What in the Hell?


fires of hell?

Scot McKnight has an intriguing post regarding Sharon Baker’s book Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You’ve Been Taught About God’s Wrath and Judgment. His article here.

After you read these 7 considerations (from Scot’s post), will you please comment here?

1. Theodicy: how does God deal with evil if it, in effect, exists for ever in a hell-state? Does evil not continue to exist, even in spite of the statement in Revelation 21:1-4 that death and suffering will be no more? So, the issue here is squaring God’s goodness with eternal evil.

2. Eternal hopelessness: a traditional hell does not permit any hope after death for anyone, including those who have never heard. Is there a law that says God’s grace can only be active in the temporal sphere — that is, during our physical lifetime?

3. Eternal evil: does not the traditional view entail the view that God never really does purge his world of evil?

4. Justice vs. Love: the issue here is an old one. If God is love, how does justice fit in with that love. Is God ambivalent or split? An image of God that emerges for many is a cruel father who guides people to think of eternal punishment as an act of love.

5. Eternal divine violence: assumptions are that punishment is an act of violence and eternal punishment would mean God is eternally violent. She connects this view of God with acts of violence in history. She thinks God’s violence contradicts God’s love.

6. Retributive justice: again, a major issue is that God’s justice in the Bible — in Christ — is restorative but hell is a belief in a retributive justice that never becomes restorative.

7. Eternal punishment for temporal sin: how can it be just to punish a human being, who sinned temporally — that is over a life time (and no more), for an eternity for that temporal sin?

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15 responses to “What in the Hell?

  1. Wow! I like that. Those are all things I’ve thought, but never put into words that way. Helps me verbalize the very deep-seated, very emotional, very strong feelings I have on this subject. Thanks for sharing, Lisa.

  2. Great to hear from you, Cheryl. Thanks. (We have Scot and Sharon to thank, really). Fascinating topic for sure.

  3. I liked this, as I’ve asked the same questions, and even preached on it. Here’s what I think topic-by-topic:

    1) Gods goodness doesn’t square with evil… that would be why it’s evil. Evil, all sin, is the outworking of our fallen state. God is going to be against any manner and means that are taken to mar his image, of which we are the bearers. He deals with it the way he has dealt with, and showed us how to deal with, anyone that works and continues to work against Him, by separation. That’s the true definition of Hell: separation from God. If you view eternal life as starting from the moment of birth, then this life on earth is either the sharpest hint of Hell, or the lowest ebb of Heaven.

    2)I think we need to be careful with terms like “traditional”. If it weren’t for traditional misunderstandings and misreadings of Scripture we may never have had a Reformation! Is there hope in Hell? No. Because it is permanent and complete. Would we ask if there is the possibility of leaving Heaven forever if we chose not to be there anymore? Will there be sin in Heaven? I dunno that you can ask one side and not flip round the other. It’s like saying free-will and real hope are abandoned in Heaven as well. You can only hope for what you don’t see or don’t know. If there’s a clear sign of what I think is going on, its in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man wants relief… that’s what Hell lacks, but Heaven has in abundance.

    3) Again, I think we need to be careful with traditional. Whose tradition? Are we saying that the existence of Hell means that evil still exists? Because there are still remnants of concentration camps does that infer that the holocaust is ongoing? No. Hell will continue to exist because there is a part of us that will always reflect our maker. Tradition somehoe thinks that we’ll remain ethereal beings without bodies, too, but the resurrection points in quite an opposite direction, doesn’t it? So if there is a point after leaving this world when we take on a body like Christ’s, then it, like his, cannot be destroyed.

    4) I would agree that this is a hard thing to understand and any attempt I make will fall drastically short. Because when I punish my children, that punishment is over at some point. So I cannot see Hell as a punishment in the same way. It’s a life. He gives us over to our desires, and if that means that we decide to leave Him now, then why would He not honor that? It’s like the prodigal… but that the prodigal never has a desire to come back and the Father has no one to run to.

    5) Ah, Carousel, have taught us nothing except to not be afraid when we walk through the storm? How does she see the cross then? Within that violence there was grace and justice and mercy and love… how does she deal with that?

    6) Hell is not a punishment, it’s a place. It’s not a prison… it’s a neighborhood. I see this most clearly when Jesus talks about it… it’s a district outside of town where to live there would have to be by choice.

    7)How can the temporal death of Christ amount to anything that would last beyond that generation of mankind?

    So, not perfect, but there they are, my thoughts.

    6)

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  5. I don’t think any of these questions can be avoided by serious thinkers. And they have been the subject of inquiry since the early Christian era (Origen, for example, had a particular problem with the idea that anything at all could escape the redemptive purposes of God, and proposed that all, including Satan, would eventually be saved).

    I, too, struggle with some of the implications referred to in the questions posed. As with other issues of life and experience which seem at odds with biblical fidelity, we have choices to make. Will we simply say that the Bible is to be taken as it appears (to us, with no regard for original recipients), therefore concluding that what we think or discover independently must be wrong? Will we shunt the Bible aside (respectfully or not), giving greater room for our reasoning to go it’s own enlightened way? Or will we study the scriptures more exhaustively and see if there are other faithful ways to interpret its message?

    The latter approach has led some to consider annihilation as the ultimate destiny of the unredeemed. There is more support than traditionally acknowledged for this view (for example, “destruction” should be taken literally as the ultimate fate of the unrepentant; similarly, a consuming fire does indeed consume). My point is not necessarily to endorse the view, but to see an example of wrestling with the troubling questions posed, and how to understand God in a consistent manner, such that his love does not look like a meaningless concept when observing his actions and hearing his judgments–from scripture.

    At the end of the day, there is mystery. While one should not appeal to it too soon, refusing to acknowledge difficulty, one should not expect to understand all of who God is and what God does. My take is that we should see and reflect on God in Christ ( who did, by the way, speak of judgment in rather harsh terms). But knowing who I am and what I am capable of thinking, I have no claim on His love other than by grace. And I am called to share in it and declare it, not necessarily to explain it.

  6. Point #6 by Warrick is right on the money. That’s what I keep seeing with the hell question. I also appreciate the discussion of what’s “traditional”.

  7. Interesting topic. I’ll just add two cents, I don’t feel I can reflect on all of those considerations. This may be off track, but often when I think about Hell, I believe I approach it with a more materialist mindset, in that I believe that Hell is something that happens here on earth when we fail to follow Christ’s call to compassion, love, nonviolence and forgiveness/reconciliation. I think many times when Jesus is talking about Hell, he is referring to Gehenna (interesting article on wikipedia). In that article it mentioned how some Jews view it as a place of purification, and for some Christians a place that is eternal. I think this is often why our theology needs to inform our biblical studies/interpretation. I believe there is something wrong with the picture of using a metaphysical “hell” to save (scare) people in to following Christ, which I believe really cheapens the gospel. I think what really influences me to answer some of these considerations in a more inclusive manner (maybe leaning toward some universal salvation/reconciliation) is that as Christian we are called to participate in building the kingdom here on earth, which concomitantly should lead us to work creatively against hell on earth, which has been and still is evident (holocaust, poverty, starvation, materialism, war and any other form of violence). It seems like that is what Baker’s book might be trying to get at and it looks very interesting. It is also fascinating to put on a different lens when reading the book of Revelation and see it more as a metaphorical description of the then Roman Empire as well as any empire thereafter. This lens may lead one to see a strong sense of justice interwoven throughout the book.

    So I don’t think my ramblings fell in line with any of those considerations, and so I apologize for that. But those are very tough questions and statements that Christians will have to work through especially when describing one’s beliefs.

    • Look out Princeton, Jason is here! And to think we did some swing dancing to steel pan drums in Trinidad.

      The Gehenna perspective is surely worth further study. Thanks, Jay-

  8. Perhaps I will respond to the 7 points directly:

    1. Theodicy: how does God deal with evil if it, in effect, exists for ever in a hell-state? Does evil not continue to exist, even in spite of the statement in Revelation 21:1-4 that death and suffering will be no more? So, the issue here is squaring God’s goodness with eternal evil.

    This does assume that evil is eternal. I firmly believe that scripture teaches quite clearly as well as interpretively that evil is not – and that actually evil is ever decreasing. When Lucifer was banished from Heaven he took 1/3 of heaven’s angles with him. Those angels (now demons) have been cut off from the source of life…and have been ever since…deteriorating. And, since scripture teaches that The Kingdom of Christ will continue to grow and fill all the earth, that would suggest to me that even before Jesus returns physically to earth His Kingdom on earth will have suppressed if not surpassed the Kingdom of the enemy…for the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

    This also assumes that God and the devil are equal rivals….wow, what a poor understanding of Who God is.

    2. Eternal hopelessness: a traditional hell does not permit any hope after death for anyone, including those who have never heard. Is there a law that says God’s grace can only be active in the temporal sphere — that is, during our physical lifetime?

    I wrote my thoughts on this idea in “The Resurrections” at my blog. I won’t take the time to re-iterate it all here. How does God deal with those who have lived and died without receiving an opportunity to be saved? This would include the millions who die as babies as well as the billions of unbelievers who lived and died never knowing God or Jesus (much less even hearing about Jesus). Regrettably, the vast majority of all those who have ever lived fall into this category. Some theologians suggest that there may be a loop-hole in that their ignorance is because of circumstances beyond their control, God will allow them into heaven regardless of their lack of repentance.

    There is also the argument that they have no reason to be ignorant of God becuase creation testifies of His greatness. While this is true – Jesus says, the only way to the Father is through me. Not through admittance that there is a God…

    3. Eternal evil: does not the traditional view entail the view that God never really does purge his world of evil?

    See my response to #1. This is essentially the same question. 🙂

    4. Justice vs. Love: the issue here is an old one. If God is love, how does justice fit in with that love. Is God ambivalent or split? An image of God that emerges for many is a cruel father who guides people to think of eternal punishment as an act of love.

    This idea is often what drives many highly intelligent people away from Christ. Romans 6:23 says, the wages of sin is death. It does not say – the wages of sin is eternal suffering….a judgment of death (ceasing to exist) is much more just than a judgment of eternal torture….but then, what do we as mere humans even comprehend of justice. I can steal a pencil or murder an innocent person…both are sin and punishable by death in the Court of God.

    5. Eternal divine violence: assumptions are that punishment is an act of violence and eternal punishment would mean God is eternally violent. She connects this view of God with acts of violence in history. She thinks God’s violence contradicts God’s love.

    6. Retributive justice: again, a major issue is that God’s justice in the Bible — in Christ — is restorative but hell is a belief in a retributive justice that never becomes restorative.

    7. Eternal punishment for temporal sin: how can it be just to punish a human being, who sinned temporally — that is over a life time (and no more), for an eternity for that temporal sin?

    Really, these last 3 points are very similar. The question of the eternity of it all. I would suggest that scripture teaches that the judgment of “hell” is once and done….only eternal in that it is final for all eternity. Just as Jesus died for all eternity…once and done, for all eternity….

    (please, stop by and read my critical exegesis on ‘Hell’ posted at my blog….10 posts).

    • Also…I forgot to say:

      Romans 6:23 continues to say that the gift of God is eternal life….

      But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result [of this] is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

    • One of my Hebrew and Biblical studies professors has questioned the “Lucifer” passage, as being a greatly misinterpreted verse, saying it was most likely referring to the King of Tyre. (and going on to say that nearly all common attributions to Satan (Angel of light, etc.) are misappropriated.) I won’t commit fully to this position at this point, nor go into further in this within this comment, but it is quite interesting to look at evil, the problem of evil, hell, and our enemy Satan, by reading the text through the lens that does not weigh those Lucifer references in such a enormous way.
      Thanks, Chris, for taking the time to comment.

  9. Gene Stevenson

    It seems one cannot comment on any of the points above without tumbling into one of many other theological rabbit-holes. I appreciate what Ken said about mystery; Western Christians – especially Protestants – seem to forget that mystery is a viable option.

    My comment is more of a question and is reserved for point #1. Specifically in response to the following query “Does evil not continue to exist, even in spite of the statement in Revelation 21:1-4 that death and suffering will be no more?” I must ask if it’s accurate to treat suffering and death as synonymous with evil, as this question implies? I don’t know that death and suffering are good. They’re certainly not fun to experience. But are they really EVIL? I can think of some redemptive qualities of both. This isn’t to say Revelation is wrong in saying that there will be no suffering and death in Heaven; I trust there won’t be. I just don’t know if we can say they’re equal to evil.

    • I can think of some redemptive qualities of both.

      I can not think of any. While I know that God can and does redeem all things for His Glory, that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose….God does not cause suffering or death. Those are not in Him, and therefore He can not give them away.

  10. Gene,

    So nice to “see you” here! Great food for thought. It’s probably not good to summarily lump suffering and death with evil outright. It is a bit nuanced. Our brothers and sisters of Catholic tradition often considered suffering a gift or honor b/c in it the sufferer is to better identify with Christ–a way the Holy Spirit may employ to sanctify us.