|The hell debate hinges on two driving forces. One is the emotional case that questions the reality of eternal punishment in the afterlife based on the character of God and Jesus’ love ethic. Rob Bell made this emotional plea in Love Wins, as have others (apparently Jackson Baer in What the Hell, although I haven’t read his book yet). Many believers, despite what they hear in their churches and read in their Bibles, know in their heart that something is terribly wrong. How can God, known for unconditional love, and His Son, Jesus, known for his teaching on unmerited favor and forgiveness, consign unbelievers, no matter what their earthly religious circumstances, to everlasting torment without hope of pardon? This is a direct contradiction to the patient, loving character of God, despite critics’ erroneous claim that God’s retributive justice is equally part of His character.|
If Christ died for evil people “while they were yet sinners,” how can the same God who sent Christ not continue to reach out to people in the afterlife and permit them every opportunity to turn from their errant ways and receive salvation? Why the unrelenting finality? Moreover, how can a God who looks at the heart when judging the human condition, not take into account the sincere faith of those indoctrinated in other religions?
This emotional case is a good place to start a conversation about hell, but a hell of a bad place to end it. It may lead to a hopeful, open-minded rethinking of the hereafter, but without more evidence, there is too much mystery to come to a solid conclusion. And, it’s to a conclusion that we must come. For without a conclusion (as an article of faith, not an empirical certainty), the character of God is maligned by the doctrine of hell. A God who allows an eternal hell is a God whose followers include those who justify a litany of emotional and spiritual abuses.
The other force behind the debate is the academic case for questioning hell. Bell touched on this but unfortunately didn’t dive deep into it. Perhaps if he had, he would have come to a more solid conclusion, for the academic case is by far the strongest. Many have done so, from Keith DeRose, Thomas Talbot, Gregory MacDonald (Robin Parry), Gary Beauchemin, Julie Ferwerda (Raising Hell), Eric Stetson, Michael and Rhonda Jones, and myself in the section of my book on The Case for Universalism.
The academic case has three major elements: the linguistic, historic, and logical. The linguistic uncovers the root meanings of Greek and Hebrew terms and reveals how the original concept of what we call “hell” is more accurately a corrective punishment or judgment for a particular age or time (possibly in the afterlife but not necessarily so), and not of an everlasting nature. The historic shows how many church fathers and figures, including modern personalities such as George MacDonald, believed and taught universal reconciliation. Finally, the logical case builds on the other arguments to reveal an original Bible that speaks nothing of eternal torment or an obligation to submit to such ambiguous scripture. It also reveals a God who uses punishment for the purpose of reconciliation, not retribution, so that “mercy triumphs over judgment.”
What is needed in the hell debate is for people to honestly commit to study the evidence—linguistic, historical, and logical—with an open mind (without being constrained by denominational or organizational pressures) and to ultimately come to a conclusion. For those indoctrinated with fundamentalist and evangelical mindsets, this can be a long process. To them, debunking hell appears to be dismissing scripture. Patience is called for to help them look objectively at the academic arguments and not be tainted by an unhealthy worship of modern translations of scripture. (I tell the story of how I came through this process and other discoveries in Confessions of a Bible Thumper). But once the academic arguments become clear, sitting on the fence on this issue for fear of offending others is not an option. The hellish doctrine of eternal damnation is a stain on the character of God that twists the message of the good news and often creates psychologically abused and abusive followers. Please weigh in on this debate!