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?
Dr. 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.