There has been a lot of discussion regarding the doctrine of hell thanks to controversy surrounding Rob Bell’s forthcoming book wherein some believe he will announce himself as some form of universalist (e.g. my thoughts on the conflict here). Personally, I affirm a doctrine of hell though there is no aspect of Christian teaching which I hate more. I hate, hate, hate thinking about hell. In fact, I rarely do because I cannot fathom it as it is popularly taught.
In order for me to even stomach the doctrine there are other things that I must affirm. Let me share my approach to thinking about this subject. Maybe it will help you wrestle with it.
(1) I affirm that the Triune God is love. Love is not merely one of his defining characteristics, but a defining characteristic. God’s love is love, par excellence. If we love our fellow humans it is only because of God’s love toward us and the fact that we have been made in his image. Therefore, if our love for others makes it difficult to imagine anyone being cast into hell we must realize that God is even more passionate that no one would perish, “but that all would have eternal life”.
(2) I affirm that the Triune God is just. God will not make any mistakes in his final judgement. If God judges someone eternally it was the right thing to do. If God does this there is nothing that God missed, no piece of evidence that was not understood, no possible solution not considered. God’s justice is shaped by his love.
(3) I affirm that the Triune God is graceful. God’s wrath is a pure wrath. If God acts wrathfully it is not like when you or I lose control. It is because it was the only option and the right time. This is because God is graceful. God will extend time as long as possible for someone if that person is to be reached by God. God will never cut someone off from grace that he could have reached.
(4) I think hell is a straightforward, yet simultaneously ambiguous doctrine. There has been much written on the words commonly translated “hell”. There is sheol and hades, the place of the dead or the grave. There is gehenna, the valley outside Jerusalem with a history that included human sacrifice before later becoming a garbage dump. There is tartaroo, the Hellenistic concept of the abode of the dead, primarily the wicked dead. These words have contributed images that tell us that whatever hell is it is not good. The imagery for hell is death, fire, smoke, darkness, weeping, gnashing teeth, worms that don’t die, and a place where the wicked experience unquenchable thirst.
Yet these are also merely images. We do not know what hell is like aside from these images. And I think one of the problems is that we focus on the images to the neglect of the reality behind the images which has to do with the judgment of being separated from God and loosing our true humanity.
(5) I do not think that we can comprehend hell unless we acknowledge that it must be the loving act of a loving God. Whatever hell may be it should be said with C.S. Lewis that it is “locked from the inside”. I know some of my Reformed friends do not like that language, but I cannot comprehend hell without being able to think of it as a place that, in part, is chosen by people over the horror of being with the God that they hate. As Lewis said, hell is God saying “your will be done” to rebellious humans.
(6) There is a lot that we do not know. Anyone who knows me or reads this blog knows that I have a low(er) view of human epistemology. I have been shaped by the Apostle Paul’s words that we see through a glass darkly. Also, we only know things “in part”. I am not going to speculate with Origen about hell being emptied. I do not know if it is a form of punishment that may last a long, long, long time but that cannot prevent reconciliation. I do not know if it results in human annihilation. I don’t see much evidence for these ideas, but I don’t see anything that guarantees there is no room for them. In the end God is God and God being God is the only one who has the right to determine the nature, length, and result of his wrath.
Likewise, I do not know if there is a nuance to the words of Jesus that may reshape how we understand them. I want (or don’t want) to take Jesus literally, but there are times, like when he says if my eye offends me I should pluck it from my face, that I must propose metaphor or elevated rhetoric. If hell is one of those things, thank God.
Also, I find it interesting that while the Apostle Paul speaks a lot about the wrath of God there is no place that I can recall him addressing the doctrine of hell in the terminology that we find in contemporary Christianity. Paul’s doctrine of wrath is a fabulously ambiguous idea. We know there is judgment that is coming which we should take seriously. Paul tells us little more. Rather, he focuses on the resurrection life of the adopted children of God.
(7) We need to be patient with each other as we think and discuss this subject. I find it a tad odd that many of the people who were most upset with Rob Bell, and those who seem to have the most at stake, are also those who think God elects each human in sovereignty to either heaven or hell in an almost deterministic fashion. For those who claim to trust that God is in complete control they sure did seem threatened! If ever there was a doctrine we must discuss in love it is the doctrine of hell. If ever there was a doctrine that is easy to doubt and where we should be sympathetic to those who wish it to not be true it is the doctrine of hell.
We must remember it was the pious and self-righteous whom Jesus threatened with hell.