on a theology of hell

I’ve been following the buzz about Rob Bell’s book Love Wins and whether or not he’s a universalist. Upon reading Mark Galli’s article on it all in CT I’d like to offer a few thoughts on the nature of salvation and eternal punishment.

My job puts me in the proximity of the mentally ill, the chronically homeless, drug and alcohol addicts, and many who are severely depressed. This means I am faced every day with a lot of promises that don’t go very far. Knowledge of the next right thing to do is not the same as acting on it again and again. When some talk of “unbelievers” being “wicked” and deserving punishment I think to myself, “So this means that believers never waiver in their faith, are never disobedient, and somehow are lucky enough not to be among the 4.5 billion heading for eternal punishment.” I have a friend who so associates traditional orthodoxy with the abuse he knew growing up in church that it can’t possibly be true. But he’s honest and always admits that he can’t penetrate the mystery and so will continue to pursue his Higher Power’s will even without certainty. God has been honoring his effort and he manages to stay sober one day at a time.

I am more afraid for those certain theologians who know how it all works and go about preaching God’s wrath and exclusion, than I am for those who can’t figure out God’s ways but want only to know His love. I want the same kind of relationship with Jesus my friend Earnie has. He’s mentally ill, living on a fixed income, and asking for bread to feed the birds. He’s in church three times a week and prays every day “if there are any sins I can’t think of charge it to my brain and not to my heart.” I can be moving through the lobby at fifty miles an hour and he’ll yell out, “Slow down Rev. Chris!” If knowledge were the ticket to heaven I wouldn’t want to be there. Faith involves using our head, but thank God, it’s more than that. Faith is about togetherness.

I think that anyone ready to cite numbers and percentages when it comes to eternity has already stepped into the judgment seat themselves and has become disobedient for the sake of their theology. It is because I believe in hell and I fear the judgment of God that I refuse to speculate about the extent of His mercy. Universalism and Annihilationism are both examples of posturing. It’s just not enough to obey God ourselves we have to do God’s judging job for him.

It is because I have known so many believers who could not seem to be faithful because of mental illness and addiction, and because of my own personal history of disobedience that I am so averse to speculating over the lost. The hope of the gospel is in God’s relentless grace, not just for believing individuals, but for a believing Church. As every church knows, public proclamation is so much easier than personal piety.  Saving faith, lives that glorify God, churches that do the gospel in all its fullness, these are all the fruit of God’s Spirit at work.

When we think we know humans and communication so well that we know just how to market the gospel to reach everyone the world over and get the job done, we have lost humility and touch with reality. Belief involves honesty, not just acknowledgment. To think that anyone with the moniker Christian among the world’s billions in population is somehow exempt from hell is to assume too much. People go to church for a lot of reasons. We are all a mixture of motives. There is no easy way of quantifying the earth’s faithful.

It’s best to focus on simply living it out rather than stopping to count who will burn. Rest assured God’s will is being done on earth as it is in heaven. I just want to be an ambassador of God’s reconciliation in the world.

Somehow God’s love and reconciliation is big enough for judgmental counters. Those who cast the sideward glance. And yes, God knows, that includes me. Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on us.

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5 Comments

Filed under Pastoral Ministry, theology

5 responses to “on a theology of hell

  1. Casper

    I’ve just looked at the CT piece. I’m not sure i’m in the right frame of mind to read 5 pages on evangelical squabbles, in fact I’m not sure i’ll ever be in the right frame of mind!

    By and large I agree with what you say but am not too sure about this bit:

    “I think that anyone ready to cite numbers and percentages when it comes to eternity has already stepped into the judgment seat themselves and has become disobedient for the sake of their theology. It is because I believe in hell and I fear the judgment of God that I refuse to speculate about the extent of His mercy. Universalism and Annihilationism are both examples of posturing. It’s just not enough to obey God ourselves we have to do God’s judging job for him.”

    Certainly those who points to an ‘unbeliever’ and determines that they are going to Hell has, as you say, “stepped into the judgement seat”. But I don’t follow you on ‘refusing to speculate’ if theology fails to engage in such issues hasn’t it ultimately failed.

    It seems to me that theology, which at its basis is speculating about God, is only meaningful if it does address these matters head on. I know some advocate a ‘hopeful universalism’ but i think that’s a bit of an easy escape – actually, I’m going to post on that now (thanks for the blogging inspiration!)

    Anyhow, I hope the new ministry’s going well.

  2. I think theology is only speculation when it’s not concerned with God’s revelation. So what is revealed concerning God’s desire for the human race? What are people for?

  3. I can be quite judgmental. When I don’t listen to Jesus, I am the worst person to be around: a self-righteous fool. Jesus died for people; He challenged people. He rarely turned people away, and when He did, it was a teaching moment (think of the Syrophoenician Woman).

    When speaking of mental illness, it pushes us to realize: Jesus will judge our motives and those of all, on His standard. I guess this Rob Bell book is pushing me to realize: I may not fully understand God’s grace. I need to seek Him, not just a set of doctrines. Certainly, doctrine is helpful, but if I can’t talk to someone about the meaning of Hell or the way to escape it (as the Lord has revealed to me), I may be closer to the edge of that horrible place than I care to admit.

    Thanks, Reverend Chris! Keep showing Christ’s love!

  4. Casper

    Chris,

    I do still intend to respond in post form but just wanted to backtrack a little. Re-reading my comment I think it was a little confrontational. That is to be expected in that I did, and still do disagree with you! However, theology is but a minor player in as your friend puts it “showing Christ’s love” which is unremitting and without condition, wicked or otherwise. The broader point of your post (I think) was that grace precedes judgement and while the nature of judgement is speculative the nature of God’s grace is not. Therefore, perhaps the church would profit more from concentrating on the reality of grace.

    On that I agree.

  5. Matt

    “It is because I have known so many believers who could not seem to be faithful because of mental illness and addiction, and because of my own personal history of disobedience that I am so averse to speculating over the lost”

    If you are trying to reason as to why the disobedience, I have come to the conclusion every person’s walk is infinitely different. Family is a big one. Why is a 12 year old girl molested by her father? Why does she then get into drug addiction and have a hard time breaking it even after being saved?

    Genes I believe is another but a person has to take responsibility as well. I have struggled with porn addiction since I can remember and I can’t seem to figure out why I can’t break this. I am also middle aged and alone unable to form any meaningful relationships. Life is a real grind, every day. Why is this? I could not tell you, but I do know I will be judged differently than anybody in this world.

    Your post is good reading. A little complicated. Ecclesiastes 12 13:14 “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.
    14 For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil”

    Just keep doing good. I feel fundamental Christians have swayed to far to the “It’s all based on faith and your deeds are like dirt to God”. Faith is what will save you but good deeds are very important to God. Especially in secret. When I have a particularly bad day and sinned against God, I do something for charity and don’t tell anybody about it. I earmark the deed just for that particular instance of disobedience. I can tell you for sure that God delights in this.

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