/crime/pastor-arrested-for-child-pornography_6103468

And from a fundamental picketer (not Gary's brother though)-

Storms has been a very vocal critic of the gay community and tried to get the gay pride festival, Southern Decadence, shut down after he videotaped man participating in sex acts and masturbating in the street.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/03/01/grant-storms-arrested-masturbating_n_830000.html

jj said...

I was wondering if we can leave Gary's comments as spam. Just kidding, sort of. But seriously, Gary, referring to an earlier comment in another thread, the center of the earth isn't dark because the earth is flat (I'm at least guessing this was the predominant view of the earth in Jesus' day).

I would say that my fear of hell is far less than my fear that there might not be a heaven, or that ultimately heaven and hell might be the same thing (nothing). As a kid, I was (stupidly) terrified of being left behind, only to find that the fear of not being left anywhere is far greater. Nonetheless, I cling to faith (and maybe that is what faith really is at its most humble core?).

Bob, I'm wondering if you have any posts that discuss in more detail your journey from Evangelical Christianity to post Evangelical Christianity (maybe even with a further clarification of what that means or how you would define it--at some point I will look up the links Brian mentioned that might touch on this further).

I ask because some months ago I realized that my faith, or worldview, had some logical inconsistencies that were unintentionally intellectually dishonest. As I begin to find more stable footing, I realize that what I'm finding has a closer resemblance to what I think you're talking about. I'm also genuinely curious as to how the current academic consensus on Jesus and New Testament literature generally informs your thinking (if it does at all) and perhaps your opinion of it.

Sorry, I'm asking a lot, though I think several here may benefit from your thoughts (at the risk of being called a heretic and infidel again). If you have discussed this extensively elsewhere any attempt to point me in that direction would be much appreciated.

David said...

"There are plenty who qualify though"

I didn't mean that. You'd have to do a lot worse in "my book". You see, Gary's right. I have my own book.

My internet has holes in it lately.

Gary said...

jj,

Can you reference any Scripture that says the earth is flat?

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Still having some problems with the spam filter. Doing my best to make sure everyone's go up. It does appear that a couple of Gary's comments disappeared. I'm very sorry.

Gary said...

It's ok Bob.

Brian said...

I still don't think the reason that hell is such a concern to people is d/t good or bad theology. It is deep-seated emotion. Feelings cannot be smart or stupid, good or bad, they are simply feelings.

I do not believe in hell, but having intelligent thoughts does not remove my primal fears. I think the idea of hell taps into humanity's deep fears about death. No religious ideas can remove primordial fears. This is why horror movies do so well. Fear of death is part of who we are. Some people say they don't fear death. They are not being honest.

David said...

Isaiah 11 >>
King James Version

12And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four CORNERS of the earth.

I'm afraid of being anxious.

Gary said...

David,

The four corners of the earth is a figure of speech(North,East,South,West). The Bible does not say the earth is flat.

jj said...

Gary,

David beat me to it, although this doesn't exclude the possibility that the earth is a cube and that we're on the top (or bottom, etc.), thus allowing for the earth to still have a "heart," not of the blood pumping kind--I'm assuming we're not taking that literally, are we?).

Mind you, I think using Scripture in this regard (a literal four corners)is a blatant misrepresentation. However, if we're calling 6 days of creation 6 24hr periods, then I don't see why we can't insist on saying 4 literal corners of the earth, at least in this case.

That said, I just read some creationist literature which insisted that scripture says the earth is a sphere and that all these other references to the earth having 4 corners (as there are others besides Is 11) are read improperly. I will grant that as true as long as "they" grant that a literal six 24hr days as also being read improperly.

This won't be granted, however, and the logical obfuscation continues.

David said...

"this doesn't exclude the possibility that the earth is a cube"

Wouldn't that give 24 corners?

David said...

"[T]he devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them"
(Matthew 4:1-12)

The visions of my head as I lay in bed were these: I saw, and behold, a tree in the midst of the earth; and its height was great. The tree grew and became strong, and its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the end of the whole earth. (Daniel 4:10-11)

"He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved. (Psalm 104:5)"

"...that it might take the earth by the edges and shake the wicked out of it? (Job 38:13)"

"He unleashes his lightning beneath the whole heaven and sends it to the ends of the earth. (Job 37:3)"

"...for he views the ends of the earth and sees everything under the heavens. (Job 28:24)"

Glenn said...

A cube has eight corners. Four corners has to refer to a flat object (like a piece of paper with no thickness, only length and width). So if that scripture is taken literally, the Earth is only a two-dimensional object.

jj said...

Since I started this particular morsel of idiocy...

I was granting that the earth could be a cube, but granting that in this case maybe nobody had actually peered over the edge enough to see that the earth extended in a vertical fashion (rather, they only looked far enough to see a sheer drop off) thus the author was only aware of the one set of 4 corners (8 corners in sum, but if the author wandered across all 6 faces of the cube he would find 4 corners on each face, thus might infer a total of 24 corners).

The quality of these last few posts has really gone to hell. :-)

Gary said...

jj,

You must be able to read the Bible correctly. That is an ability you seem to lack.

"The four corners of the earth" is a figure of speech. The "heart" of the earth is a synonym meaning the middle of the earth.

The days in Genesis are literal days, like we have now.

John said...

jj,

I can now see why you are concerned.

John said...

On a more serious note, I guess what this points up is that people can reasonably differ on what is literal in the Bible and what is metaphorical.

We are each using the best tools we have to find order in what is truly chaos, certainty in the uncertain, and clarity in the unclear. To do so we reach through the chaos to draw on the breath and word of the Lord, in the hope that the Spirit will lead us and those we love to a place of peace.

There is nothing in the commandments which says we 'shall not be wrong in the details of our beliefs,' instead we are called on to love the Lord and our neighbors, even those we find objectionable. And we honor the Spirit as the Spirit manifests itself in the persons and pursuits of our neighbors, and we often do so in spite of the emotions we feel.

jj said...

John, I appreciate your reasoned and thoughtful comments. Thanks!

David said...

"The quality of these last few posts has really gone to hell. :-)"

Okay, I won't mention the hypercube. Even though that's even more hellish.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypercube

jj said...

Gary,

Gary, you understood my point. With our current state of knowledge there is no choice but to assume "4 corners" is methaphorical or the author, if he did not intend metaphor, was wrong (which is not a very comfortable place for some to go). The process of discovery can and should enlighten interpretation. I wonder if we would you still believe it is metaphorical if we didn't know the structure of the earth?

In any case, my career path demands that I not refute irrefutable data, which is that God decided to create using the same physical laws we are subject to today. Therefore, perhaps in the same way you have determined "4corners" to be metaphorical, I have determined that "6 days" is equally metaphorical (despite your authority to grant or dismiss the veracity of Scripture by your criteria, Peter acknowledges the metaphorical nature of our time compared to God's time). It is possible the author intended history, but given some of the overt attempts to highlight the differences between the God of the Jews and the Egyptian pantheon plus the very poetical nature of Genesis 1, I personally am not sure it was ever intended as "literal" history ( http://www.asa3.org/ASA/topics/Bible-Science/6-02Watts.html ). Therefore, although I would be willing to say the author is wrong if it were required, in this case I do not think that this is the case.

I don't expect you to agree with me, and I cannot compete against circular reasoning anyway. However, the fact is, I have no other choice in the face of the evidence. If God wants to condemn every biologist (and virtually every scientist) to hell (or hypercube, which by the way, David, was very cool) because he made the patterns of life and the physical world fit a comprehensive and undeniable pattern that doesn't perfectly align with a literal reading of Gen. 1, then I honestly no longer have cause or reason to worship that sort of god anyway. For that, I don't mind you calling me an infidel and heretic, in fact it even gave me a good laugh (besides, that puts you right in with about a billion other people who would call me the same thing, albeit they'd call you one also).

David said...

JJ, one can't say days were longer in the past. They are longer today than yesterday, and will be even longer in the future as the earth's rotation continues to slow down.

Siestas may be vogue again someday.

On another note, NASA says a small nuclear war could forestall global warming for years. And I was worried...

http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/03/03/idUS259061949320110303

David said...

Duh, I almost forgot my own theory.

The earth was hit by hard something the size of mars and then spit out the moon. That may have set us spinning faster.

jj said...

David,

Thanks for the link, very interesting. It's comforting to know that there is still some utility to thermonuclear war. Makes me long for our previous administration...they might have been willing to try this experiment empirically, but alas, they didn't believe in global warming. Anyway, now I'll sleep better tonight knowing the world isn't at peace, and can hope for a better war tomorrow.

For any literalists, the above is sarcastic.

Gary said...

jj,

In the last paragraph of your last post addressed to me, I think you condensed your religious beliefs and your world-view.