Hell: Challenging a somewhat delicate doctrine

PETER IN N.J. ASKS:

(Regarding Rob Bell’s book about hell) I was wondering to what extent his views are or are not new across prominent Christian traditions

THE GUY ANSWERS:

Conservative Christians might have thought “hell’s bells” upon hearing about Bell’s hell. His “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived” (HarperOne) generated a “Time” magazine cover story, a “New Yorker” profile, and a heckuva reaction. It’s no big deal when liberals pooh-pooh traditional teachings. But Bell won buzz as the pastor of an evangelical megachurch in western Michigan’s Bible Belt who had studied at Wheaton College and Fuller Theological Seminary. He has lately left Mars Hill Bible Church, which suffered some attrition as he shifted leftward, resettled in California, will soon issue another book, and is exploring other projects.

Hell’s torments and the last judgment receive far less attention in the New Testament than Islam’s Qur’an (“on that Day the weighing of deeds will be just. Those whose scales are heavy will prosper; but those whose scales are light are those who lost their souls…”). Analogs are found in the quite different worldviews of Buddhism, Hinduism, and other world faiths. Apparently the need for divine re-balancing after earthly life is a virtually universal idea.

Christian belief about everlasting hell for the ungodly originated with Jesus himself. There’s debate on the relative role of faith and deeds in salvation but most of Christendom officially affirms Jesus’ words. For instance, the Lutherans’ Augsburg Confession (1530) states that Jesus Christ “will give to the godly and elect eternal life and everlasting joys, but ungodly men and the devils he will condemn to be tormented without end.” The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” (1992) declares that “to die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him forever by our own free choice.”

The Gallup Poll reports that 69 percent of Americans believe in hell vs. 81 percent who believe in heaven. But in practice, hell ain’t what it used to be. Its horrors and mysteries inspired poets Dante and Milton, painters like Bosch, composers like Verdi, and preachers like Jonathan Edwards. But today, hell is a rare pulpit topic among conservatives and liberals alike, in line with Johnny Mercer’s sermonic song lyric, “You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.”

Bell’s sketchy book emphasized that it’s hell on earth when people limit God’s love. He didn’t flatly deny some sort of eternal damnation but hurled doubts: How can God claim to be loving but create millions who spend eternity in anguish? If God wants salvation for everyone but that doesn’t happen is God a failure who doesn’t “get what God wants?”  (The orthodox answer is that individuals exercise free will.) As for evangelicals who think God condemns people even if they had no chance to learn about Jesus in this life, Bell quipped, “What if the missionary gets a flat tire?”

Mars Hill denies that Bell advocated “universalism,” the Hitler-in-heaven heresy that says all are saved regardless. Such hopes are nothing new. The pioneer 3d century theologian Origen speculated that God’s love might mean everyone ultimately is redeemed. In the 19th century, the Rev. Starr King defined two liberal groups he served this way: Universalists think God is too good to damn people forever, while Unitarians think people are too good to be damned. Six leading conservatives answered such Bellish thinking in “Is Hell for Real or Does Everyone Go to Heaven?” (Zondervan).

Variations: Sidestepping eternal punishment, Jehovah’s Witnesses, among others, assert that in the long run God simply annihilates the unfaithful. Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”) retain an eternal hell but it’s thinly populated due to opportunities in the afterlife to embrace the true faith. Retired Eastern Orthodox seminary dean Thomas Hopko (a high school friend of The Guy) cites theologians who say the “fire” Jesus spoke of is the radiant splendor of God that unbelievers experience as hellish torture while at the same time it’s welcomed by the faithful. “The Great Divorce” (HarperOne, also in Kindle), a clever 1945 fantasy by noted Anglican C.S. Lewis, depicts unbelievers who catch a bus to heaven and can hardly wait to flee God’s presence and return to their hellish humdrum existence.

 

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.

  • david

    thanks for the interesting and helpful post.
    the mormon take on hell, described above, has less to do with proxy baptisms than with beliefs about the afterlife. “hell” as a term and concept is rarely used in mormon scripture or theological discussion.


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