Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Case for Hell?

Several days ago, conservative blogger Ross Douthat wrote a piece for the New York Times called A Case for Hell. According to Douthat, belief in hell is diminishing among religious Americans. This is evidenced by the enormous media attention recently received by Rob's Bell's new book, Love Wins", and its subsequent popularity. Douthat suggests there are two primary reasons for the waning influence of hell. First is escalating religious pluralism. In the United States, where Christianity claims the most adherents by far, more and more people are struggling with the condemnation of their non-Christian friends and neighbors to an eternal hell solely for "wrong belief". Second is that "our sense of outrage at human suffering...has grown sharper". With the recognition of how terrible suffering can be and how wide-spread it is in the world today, it becomes more problematic for people to believe in a God who subjects some of His own children to even more heinous suffering in hell.

For the most part, I agree with Douthat on why belief in the concept of hell is shrinking. Earlier in American history, Christianity was practically universal except in urban sectors. In rural areas of the country, it was possible to live your entire life with little or even no interaction with non-Christians. With the advent of globalization, Americans were increasingly exposed to people from various religious traditions outside Christianity. Today, new technology has allowed news to travel around the world in a matter of minutes. Wars, political strife, famines, and natural disasters we wouldn't have been aware of 200, or even 100, years ago are now available at the push of a button on our phones or computers.

Of course, I believe the rise in those who are rejecting hell is a fantastic development. Douthat, on the other hand, does not. He believes that:

Doing away with hell...threatens to make human life less fully human. [...] [T]o believe in God and not hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices. If there is no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no's have any real meaning either. [...] In this sense, a doctrine of universal salvation turns out to be as deterministic as the more strident forms of scientific materialism. Instead of making us prisoners of our glands and genes, it makes us prisoners of God himself. We can check out any time we want, but we can never really leave.

The doctrine of hell, by contrast, assumes that our choices are real [...] The miser can become his greed, the murderer can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so.
Basically, Douthat thinks that, without a hell, our choices have no significance because there is neither punishment for our sins nor a way for an individual to truly reject God. While Douthat makes a valid point, I believe he has misunderstood the beliefs of universal salvation.

Yes, the doctrine universal salvation does affirm that all souls will eventually be reunited with God, and I am a staunch believer in that doctrine. But, it does not indicate that our negative choices have no consequences or that it is impossible to repudiate God. Universal salvation merely asserts that hell is not of an eternal duration, not that it does not exist not exist. Actually, I, and most advocates of universal salvation that I know, do believe in some form of hell where sins are punished, although the form this hell takes varies widely.

I do not believe in eternal punishment because there is no finite crime an individual can commit that is deserving of eternal punishment. Nor do I believe that God punishes a person out of wrath or a sense of revenge. Those are human weaknesses. But, as I said, I do believe in punishment. You cannot live a life of evil and selfishness without consequences. Instead, I believe God punishes in order to redeem a person, just as a loving parent must sometimes punish their child in order to help them mature into a good person. Our all-loving God uses rehabilitative, spiritual correction, not eternal, physical torture in order to help us become the people we were created to be.

Since I do believe in a form of hell, I also believe it is possible for a person to reject God. God does not coerce anyone to come to Him against their will. A forced relationship is beyond worthless; it is anathema. An individual is free to rebuff God for as long as they desire. Theoretically, they are free to reject God forever, if they so choose. However, as a believer in universal salvation, I believe that God will never give up and abandon anyone. He will never cease pursuing and attempting to guide and comfort those who have rejected Him. I am a universalist because I believe God's love will ultimately triumph and that He will eventually convince every soul to come home.

Personally, I think Douthat's belief in hell "makes us prisoners of God". How can there be any legitimate meaning behind your choices when you have the threat of everlasting damnation hanging over your head? If you honestly believe in the reality of endless, conscious, and physically agonizing torture for all those who believe or act "wrong", all of your "right" beliefs and "right" actions will be done out of fear, not free choice. How could any of your actions be considered "good" if you are only doing them to avoid eternal hell? Would you genuinely love God and desire a relationship with Him, or would you only be pretending so that you would not be thrown into the fiery pit of unending and relentless torment?

Such a dilemma reminds me of an image Bruce at Fallen from Grace (an awesome blog, by the way, and highly recommended) posted yesterday:

Universal salvation does not make us prisoners. On the contrary. By freeing us from the fear of unending hell, universal salvation frees us to choose our own path. 


  1. For me, hell was steal motivator. Fear of hell fueled the fires of evangelism. Not only did I not want to go to hell neither did I want anyone else to go there.

    A relationship based on fear is no relationship at all. Love is what motivates me now. Granted my list of hell deserving sins has shrunk greatly. :)

    Love your blog, Sammy

  2. Sammy, for me belief in hell as it is commonly presented just fell away once I saw that God is One - there is no separation in God. So, just as Scripture says, nothing can ever separate us from the love of God - we only think in our carnal (egoic) mind that we're separated from God. When we live in ignorance of our Oneness with God, we desperately try to preserve ourselves. I see all so-called "sins" as misplaced efforts to keep ourselves safe, secure, and happy. I think the warnings about "hell" are warnings about the consequences we reap in our lives here and now when we live in this sense of separation (self-centered ways).

    That's why Jesus preached, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" Repentance simply means change of mind. We are never alienated from God, we just "think" we are. If we could just realize our unity with the Ground of All Being, those "sinful" behaviors would just fall away, too, and we'd see that the kingdom of heaven is truly at hand - so close we can reach out and touch it, live in it.

  3. Glad to have found your blog.

  4. I just believe what the Bible says, that hell is a real place that lasts forever for those who reject Christ.

  5. You keep saying "I believe...I believe..." but it would be good if you could provide Scriptural support, otherwise, they are just your personal opinions.

  6. @Anonymous- While I think that the Bible contains much wisdom, I also think it is a book written by imperfect men who had their own flaws and prejudices. As to what the Bible says about hell, there are many well respect Biblical scholars who agree with me and dozens of verses in the Bible which support the idea of universalism. If you are interested in checking them out, here is a good place to start.

    @AT- First off, as I mentioned above, there is tons of scriptural support for universalism. If you want more than the link I provided above, I can recommend dozens of sites and books written by Biblical scholars which analyze verses which support universalism and verses which seem to support eternal punishment in hell.

    Second, and with all do respect, I could say that your beliefs, whatever they may be, are just opinions as well. I am assuming (and I apologize if this assumption is incorrect) that you consider your beliefs (again, whatever they may be) are correct because they are supported by the Bible. Why? Because you BELIEVE the Bible, in its entirety, is the infallible word of God. It's a BELIEF (i.e., a personal opinion), not a fact. And the argument "The Bible is the infallible word of God because the Bible says so" doesn't work. That's circular logic. That does not mean your beliefs are wrong (although I disagree with the idea of an infallible Bible), it just means you cannot prove them.

    So, your beliefs are just as much a personal opinion as my beliefs. Both of us base our beliefs on ideas that, at there very core, are unprovable.