Daily Archives: May 17, 2011

Is Hell Reasonable? (Part 2)

In my article titled Lady Gaga, Rob Bell and Hell, I discussed a comment made on a Lady Gaga video that I thought exemplifies a common view these days.  The view says because “God is love”, we ought not to judge one another.  Furthermore, this view believes that a loving God will not judge/punish anyone by sending them to an eternal hell, for this would go against His kindhearted nature.  It is thought that a loving God will accept everyone– He will simply forgive everyone for their sins, whether or not they have believed in and received Jesus Christ as Savior from sin.

Some believe God will save all, no matter what their religion– all religions lead to God.  And if there is a hell, many suppose it is the destiny of the Hitlers, Stalins and Mansons of this world, not their own.  “Surely really bad sinners deserve to go to hell, but I’m not that bad”.   These unscriptural, universalistic, inclusivistic perspectives are not new, but they seem to be on the rise, even being embraced by many who call themselves Christians.  Such views reflect the relativistic spirit of our times.

This is why I have been discussing Rob Bell’s controversial new book, Love Wins– because it also clearly leans in this theological direction and influences Bell’s presentation of hell.  As mentioned in last week’s post, Is Hell Reasonable (Part 1), Bell’s assumptions about the nature of God (and perhaps about the nature of justice) lead to him to particular conclusions about what hell is like.   For Bell, hell is not a place of eternal punishment and separation from God, but rather hell is two things. First, it’s what we suffer in this life when we don’t choose to follow God.  Second, Bell suggests that after death, hell may be a place where people undergo “a period of pruning, or a “time of trimming” or an intense period of correction (Love Wins, p.91)”.  He claims hell can’t possibly be a place of unending punishment, for such a place would not exalt God. Bell writes,

“Restoration brings God glory; eternal torment doesn’t. Reconciliation brings God glory; endless anguish doesn’t. Renewal and return cause God’s greatness to shine through the universe; never-ending punishment doesn’t.

Bell also claims that the view that God will ultimately reconcile all things to Himself, in such a way that even after death people have “endless opportunities in an endless amount of time to say yes to God (p.106)”, has been with the church from the beginning.  He writes,  “At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church have been a number that insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end wins and all will be reconciled to God.”

Notice how Bell implies that if people go to hell as a place of eternal punishment and separation from God, God has tragically failed to achieve His purpose. Bell makes this thought even more clear when he asks, “Will all people be saved, or will God not get what God wants? Does this magnificent, marvelous, mighty God fail in the end?”

But Bell comes to this false conclusion based on a faulty premise. God has not failed if/when people go to hell. For Scripture and Jesus Himself make it clear, over and over again, that not all are saved; some indeed do go to hell, and this occurs within the plan of God.

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Matthew 7:13-14 ESV)”

“for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:28 ESV)”

…Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Ephesians 5:25 ESV)

“Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life (Matthew 25:45-46 ESV)”

All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out (John 6:37)”

[18] So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. [19] You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” [20] But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” [21] Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? [22] What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, [23] in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—[24] even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? (Romans 9:18-24 ESV)

The above is but a small sampling of Bible verses that demonstrate: 1) Jesus did not die indiscriminately for all mankind, but specifically, for His sheep; 2) the destiny of some people is to go away into eternal punishment; and 3) everything unfolds according to God’s plan.

Bell really has no solid biblical ground for asserting that the traditional concept of hell does not glorify God. If Scripture reveals that God created an eternal hell in which evildoers are punished forever, demonstrating His justice, who are we to say such a place cannot exist, or that it would not be loving of God to make such a place, or that it would not glorify Him? It may sound plausible to think God would be most glorified in ultimately converting all His enemies. But Scripture is clear that this is not what happens.  Some are destined for hell, nevertheless God will receive glory from this fact.

Last time, I suggested that the following assertions about hell could be drawn from Bell’s thought in Love Wins:

  1. God’s loving nature precludes Him from condemning people He created to eternal punishment.
  2. The traditional view of hell is unfair and also incorrect in proposing that God punishes people infinitely and eternally for sins committed in a finite lifetime.
  3. The idea that only a few select few will be saved, while everyone else is damned, cannot be acceptable to God, nor should we find it acceptable.
  4. God would not create millions of people knowing in advance they will be damned to hell.
  5. A Christian who believes in traditional propositions about hell is misguided and has a wrong view of God.

I turn now to address these ideas (we will deal with only the first point now, the others in ensuing articles).  As we begin, I must first ask, can unaided human reason or can science give definite answers to such questions?  Reason is at best speculative, and science primarily deals with testable data, not with the unseen world.   What authority then, directs us to correct and truthful answers to these all-important inquiries on the nature of God, heaven, hell?  For the Christian of course, the authority is Scripture, which we take not to be merely the word of men, but the word of God.   Yet even among those who view the Bible as their authority, there is debate and disagreement regarding how to interpret the biblical data on hell.  Of course, the truths the Bible addresses are complex, and understanding the Bible rightly requires careful study.  Nonetheless I propose that

We have a difficult time with certain truths the Bible teaches, not because they are terribly unclear, but because they are only too clear, and we don’t like their implications.

When it comes to the teaching of the Bible and especially of Jesus, regarding hell, our inability to perceive/receive what the Bible is saying probably has more to do with its very unpleasant implications than any lack of intelligibility. But we have no right to pick and choose what we’ll accept or reject from the scriptural testimony.  Let us pray then that God’s Spirit opens our understanding and enables us to allow  Scripture to direct and form our ideas on hell, helping us set aside our natural predispositions.

1. God’s loving nature precludes Him from condemning people He created to eternal punishment.

Does Scripture teach that God has a loving nature?  Yes, it certainly does.  But what is does God’s love like? Does God’s love simply overlook sin? Though indeed God is love (1 John 4:8), God does not deny His holiness and righteousness as He loves people. Charles Swindoll has said: “Our society would have us think that if we truly love people, we’ll accept them regardless of their beliefs. This is called ‘tolerance.’ Yet what kind of love lets someone believe a lie that eventually destroys them? That’s not love; that’s indifference, the opposite of love.”

God’s love knows the dark reality of sin.  He sees it as the deceptive, destructive, deadly force it really is. His love therefore seeks to eradicate sin from those He loves, as He molds them into the beautiful creatures He intends them to be.  Moreover, He intends to expel all sin from the entire universe.  But how does He accomplish this? First, the Father provided a way by which sinners may escape condemnation for their sins:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. [2] For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. [3] For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh (Romans 8:1-3 ESV)

[16] “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. [17] For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. [18] Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God (John 3:16-18 ESV)”

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins [2] in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—[3] among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. [4] But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, [5] even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—[6] and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, [7] so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:1-7 ESV)

As is clear from these passages, all stand condemned before a holy God because of our sins against Him and against His moral law.  But God did not leave mankind to be condemned, but in love sent His own Son into the world to die for sins.  Those who embrace what Jesus Christ did for them, believing in Him, are not condemned, but those who do not believe remain under condemnation for their sins. This means rather than having their sins atoned for by the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29), unbelievers will instead be punished for their sins in hell. So first, God “condemned sin in the flesh” through Jesus Christ, yet all who cling to Him may be rescued from condemnation. Second, sin will be eradicated from the universe as God creates a new world in which sin will have no place and consigns sinners to hell forever.

[5] And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” [6] And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. [7] The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. [8] But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death. “(Revelation 21:5-8 ESV)

And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:15 ESV)

We see therefore that it is not a contradiction within our loving God that He judges and punishes sinners in hell.  He created all people and in love offers them eternal life through His Son.  But sinners in their hardness of heart reject the offer and go their own way. God’s great love and mercy motivated Him to send His own Son to pay the eternal penalty due to sins, by His death on the cross.  He took the wrath of God upon Himself.   But His holiness and justice arouse Him to punish those who unwisely and with evil hearts neglect such a great salvation (Heb 2:3).

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. John 3:36

In our next post, we continue our response to the above assertions which object to the traditional view of hell.  In subsequent posts I’ll also list some great resources that I have been using for my studies on this topic.

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Filed under Controversy, Hell, Theology