Tuesday, March 8, 2011


OR…maybe not…maybe just my take on hell.  I was taught all my life to believe in a literal hell and a literal devil, and I firmly believed it.  I was angry when I read that people like Brian Mclaren had begun to question the doctrine of hell.  I thought that he was a heretic who would…bad as I hated to think it…go there.  I was outraged at the newer Bible translations that were “taking hell out of the Bible.”  I was as far from accepting a universalist position as could possibly be imagined.

But then, somehow I found myself questioning this doctrine of hell.  And, to even have these questions scared me to death!  When I found myself wondering about it, I’d try my best to ignore those nagging thoughts.  I’d shove ‘em to the back of my mind and try to not think about them.  I was successful for some time, but finally I came to a place where there was just no other option – it was imperative that I examine my thoughts and questions surrounding hell.  

Once my resistance was slightly lowered (very slightly, mind you), my first reaction was “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it wasn’t true?  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if nobody went to hell?”  Of course, I was still far from believing that, but still…what a joyful thought it was!

I began to tentatively read about the history of hell and the origin of the devil.  I read articles from Tentmaker and articles on the meanings of the different words used for hell and for everlasting/eternal here  and here.  I skimmed (didn't read the whole book!) The Origin and History of the Doctrine of Endless Punishment by Thayer. I read the argument that Universalism was the prevailing doctrine of early Christianity here. I watched a documentary video from the History channel on the origins of hell and a video by MSNBC that told of Carlton Pearson's journey To Hell and Back when he renounced the doctrine of hell.  But I remained far from convinced.  Sometimes when I’d come across something particularly convincing, it would scare me and I'd run back to the safety of majority opinion.  A person can't see something if they're not willing to see it, and at that time I was still not ready to be convinced! 

I'm still far from figuring it all out, and I certainly don't claim to have all the answers.  But one thing I can say is that, after much deliberation, I've come to a very different view of hell than I previously adhered to. 

The first thing that changed dramatically was my understanding of judgment.  I think there's Biblical room to see judgment as something that happens while we are in this life.   Jesus taught that we will reap the consequences of our own actions, and Paul said that we will be rewarded in this very body for the deeds we have done - good or bad (2 Corin. 5:10)!  I also believe that God's chastening is redemptive in nature. I like what Brian McLaren said here about the wrath and judgment of God:  
"...wrath means God's displeasure that allows people to experience the consequences of their negative actions....So if we neglect the poor, there will be crime and revolutionary movements ... If we neglect our children, they'll feel alienated from us, hurting themselves and us. If we neglect the environment, we'll suffer erosion and global warming....And judgment in the conventional narrative means God sending people to hell. But what if this is based on a mistaken understanding? What if judgment means "setting things right," or "restoring justice?" So for God to come as judge to bring judgment would mean God coming to stop the oppressors from oppressing, the polluters from polluting, the violent from plundering, the greedy from hoarding, etc."
I also began to see at a new level that heaven and hell are indeed very real; very literal.  But also that they are both here on this earth - present realities, ways of living we can enter into here and now, as Rob Bell said in Velvet Elvis (p. 147).   Paul taught that the Kingdom of God IS peace and joy, and Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of Heaven is at hand - so close we can reach out and touch it!   I think hell on earth is created when we are consumed by the flames of our own anger and hate, tortured by desires which are never satisfied, and tormented by never-ending fears (1 John 4:18).   In this manner, hell is created, chosen, and lived in.  In this hell of our own making, the smoke of our torment does ascend up forever and ever (continually!) and no rest can be found day or night.  Moreover, we live in this condition in the very presence of the Lamb (Rev. 14: 9-11) oblivious to the rest and peace presently available to us in the Kingdom of Heaven!  

Why do we cling so perniciously to the notion of eternal conscious torment?  I think we live in that fear because deep down we believe God's goodness and love for all creation is simply too good to be true. We just find it too difficult to believe that God could be that good, that evil could actually be overcome with good, and that the worst of us could be won over with Love.   Others have written much more eloquently than I ever could in favor of God's triumph and ultimate reconciliation of all things, so I won't say more on that front.  The above mentioned resources are excellent, Richard Beck wrote beautifully on the subject here and here, and entire lists of articles and books can be found here and here.

But I do believe that Scripture teaches that hell will not prevail, that all enemies will be defeated, and that ultimately all things in heaven and in earth will be gathered together in the Christ.  I believe "all" means "ALL," and I hope Rob Bell comes out in Love Wins with a strong elucidation that lives up to the book's title. 


Don said...

I really like the way you presented the topic here. I am convinced that people who are FINALLY questioning will find their way here. They need immediate access to the same things you found in your search, on your journey. Kudos for giving them that immediate access!

Mae said...

Thanks, Don! You're always so positive and encouraging!