My perspective on Hell? It’s about time….

Hell has been a hot topic (pun intended) in discussions lately.  Competing books, blog posts, inflammatory comments and heated accusations (alright, I’ll stop with the puns!) have been all over the place.

So far, I’ve given my opinion on other folks’ blogs, but I’ve held off here.  This is ironic, because Hell is one of the main topics that I intended to focus on when I started blogging.  In fact, if you read my very first post, Hell is the first topic I mention where I’d like to add to the discussion and help “reconcile viewpoints”.

So, why the delay in blogging on Hell? That’s simple – I fear rejection. And, since some of my opinions on Hell are pretty unusual compared to the norm, I’m expecting that I will probably get more negative responses than positives.

Why do I want to talk about Hell?  Let me start with a quote from John Cleese of Monty Python fame that I think illustrates the conundrum we have today:

“To be tortured 24 hours a day for the rest of eternity, that’s not very nice. To believe that’s going to happen to people you disapprove of, I think, shows a pretty low level of mental health.”  ~John Cleese

I’m not saying that I agree with Cleese’s estimation of the “mental health” of Christians, but his statement does illustrate the point: the traditional view of Hell makes no sense to a great many people in the world today, particularly when we concurrently claim that our God is a God of love.

I believe that we, the church, have a responsibility to find an explanation of Hell which makes sense to the world today.  It should be a viewpoint that is scripturally sound, both in regards to God’s judgment and His mercy, while it also makes sense to non-believers.  If we can’t come up with a reasonable explanation of Hell – a “reconciled viewpoint” – then we are leaving a major stumbling block in the way of people coming to faith.

With that backdrop, here’s a quick “Reader’s Digest Condensed Version” of what’s gone on recently (to provide context for the few readers who might be unaware):

  • A few months ago, pastor and author Rob Bell released “Love Wins”, a book that challenges traditional views on Hell.  Bell uses scripture to argue that Jesus’ sacrifice “once for all” really does mean ALL, and that eventually most people will submit to God’s love, possibly post-mortem.
  • All hell breaks loose (no, not literally).  The discussion has been heated, books have been written, and bloggers are debating Bell’s views.  The most recent book released is “Erasing Hell” by pastor and author Francis Chan, which I received in the mail the other day.  Chan (and his co-author/researcher, Preston Sprinkle) reviewed the scriptures regarding Hell and came up with… (drum roll please!)  You guessed it! The same conclusion that he had before, that Hell is a literal place of unending punishment.
  • However, Chan did acknowledge that some of what Jesus taught could be interpreted to mean that Hell was temporary in duration.  He examined whether “Hell is a Place of Annihilation or Never-Ending Torment” (the header on page 80), and although he said on page 87 that he leaned toward the torment being “everlasting”, he was “not ready to claim that with complete certainty”.  He even mentioned that he deleted several pages that he wrote about it because he didn’t want to “distract from the heart of Christ’s message”.   And to Francis, that message is that Jesus gave a stern warning – he wants us to know that Hell is a bad place and we don’t want to go there.

So, we’ve got a conundrum: the traditional view is that Hell is forever, but the world thinks that’s crazy.

Bell thinks that “Love Wins” and most people eventually give in to God’s will.

Chan acknowledges that human punishment in Hell might end in annihilation, but he still leans towards everlasting punishment.

{Sidebar:  Although it looks like I’m writing on Hell as a response to Bell’s book and the current discussion, that’s really not the case. I’ve actually been ruminating on and developing a “model” of how I think Hell works for the last 25 years.   When I finally felt compelled to start blogging/writing last fall, I had no idea who Rob Bell was or that Hell would become such a “hot topic” in 2011.}

So where do I stand?  I think that Hell is eternal for Satan and fallen angels, but unrepentant human souls experience “the second death” and at some point cease to experience suffering.

Basically, I think the church has historically misinterpreted the scripture on the 2nd death when they assumed that angelic and human “punishment” will be equivalent – that both will experience “eternal conscious torment”.   I think that per Rev. 20, angelic punishment will be “day and night forever and ever” while human punishment results in “death” of the soul.  (I’ll give more scriptural detail to back that up in a later post.)

Now, I’m not making light of the 2nd death or assuming that it will be easy – in fact, I’m pretty sure it will be the worst thing a person can go through. But, if Hell becomes the “death penalty” for the unrepentant soul – or as Paul puts it in Romans, “the wages of sin is death” — then God is in a position to show mercy to whom He wishes to show mercy as He administers that “death penalty”.

Why do I think it’s important to share my “viewpoint”?  Two reasons – to help restore unity among believers, and to help remove stumbling blocks for non-believers.   How many people – both believers and nonbelievers — reject the Bible as God’s word in whole or part because they can’t believe that a loving God would leave people in eternal torment? My theory – that the punishment is temporary – gives an alternate interpretation of scripture that allows us to take God’s Word literally, and still reconciles with the wordly assumption that eternal torment seems unjust.

Am I 100% sure that I’m right?  No, of course not.  We are imperfect people with misunderstandings and wrong thinking in some areas, just like we all still sin.  But, if we can come together and dialogue where we have differences of opinion rather than pointing fingers, we can build unity in the church.  And if we can build unity in the church, not only will we remove some of the intellectual stumbling blocks that keep nonbelievers from coming to faith, but “they will know we are Christians by our love” and maybe, just maybe, some nonbelievers will decide the church has something that they want.

Love.

Thank you for reading my rambling thoughts here. I really hope that the Church can dialogue and find a reasonable “model” for Hell, and I look forward to continuing the discussion.

What do you think about Hell? Is this a discussion worth having?  

******************************************************************************** 

Next blog topic:

WE DO NOT UNDERSTAND TIME!  No wonder we can’t figure out eternity….

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6 Responses to My perspective on Hell? It’s about time….

  1. Alise says:

    I’m anxious to read Chan’s book. This is a topic I haven’t really examined until recently, so I’m trying to sort it out in my mind. I think the idea of eternal punishment for temporal wrongs has always been repugnant to me, but I truly thought it was the only way that a Christian could believe. Finding that there are other thoughts, while incredibly naive on my behalf, has been really freeing to me.

    My first thoughts tend toward annihilation, but I look forward to studying it more thoroughly.

    Thanks for your review!

    • For a long time, I thought the same thing you did — that the only way Christians could believe was that hell was eternal. When I started noticing scriptures that made it seem temporary, I kept it semi-under wraps so as not to be perceived as a “heretic”. The odd thing — I basically developed my opinion about temporary punishment and the “2nd death” on my own. It was only about 6 years ago when I decided I should try to write something and did some internet research that I saw there were historically people called “annihiliationists” that believed sort of like I did. Dohhh……

      I haven’t finished Chan’s book yet, I just scanned through quickly to see what he was saying. I like the fact that he points out the fact that his views have changed on certain things in the past, and that he realizes his views could change again. Sort of like Rachel’s chapter on being an “evolutionist” — our thoughts and opinions evolve as we grow, and that has historically been the case with the church.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Scott Fields says:

    Years ago I fiddled with an essay I called “The Color of Hell.” I never really polished it off, but the central point had to do with the fact that most of our current mental imagery in regard to hell has its roots less in scripture than in art and popular culture over the centuries. It’s important to keep in mind that all the pictures the Bible provides about hell appear either in figurative language (parables and the like) or in apocalyptic literature (which is by definition symbolic in nature). People seem to key in on the elements of fire and torture . . . and forget about the other illustrations Jesus and the prophets painted about eternity for the unsaved (such as the “outer darkness” in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet). Taking ALL of the prophecies and parables together, we see the primary element that defines hell is absence–the absence of God, the absence of others, the absence of satisfaction or relief.

    When it comes to the heavier doctrines like this, I tend to teach all sides–Old Earth and Young Earth, Pre-trib and Post-trib, Armenienism and Calvinism. I’m not interested in indoctrinating people to my own point of view; I want challenge them to think about why they believe what they believe, so they’re better prepared to defend it when necessary. I don’t know what hell will be like, but I haven’t yet heard any argument that’s strong enough to convince me that hell is absolutely and without question 1) all about fire; 2) completely never-ending; 3) centered around “physical” torture that is perpetrated by an exterior source. The common thread, it seems to me, is that hell is God giving people what they want–an eternity without Him, where they alone are all that exists. Therefore, having nothing else available for consumption, they “consume themselves” in a sense . . . the feed spiritually on their own emptiness, always wanting, never filled. “Weeping and gnashing of teeth” indeed.

    Thanks for getting this out there. I do indeed think this is a great discussion to be having.

    • Good thoughts…. errr…. good thinking on a bad place/topic?

      I agree with you about the apocalyptic and symbolic language, and when it comes to something like the “lake of fire”, I haven’t the foggiest how literally we should take the language. And yes, lots of “outer darkness” as an alternative to fire. I sometimes wonder if “outer darkness” is pre-judgment day and “lake of fire” is post? But that’s all conjecture too.

      I like your idea of teaching alternatives. My main motivation for bringing up annihilation as a possible alternative is that a) it will make more sense to the world than “forever and ever”, and b) nobody else is talking about it.

      Thanks for commenting…. I do hope we end up with a great discussion.

  3. That was a detailed post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Dan. I see that you have come to a conclusion and that’s great!

    Where I stand is, like I said in my post you commented on, is in the middle ground and I cannot speculate on whether the torment is eternal or limited in time. In fact, Erasing Hell is the perfect position that I stand.

    The extremes on either side does not give us a full picture. Listening to the extreme hellfire crowd makes one think that God is a tyrant/sadist. Based on the scriptural references, blindly coming to the conclusion that “there is no hell” is akin to telling a four year old child that it’s okay to run across a busy highway, when it is not.

    In my view, the world don’t care about our fine arguments, no matter what camp we are in. What we can do is give them the scriptures and when they are open to be guided by the Holy Spirit, He will fill them with the answers they seek.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

    • “blindly coming to the conclusion that “there is no hell” is akin to telling a four year old child that it’s okay to run across a busy highway”

      Exactly! There are too many scriptural references to throw out hell completely, but I don’t believe God is a tyrant/sadist either.

      I guess I have come to a conclusion, but like Chan, I can’t say with 100% certainty that I’m right. What I do believe is that I’m supposed to get this alternative view of Hell out there. The reason for that, I think, is because “the world” is unaware that there are Christians somewhere in the middle of the road, like you and I. I think the world sees the “fundies” — the fundamentalist right wingers that say hell is literal and you’ll burn forever — and the “social justice” Christians (for lack of a better term) that don’t take the Bible literally on a bunch of topics so they focus on good works. I’m primarily aiming to give an alternative viewpoint that will make sense to a larger audience…. and as you mention, the Holy Spirit will guide people as to the truth in His timing.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

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