Well, the kerfuffle in the Evangelical Blahg&Twitter World is huge. And I’m late to the party, of course (and to be honest, I could use the page hits, though probably not the character assassinations), but I want to be careful that I don’t just come in swinging (which is usually reserved for my treatment of political figures).
As such, I’d like to introduce you to what I’ll call The Great Robbing Hell Blog-a-Thon.
To talk about wrath apart from this depiction of the grace-consuming God is to put forward a view of God that is not only unbiblical but potentially monstrous. And, to put forward a view of God that is absent of final judgment, yes of wrath, yes of eternal judgment, is to offer a caricature of the Bible’s God.
Is it possible that others can know Jesus while not knowing his name? Can’t they live for him and receive him, know him and be known by him, without taking our version of the proper steps? Are we so sure God’s grace isn’t that generous? Perhaps a person rejects Jesus verbally, because the version they’ve been told about is a false one, but they receive Jesus in their life and respond in their actions. Is it possible that such a scenario is more acceptable to God than the person who receives Jesus verbally while accomplishing all of the churchy stuff, but does so because of selfish reasons like fear or pride?
Jesus did NOT say “I am starting a new religion with you guys, and this religion is the only way to avoid hell.” Hell’s not even part of the discussion. Nor did Jesus say “no one can be saved unless he thinks in his mind that I am the son of God and I am dying for his sins.” No, Jesus says “I AM the way” directly in the context of his having just told his disciples “you know the way.” The life they have lived with Jesus during the past three-plus years of his earthly ministry, the jobs he has set them to do, the miracles they have witnessed, the teaching they have absorbed; all these things wrapped together have taught them “the way” to the Father, which is the person of Jesus himself.
When hell defines our story, when we see Jesus primarily as the solution to the problem of hell, when avoiding hell is the very reason why the Gospel is good news – then of course any questioning of that doctrine is going to be deeply threatening.
If that’s the Story, then without hell the narrative loses its shape.
Sarah Bessey wrote an essay on this recently, and asked her readers to wrestle with this question: “without hell what is the point?”
It’s a great question, regardless of where you come down on the debate about hell itself. Because hell isn’t the point, not in the Torah, not to Jesus, not to Peter or Paul. That’s not to say it isn’t discussed or real – but it’s not the point of the narrative.
However, I also believe the way we talk about and picture hell too often has more to do with Dante than Jesus, is too often more a reflection of the baggage we bring to the text than what the text is saying.
Honestly I understand why people want to reject the doctrine of hell, and it’s not always just an unwillingness to stomach a difficult doctrine. Often it’s a sensitivity to the fact that the ways in which we talk about hell, and the overtly central role hell plays in our telling of the story, fits very poorly with the Biblical narrative and who we say God is.
The point is that when Jesus was warning his hearers about Gehenna, he was not, as a general rule, telling them that unless they repented in this life they would burn in the next one. As with God’s kingdom, so with its opposite: it is on earth that things matter, not somewhere else. His message to his contemporaries was stark and (as we would say today) political. Unless they turned back from their hopeless and rebellious dreams of establishing God’s kingdom in their own terms, not least through armed revolt against Rome, then the Roman juggernaut would do what large, greedy, and ruthless empires have always done to smaller countries (not least in the Middle East) whose resources they covet or whose strategic location they are anxious to guard. Rome would turn Jerusalmen into a hideous, stinking extension of its own smoldering rubbish heap. When Jesus said, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish,” that is the primary meaning he had in mind.
God is utterly committed to set the world right in the end. This doctrine, like that of resurrection itself, is held firmly in place by the belief in God as creator, on the one side, and the belief in his goodness, on the other. And that setting right must necessarily involve the elimination of all that distorts God’s good and lovely creation and in particular of all that defaces his image-bearing human creatures. Not to put too fine a point on it, there will be no barbed wire in the kingdom of God. And those whose whole being has become dependent upon barbed wire will have no place there either.
As I’ll use it, “universalism” refers to the position that eventually all human beings will be saved and will enjoy everlasting life with Christ. This is compatible with the view that God will punish many people after death, and many universalists accept that there will be divine retribution, although some may not. What universalism does commit one to is that such punishment won’t last forever. Universalism is also incompatible with various views according to which some will be annihilated (after or without first receiving punishment). These views can agree with universalism in that, according to them, punishment isn’t everlasting, but they diverge from universalism in that they believe some will be denied everlasting life… In short, then, it’s the position that every human being will, eventually at least, make it to the party.