Ever since Rob Bell released his controversial book “Love Wins”, hell has been a hot topic. It is something that I have refrained from writing about until now for 2 main reasons, firstly, because I wanted to get all my ducks in a row before publicly talking about it and then secondly, just asking questions about hell can cause quite a stir and result in all sorts of false assumptions being made by others. I must confess that I am still nowhere near satisfying my first reason for initially abstaining, it seems that the longer I look into the subject, the more questions that I have that I have not been able to answer. The fact that we translate so many different Greek and Hebrew words simply with “hell” or “grave” hardly helps things either. Nevertheless, putting my thoughts out on paper always helps me sort things out in my mind and it also gives you guys a chance to get involved in the discussion too. So despite my lack of qualification to write about this, here are a few points I think we need to reconsider about hell.
Assumption # 1 Satan rules in hell.
I don’t know where this idea started, Hollywood certainly hasn't helped and neither have all the stories by people that have claimed to have gone there and come back. Nowhere in scripture do we read of Satan sitting on his fiery throne while demons torture people day and night. Quite the opposite is true; Mathew 25:41 says hell was prepared for the devil and his angels. Jude 6 speaks of fallen angels kept in chains under darkness. Revelation 20 speaks of Satan being thrown into a bottomless pit for a thousand years; presumably this pit is a part of hell. The image of demons sadistically torturing people in hell and enjoying themselves is wrong no question about it, they definitely are not looking forward to any part of hell.
Assumption # 2 Fear of hell is a great evangelism tool.
When I was 16 I watched a production that was aimed at frightening people into heaven. Like hundreds of other people, I stuck my hand up that night and said the sinners prayer. I did not meet Jesus until 5 years later because on that night I was looking for fire insurance rather than a new King, Savior, way of living or nature. Fear is a great tool for controlling people and their actions; it can even be helpful in protecting ourselves and others. But love changes the inner man while fear merely altars ones behavior. Christ is the only card Christians should be willing to play regarding evangelism.
Assumption # 3 There is historically within the church an orthodox view of hell.
There is no doubt that the main view within the Western church today is that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment. The early church though actually seems to have been quite open to Annihilationism and certain forms of Universalism as well. Origen and Gregory of Nyssa are 2 of the major names that believed in the possibility of ultimate reconciliation. If you do not know who Gregory was, he was basically the head honcho at the council of Constantinople (381AD) where the church got together to establish what was heretical and what was orthodox. Not everyone on that council agreed with his view on hell, but it was not seeing as a major issue within the early church. It was only with Augustine, who was a strong believer in eternal conscious torment, that the eternal torment view really took hold of the Western church. To this day the Eastern Orthodox Church is still very open to differing opinions on the subject. I was quite surprised to learn that many of those early believers who decided on the canon of scripture had very different ideas on what hell was, it’s really a fascinating thing to look into if you enjoy history.
There is no doubt that what we believe about hell is important for it affects both how we view God and how we proclaim the gospel; which in turn affects how non believers perceive God to be. Being wrong can be dangerous. But differing views on hell are not the measure of ones identity as a true believer or not.
I found this pic on Facebook, unfortunately this is how many believers and non believers understand the gospel.
Assumption # 4 Hell is eternal.
This is not my rebuttal of the traditional view of hell. I will discuss my own views on Universalism, Annihilationism and Eternal Conscious Torment in follow up posts. All I want to highlight with this statement is that, whatever hell is, it will one day be thrown into the Lake of Fire. John discusses this in Revelation 20:14 and refers to this as the second death. The word here is actually better translated as hades meaning the 'abode of the dead'.Some think of this as simply being thrown from one boiling pot into another which it may or may not be (but probably isn't). Interestingly, during the time that the New Testament was being written the Dead Sea was commonly known as the “Lake of Fire”. How relevant that info is I am not entirely sure of...
Assumption # 5 Our confidence that our interpretation is correct.
Most of us, myself included, have not spent enough time studying this topic, I can’t speak ancient Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic, I do not know too much about these ancient cultures and the surroundings of those peoples (think about that Lake of Fire reference made earlier) and I have relied on other people’s views on exactly which verses are to be interpreted as metaphorical or literal.
Assumption # 6. God would not let anyone go to such a horrible place, even by their own choice.
There are some who are unwilling to believe in hell simply because of who God is, a God whose very essence is love. It may indeed be hard to reconcile the two, but it is even harder to ignore or reinterpret so many verses which speak on the topic. Trying to balance Gods love with things like hell, judgment, justice etc is always problematic. Seeing God as love and having everything else pour out of that revelation normally makes things easier to understand though, we know that God desires that none would perish (2 Peter 3:9), yet we also see some tough language in places like Mathew 7:23, 25:41 and Revelation 20:14. We need to figure out how these sorts of things form part of the same story rather than putting them in tension with one another.
Assumption # 6.66 Scripture is clear about hell.
I know many would argue this one with me; the bible does indeed have a lot to say about hell. And I do think that there is plenty in scripture to definitively affirm a place of punishment for some after death. There is though still a large amount of mystery that surrounds both its existence and purpose. The fact that we have 3 main views on hell within Christianity, all supported by several proof texts, and then several variations within those 3 viewpoints affirms this. I do believe though that scripture, when read as one complete story, does shed much light on it. Nevertheless, only one of the 3 views can be right so 2 of these 3 groups have to be wrong.
This image is from the documentary Hellbound?
In John Pipers famous “Farewell Rob Bell” tweet, we see just how important this issue is to the church. For some like Piper, it threatens their very faith. For cultural Christians, the idea of Rob Bell’s message may be the excuse they were looking for to play with immorality without fear of severe consequence. I hope that this article illustrates the need that the church has to reconsider what it believes and teaches, even if it is only to reinforce what it already holds to. Why we believe something is often more important than what we believe.
Next time I will get into one of the three views on hell in more detail. Happy 2014!