There was something of a spitball fight in the Christian blogosphere last week on the topic of heaven and hell. J. D. Greear of The Gospel Coalition, published a defense of a literal hell of eternal conscious torment entitled “7 Truths About Hell“. Greear is pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh, NC, and has written several books which represent the Neo-Reformed perspective. It is recommended that you read the article, but I will list Greear’s key points below. These are points which Greear claims must frame our discussion of hell:
- Hell is what hell is because God is who God is.
- Jesus spoke about hell more than anyone else in Scripture.
- Hell shows us the extent of God’s love in saving us.
- People are eternal.
- In one sense, God doesn’t send anyone to hell; we send ourselves.
- In another sense, God does send people to hell, and all his ways are true and righteous altogether.
- It’s not enough for God to take us out of hell; he must take hell out of us.
Andrew Perriman, a scholar and writer who blogs at P.OST, has written a point-by-point response entitled “7 Fallacies About Hell“. I will spare you the point-by-point response to Greear, as Perriman has that covered, though, in calling the doctrine of hell “unbiblical”, he goes further than most evangelicals would be comfortable with. Instead, I will offer a couple of truths which I believe ought to frame the discussion, along with some critiques of the Neo-Reformed way of looking at the issue of hell.
–When the Bible talks about the afterlife, it leaves a lot to the imagination. From reading what Scripture has to say on the subject, one can gather that there is a place called heaven, there is a place called hell, and the place called hell is probably not a place you would want to take a girl on a first date. (Unless she’s a really weird girl. But that’s beside the point here…) That’s about it. Much of what we know, or rather, think we know, about heaven and hell comes from Dante and Michelangelo and Thomas Kinkade and not Scripture.
–Heaven and hell don’t mean what you think they mean. Jesus spoke frequently of the judgment of Gehenna, which we conflate with the idea of a literal hell of eternal suffering after death. In reality, Jesus was speaking of the judgment which would come upon Jerusalem and all Israel when the Romans invaded in AD 70. When first-century (and prior) Jews thought of the afterlife they did not envision the categories of heaven and hell as we envision them today. Instead they thought of a coming kingdom when God would return to earth and put right all that is wrong in our world and reign forever in righteousness. Heaven–if you could call it that–was getting to be in on this coming kingdom, while hell–if you could call it that–was being left out.
Does God’s character really demand the existence of a literal hell of eternal suffering? This is usually where the discussion begins and ends in the Neo-Reformed world. God’s perfection cannot tolerate even the slightest sin in his presence. Hell will make us stand agape and agawk at the sheer power and glory and majesty of God.
But will it? Is it really necessary to go along with the script of a literal hell of eternal suffering after death? In the Neo-Reformed world, so many of these issues and questions are framed as an either-or. Either a literal hell of eternal conscious torment, “not one degree hotter than our sins deserve”, or universalism. But are these really the only two options on the table here? Not getting to participate in the coming kingdom of God, whatever that entails, is a huge deal.
There is a viewpoint called annihilationism which seems to be gaining traction lately. This is the idea that, instead of going to a literal hell of eternal suffering after death, those who rebel against God will simply cease to exist. Think about it, people. Not existing any more after you die, that’s a pretty big deal. To think that everything you are, everything you have ever done or experienced in life, will simply vanish into nothing–that’s a huge deal.
In the final analysis, I think the real issue here with respect to heaven and hell is an issue of the heart. It seems that way too many Christians feel what can best be described as glee over the prospect of a hell where people who reject God will spend all of eternity. Even those who, as Greear does at the beginning of his piece, claim to struggle with the idea of hell, usually just wind up going along with the party line. But this isn’t just an evangelical thing, or even a Christian thing. Every religion that teaches the existence of some version of heaven and hell has adherents who believe or want to believe that they are going to heaven and everybody else is going to hell. Even atheists who do not believe in anything remotely resembling God, heaven, or hell still share the impulse to believe or want to believe that they are right and all the rest of us poor fools who have to believe in some sort of religion are simply deluded and messing everything up for the rest of us.
When the Bible mentions the afterlife, it leaves a lot of blanks to fill in. When it talks of heaven and hell, it does not necessarily mean what you think it means. Much of what we think we know about heaven and hell comes from Dante and Michelangelo and Thomas Kinkade and not Scripture. Can we at least be honest enough to accept that?