Don’t ask questions
In the summer of 2012 Rob Bell released his most controversial book, Love Wins in which he asked the simple question, ‘Would a loving God send people to hell?’ Bell’s book reiterated many of our theological beliefs about the character of God and then asked how that same God would treat us after we die. His conclusion simply accepted that ‘love wins’. Conservative Christians didn’t receive it well. To this day, the mere mention of his name in some church circles brings responses of groaning, eye rolling or ‘You don’t really think (fill in the blank) do you?’
Back in April there were a few ruffled feathers when Eugenio Scalfari, an atheist friend of Pope Francis, asked where bad people go after this life. Although Scalfari does not have a good record of accuracy, he reports that the pope replied, ‘They are not punished. Those who repent obtain God’s forgiveness and take their place among the ranks of those who contemplate him, but those who do not repent and cannot be forgiven disappear. A hell doesn’t exist, the disappearance of sinning souls exists.’ Conservative Catholics didn’t receive it well. Evangelicals didn’t receive it well. The Vatican immediately tried to correct the comments as not accurate.
Brian the pagan
Years ago I was in a theology class and we were assigned the task of writing a short opinion paper on any topic we were interested in, using Scripture to defend the opinion. I did the assignment on the subject of ‘Would a loving God send people to hell?’ Opinion paper. Scripture. The conservative professor didn’t receive it well.
This isn’t a comment on my beliefs about hell nor is this a theological site so I’m not going to drag everyone into all the complex information about the subject. Just let me assure you that it isn’t as simple a discussion as most think it is. *
What I want to say is that the doctrine of hell is guarded with great energy by Christians even though it has only been mainstream in recent Christian history. However if someone even questions the reality of hell, word spreads like wildfire and they are eaten alive by gossip and vitriol by the next day.
For church people only
My opinion is that most Christians don’t believe in hell. Not really. If we did, we would probably act less selfishly and follow Jesus’ example of reaching out to others. We would do more to show others a desirable path away from that punishment. We would do whatever we could to tell people about God’s deep, reckless love, even if it meant not getting our own way. Our lives would glow with the freedom we talk about and the godly traits of grace, forgiveness, kindness and service.
If we believed in hell, we would give up being narrow, judgmental, argumentative and self-absorbed so we could listen, hear and interact with others. We would sell wedding cakes to gay couples and hire the disadvantaged and be polite with the waiter because all people matter.
If we believed in hell we would stop insisting on our ways and embrace other ways: we would give up our dusty crusades, thick study Bibles, slick orders-of-service and exhausting programs if it meant having meaningful connections with people. If we believed in hell our churches would stop fighting over leadership, politics or government funding for summer programs and give sacrificially to the community anyway. We would choose to keep the old church pews and give the saved money to a soup-kitchen because reaching out matters. We’d stop complaining about whether it’s called a Christmas tree and sing carols about Jesus’ birth at our neighbour’s doors.
If we thought there was a hell, we would stop wondering why people don’t come to our churches and would re-invent anything necessary to make church inviting, interesting, honest and safe. And if our churches got in the way of the souls of people, we would close them or leave them.
If we believed in hell we’d stop praying for our own miracles and pray for miracles in others; we’d stop giving money to wealthy television ministries and give it to the poor; we would spend less time in seminars and more time helping at the food bank; we’d stop preaching and have honest, two-way conversations.
If we truly believed in hell we would truly care about others and our lives would show them that there is more. We would begin listening, helping, befriending. We would worry less about tradition and instead just hold our arms open.
If we really believe in hell, shouldn’t grace be our default? Shouldn’t truth be our default? Shouldn’t extravagant love be our default?
Christianity believes that we do have a part to play in drawing, helping and healing the broken, the sinful, the poor, the troubled. However many of us seem overly interested in the payback of punishment and maybe even like it more than we admit.
Perhaps that’s why Christians like hell; it’s our ultimate ‘win’ when people don’t act like we want them to. Or maybe, conversely, it’s our doctrine of hell that teaches us to relish punishment so much here on earth when they don’t buy in to our programs, doctrines, expectations.
I have to tell you I’m not sure we can defend that hell is only for people on the ‘outside’. Scripture shows that Jesus was completely comfortable with ‘sinners’ and it was the religious elite who were in danger. He challenged everyone to repent and live in freedom. What makes Jesus so unique and attractive to our souls is his untiring, unconditional love to all. He loves each of us simply, where we are, and always has time to be distracted by us.
But it’s the unconventional Cross that tells us the Father’s final thoughts on this. The Cross is God embarrassing and peacefully absorbing the world’s practice of retributive punishment. The Cross is God painfully living out his unconditional love for every person in real time and real flesh.
So let’s stop being so obsessed with punishment and retributive justice; God already emptied it’s power.
The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter if you believe in hell or not. Why? Because our responsibility is to simply lean into God and trust him and leave the rest to him. Because ultimately God wins. Love wins.
* For a simple introduction to these issues you would benefit from Bruxy Cavey’s interesting ‘Bad Ideas’ sermon series at the Meeting House. The hell links are here: (http://www.themeetinghouse.com/teaching/archives/2017/bad-ideas/god-tortures-people-forever-part-1-6046) and (http://www.themeetinghouse.com/teaching/archives/2017/bad-ideas/god-tortures-people-forever-part-2-6047)