Why the hell?

I told someone in a coffee shop today that I don’t believe in hell and she thought I might go to hell for that. She wasn’t sure about much theology or even what she believed about God, but she was pretty sure that I was supposed to believe in hell if I was a pastor.

Why the hell? Why did we get shackled to this extra-biblical idea of eternal souls and punishment? It was Jesus who said, “Whoever believeth in me shall not perish but receive everlasting life” right? If everyone already has an everlasting soul, then what kind of promise is Jesus making to Nicodemus in John 3:16? Is everlasting life something we receive or is it something we have already by nature of our humanity? Is “the afterlife” a given for everyone and it’s up to us whether we spend eternity in the bad place or the good place? I don’t think so, but it’s remarkable how much staying power this idea has.

Rob Bell’s book was aight

I just read Rob Bell’s supposedly scandalous book from 2010, Love Wins, which precipitated his departure from his megachurch and his exit form the evangelical mainstream. In the eyes of his critics, the worst thing he did was question this old script of eternal punishment. But I agree with his argument. Without the presupposition of the eternal soul, all of the scripture references to “hell” (Sheol, the grave, Hades, the pit, the lake of fire) can be interpreted very differently. Circle of Hope pastors have considered this here, here, and here. Bell’s book was not a revelation to me. It was, however, an artful, empathetic, and pastoral invitation to an alternate view. I think many people need to hear this Good News, still.

I might join Bell’s critics when he suggests that salvation can come to people through Jesus even if Jesus is not named as their Savior explicitly. He is pegged as a Universalist now. He hints at the possibility that by other faiths and traditions individuals may arrive at a way of being that Jesus desires for everyone. Maybe that is what he is trying to say but I am not sure Rob fits perfectly in that Universalist shoe. It seems to me that Jesus is still very much his personal Savior. But his nuanced language is not definitive enough for most people. Theologians, and Christians in general, seem to want more certitude. There is comfort in certitude. They fear that “mystery” might be the means by which Jesus is depersonalized into the “Force’, or the “Source’, or the “Universe,” or something else that robs him of his proper place. People do abuse “mystery” this way, but not all do, and I don’t think Rob does.

We want some people to go to hell, tho.

Some people find a lot of comfort in the fact that the bad people are going to hell. They need justice to be done, and the only thing bad enough is eternal punishment. Other people find a perverse sort of comfort in the probability that they themselves are going to hell. At least the universe makes sense if bad people (even if that’s me) get what they deserve eventually. I think the idea of hell is comfortable, like a toxic relationship that we don’t have the energy to change or escape. But we don’t get what we deserve–not now and not after we die. Jesus offers us everlasting life as a gift, not a reward for good behavior.

Isn’t this Good News? I don’t have to earn anything. I’m getting off the scale. Measuring up is no longer my goal. My performance is now for art sake, and not for the reviews. I am free. This demand for merit is what made me not free. That cosmic calculus is what made me a slave. This Truth is taking root in me and it has changed and will continue to change my life.

Let’s get some real Good News!

Let’s keep undoing that story about hell and eternal punishment. Jesus came not to condemn the world but to save it. You can receive that salvation and inherit eternal life, or not. If you don’t want a life with God, okay–you don’t have to have it. Why the hell would God die for you so that he could reserve the right to torture you forever? That just doesn’t make sense. And demanding that it make sense undoes all the other Good News that comes with Jesus’ death and resurrection. Judgment day is coming but the verdict has already been given and the sentence has already been served. Punishment itself died with Christ. Now that is Good News! You can have it.