In response to my last blog—Is the Gospel Good News?—I was asked a very fundamental question:
What are the consequences of our deliberate evil deeds? Can we do whatever we like and will God forgive us anyway?
I decided to post my response here hoping that it may help others.
To be honest, a book is needed to answer this question! I probably won’t write one, though, because others have done a much better job than I could ever do—especially David Bentley Hart whose book (That All Shall Be Saved) I came across after writing my last blog. I write quickly, so my thoughts are not as organised as I’d like them to be!
Some initial thoughts. I think some people think I’m a bit odd still talking about hell in the 21st century but the issue is that the doctrine of hell is still, as it were, in the small print of the Christian contract. And as you say, most people in the Vineyard (and many other denominations) don’t think about it or talk about it, perhaps hoping it will go away. But just as we would not buy a house or a car without looking at the small print, I think many people do not buy into Christianity because that clause is still there, albeit in very small print. Even if not specifically articulated, it still gives Christianity a bad taste, a bad odour that puts people off exploring the claims of Christ. Furthermore, those who believe in hell are always those that are sure they are never going to go there themselves. But the problem is that this clause, buried in some versions of the Christian contract—particularly the Evangelical one—slanders and distorts the character of God. Someone once said to me, for example, “If hell doesn’t exist what’s the motivation for becoming a Christian?” This question encapsulates all that is wrong with many expressions of contemporary Christianity: it means that the motivation for becoming a Christian is to escape hell (which, as I argue below, is synonymous with escaping from God) not to be embraced by the God of love. In my view, it is also representative—as I hinted in my blog—of an essential life-sapping negativity that should have no place in Christianity, a negativity that represents the root of endemic judgement and violence. In other words, this is not just an academic subject: belief in hell is at the core of a very negative theology that has negative consequences.
In my experience, most Christians still seem to think they have a duty to believe in hell but because it offends our moral sense we prefer just to ignore it. The idea of a cosmic torture chamber at the heart of the universe presided over by a benevolent God who sustains life in a state of eternal damnation makes no moral, theological, or existential sense, and yet most people do feel they have a duty to believe this nonsense—that it’s part of the Christian package and if you don’t believe it you’re not a real Christian. In my view, certainly since the 18th century with the teaching of those such as Jonathan Edwards, George McDonald was right to claim that Christianity was a system founded in hell. Most who became Christians did so because they wanted to escape from God—a God portrayed as a wrathful monster—not because they wanted to embrace God. Who would want to embrace such an abuser? This was the central question of the critics of Christianity in the 19th century and it caused the exodus of many thinkers from Evangelicalism. [See Evangelical Disenchantment.]
Most Evangelicals defend hell on the basis that God has given us free will: that if we choose to ignore him in this life we have to bear the consequences in the next; that the tree lies where it falls. Allied to this claim is the notion that God has given us eternal life which cannot be extinguished. The latter is a classical Greek view: Jesus for example, in contrast, said we should fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. I’ll come back to that idea in a minute. Regarding free will, it is extremely naive to believe that human will is free: we are conditioned by our cultural and religious upbringing, by our genetic heritage, by our experiences, accidents of birth, and so forth. Human free will is a myth. The heart of the gospel, however, is that through Christ God has defeated the powers of evil that have robbed us of free will (this is a central theme of the book of Galatians). To suggest, therefore, that God is entirely justified in sentencing us to eternal damnation on the basis of choices made in this finite life is not only logically flawed but morally abhorrent.
Now the Bible does talk about “hell” and we cannot ignore the fact that both Jesus and Paul made it very clear that this-life choices do have eternal consequences (and before we go further, it’s worth pointing out that the word “eternal” should not be equated with the word “everlasting,” meaning never-ending time). However, words that are rendered “hell” in English translations should be approached with caution. The metaphors used are local, such as Gehenna, or Greek, such as Hades; Jesus also talked about judgement after death, but again, how we understand the word “judgement” is important: because we are so conditioned by law-court metaphors we tend to think of it in terms of sentencing but the whole thrust of scripture implies that God’s judgements have more to do with justice and moral discernment. [See Surprised by Hope.] The issue we face is that our understanding of hell comes more from Dante than from the Bible. [Samuel Cox’s Salvator Mundi is helpful here.]
In my view, hell (if you want to use that word) is the presence of God; that it equates to the post-mortem encounter with God. That while destructive of the works of human ambition (Paul wrote of human works being burned up), it is nevertheless the embrace of divine love. Put differently, as the author of Hebrews says, it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of God, but, I suggest, only for the impenitent: the impenitent person will experience the presence of God, the embrace of God, as a negative burning fire; the penitent person who has trusted in Christ in this life, or chooses to do so in the next, will experience God’s embrace as exquisite love. So to speak crudely, it seems to me that if a person has founded their life solely on human ambition and self-centredness there may be little left after encountering the fire of God. However, I believe that that encounter is nevertheless an encounter of love through which the person will eventually find true life. But it is not, as some have caricatured the universalist position, a matter of God simply hugging everyone no matter what.
These are just a few initial thoughts for you to ponder. I found the books listed below very helpful. Tom Wright’s book Surprised by Hope is a refreshing contemporary consideration of the afterlife. I wouldn’t describe Wright as a universalist, but you can tell from reading his work that he is, perhaps, leaning towards that position. I think the problem that Evangelicals face is that, when looked at objectively and biblically, universalism is the only reasonable implication of the biblical narrative—Christ will be “all in all”—but because it runs counter to standard Evangelical orthodoxy there is a lot of psychological pressure on people not to rock the Evangelical boat. That is why I am no longer an Evangelical. I do not want to be part of any system that values conformity to traditional dogma more than truth. This is not to say that I cannot worship with people that think differently, neither am I saying that my ideas are the final word on the subject—that I know the truth; we are all feeling our way in this uncertain world. Furthermore, since, practically speaking, most people don’t believe in hell anyway, I think it’s time we dealt with it once and for all, not least because it’s presence at the centre of Christianity has turned Christianity into a religion of violence and prevents many, especially thinking and sensitive people, from approaching the love of Christ.
Some suggestions for further reading:
Hart, David Bentley. That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019. (I only discovered this book after writing my blog exploring the good news. I’m only a third of the way through it, but it’s the kind of book I wish I’d read 40 years ago.)
O’Collins, Gerald. Salvation for All: God’s Other Peoples. Oxford University Press, 2008. (O’Collins is a Jesuit academic, I believe he used to teach at the Vatican University; this book is a fascinating Bible study looking at the God’s dealings with people groups other than Jews or Christians.)
Cox, Samuel. Salvator Mundi: or, Is Christ the Saviour of All Men? London: C. Kegan Paul & Co., 1878. (This book is available from archive.org and I found it quite a helpful introduction to the subject and as an introduction to liberal 19th-century thinking.)
Wright, N. T. (Tom), Surprised by Hope. London: SPCK, 2007. (Wright confronts many of the nonsensical myths about death that are prevalent in contemporary society and offers a very positive account of the Christian hope.)
I hope this provokes further thought.