Hell, No! (Part I)
Opponents of Christianity often cite churches preaching fire and brimstone as one of the reasons why they choose not to identify with organized religion. The irony is that talk of hell and its characteristics are rare these days. When is the last time you heard a sermon on hell? Anyone bring it up at your recent cookout…or bible study? Those who do seek to engage others on this topic run the risk of being viewed as ignorant, a religious fundamentalist, or both. Like the Silly Putty your parents played with, the definition of hell, as a concrete truth, has often been stretched and distorted merely reflecting the ideas of the individual manipulating it.
Hell is one of those topics we don’t like to spend a lot of time thinking about. We never have. Our aversion to contemplating the dark side of the afterlife, however, has changed. In the past, hell reminded us that we were accountable for our actions and would someday stand before a holy God to face judgment. To avoid the mental anguish of that thought, many have simply suppressed that truth and sought to go on living their seemingly autonomous lives.
Today, a belief in an actual place called hell is not as much suppressed as it is dismissed altogether. The abandonment of the doctrine of hell is part and parcel of enlightened thinking. Only the most primitive thinkers or egotistic religious leaders seeking to keep the masses under control still believe that hell is a real place, say much of academia and those in the know.
While disbelief in hell seems to be more widespread than it was a century ago, the seeds of this rejection have been present from the very beginning. The serpent in the garden assured Eve that there would be no consequences for her disobedience of God’s command forbidding her to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The serpent was fatally wrong, and all of humanity has suffered since.
Second century scholar, churchman, and philosopher Origen of Alexandria, writing about the afterlife, taught that no one would suffer in a place called hell for eternity. Rather, hell was only a temporary existence for the purification of the individual. He believed that, in the end, God would be victorious and restore all things to the way they were in Eden. (See Origen’s Against Celsus.) The Church later condemned Origen's teachings at the Fifth Ecumenical Council as heresy in 553 A.D.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, arguments against a literal and eternal hell continued. The Socinians, forerunners of modern-day Unitarianism, believed that it was unfitting and unjust for a loving God to condemn people to eternal suffering and torment. Instead, the lot of the wicked was total annihilation. A loving God doesn’t torture people.
The 19th century author Lewis Caroll, best known for his book Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, was also an ordained deacon in the Anglican Church. Caroll’s real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Like the story of Alice, Dodgson believed the doctrine of hell had to be pure fiction because it was inconceivable that a truly good God would send people to hell to suffer for eternity. He wrote, “When all this has been considered, its outcome seems to me to be the irresistible intuition that infinite punishment for finite sin would be unjust, and therefore wrong. We feel that even weak and erring Man would shrink from such an act. And we cannot conceive of God as acting on a lower standard of right and wrong.”
While the 20th century saw many continue to promote hell as a destructive teaching or a horrid lie, two powerful and influential figures stand out. Pope John Paul II, speaking at a General Audience at the Vatican in 1999 removed any connection between God and hell. The pontiff defined hell, not as a place to which God sends unrepentant sinners, but as a condition in which people find themselves due to their own choices and lifestyles. In essence, the highest human authority in the Roman Catholic Church released God from all culpability in regard to people and their experience of hell.
John Stott, a renowned biblical scholar, author, and Anglican minister, surprised everyone when he revealed that he did not believe in a literal hell in which God inflicted eternal torment and suffering on its residents. The visceral effect of that notion was more than he could bear as he states, "Well, emotionally, I find the concept intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain of it." To Stott’s credit, he then argued the case for annihilationism from the Scriptures. This view holds that unrepentant sinners face judgment and then are utterly destroyed. They cease to exist. There is no eternity in hell, according to John Stott.
The topic of hell necessarily requires us to consider our entire system of beliefs. Does our existence really end at death? Is there an afterlife? We have to think about things like good and evil, right and wrong, life and death, judgment and mercy. We must define justice. Who writes the standards and who is the judge? Is man truly the measure of all things, or are we living under the gaze and authority of One greater than ourselves? Is hell a real place?
What do you think? Hell, no?
For His Glory Alone,