January 27, 2017

Hell - Heaven signpost in a desert background

Growing up Evangelical, we were often warned that some issues were “heaven or hell” issues. While even the most rigid among us recognized that some issues were open to differences of opinion or personal conviction, there are some moral issues where Jesus draws such a hard line that it becomes a “heaven or hell” issue.

Meaning, unless Jesus was just totally bluffing, there are some things that aren’t open to negotiation.

There are some things, according to Jesus, that will either hinder or absolutely prohibit one from entering his Kingdom– because he said so. The flip side of entering his Kingdom is hell– whatever one believes that may or may not be. However one interprets the concept of hell (I have a long series on that here), Jesus does warn of a divine punishment (whether punitive or restorative, permanent or temporary) that will fall upon those who choose to not embrace the principles of his Kingdom.

It’s hard to get around that reality for anyone who believes the words of Jesus are true and authoritative.

Growing up, hell-fire preachers were quick to identify things they thought were a “heaven or hell” issue– issues where being wrong sealed your fate in the afterlife. This most often had at least something to do with where you put your private parts. Or sometimes dancing, too– because we all know what happens if you get to dancing.

Even in the television series Way of the Master with Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron, these street preachers would correctly tell people that the Bible even says that “all liars will have their place in the lake of fire,” meaning that simply being an unrepentant liar can be seen as a “heaven or hell” issue.

But here’s the funny thing: in all those years growing up Evangelical and hearing all about these heaven or hell issues, I never once heard people focus on the one time Jesus actually warned people about what he considered heaven or hell issues.

I can see why they ignored that critical passage– and I can see why they continue to do so today.

The passage in question is the parable of the sheep and the goats, found in Matthew 25. In this, Jesus says that at the final judgement he will divide the nations into two groups– one on his left, and one on his right. The group that gets into his Kingdom? Well, Jesus says it’s because their faith led them to do some very specific actions.

The group of people Jesus says he will send away into everlasting punishment? Well, that group of people also had faith and claimed to be Christians, but they earned themselves eternal punishment for not doing certain things they should have done.

What are these heaven or hell actions that Jesus listed? Well, it was liberal nonsense if you were to ask some:

Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Visit the prisoner. Welcome the stranger.

When Jesus condemns the group on one side of the room to eternal punishment, they quickly object and remind him that they are Christians. They say, “But we did X, Y, and Z, and did it all in the name of Jesus!”

Jesus of course, tells them “depart from me, I never knew you” and tells them that their refusal to care for the hungry, the needy, and to welcome the immigrant was a personal offense against him. He goes as far as identifying with the marginalized to an extreme– saying that when they refused to welcome the stranger, they were actually refusing to welcome the Son of God himself.

I find it equally sad and amusing that many Christians are so quick to quote Paul’s list of people who will not inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, but will do the most intense intellectual and hermeneutical gymnastics to avoid the clear and plain statement of Jesus in Matthew 25: those who did not care for the poor and needy, and who shut out the immigrant, will face divine punishment at the final judgement.

They claim we should overturn marriage equality in order to avoid the wrath of God.

They claim we should outlaw abortion in order to avoid the wrath of God.

But they never, ever, ever seem to say, “We should welcome refugees in order to avoid the wrath of God.”

With so many Christians celebrating and supporting President Trump’s new executive orders functionally barring the most needy refugees from the United States– refugees from areas we’ve bombed to oblivion, refugees who could surely die if we do not let them in, I grieve over the number of American Christians who joined the wrong side of what Jesus himself claimed was a “heaven or hell” issue.

If you are a Christian, if you believe that Jesus was the Son of God, that his words have authority, and that some issues of morality are actually “heaven or hell” issues, consider it fair warning that you *might* not want to ignore the direct warning Jesus gives about not welcoming in the stranger.


unafraid 300Dr. Benjamin L. Corey is a public theologian and cultural anthropologist who is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with graduate degrees in the fields of Theology and International Culture, and holds a doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also the author of the new book, Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, which is available wherever good books are sold. www.Unafraid-book.com. 

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November 10, 2016

27007863832_fe6e173d9a_z
Matt Johnson, Flickr Creative Commons

Is Franklin Graham headed to hell when he dies?

That’s a tricky question, but one he’d do well to wrestle with.

The answer to that is found in how one views the Bible– is it the inerrant, inspired Word of God? Is the Bible true? Is it authoritative?

If one were to answer yes to those questions, which Franklin Graham does, the Bible itself pronounces condemnation for him on multiple counts. Mainly, he stands condemned as an unrepentant liar and hypocrite– both offenses that his Bible declares as actions that exclude one from God’s Kingdom (Matthew 23:13-15, Rev 21:8).

While the examples of his lying and hypocrisy are endless, let’s take a few recent examples. This is what Graham said on Facebook today in response to the election of unregistered sex-offender, Donald Trump:

“Did God show up? In watching the news after the election, the secular media keep asking “How did this happen?” “What went wrong?” “How did we miss this?” Some are in shock. Political pundits are stunned. Many thought the Trump/Pence ticket didn’t have a chance. None of them understand the God-factor.

Hundreds of thousands of Christians from across the United States have been praying. This year they came out to every state capitol to pray for this election and for the future of America. Prayer groups were started. Families prayed. Churches prayed. Then Christians went to the polls, and God showed up.

While the media scratches their heads and tries to understand how this happened, I believe that God’s hand intervened Tuesday night to stop the godless, atheistic progressive agenda from taking control of our country.

President-elect Donald J. Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence are going to need a lot of help and they will continue to need a lot of prayer. I pray that President-elect Trump will surround himself with godly men and women to help advise and counsel him as he leads the nation. My prayer is that God will bless America again!”

Graham is clearly rejoicing that his candidate won the election, even going as far as saying God did it! But here’s the thing: Graham has spent the last six months claiming he left the Republican party, that he wasn’t endorsing a candidate, and traveled to all 50 states asking Christians to pray and “vote their conscience.” He didn’t fool any of us, but he portrayed himself as a simple Christian standing in the gap with no dog in the fight, and we all know that was a blatant lie.

While Graham portrayed his 50 state rally effort as being a nonpartisan religious event, let’s call it like it was: Franklin Graham traveled to all 50 states to campaign for Donald Trump. He knew he was doing it, and we knew he was doing it– but he had to clothe it as something that it wasn’t in order to appear he was a non-biased Christian (and he also likely had to disguise his Trump rallies to steer clear of IRS regulations).

It was deceitful, and we all knew it.

Furthermore, during the campaign Graham criticized “media bias” as if he were clean and pure, all the while being guilty of the very thing he claimed he opposed (the very definition of a hypocrite). For example, after the Vice Presidential debates he praised Mike Pence for discussing his faith openly during the debate, but made no mention to the fact that Time Kane also discussed his faith openly, because he was a Christian, too.

It was dishonest and hypocritical, and we all knew it.

And then there’s the consistent trope he claimed again today— that progressivism is “atheistic” and “godless.” This claim is as blatantly dishonest as one can get, as most progressives are Christians, and both of the candidates who ran on the democratic ticket were Christians too. Of course, Graham knows this, because you’d have to be stupid not to. Which means once again, he’s lying in order to discredit and malign and entire group of people.

He’s done the same thing with the lies he tells about LGBTQ people, claiming they are godless and anti-Christian when in fact, half of them are Christians.

With today’s celebration, Franklin Graham is finally openly and honestly showing his true colors. While he was pretending to be someone fed up with politics who left the Republican party, he spent months traveling the country campaigning for Donald Trump on the tax-free donations given to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. He daily spewed bias and hate on social media, all while claiming it was everyone else behaving with bias. And now, he continues his lies of claiming that progressives hate God and are atheists, when that is absurdly untrue.

So, is Franklin Graham going to hell? Does he stand condemned?

I don’t believe in hell, and even if I did, I don’t believe we know who is in and who is out.

BUT…

The irony is that if he is right about the Bible being the authoritative, inerrant Word of God, if what Franklin Graham himself teaches is true, if it’s true that “all liars will have their place in the lake of fire,” and if it’s true that hypocrites are sons of hell who will be excluded from God’s Kingdom, Graham is on the list of people the Bible says will go there.

In fact, it seems clear that by Franklin’s own standards, he condemns himself.

Unless Graham repents and turns to Jesus, he’d better hope he’s wrong about the Bible– and that progressive Christians were right all along to dismiss the idea of hell.


unafraid 300Dr. Benjamin L. Corey is a public theologian and cultural anthropologist who is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with graduate degrees in the fields of Theology and International Culture, and holds a doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also the author of the new book, Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, which is available wherever good books are sold. www.Unafraid-book.com.

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September 14, 2016

Fire Background

After leaving Christian fundamentalism, I shed off a lot of previously held beliefs– some of them were beliefs quite central to my faith. One of those core beliefs I ended up letting go of was a belief in the traditional version of hell that exists in much of modern Christianity.

I have written a great deal on the topic of hell over the past year or so. What started as a short series on hell has turned into an interactive experience where I have continued to process issues and questions that many of you have raised in our discussions– questions quite worthy of exploration. I’ll keep doing this as long as there are questions to discuss.

One of the most common critiques levied at myself, and those who reject the concept of eternal conscious torment, is that we are ignoring the righteousness of God. The counterargument (which isn’t a substantive counterargument) goes something like this: “Yeah, but God is righteous” or “A righteous God must ____” and then they fill in the blank with whatever their argument is. Or, most generically, they’ll just say, “God’s righteousness demands hell.”

I’m sorry, but there’s a lot of problems with that argument.

Let’s look at the concept of righteousness. At its core, the word simply means to perfectly do what is right or just. In this regard, no one is arguing that God does what is less than good, less than right, or less than just. In fact, one of the reasons I no longer believe in traditional hell is because of God’s righteousness, not in spite of it. If even a sinful, deeply flawed, human parent would never even consider throwing their child into flames to be tortured, I cannot fathom how God– the one Jesus claimed was the perfect parent– would do that, either.

Thus, one could say (and I’m saying it now), that because we affirm the righteousness of God, we also affirm that subjecting someone to torture by burning in flames would be inconsistent with righteousness.

Conversely, in order for the argument of “but God is righteous” to prevail in discussions on hell, one would need to go deeper– one would need to actually prove that eternal conscious torment is the “right” thing for God to do. Righteousness is not an isolated action, but a description of action– it is not a word that can be used as a trump card apart from a deeper argument answering, “What is right action?”

And even when you explore the question, “What is right action?” one must have a starting point for determining right action from wrong action.

I believe the entire issue of God’s righteousness is the wrong beginning to the discussion. One of the traps many fall into is the belief that God has multiple character traits/attributes, and that these attributes are all somehow equal to one another. While God does have multiple attributes, there is one attribute that rules them all: Love.

The book of 1 John reveals this to us quite plainly, stating that “God is love.” Notice it doesn’t say that God is loving (describing an attribute) but says that God is love, which is describing a core essence. This core essence of love becomes the starting point for discussing all other attributes of God– if God is love, then every action by God is loving. Thus, before any discussion on what is righteous, we must first ask, “What is loving?”

In order to declare what is righteous, one must have an immovable starting point to judge righteous action from unrighteous– and that immovable point is love. We can declare that God is perfectly righteous because we know that God is perfectly love– if love does not come first, there is no basis for determining what is righteous– it would be completely arbitrary.

When we correctly view love as being the core essence of God’s identity, holding to a traditional view of hell becomes difficult to do unless one radically redefines love. One would have to explain why perfect love would create a hell in the first place, why perfect love would make it a place of punitive torment instead of loving restoration, and why perfect love would subject that vast majority of people who have ever lived to such unimaginable, unending torture. Most of all, one would have to explain how being tormented in flames for all of eternity is actually loving for the individuals being tormented.

If God is love, and if hell is real, the entire purpose of hell must be rooted in a deep love for those who are sent there— and I don’t know how to make that argument without making love into something it is not.

So, when I reject the belief in hell, am I ignoring the righteousness of God?

No, not at all.

But I would counter with this: When you affirm belief in the traditional view of hell, you most likely are ignoring the love of God.

Asking if a righteous God would send people to hell to be tormented for eternity is the wrong question. The better question is: Would a perfectly loving God do that?


unafraid 300Dr. Benjamin L. Corey is a public theologian and cultural anthropologist who is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with graduate degrees in the fields of Theology and International Culture, and holds a doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also the author of the new book, Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, which is available wherever good books are sold. www.Unafraid-book.com.

Keep up to date with BLC! Visit his NEW site!

September 7, 2016

Scales of Justice symbol - legal law concept image.

So, you’re a sinner.

Just one sin lands you in that category. No matter how small or large of a transgression, that one, smallest sin, comes with it the penalty of an eternity of torment in hell.

One lie. One act of theft. One impure thought. Just one sin earns eternal torment.

Or, so that’s what they taught us.

The more and more I process the traditional view of hell, the more the premise of it all doesn’t even make sense.

When we consider matters of justice, we seem to have an instinctive understanding that consequences should be proportional to the offense. When consequences are meted proportionally, we sense fairness. When consequences dramatically exceed an offense, we instinctively recognize they are an unjust response to the offense.

We even find this lesson in the Bible– when Moses introduced the system of an eye-for-an-eye, he was putting a limit on retributive justice, and teaching that any punishment must be proportional to the offense.

Or, a modern day example: if a child were not taking school seriously and had poor grades, it would be considered fair and just to restrict some extracurricular activities until grades improved. However, if a parent were to respond to these poor grades by grounding them for the next four years, we’d see that as unjust and an overreaction, because the consequence would lack proportionality to the offense. Furthermore, such an action would show the parent was more concerned with punishing the child than actually helping them improve their grades (punitive justice instead of restorative justice).

Those who argue in favor of the traditional view of hell abandon this moral and biblical view of justice being proportional to the offense. Instead, to justify the doctrine of eternal conscious torment, they argue that justice must be proportional to the one offended. Since God is infinite and without end, the punishment for offending him must also be infinite and without end.

In Four Views on Hell, Denny Burk states it this way: “To sin against an infinitely glorious being is an infinitely heinous offense that is worthy of an infinitely heinous punishment.” (p.20)

In fact, to reject this idea that God needs to punish sin with eternal, everlasting torment, is something Burk says represents a “diminished” view of God and is evidence that we are failing to take sin and judgement seriously.

I, of course, couldn’t disagree more strongly.

Those of us who reject the idea of eternal conscious torment do take God and justice quite seriously– so serious in fact, that we recognize injustice when we see it.

We are made in the image and likeness of God. We are given a conscience from God. And that conscience bears witness to the reality that consequences for wrongdoing must be fair and proportional to the offense, not the one offended. For example, we punish murder on the basis of murder itself. The law does not say that the punishment for murdering a kind person should be more harsh than the punishment for murdering an unkind person.

This is also why we don’t burn people alive in town squares anymore. It’s why we find the idea of cutting off someone’s hands for stealing to be repulsive. It’s why we don’t cut off our kid’s tongues when they get caught lying to us.

It’s why we don’t do a lot of things: We know that true justice is always proportional to the offense

The view of eternal conscious torment is the ultimate case of justice lacking any degree of proportionality. Those who try to overcome the objection of proportionality are unable to do so on the basis of morality, ethics, or even Scripture, since even Scripture prescribes death, not hell, as the penalty for sin (see Genesis 2:17, Ezekiel 18:20, Romans 6:23).

One cannot show that it is morally good to torment someone in flames for billions and billions of years for a stolen piece of bread. One cannot show that it is ethical to torment someone for billions and billions of years for speaking a single lie. And certainly, one cannot make the case from Scripture unless they completely redefine the word death to mean something it doesn’t.

Thus, there is often this appeal to immediately remove God from moral or ethical standards of what our own conscience tells us is right or wrong. We become forced to say, “Yeah, that’s horrible, and I’d never do it to my kid because I love them, but it’s okay when God does it.”

The only way to skirt the issue of proportionality is to essentially dismiss the argument and make up things that are not found in Scripture. This is precisely what Burk does when he claims that God being an infinite being, must thus punish the smallest offense infinitely– the Bible doesn’t say that. It’s an argument from Anselm in the 12th Century, but not from the Bible.

We instinctively know that when punishment lacks proportionality, it is unjust– even the Bible teaches this! Thus, to affirm the traditional view of hell we have to find ways to assuage our dissonance in order to explain away something our conscience and biblical principles tell us is wrong, wrong, wrong.

Instead of trying to do ethical gymnastics to show that it is good and right for God to torment someone for eternity over a stolen slice of bread, we would be better off listening to our God-given consciences which tell us that punishment without proportionality is not justice at all.

(For the full archive on Hell, click here.)


unafraid 300Dr. Benjamin L. Corey is a public theologian and cultural anthropologist who is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with graduate degrees in the fields of Theology and International Culture, and holds a doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also the author of the new book, Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, which is available wherever good books are sold. www.Unafraid-book.com.

Keep up to date with BLC! Visit his NEW site!

June 22, 2016

paradise in sky

As many know, I have long been a proponent of the view of Annihilationism, which is the view that instead of hell, those who refuse to accept God cease to exist. The other day I was honest about the fact that I am rethinking my position in favor of Universal Redemption, which is essentially Christian Universalism.

While I have not completely crossed over yet, and thus would make a less than stellar apologist for the position, I do want to continue this discussion by addressing some of the questions commenters on the internet have raised. One of those issues is the matter of free will: Does Christian Universalism mean that God forces everyone to accept God? Does a Universalist position force God to accept everyone?

The main question this gets to is whether or not Universal Redemption can account for the matter of free will– and I believe it can.

I think one of the big pieces people misunderstand about Christian Universalism is that it still affirms the judgement of God, and can even affirm a belief in hell. The difference is that hell (whatever that is) would be ultimately temporary, and the judgement/justice of God would be a type of justice designed to restore, instead of being strictly punitive in nature. Thus, Christian Universalism honors free will by acknowledging that many will not choose reconciliation with God, that not all will immediately repent, and as a result many will be separated from God for part of eternity.

For those who hold to Eternal Conscious Torment, it is generally believed that those who have not been reconciled to God at the moment of their death will burn in hell forever. For those who believe in Annihilationism, it is believed that in God’s mercy and justice he will cause these individuals to cease to exist, and it will be as if they never were. While I still think the strongest biblical language is with Annihilation, Universal Redemption would seem to be the most obvious choice when taking a high view of God’s character and nature.

So how does it account for things like free will, justice, or hell?

Instead of saying that everyone immediately goes to heaven to spend eternity with God (an act that would violate free will), the position of Universal Redemption believes that God continues pursuing individuals with his love, even in eternity. The souls that have been separated from God by their own choice are free to continue rejecting God’s love, and will never be forced to change. They will also experience the justice of God, which would not be pleasant– but would have a goal of rehabilitation, refinement, reform, and ultimately reconciliation.

The position of Annihilation places a higher view on the individual power to reject God’s love, and thus says that at some point in this process, God causes them to exist no more. With Universalism however, the higher view is placed on the power of God’s love: that God will love as long as it takes for each person to finally embrace the ultimate reality. Thus, individuals will continue repenting and being reconciled to God throughout eternity, until hell itself is completely empty.

It seems that too many people have a knee-jerk reaction against Universalism, without realizing that it can still account for things like hell, free will, God’s justice, etc. One does not have to sacrifice or ignore these issues in order to arrive at a Universalist position.

The difference is that this position believes everyone will ultimately make the choice on his or her own to be reconciled to God’s love, and that God will keep loving and pursuing as long as it takes to achieve that goal.

Certainly, the more I see God as revealed in Jesus, the more this position seems to be the one most consistent with the doctrine of God as exampled by Christ.


unafraid 300Dr. Benjamin L. Corey is a public theologian and cultural anthropologist who is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with graduate degrees in the fields of Theology and International Culture, and holds a doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also the author of the new book, Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, which is available wherever good books are sold. www.Unafraid-book.com.

Keep up to date with BLC! Visit his NEW site!

January 30, 2016

Two gates to heaven and hell. Choice concept.

For me growing up, hell was the center of gravity and perhaps my biggest motivation for the 872 times I asked Jesus into my heart.

I was petrified of going to hell, and who wouldn’t be? All those bonfire camp services that invited us to look into the flames and imagine being sent to a place of fire to be tormented forever? Every time I sat in one of those services I wondered if I had really asked Jesus into my heart or if I was just misremembering things. With a bundle of anxiety over my memory, I’d invite Jesus in all over again– until the next hellfire service when I’d go through the stressful process all over again.

I wanted to avoid me some hell.

 I’ve heard some hell preachers like Ray Comfort say that one of our problems is that we don’t preach hell enough. And, if hell is real, Ray and all those like him would be correct. Think about it: if people you loved were destined for eternal torture, wouldn’t we want to make it explicitly clear and not leave the slightest question?

I’d certainly think so.

As a parent, if I see my child engaging in dangerous or life threatening behavior, I make sure that I don’t leave any information out. I explain the reality of the situation over and over again until there’s no doubt they understand. Why? Because I’d be a horrible parent if I didn’t.

This realization that a loving parent would by crystal clear led me to begin asking new questions about hell and God. One of my biggest questions is this:

If hell– a place of eternal conscious torment– is real, why did God wait so darn long to warn us about it?

Because you see, hell is doesn’t exist in the Old Testament. And if hell were real, I’d expect it to play a much more prominent role in Scripture than it does.

When we see the creation narrative of Genesis, God does in fact warn Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. But the consequence he warns them of? Death.

Not eternal torture in hell, but plain ole death. If hell were the natural consequence for sin, I am left to wonder why God wasn’t clear right from the beginning.

I mean, that would have been a good time to warn us about it, no? And it’s not like God clears up his apparent ambiguity a few pages later– there’s simply no hell in the Old Testament at all.

If the vast majority of humanity is headed for a place of fiery torment, why are we not able to develop a clear and concise theology of hell from the Old Testament? It seems as if a loving God would clarify the reality of hell very early in the story, instead of leaving it as a latter footnote after billions of people already went there.

Maybe there was an overcrowding problem, and he had to come back to clarify things in the New Testament? Who knows.

In the entire Old Testament, we have just one word that gets translated as hell: sheol. The word itself simply means “grave” or “place of the dead” and it’s where everyone went after they died– good and bad, all went to the same place. Hell, with all of our modern images of what it’s like, simply doesn’t exist in the Old Testament. We think it does because some English translators now translate sheol as “hell,” which causes us to import modern concepts of hell into the text. But let’s be clear: it’s not actually there unless we bring it ourselves.

And then there’s the New Testament which isn’t clear either. By this time, some Jewish thought began to express influences from outside thought, which lead us to a few different words that get translated as the English word hell. We have: Hades (a pagan concept that wasn’t Jewish, and could be a place of reward or a place of punishment), Gehenna (an actual valley outside Jerusalem), and Tartarus, which was considered the deepest place in Hades.

Even with these words that often get translated (or mistranslated) to the English concept of hell, there is still a ridiculous imbalance to their appearance in Scripture. For example, as one researcher pointed out:

“[W]e have Judgement mentioned 344 times, Sin mentioned 441 times, and Death mentioned 456 times, and yet we only see Hell mentioned 14 times in accurate translations.” 

If hell is the natural consequence of sin, one must wonder why sin and death have near-equal appearances, but sin and hell have such a striking imbalance.

All this brings me back to my original question: if hell is what awaits the majority of people after death, why is it mentioned so infrequently? Why did God wait until the New Testament to mention it? Wouldn’t he have wanted to have made that clear a lot earlier? And why, even in the New Testament, is the best argument for hell taken from pagan concepts instead of Jewish ones?

But let’s also say that, to the New Testament church, the teaching on hell was totally clear– even though God sprung it on them kinda late. This invites yet another question:

Why didn’t the New Testament church use hell as a motivating tool? When we read the story of the early church in Acts we find them spreading the good news of Jesus– but they never warn anyone about hell.

Judgement? Yes. But hell? No.

Why didn’t Paul say, “the wages of sin is hell, but the gift of God is eternal life”? He didn’t. He just said death.

If God had finally made the reality of hell clear, why did the New Testament church completely forget to mention it?

I mean, this would be really, really important information. If the New Testament is clear about hell, the early church totally missed the memo.

All this invites questions, and when we answer these questions honestly I think we’ll easily see that if hell were real, it certainly should have been mentioned more often, a lot more clearly, and far earlier in Scripture than the first appearances of the concept.

And it definitely should have been central to the faith and practice of the New Testament church— but it wasn’t.

Yes, the Bible clearly teaches there are consequences for sin– and yes, the Bible clearly teaches there will be a coming judgement. But if the consequences of that judgement were eternal conscious torment in a place modernly conceptualized as hell, then we’re left to wonder why God waited so darn long to warn us about it.

(And before you condemn me as a heretic or accuse me of being a universalist, you might want to read the totality of what I’ve written about hell, which can be found, here.)

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September 3, 2015

theologyofhell

Many of us grow up hearing hell, fire, and brimstone messages in our churches from a very early age. In fact, many of us perhaps became Christians not so much out of a sincere desire to follow Christ, but out a fear of what he’d do to us if we didn’t. Hell is a powerful motivator—and Christians have been using it as a motivator for countless years.

This traditional view of hell is better described as “eternal conscious torment” because it teaches that God is going to torture the lost for all of eternity and that they will never die, lose consciousness, or obtain any sort of relief in their suffering. While as kids we either didn’t think to question the doctrine of traditional hell, or perhaps were too afraid to, there are a growing number of Christians today—both liberal and conservative—who are questioning the traditional view of hell, and for good reason.

First, our word for hell and all of the imagery that comes with it is a relatively new word in history, and certainly was not present in Old Testament times or the first century when the New Testament was written. In the Old Testament, there is only one word used when referring to the place of the dead, and this is the word sheol. The word simply means the “place of the dead” or the “grave” and is where Old Testament writers believed everyone went when they died—both the righteous and unrighteous. These ancient writers by and large did not share our modern concepts of heaven and hell—they believed that when people died, they died. However, over the course of time there did develop a hope among God’s people that one day the righteous would be resurrected—a hope still shared by nearly all Christians today.

In the New Testament, we find a few different words that often get translated into English as hell. Koiné Greek was a more precise language than English, so a variety of words- each with their own meanings and nuance, often get translated simply as “hell” and therefore adopt our modern concepts of hell- importing these concepts into the text. One of the more common words we find is the word hades, which is perhaps a functional equivalent to sheol- it is the place of the dead where everyone goes when they die. At times hades is described as a place of paradise (Luke 23:43) and other times a place of punishment (Luke 16:23), so it is a flexible word. Second, we find the word tartarus used only one time in reference to rebellious angels, and has the nuance of a deep, dark pit where they await the judgment of God. Thirdly, we find a common word used by Jesus that is often translated as hell, and this is the word Gehenna.

Gehenna is different than the other New Testament words for hell as it was an actual geographic place during the life of Jesus (the word actually means the Valley of the Son of Hinnom). Described by some as a garbage dump outside of Jerusalem, it was a place of historic weeping and gnashing of teeth because it is where children were previously sacrificed to Pagan gods.  This was also a place where bodies were cremated, and where there was likely a fire continually burning. In many cases where Jesus uses this term, he is often referencing the coming destruction of Jerusalem (AD 70) and warning his generation as to how they could avoid having their bodies thrown into Gahenna. 

Out of all these words, none of them have the exact same nuance that our English word hell tends to convey. Our modern concept of hell did not exist in ancient Judaism and is often more flavored by Dante’s Inferno than what actually occurs in the biblical text. Neither the ancient Jews nor the early Christians believed in our modern version of hell, as we see in the book of Acts (the story of the early church) the concept of hell is completely absent. This is not to say they were universalists; the early Christians believed that every human who ever lived would one day be judged and that we must be reconciled to God through Christ—but they did not use fear of hell to convey that message.

As a result of the nuance in the biblical text, there are three positions on hell, which are all considered part of orthodox Christianity: Eternal Conscious Torment, Annihilationism, and Christian Universalism.  Here is a brief description of these positions and why they are all considered part of the orthodox Christian faith:

Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT)

ECT is perhaps the position most of us know well, because it is the dominant position of our day. This position teaches that the human soul is immortal and does not/cannot die. As such, the soul will exist eternally either with God or being tortured in hell for all of eternity. 

This position uses the following texts in support of their position (this is not an exhaustive list): Matthew 25:41, 46; Mark 9:42–48; 2 Thessalonians 1:5–10; Revelation 14:9– 11; and Revelation 20:10, 14–15. This position was not the dominant position of the early church but has been the dominant position of the church since the post-Constantine era.

Annihilationism (also called Conditionalism)

The second orthodox position is Annihilationism/Conditionalism. This position disagrees with ECT in that it rejects the concept that human souls are immortal, arguing that God alone is immortal, as stated in 1 Timothy 6:16. Further, this position believes that souls can die as Jesus stated in Matthew 10:28. As such, Annihilationist believe that the “wages of sin is death,” meaning those who refuse to be reconciled to God are destined for eternal death (their soul ceases to exists), but that “the gift of God is eternal life” in that those who are reconciled to God are given the gift of immortality of the soul—eternal life. In short, those who fall into this category believe terms like the “wicked will be destroyed” are to be taken literally, whereas the ECT believes the terms “die” and “destroyed” are simply metaphoric for “will live forever in torture.”

This position uses the following verses to support their claim (not an exhaustive list): Psalm 1:6, Psalm 37:20, Psalm 69:28, Psalm 34:16, 21, Psalm 92:7, Proverbs 24:20, Dan 2:35, Isaiah 1:28, 30-13, Obadiah 1:16, Mal 4:1, Matthew 10:28, John 3:16, Matthew 7:13, 13:40, John 15:6, Phil 3:19, 2 Thess 1:9, 1 Cor 3:17, 2 Cor 2:15-16, Romans 6:23, Hebrews 10:39, James 4:12, 2 Peter 2:3, Revelation 20:14.

The position of annihilationism was the predominant position of the early church but has since become a minority view. However, this movement is gaining ground with both liberal Christians and conservatives.

Christian Universalism (Universal Redemption)

The third and final position on hell included under the umbrella of orthodox Christian positions is Christian universalism. This position is not the same as Unitarian Universalism, which would claim that “all flights go to Rome” or “every trail leads to the top of the mountain.” Christian Universalism, or the Universal Redemption Theory, remains an orthodox Christian view as it claims that Jesus Christ is the only way to be reconciled to God. Where it differs from the other orthodox views however is that it views the “fire” seen in scripture as being for the purpose of refinement instead of punishment. Under the Universal Redemption model it is believed that Christ will either refine everyone in the fires of his love- thus making them fit for heaven, or that Christ will continue to invite sinners to repent and be reconciled to God even from hell (postmortem repentance). This view still leaves room for a purgatorial hell of some sort, but argues hell will ultimately (one day) be empty, as all will ultimately choose to be reconciled to God through Christ. 

This position uses the following passages to support their position (not an exhaustive list): John 12:32, John 3:17, Luke 3:6, Romans 5:18, Romans 11:32, 1 John 2:2, 1 Tim 4:10, Col 1:20, 1 Cor 15:22,  Phil 2:11, 1 Cor 5:19, 1 Peter 4:6.

This position was held by some in the early church, but like annihilationism, fell out of favor—but is now gaining ground along side annihilationism. 

Far too many of us grow up with a singular concept of hell—often one that seems to paint God as one who delights in torturing people. Thankfully, there are other options one can hold while still keeping one’s feet firmly planted in the historic, orthodox Christian faith.

(This piece originally appeared on the Christian Left, and can be found here.)

September 1, 2015

Would you torture your own child?

Here on the blog and That God Show, we’ve talked quite a bit about the concept of hell and have gone in-depth as to why I believe hell is not a biblical teaching.

Yet, even using scripture as the foundation for a hell-free eschatological and theological viewpoint, many Christians are completely unwilling to reconsider their views on hell in light of what the Bible teaches. Why this is the case, I have no idea. One would think that folks would flock to the opportunity to let go of hell, but apparently the traditional doctrine on hell is a beloved doctrine of many Christians.

The traditional view on hell, as we all know, is something called Eternal Conscious Torment. This view holds that those who die without being justified in Christ will go to a literal place called hell where they will be tortured by fire day and night, forever. It’ll be, as the doctrine goes, a place where you live with the Devil and his angels, where the fire never stops burning you, and where there is no relief from the pain– ever. You don’t fall asleep, you don’t die, you don’t briefly lose consciousness from the pain. In this version of hell you will be tortured day and night for all of eternity– billions and billions of years on top of billions and billions of years, without end. (All while being forced to listen to Country music.)

My interaction with Christians who believe this has led me to a question. An important question. A question I ask in all sincerity as the first installment of my new series, Sincere Questions.

 If you believe in the traditional view of hell, I’d ask you to consider this question:

Which one of your children would you be willing to torture with fire?

If God is altogether wonderful, beautiful, and all-loving, it would follow that everything he does is wonderful, beautiful, and all-loving. Therefore, there must be something wonderful, beautiful, and all-loving about torturing people with fire and preventing them from having any escape from the pain of those flames.

If torture with fire is anything less than wonderful, loving and beautiful, God would be less than wonderful, loving or beautiful.

So, which one of your children would you be willing to torture with fire as a punishment for not loving you back or misbehaving?

Can you list for me which disobedient acts you would consider worthy of subjecting your child to this kind of torture? Are their certain acts that would prompt you to get out a blowtorchImage-1 and go to town on them? My teenager once told me she hated me and wished I wasn’t her dad, and I have to admit, setting her on fire didn’t cross my mind because I loved her in that moment anyway.

Is there anything your child could do that would cause you to turn them over to ISIS to be punished by burning? That’s an important modern connection, because given the traditional doctrine on hell, the only people I see mimicking this version of God, is ISIS.

Is there anything your child could do that would make you lock them in a dark room, turn up the heat until it burns their flesh, and then gleefully listen to their screams for the rest of their life?

I can’t imagine you would, because that’s both sick and evil. I’ve met a lot of crappy parents in my life, but I’ve never met anyone who would do that to their own child– anyone who would do so would rightly be considered either mentally insane or depraved in an especially disgusting way.

Or, what if God allowed you to sit on his throne and judge your own children– giving you the authority to determine their eternal fate. Do you have any wayward children you’d pick to be sent to hell? Or, would you show them a lavish grace and mercy that flowed from your love for them?

I think I know what you’d do.

So, if we were to assume for a moment that the traditional view of hell were true, that would lead us to another interesting set of questions:

Are you more loving than God? Because you love your children so much you’d never do that.

Are you more merciful than God? I’m assuming you find the image of your own child being eternally tortured by flames to be an unbearable image– one that would leave you crying and screaming for someone to show mercy.

This of course, begs the ultimate question: How could we be more loving and merciful than God?

I don’t think we could– but if hell is real, most of us certainly are more loving and merciful than God. And that right there is a good sign we need to rethink our ideas about hell– because I believe God’s ability to love will dwarf ours any day of the week.

And so this is my question for you, my hell believing friends: which one of your own children would you be willing to subject to torture by fire? If you are too loving and merciful to do that to your own children, why do you believe God is less loving than you are?

I ask in all sincerity that you ponder this, because if you really think it over, the traditional doctrine of hell should lead to some very, very troubling conclusions about God– conclusions that I believe must be strongly rejected.

(You can find the rest of my ongoing series on hell, here.)

May 28, 2015

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(This post is my continuing dialogue with the ideas of Jeff Cook,  from his new book, Everything New: Reimagining Heaven and Hell.)

A.W Tozer once wrote that, “What comes into our mind when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”

I agree with Tozer and would take it one step further: what comes into our minds when we think about hell tells us a lot about God’s character– or at least what we envision God’s character to be.

Continuing our discussion on hell from yesterday, we arrive at a critical barrier those who hold to the traditional view on hell must find a way to pass: the traditional view on hell, if true, would reveal some disturbing qualities of God’s character.

 Let me summarize the scenario: If hell is a literal place where people are tortured for all of eternity, it must exist somewhere in God’s creation (what Cook calls the “problem of location”). We further know from scripture that everything which has been created was created by the pre-incarnate Jesus himself (John 1:3), that everything created was for Jesus (Col 1:16), and that God looked at everything Jesus created and called it “good” (Gen 1).

Therefore, if hell as a literal place of unending torture exists, it exists because it pleased Jesus to include it within creation, and the infinite torture of people postmortem (the purpose of traditional hell), is somehow good. As Cook makes the point:

“If eternal conscious torment is a potential future for a living soul, that possibility will have been known and embraced by God. As such, the traditionalist must show us the great goods that would not be possible without eternal conscious torment. That is, there must be a something about hell that God finds desirable—otherwise God would not have created it.”

Obviously, even a cursory reading of Jesus as revealed in the Gospel accounts should raise some red flags as to the legitimacy of the traditional position on hell. To truly weigh the traditional view of hell however, one must seriously consider what this would tell us about God’s character– nay– the character of Jesus– since Jesus is the exact representation of God’s being (Heb 1:3).

Cook touches on this point by arguing that if God created a universe where hell exists, and being tortured eternally in flames was a high probability for the pinnacle of his creation, he is at least partly culpable in that result. While he uses one illustration to make the point, I’ll use another: if I had a five-year-old child and let them play near the road instead of on the lawn, I would at least be partly culpable if they got hit by a car, since I would know in advance that getting hit by a car was a very real possibility of allowing them to play near the street.

While I agree with his point, I would make it more forcefully. If we want to move to the question of God’s character, I would skip straight to the elephant in the evangelical living room: the issue of torture.

The traditional view on hell, by definition, states that individuals will be consciously tortured in flames for all of eternity. Since we know that all things (including hell, if it exists) were created by Christ, at the pleasure of Christ, and that the triune God has pronounced it “good,” it would also have to be true that God finds torturing people by burning them alive, yet never dying or losing consciousness, to be in the realm of good, purposeful, and somehow pleasing to him.

Yet, this isn’t what we see in scripture– instead, we’re told that God takes “no pleasure” in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11). If God takes no pleasure in the earthly death of those who hate him, he surely would not take pleasure in torturing them, and therefore would not and could not have created a “good” place where such torture takes place.

As I wrote about here on the blog previously, when ISIS burned a man alive and posted the footage on the internet, the world- including Christians- was outraged that ISIS would commit a cruel, evil, and barbaric act on another human being. Yet, the chief irony was these same Christians believe the Jordanian pilot, presumably a Muslim, is being burned in the flames of hell right now. Yet, unlike the ISIS video where the man died and the pain ended, the traditional view on hell states that he will never experience relief from God doing the same thing to him. In this regard, if the traditional view is right, God takes more pleasure in torture than even the most vile ISIS terrorist. He would have to, as such a place would have been created for him, by him, and pronounced to be “good.”

After my previous post on the ISIS burning I received an email from a very conservative, hell-believing friend. He told me, “man, I watched the WHOLE execution video, and you’re right on this hell stuff. There’s no way I can see God doing that to people. It was pure evil.” And, my friend’s God-given moral instinct was correct– if God would do that, it would reveal something disturbingly sadistic about his character. In the end, he would be found worthy of fear but not of worship– just like ISIS.

Finally, Cook asks a question to those who hold to the traditional teaching on hell– one that is painfully difficult (pun intended) for them to answer: “Why would Jesus include the state of eternal conscious torment as part of the inventory of the universe?” In other words, what is “good” about torture? For the traditional view of hell to line up with what we know about God’s character, one must answer this and demonstrate the inherent goodness in torturing people for all of eternity.

I share his question. What is it about torturing people- perhaps the vast majority of everyone who has ever lived– be something that would be pleasing to Jesus and worthy of being called, “good?”

I’d love to hear some answers from the traditional folks– answers that go beyond the canned statement of “because God is perfectly just,” which doesn’t actually answer the question. Or, an answer beyond the John Piper-like alternative explanation, “because God is God, He can do whatever He wants, and we must respect his authori-tah without question,” as if God is more like Cartman from South Park than Jesus on the cross.

I believe this is an impossible question to answer. God is not Cartman; God is Jesus.

For me, the verdict is in: I see nothing about torturing people that is worthy of being called “good” or remotely being associated with the Jesus I find in Scripture. Therefore, as Cook argues, hell must mean something else.

May 27, 2015

blaze fire flame

Over the course of the past year I’ve had an ongoing series introducing readers to what I call the “biblical alternative to hell,” which is a position called conditionalism. Scot McKnight has also been discussing hell from a very similar angle over the same period. Recently he’s had Jeff Cook on his blog discussing arguments from his new book, Everything New: Reimagining Heaven and Helland Jeff has raised some really excellent arguments that I wanted to dissect a bit in a few posts here.

In brief for newcomers, those who hold to the position of conditionalism or annihilationism believe the Bible teaches that those who ultimately refuse to be reconciled to God through Christ are “totally destroyed” or “blotted out of the Book of Life,” as in, they ultimately cease to exist (aka, the “second death”). Thus, the word annihilation. (See 25 verses that support that position, here.)

Within our camp there are two general positions on what happens to the unjust after death: some believe they enter into “soul sleep” until the resurrection, at which point they pass through the fires of God’s love and are either reconciled to God, or find that there’s nothing left of themselves (annihilated). Alternatively, there’s the position that the unjust are conscious after death and waiting in some type of holding area until the resurrection (such as what might be described in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus), after which they face the judgement and are either annihilated or reconciled. Regardless of which camp a conditionalist sides in, there is the common belief– and this is what makes us different from those who hold to the traditional view of hell– in that we believe that if there is a hell, it could only be temporary.

While I think the testimony of scripture is overwhelming in the case of annihilationism, and even taking the visual of fire literally we know that fire consumes what is put in it, Cook brings a different way of arguing that if there is a hell, it could only be temporary. He brings some philosophical arguments to the table which are very compelling and a good partner alongside the scriptural evidence for “hell” to be temporary in whatever form it exists.

Rob Bell famously asked, “Does God get what God wants?” which is a good question to help us ponder possibilities of postmortem repentance. Cook seems to be asking a slightly different question– but equally important: “Is God victorious over evil in the end?”

And this is precisely where the traditional view of hell (eternal conscious torment) seems to answer, “no, he’s not victorious over evil in the end.” As Cook states in a recent post:

“We might say it this way: If God is supremely good and powerful, then God would have the ability and motivation to eventually end evil, but the traditional view has God intentionally allowing the reign of sin to persist.

This seems a significant problem. If hell is eternal conscious torment, evil itself will never cease affecting God’s creation. That is, if the traditional view of hell is true, God’s creation will be tainted by the fruit and work of sin forever. But given who God is, this possibility does not stand.

New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham rightly reflects that “the victory the Messiah has won is the eschatological event, but it cannot have reached its goal until evil is abolished.” If hell is eternal conscious torment than clearly “some” of God’s creation is still infected by the reign of sin and rebellion, and this gives us good reason to think the traditional view of hell fails as a worthy view of judgment and the future.”

I think the entire argument could be distilled as follows: Christ came as a result of the fall and introduction of evil into creation. The chief purpose of his life, death, and resurrection was to “destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). In order for Christ to truly be victorious over evil, from an eschatological standpoint, everything that is evil- at some point- must cease to exist. However, if the traditional view of hell is correct, evil doesn’t cease to exist at all but continues on and on for all of eternity. In the traditional view of hell, Christ is not the victor– he simply contains evil, allowing it to continue in some corner of God’s new creation.

Cook is right- on these grounds alone the traditional view of hell is worthy of judgement, because it strips God of his ultimate victory- victory over evil.

In order to hold to a view that God is victorious in the end– that he successfully and totally eradicates evil from his permanent/perfected creation, one could only hold to one of two positions: the position of universal reconciliation (Christ eventually reconciles everyone who has ever lived, thus eliminating evil) or the position of annihilation (those who refuse to be reconciled cease to exist, thus eliminating evil).

But the traditional view of hell? That view paints a picture of God where He loses in the end.

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