A few weeks ago I did a Q&A sermon. One of the questions was about hell. I spent some time discussing the scant biblical evidence for the traditional view, and riffed a bit on some of the other alternative readings of the doctrine of hell (see: annihilationism, apocatastasis). Suddenly, the internet is alive with the biggest hell debate we've seen in generations. I had no idea I was so influential.
Oh, wait. It's not me. It's just my gift of timing. The true story is that Rob Bell's new book is about to come out, and rumor has it he's making the claim that in the end Love Wins and everybody is saved. The heresy hunters are coming unglued and unhinged. Rob Bell has finally left the camp, they're claiming, and joining the ranks of all those heretics who deny the 'biblical' understanding of hell as a place of eternal torment with flames and devils and burning sulpher.
Eugene Cho talks about it here.
Jesus Needs New PR tells us how to survive the book release here.
The NakedPastor offers up his opinion cartoon-style here.
Out of Ur gets into the discussion here.
And in perhaps my favorite piece on the subject, the Slacktivist deftly covers the issue front to back here.
Good timing, all of this, since I preached on it last week. And not everybody appreciated it.
One interesting observation here: Hell seems to be right up there with the divinity of Christ and the Virgin Birth as the most important Christian doctrines.
Which is sad, because, as I said in my sermon, the biblical basis for the traditional view of hell is sketchy at best. In fact, it's almost nonexistent. Nowhere is it found in the Hebrew scriptures. Nowhere is it found in the epistles of Paul. Hell as torment only shows up a few times in the gospels, and each time the context pushes us away from a literal reading. The Lake of Fire shows up in Revelation, but so do dragons and seas turning to blood and stars falling from the sky, and nobody takes those as literal descriptions.
To be clear: The Bible does teach there is judgment on sin, that there is a price both here and in eternity for rejecting Christ, for living lives of unrighteousness, for neglecting the poor and needy and homeless and alien and orphan and prisoner and widow and marginalized. And there is reward for choosing to live in Christ, for accepting his offer of salvation, for choosing to live justly and righteously.
The question comes down to the nature of hell (about which the Bible isn't clear), and the timing of hell. Is it eternal? Is it temporary? Or, to be more accurate, the timespan spent in hell by those who go there. Is hell a place of eternal torment for those who reject Christ, or a holding place that eventually releases its inhabitants? Do people in hell suffer torture for all eternity? Or are they consumed in the fire, annihilated?
Here's the truth: you can build a biblical case that hell is a place of ongoing, eternal torment. But you can also build a case that those who are judged as unrighteous truly die in every sense - they cease to exist. And, you can also build a case that in the end every person who has ever lived will spend eternity in the loving presence of God.
Which, by the way, is not the same as Universalism. That's a cheap shot that denies the intricacies of the theology at play. Universalism states that it doesn't matter what you do, everybody gets a free pass to heaven. Some do believe that, but it's not a biblical position. What people like Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, and my friend Randy Klassen are saying is that nobody gets a free pass into Heaven. All are saved in the atoning work of Jesus on the cross. It's just that some receive that salvation in this earthly life, while others finally own up to their sin, and receive God's grace, after suffering the torments of judgment (yes, it sort of sounds like Purgatory. . .but it's not).
(you know, even C.S. Lewis postulated that people could take the bus out of hell, if they would so choose).
The problem, to me, is that we're too invested in this Dante-an vision of hell, and can't really read the texts as they are. And we're too afraid of new ideas. Thus, whether it's Pastor Dan simply stating there are alternatives, or Rob Bell staking the claim that The Alternative is actually correct, people react instead of respond. Anger and rage come flying out, rather than healthy discussion. Accusations are made, rather than the robust work of theological debate.
And, truly finally. . .I'm not saying I agree with Rob Bell (how could I? I haven't read the book yet) or Brian McLaren (I stopped reading him before he got to his Hell book). I do, however, think there is a nugget of truth in this idea that our idea of hell is wrong. Mostly because, as Bell points out in the promo video, I think it both comes from, and paints, the wrong view of God. God IS love. God HAS wrath as a temporary response to sin. If hell is eternal, than wrath becomes an eternal quality of God. But that's not biblical. His anger is but for a moment, his love for a lifetime. His anger passes, his love endures. And if that be true, than hell cannot endure.
(Oh, and this - I know I left the exegesis off the table for this discussion. Some of the links above lead to some more theological discussions, but that wasn't really the purpose of this post today.)