Where I spray-paint my thoughts…

What the Heck is up with Hell?


So, apparently there was a bit of an explosion in the Twitterverse over the weekend about a new book called Love Wins, by an already-somewhat-controversial evangelical pastor named Rob Bell. I haven’t read anything by Bell myself, though I’ve heard a lot about him. Apparently the controversy centred around, not his new book itself, but a promo for the book, which seems to dare to suggest that maybe, just maybe, God is not going to condemn billions of people to an eternally burning hell.

What amazes and amuses me about this is the immediate firestorm of criticism from fellow Christians who are certain that Bell is twisting and perverting the clear, simple truth of the gospel — because the “good news” isn’t apparently quite good enough if it doesn’t include a thread of unending immolation.

I just don’t get the hell thing. I mean, I get where people get the doctrine from, though I believe it’s unbiblical: what I don’t get is the sheer relish some people seem to feel about the idea of God destroying the wicked. The implication, for a surprising number of Christians, seems to be that my salvation doesn’t mean much if it’s not going to be balanced out by someone else’s damnation.

I’ve always counted myself fortunate to have grown up in the Seventh-day Adventist church, which teaches that the wages of sin are eternal death — not eternal torture — so I haven’t grown up with the spectre of hell hanging over me. I think that’s a huge blessing. But I’m blown away by the fact that some Adventists seem to actually regret that there’s no hellfire in our doctrine — as if the whole thing would just be that much spicier if you added a handful of hot-hot-hot sauce. I’ve even sat through sermons by an Adventist evangelist who shall remain nameless (but I bet a few SDA readers can guess) who liked to lived up presentations by yelling things like “If you don’t accept Jesus, you’re all going to HELL!!!” even after having affirmed that we don’t actually believe in a literally burning hell.

The other alternative to either hell or annihilation — the alternative that some people seem to fear this Rob Bell guy is sliding towards — is universalism, the idea that God will, in the end, find a way to save everyone.

I’ve read a bit about universalism. I still can’t make up my mind about it. But the one thing that’s perfectly clear to me is that I wish it were true.  And I don’t understand why some people get so angry at the mere suggestion that God’s love and salvation might possibly be big enough to encompass the whole universe.  Why does the idea of torment and punishment seem so necessary to some people’s theology? Ideally, wouldn’t you want every single person to OK eternally? (Apparently God does; see 2 Peter 3:9).

This is the bit that’s so hard to wrap my mind around: that you could desire someone’s damnation. I remember being blindsided by this attitude over 10 years ago, in the early days of internet discussion, when I was talking about homosexuality on an SDA discussion site. At the time I was still trying to sort out my ideas about the issue, and I made the (to me, quite obvious and uncontroversial statement) that while it seemed some verses in the  Bible condemned homosexual sex as sinful, I wished this weren’t the case — I wished it were not a sin, so that the gay people I loved wouldn’t be condemned for doing what came naturally to them.

Well, another poster just lashed right out at me. How could I wish this horrible, disgusting behavior were acceptable in God’s eyes? Why wouldn’t I want people to be condemned for doing it? The salient point here is that at this stage in the discussion, I wasn’t even disagreeing with his reading of the Bible — I was just saying I wished it could be otherwise. And that was enough to unleash a storm of rage — just like the much bigger storm that has been unleashed at Rob Bell for, apparently, daring to raise the possibility that God’s love might, just might, be bigger and broader than we’ve imagined.

Why are some people so in love with the idea of hell? What do they get out of the image of their friends and loved ones being tortured forever? What the heck is up with Hell, anyway? Anyone know?


13 thoughts on “What the Heck is up with Hell?

  1. i didn’t know there was such a thing as a “universalist.” i’m going to become one. i like the idea that god would find a way to save everyone. a much more competent god, over all.

  2. In my opinion it seems like people HAVE this strange need to be rewarded for good things. Behave good = heaven. Behave bad = hell. People don’t naturally seem to want to be good, for good’s sake (sadly). They need to get something out of it.

    I had a wee giggle at the picture you chose for hell. Googling “hell” to get that shot must have been interesting.

    • Believe me, Anna Kate, there were much weirder pics I could have chosen!! (and of course I did have to Google it … it’s not like I have an album of pictures of Hell to choose from!)

  3. I also like the idea of a universal “salvation”, and it’s not completely un-biblical as Paul said “it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure”. At the same time, Paul decries his unrelenting flow of sinful thoughts. A dichotomy.

    So God isn’t even an external. It is our thoughts, our questions, our own will. No need really for an external God who will reward or punish.

    However, as human beings, it is perhaps easier to look outside ourselves and decide as Jean Paul Sartre did that “Hell is other people.”

    Therefore all too easy to delight in the suffering of others to the extent that the tortures of hell have been described by many in such prurient detail. The concept of loving another as ourselves is completely out of the picture in this; rather the imagination is given over to unbelievable delight in the suffering of the “other”.

    By losing our footing, in one sense, by forgetting that the struggle is within our own souls, we get derailed into trying to take on a job we usurp from God.

    The perversions only flow from there.

  4. Why do we want people to suffer eternally for their sins? Because we do not understand God’s love for the sinner and we do not see the difference between the sinner and the sin. God loves the sinner and hates the sin.

    I am very concerned about the belief of Universalism. Jesus has made it very clear that He is the only way to salvation. Acceptance of His perfect life lived on this planet and ending in death–the sinner’s death–on the cross. If God found a way to save everyone and that would make Him a more competent God, then what was the need for a perfect being to come to this earth to die the sinner’s death to meet the requirements of sin? I cannot think of a more competent God than that. Christ’s biggest temptation was to use His divinity to save Himself on this planet and let all of us face the wages of sin for ourselves. We need to remember that God has met the requirements of sin for us, salvation is available to all. God gave us the ability of free choice because that is His character and if we choose any other path than that which leads to eternal life, we have chosen eternal death. It is not God banishing us. It is our own choices. Matt. 1:21 says that “He will save His people from their sins”, not “in their sins”

    • I see your points, Glenda, but I think a Universalist would argue that Universalism makes Jesus’ sacrifice MORE meaningful, not less, because it shows Him as paying the debt for sin for ALL humanity, not just those who, during a short earthly lifetime with many confusions and disadvantages, manage to make the correct choice or sign up to the correct belief system.

      As I said, I’m not fully convinced of Universalism, because I do place a lot of weight on the concept of human free will, but I can see the point of some Universalist arguments.

      • John 3:16, 17 Salvation is for all–Christ did die for all, even those who are lost and He does not let anyone go without enough knowledge for them to have salvation–only human beings do that. I guess what concerns me the most about a Universalist idea of salvation from what I understand they believe is that we are questioning God’s written word and His way of doing things and in the end we think that we know more than He does and have a much better plan which puts us right back to the war in Heaven–the Great Controversy between God and Satan. The created knows more and is better than the Creator.

  5. Hi, found you via Twitter.
    Agree with your thoughts, doubts and questions.

    I never understood the doctrine of hell, especially after I studied it … there’s no proof for so much of what many believe. Then after I received severe injuries in an accident, I really began questioning it. Dealing with trauma and lifelong limitations and pain has made me question how God, if he’s loving, could cause pain to anyone that’s is created in his image (which is everyone) for all of eternality. Doesn’t compute with me.
    So I look forward to reading Love Wins by Rob Bell.

  6. IF God has promised eternal life to those that love Him, and hell is eternal, then those who end up there would also be granted eternal life (such as it would be). Therefore, I am convinced that whatever manifestation hell takes, it only lasts for a time, and will eventually come to an end. I think in the end, we will be astonished at those who are granted eternal life, finding God’s grace and sacrifice greater than even those of us who profess to know it could comprehend. I believe that those who end up in hell will have to fight tooth and nail to get there. I find it hard to believe that anyone would wish someone to end up in hell…obviously, there would be in that person a sad lack of the spirit of Christ who was unwilling that any should perish.

    • Jessica, I agree with your last point particularly — I recognize that Christians have many different beliefs about “hell” and the eternal fate of the wicked, but it’s the idea of desiring someone else’s suffering, seeming to take pleasure in the idea, that puzzles me. I think some people create God in their own image – petty and vindictive.

      • I have to agree with Jessica–there is a reason why God/Jesus is also called the hound of Heaven. It is really much easier to be saved than to be lost whether we want to admit it or not.

        Another thought that just occurred to me–if death as we know it now is such that “the dead know not anything” than why would God want those who are lost to suffer for eternity? I do believe that our God is a God of principle and He does not change. And Trudy, you are right–human beings are very good at creating God into what they want Him to be and into their own image.

  7. I find it amusing many Christians say they are saved by the blood of Christ but they really believe they are saved by a perfect theology, ie, if you don’t believe exactly the way they do you’re going to hell. I don’t think every single person who ever lived will go to heaven. People can chose to not be saved but Christ’s blood is strong enough to save those who don’t have a perfect theology including Christians, Jews, Muslims, Agnostics, etc. Christ’s sheep hear his voice and they aren’t all in the same fold we’re in. Some will hear the gospel for the first time in heaven from our savior’s lips. Two of my favorite reasons for continuing to attend a Seventh-day Adventist church are we’ve never taught an eternal hell and always believed God’s love and sacrifice are big enough to save anyone, even if we don’t agree on theology.

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