This was originally published on April 17, 2011
Someone at church this morning mentioned to me that they had just read about Pastor Rob Bell’s emerging belief that there is no Hell. Mind you, she read this in Time magazine which also famously declared that God was Dead back in 1966. Apparently Time is working to slowly declare dead much of traditional Christian doctrine though it seems odd that God would have passed away 45 years before Hell.
We didn’t really have a conversation about this, for which I am just as glad because I suspect that this lovely lady readily agreed with this assertion and probably expected that I did too. This is one of those things, like universal salvation, that I’d really like to believe but I am reluctant to fully go there. By my count Jesus is credited with suggesting that going to Hell is an option for the dead 14 times in the gospels. To be fair, several of these are really the same because it is an account of similar sayings in the different synoptic gospels. Interstingly though, I can’t find any uses of Hell in John’s gospel. To give an example, in Matthew (chapter 10, verse 28) Jesus says “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather be afraid of God, who can destroy both body and soul in hell.”
The Bible though seems to suggest that we have a decision to make, as is highlighted in this speech of John the Baptist from Mark’s gospel;
“And don’t think you can escape punishment by saying that Abraham is your ancestor. I tell you that God can take these rocks and make descendants for Abraham! The ax is ready to cut down the trees at the roots; every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown in the fire. I baptize you with water to show that you have repented, but the one who will come after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. He is much greater than I am; and I am not good enough even to carry his sandals. He has his winnowing shovel with him to thresh out all the grain. He will gather his into his barn, but he will burn the chaff in a fire” Jesus’ parable of the women waiting for the bridegroom (Matt 25) also seems to suggest that in the kingdom of heaven there are those who will be left out due to their own actions.
The traditions of the church also have long held that there is a place or a state of existence that is Hell; and the Apostles creed speaks of Jesus descending to Hell after his crucifixion. I could be willing to support an idea hat whatever Hell is, it probably isn’t what we have traditionally and popularly imagined. Do I think that there is a big cave deep in the earth where red dudes with horns and tails who carry tridents boss you about amidst roaring fires? Well, that doesn’t seem likely to me. But it seems just as unlikely to me that something that gospel and tradition attest too is completely a figment of human imagination. I admit that the church is not infallible and that it has sometimes gotten things wrong, but the central core about the experience of Israel with Jesus, the execution and resurrection of Jesus, and the witness and work of the apostles are thing to which I am willing to say, I believe.
But, as much as I believe in Hell, I have the suspicion it may be empty because I do not know of any human that ever lived that was beyond redemption. I don’t believe anyone was ever was ever so devoid of goodness that they were utterly and irreversibly evil. I admire Rob Bell for his courage and willingness to make such a claim about a loving God. I hope he is right and that the Spirit is leading us to a fuller understanding of God’s truth. Raise your question Rob, help us all to engage with our faith and wrestle with God as Jacob did and never let us rest on doctrine and dogma.