Hell Believers, Please Consider the Following

Hell Believers, Please Consider the Following December 13, 2017
Courtesy of Pixabay
Courtesy of Pixabay

On December 14, my family and I will be heading down to Orange County, California to, among other things, record a live episode of the Heretic Happy Hour (we are also going to Disneyland, but who is counting?). To be perfectly honest, though, I’m more excited about the podcast than visiting Disneyland for the umpteenth time. First off, it will be our tenth episode, so it is a milestone of sorts. To celebrate, we’ll have special edition merch—koozies, mugs, and flasks—a mini-concert by Barrett Johnson, a live audience, plenty of spirit/s, and a topic that is sure to set folks on fire: hell. And secondly, I get to see my good friends Jamal Jivanjee, Keith Giles, and Ralph Polendo!

Really, one couldn’t ask for a better night.

Now, to be quite honest, prior to this week, it had been quite a long time since I thought about the doctrine of hell. It’s just one of those things that once you deconstruct, you tend to forget about it. Kind of like the Rapture™. So, because of this upcoming podcast, I’ve had to revisit some ideas that have been long since been brushed aside. I’m actually quite thankful though, because it has helped me reformulate some questions and ideas that I’d like to share with you now. I’ve narrowed them down to five.

  1. Do We At Least Hope That All Will Be Saved?

I don’t know about you, but for me, believing in hell was akin to believing in hopelessness. Sure, one could always hope that, in the end, they’d “make it.” But what about everyone else? What about those family members who died without having first confessed Jesus as Lord? What about our sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives: Do they end up lost to us forever and ever? Can we even fathom such a thing? Do we at least hope that somehow, someway, they too will be saved?

If we don’t—if we truly hope that, in the end, some people will be tortured for time-everlasting—then it is my contention that we are in need of some serious help. I am not sure how to say it any other way, but those, like Tertullian and Martin Luther, who revel at the sight of their enemies roasting in a fiery cauldron for all eternity are acting beyond shitty. There’s just no two ways about it.

To that end, can we, for the sake of our humanity, at least hope for a better ending than the one we’ve grown up hearing? Can we hope that all people will be saved?

  1. Are We Sure We’re In?

I just mentioned that to avoid the terror of hell, one could always hope that they’d be spared the flames. However, how can we really be sure? When I affirmed eternal torment, I never was. I’m sure we’ve all experienced this fear at least once. I mean, not for nothing, but if we take seriously Jesus’ warnings in Matthew 25:31–46, then we’d realize that it’s not the unbelievers who need to worry about hell, it’s those of us who profess Jesus as Lord but then fail to help the hungry, the thirsty, and the other “least of these” who do. They’re—or, more accurately, we’re—the ones who are gonna burn.

  1. What Does Eternal Hell Say About God?

Most Christians believe that God created out of nothing. In philosophical terms, it’s called creatio ex nihilo. If this is true—and I’m fine with that—then what does it say about God if some of God’s creation is, in the end, utterly lost? To put it another way, what does it say about God if God created a scenario in which some of those whom God loves will one day suffer, not only eternal annihilation, but eternal suffering? To my mind, it suggests that God should not be trusted.

Some would, at this point, likely attempt to use the “free will” defense for hell, but I’ve long since found that to be an unpersuasive retort. Not only has the libertarian notion of free will failed to stand up to philosophical critique, but it still doesn’t change the fact that God—the first cause, the grounding of all being—is still ultimately responsible for what “free” moral agents do, given that God is the one holding the whole of the cosmos together. You simply cannot escape that fact. So, if God indeed created a cosmos in which “free” agents can make choices that potentially lead them to suffer for all eternity, then God is, to my mind, at best capricious and at worst, out-and-out malicious.

  1. If Hell is Eternal Separation from God, Who or What Holds Hell Together?

Acts 17:28 tells us that “In [God] we live and move and have our being.” In other words, we can’t exist apart from God. In fact, nothing can. Indeed, everything comes from God as God pervades all things.

So, how in the world can a place of eternal separation from God exist? How would existence even be sustained apart from God? Is hell a kind of god unto itself? Wouldn’t that reduce the one true God to a mere demiurge—a being who creates things, but isn’t that which sustains existence as such—among other demiurges?

Now, I know some will be inclined to turn to 2 Thessalonians 1:9, which reads “these [those who do not know God] will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” as a prooftext for such a fate. However, a simple prima facie reading of this passage will never suffice, simply because our English translations do not do justice to the Greek text. I attempt to point that out in an essay entitled “An Exegesis of 2 Thessalonians 1:7b–10” that you can read here. I encourage you to give it a few minutes of your time.

  1. Doesn’t Believing in Hell Lead to Violence?

Haven’t you noticed how, over the centuries, the belief in eternal hell—regardless of faith tradition—has led to the justification of some pretty heinous violence against others? And it’s not just modern, radicalized factions of Islam who are guilty of this. We Christians are just as culpable. If you remember, when heretics were burned at the stake, it was justified with help from the doctrine of hell. In other words, it was a righteous act to kill a heretic because in doing so, souls were being saved from the flames of hell.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Fear does not generally lead us to do good things. Sure, in a fight or flight situation, fear is fine. A little death anxiety is a good thing if we are confronted by mountain lion, for example. But the neurotic kind of death anxiety, the kind that drives us to kill in the name of saving people from hell, that is not a great motivator to doing good. Never has been, never will be.

May we consider these things. And may we hope for something better than hell.

Peace and love.

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  • YellowBird

    thank you. your analysis is written so well… and your words give me Hope.
    my own thoughts are hopelessly confused and fragmented. but these are the very sort of weeping prayers i’ve made for years, even while still a member of the FEV traditions of my upbringing…
    i can’t bear the horrible Eternal Living Torment teaching. long ago i decided that i must turn my own back on entering the “gates of heaven” because of the incredible self-centered “i got mine” meanness of this doctrine. not only do i know i do not deserve “heaven” even if i managed to say all the right magic words in just the right way… i also know of plenty of non-xians who DO deserve only the very happiest of Happy Ever Afters. i have prayed for years to the Creator, that since HE is the One Who made the entire cosmos, HE obviously is capable of ending ALL suffering for ALL Eternity… Annihilation would be in a way both just & merciful, but this wretched Burn In Hell doctrine contains nothing of either justice nor mercy. and it makes GOD to be a capricious, abusive, power hungry, narcissistic Monster. Surely this can’t be so!

  • Mary

    Excellent post…if only more Christians felt like this, we’d have a much kinder world for all.

  • Bernard Dainton

    I believe in some form of eternal separation from God – whether conscious or not I don’t know – because without it there is no ultimate justice. Notorious murderers – Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot come to mind – who die without facing justice for their crimes must face some form of after death punishment, otherwise I cannot see how God can be said to be perfectly just.

  • Illithid

    Relax. There’s no reason to think that our minds, our selves, continue to exist after death. Like blown-out candle flames. Nothing to be afraid of. Have a good life.

  • Mark

    That’s quite a lovely article. I certainly don’t want my non-Christian friends to go to Hell simply because they don’t know Christ.

  • Judgeforyourself37

    The author is kinder, However I want to know do the Hell believers think that one must accept Jesus? That is fine for Christians, but do those who believe in Hell really believe that only Good Christians go to “heaven,” or some great place??? Really????? What about Sikhs, Jews, Muslims, Shinto believers, Buddhists, Atheists (I have known some very compassionate, kind, generous Atheists) or any of the myriad of religions that people have chosen? Do these Hell believers really, truly think that only Christians count? I know what it said in the Bible, but there are many other Holy Books that are used by other religions.
    Forget Hell, Forget Heaven, be a decent human being here on Earth, that is what counts.

  • James

    IMHO point 1 is very well made. However it falls apart from there. Are we sure we’re in? – good question, one posed in 2 Cor13:5, and helpfully guided in 1 john 5:13. If God says we can know we can – not with hubris and self righteousness but humble and sober reflection, as he instructs us, or do we say he is wrong? As for “what hell says about God”, surely the real question is “what does God say about hell”? We can speculate all we like about adverse philosophical outcomes but given our limited perspective that comes with significant risk. I’m all for a good philosophical debate but we should tread carefully where it flies in the face of the plain reading of the text. As for violence, actually what the Bible says about it should spur us far away from violence as it is the Lord who judges and will repay each according to their works (Rom 2). As for point 4, it is obvious that the “presence of God” is a very nuanced term depending on its context. God was present in the burning bush but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t present their before – in a different sense. Your exegesis link and your point here both assume that its problematic for God to sustain something yet not be “present” – using a very wooden measure of “present”. I can put my child on the naughty step “away from my presence” and still be present in the house (i.e. in a wider sense). God can still sustain hell and yet not have his *blessing* presence be there. Its a particular sense of his presence that is missing – how else would he be able to reveal what goes on in there – i.e. his knowledge implies some form of interaction with it? I must also say that your analysis of “destroy” and “destruction” in the link doesn’t really fit with all the circumstances, especially e.g. those where Peter says in 2 pet 2 “their destruction is deserved” – very hard to read this in the charitable sense that you attribute to the word.

    Just starting to follow your work so looking forward to hearing more and reading your coming book.

  • James

    It sounds like this has been a point of immense pain for you, which i am sorry to hear. If i may, this point has troubled Christians of all types. Some very orthodox believers such as John Stott have held the view of annihilation that you speak of. Others such as CS Lewis note that we don’t know that God isn’t working out his grace int relives of people ho have never heard of Jesus. (see my comment below in reply to Judgeforyourself37). Also try his book “The Great Divorce” for an interesting take on it.

    Three observations if i may respectfully offer them:

    1. I too feel that there is no way i could deserve heaven. This is why i believe it can only be obtained by grace and mercy.

    2. I also believe (trying to leave aside all false modesty and to see the world as it really is) that i am unlikely to be particularly morally better or worse than my friends (or anyone really, on a average), and so if i don’t deserve heaven then the reasonable conclusion is that they probably don’t either. We will probably all find ourselves in the same boat – we don’t all fail in the same way (Hitler v Mother Theresa), but we probably all fail. This means they also need God’s mercy and grace.

    3. I don’t know how God is working His grace out in other peoples lives. Perhaps it is through me (as respectfully as i can) sharing His gospel with them, in theory and in practice. We share the good news because of the life that we find in it and the desire to have the life shared. But ultimately if i am convicted that I need a saviour, it doesn’t seem rational to reject that because of what my friends may decide for themselves, and the consequences of those decisions (which I can at best only partially see). We encourage and urge everyone to find the way of Life, but each needs to act on their own convictions and deal with their own need for salvation.

    Try some CS Lewis or Tim Keller – you might find them interesting.


  • Justice? What sort of justice? Retributive? Restorative? What? Also, what do you mean by “eternal separation from God?” Is God not the grounding of all being? Can anything exist outside and apart from God? Now, I can metaphysically comprehend annihilation being what happens when one is “eternally separated from God,” but separation and still yet existing? At that point, we are not really talking about God but a god, a platonic demiurge or something.

  • What does God say about hell? Not much. Jesus spoke about Gehenna, but unless we understand both the Enochic and Jeremiah traditions of Gehenna/Valley of Hinnom, it doesn’t matter what was said because we will butcher the meaning either way.

    As for the presence of God comment, yes, I see what you are saying. But, most Christians talk about hell as “eternal separation from God” in a metaphysical sense. I understand the EO don’t, and I’m fine with their rendering (although I don’t happen to agree) that all will be with God metaphysically, but some will just not enjoy it too much 😉 (i.e., “be in hell”).

    Anyway, take care.

  • Linnea912

    “all will be with God metaphysically, but some will not enjoy it too much.”

    Hey, that’s just sparked something for me. Maybe those who have lived their lives in evil will, at first, anyway, experience God’s presence as hell (as God is Love itself).

    Ultimately, though, I believe ALL will be saved- God’s love will burn off all our imperfections, and we will enter into God’s loving presence for eternity.

  • Edward Hara

    This is exactly the Orthodox view of the next life, and is also the answer to question number 4. God is all in all. There is no place that He does not exist. All souls are in His presence forever. Some will enjoy it, because it will be everything they have lived for, and some will hate it, because they lived for the pleasures of sin and that is no longer.

    The only question is whether or not the soul is capable of change (repentance) after death. Traditional Christianity says “yes,” yet there is not a single verse regarding this in the entirety of Scripture. Lacking that, they read into the text that “aionios” means “eternal and therefore this proves that souls cannot repent in the next life.

  • Tim

    Actually, according to quantum physics there may be very good reason to think this.

  • Tim

    Well, Jesus himself is recorded as having said, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold”. And “accepting Jesus” also doesn’t have a time limit on it, although that has been the prevailing viewpoint for awhile now.

  • Tim

    You misunderstand what justice is in the eyes of God, if this is your view.

    “For my ways are not your ways, and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” God’s justice is restorative, not punitive.

  • Bernard Dainton

    Maybe I do misunderstand God’s justice… but you’ll need to try harder than that to convince me. 🙂 I’m afraid the verse you’ve quoted from Isaiah 55 says nothing about whether God’s justice is restorative or punitive.

  • Tim

    No, it doesn’t specifically say which, but the rest of the NT makes it pretty clear. But that’s Ok. Jesus’ disciples didn’t get it either, at least not at first. They were expecting a political leader who was going to free them from the tyrannical rule of Rome. He let himself get crucified by Rome instead in order to restore our relationship with God. That doesn’t sound very retributive to me. Just one of many examples that you can find for yourself in the New Testament.

    He who has ears to hear, let him hear…

  • Bernard Dainton

    Ah. You sound like another NT Wright fan! I don’t disagree with what you’ve written – but the question we’re debating is not whether Jesus wants to restore our relationship with God (of course he does!), but what happens to those who turn their backs on the proffered restoration. Here I am with CS Lewis in the Great Divorce, who said (something to the effect) that in the end everyone who is in hell chooses to be there.

  • Illithid

    According to whom? Any actual theoretical physicists (who are also neurologists)? The only person I’ve heard say such is Dinesh D’souza, who is full of high-grade fertilizer.

  • Tim

    No, don’t think it was him. I’d have to go find the source article again.

    Ah, here we go; it was Dr Robert Lanza, in his book Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness Are the Keys to Understanding the Nature of the Universe.

    A bit about him:
    Dr. Lanza has been acknowledged as one of the greatest minds of our times.
    He is a noted scientist and foremost stem cell expert.
    In 2014 he appeared on TIME’s list of the hundred most influential people in the world.
    In 2015 he was selected as one of Prospect Magazine’s “World Thinkers 2015,” and he has been voted the third most important scientist alive by NY Times.

    Biocentrism appears to be a new theory (based?) in quantum physics.

    The original article I stumbled across is here: https://ideapod.com/new-theory-based-quantum-physics-says-theres-life-death/

  • Illithid

    Thanks, I’ll give it a read. After work… gotta go.

  • Illithid

    Okay, this guy seems pretty impressive… in biology. Cloning and stem cell research, particularly. The biocentrism thing looks like pure woo. External reality is created by consciousness? So, for example, the geological evidence for the Earth’s past was created by the consciousness of the geologists who found it, even when it contradicted their ideas?

    It’s very tempting to think that expertise in one field extends into other fields. It usually doesn’t.

  • Tim

    Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve heard this though from the scientific community. We do know that how physical reality behaves is influenced at least to some extent by perception (from scientific experiments), so this view is not as much of a stretch as you think.

  • Illithid

    I’ve read about the double-slit experiment. QM is quite counterintuitive! But I’ll wait for some experimental confirmation before taking biocentrism seriously. If Lanza wants to get his hypothesis accepted, rather than just sell a book, he needs to get some physicists on board and figure out how to test it.

  • Tim

    A view that I could accept (it’s a very eastern orthodox view, which gets a lot more right than Western Christianity), save for the fact that the scriptures leave us copious clues that this is not God’s plan. Ironically, Lewis’ mentor George MacDonald was a universalist.
    If ‘death’ and ‘hell’ (hades) are ultimately destroyed, as is indicated in Revelation, then they will no longer exist at some point (if not already), which only leaves us two options: Annihilation or Universal Salvation. Annihilation has some major problems with it that Universal Restoration does not.

    I think part of the problem is that we imagine that scripture indicates that the time limit to come to God is this life, when in fact it teaches no such thing, upon closer examination.

    P.S. I do quite like Wright on many things, but I don’t agree with him on everything. This particular EOx/ Lewisian view of hell being one of them.

  • summers-lad

    I absolutely agree with you. The doctrine of eternal conscious torment seems to me to be about as far away from the thrust of the Gospel as it is possible to get. And you pick up on one of its bad fruits, which I believe is strong evidence for its wrongness: that it promotes a self-centred attitude. Granted, many people try hard to bring others to salvation from hell, but essentially, fire insurance is about (totally understandable) self-interest.
    I believe that good biblical arguments can be made for annihilation (of those who are not saved) and for universal restoration. I now tend to universal restoration. I do believe in something which we might call hell, but as a place of correction, not of unending punishment.

  • summers-lad

    Two other points, which I don’t often see made:-
    1. The doctrine of hell contradicts the place of grace. There is the old covenant, of law, and then the new covenant, of grace. Hell would constrain grace (except for the “elect”, in a Calvinistic sense) to a limited time period, after which we revert to law. I don’t think this is biblical.
    2. The doctrine of hell (perhaps not necessarily, but certainly in the way it is usually described) portrays hell as the ultimate reality. God is limited by the demands of “justice” which means he has to send many people to hell. God is therefore not supreme, not Lord of all.

  • Terri Hemker

    What makes me sick are those who seem gleeful about imagining people in Hell that disagree with them. In the last couple of days, I’ve been seeing some really nasty comments and memes about Stephen Hawking now being in Hell because I guess he was an atheist. They all seem to be celebrating. It makes me so angry! As if the man didn’t suffer enough in this life!

  • Mary

    This is typical of so called Christians…..so full of hate and arrogance. I’m so grateful that I don’t have a miserable interior life like they do