“As I passed the fire I did not know whether it was Hell or the furious love of God.” — G.K. Chesterton
The debate over hell has been renewed as of late in the evangelical world due at least partially to celebrity pastor Rob Bell’s recent book Love Wins, in which he makes a case for postmortem salvation—that people can choose Christ even after they die. Bell makes a case for universalism, the belief that all people, regardless of how they lived their lives or what they believed on earth, will eventually be saved by the all-encompassing and never-failing love of God. In the end, God’s love wins.
Universalism is certainly a much more palatable belief about hell than say, eternal conscious torment, especially if one maintains the Calvinist position that God Himself predestines many people to experience such fate. But I don’t think neither universalism or eternal conscience torment reflect a balanced position of God’s essence and how He responds to (fully able) human beings who refuse to accept His grace here and now. (We shall leave children who die prematurely and people with disabilities out of the equation for now, as I believe this is a special case which requires a whole other discussion in itself.)
To begin the discussion, I think it’s important to first establish what I believe to be God’s core nature. Without this vital piece, I don’t believe we can start the discussion about hell.
God’s nature as love
I’ve written about God’s nature numerous times and you can find my view in a previous post here on my blog called “Captured by the biblical God of passionate love.” I take my approach from theologians Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jürgen Molmann.
The Bible proclaims that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). And Christianity asserts that central to God’s love is Jesus. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “where Jesus is, there is God’s love.” Not only is Jesus “the concrete executor of God’s love,” says Bonhoeffer, but He is God incarnate—”in Christ the fullness of Deity lives in bodily form” (Col 2:9).
In the death and resurrection of Jesus, God voluntarily collides with the broken reality of our world. In this Christ event, God absorbs humanity’s sin and triumphs over the forces of death and evil. The God of the Bible is not the unmoved-mover of Greek philosophy. Rather, He voluntarily suffers for human beings because He is moved with compassion for our pain and loss.
In his book, The Crucified God, Jürgen Moltmann writes, “The nucleus of everything that Christian theology says about ‘God’ is to be found in this Christ event…Here he himself is love with all his being.”
If the Bible states that God is love, that is, that love is the absolute definition of God’s nature, than God must be open to suffering. Moltmann adds,
…a God who cannot suffer is poorer than any man. For a God who is incapable of suffering is a being who cannot be involved. Suffering and injustice do not affect him. And because he is so completely insensitive, he cannot be affected or shaken by anything. He cannot weep, for he has no tears. But the one who cannot suffer cannot love either. So he is also a loveless being.
If God is not open to suffering, than He cannot love. If God is love, than He must be open to suffering–He must be moved by human pain and our cries for help. Passionate love defines the God of the Bible. This love, found in the Person and work of His Son Jesus, is what moves God to offer concrete salvation to a world collapsing under the realities of sin, evil and death.
“Only the consummate love of God is capable of encountering reality and overcoming it,” says Bonhoeffer.
God’s love is unfathomable, extraordinary, relentless and superlative. It is second to none in all existence. But we mustn’t forget that God also uses wrath to fulfill His purposes in the world. Were not talking about wrath that flows from the heart of an angry and merciless dictator, but rather, wrath the flows from a just and kind Father.
God’s wrath stems from His love and desire to set the world right.
Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism, thought about it this way: God holds love in His right hand, and wrath in His left. But He is right handed.
Yes love, Luther maintained, is God’s “proper work,” that which flows most naturally (and comfortably) from His core being in relation to humanity. But sometimes, and when necessary—when the world needs to be set right—God switches hands and uses wrath to bring justice into the world. But wrath is not God’s proper work. Rather, Luther contends that wrath is God’s “alien work”— wrath is alien to God’s core nature.
So God doesn’t use judgement lightly, nor does He find pleasure or comfort in punishing human beings for their sins and evil ways. Rather, God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4).
And while God’s love is superlative in every way, we can’t minimize or dismiss the seriousness of sin and every evil that it breeds. Human sin and the demonic powers of this world that use sin to inspire egregious evil and injustice in their war against God is an absolute infection and affront to the goodness of creation and the good news of Jesus.
I believe that because human beings have lived under sin for so long, that we have been desensitized to it’s many forms and facets, causing us in our minds to minimize or outright deny it’s egregious and utterly infectious consequences to God’s very good creation.
I believe God is deeply offended by sin. But even more than that, I believe it hurts God’s heart that His children and creation are suffering so much under the weight of sin and evil. And we are told in Scripture, that when God made the decision to pour out His wrath and cleanse the world of sin and evil through the flood (His left hand, alien work), that He “was sorry he had ever made [human beings] and put them on the earth. It broke his heart.” (Gen 6:6).
And while it still breaks His heart to see our human condition after the flood, God choose to respond with concrete love (His right hand, proper work) by sending Jesus to save us from our sins and promise new life to us through the death and resurrection of His Son. But this love of God for us seen in Jesus is very costly to Him. Our forgiveness from sin came at a high cost because of the seriousness of sin. God’s grace is costly.
This notion of costly grace comes directly from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology of the cross. In Bonhoeffer’s book, Discipleship, he explains:
Above all, grace is costly, because it was costly to God, because it costs God the life of God’s Son – ‘you were bought with a price’ – and because nothing can be cheap to us which is costly to God. Above all, it is grace because the life of God’s Son was not too costly for God to give in order to make us live. God did, indeed, give him up for us. Costly grace is the incarnation of God.
Just as we are prone to minimize the seriousness of sin in or our desensitized fallen state, we also fail to recognize just how costly it was to God to send Christ on His saving mission of suffering love. And so, although sin is a serious matter, I propose that we need to take God’s costly grace even more seriously for it has saved us from an unbearable and hopeless future. We call this Hell.
My view of Hell
My understanding of hell is inspired by the views of John G. Stackhouse Jr. In the book, Four Views of Hell, he states: “Any doctrine [of Hell]…must give fully adequate attention to both God’s fierce holiness and God’s fervent affection, God’s justice and God’s generosity.”
Because the essential nature of God is fierce and compassionate love, I do not believe hell can be (or is) a place where God sends unrepentant sinners for eternal conscious torment. Only a merciless, unstable, and violent dictator would be capable of such evil. Donald Trump may be into torture, but God is certainly not and cannot be since He is defined by love and all the goodness that flows from His core nature in relation to human beings.
With that being said, we also know that God uses wrath to accomplish His purposes to set the world and cosmos right. And in Christ, both God’s love and justice is poured out through the crucifixion and resurrection to accomplish God’s eschatological mission of renewal. When we put our trust and hope in Christ, we receive God’s unfathomable love and escape God’s just wrath. The former results in eternal life with God, the latter results in spiritual death (Romans 6:23). Without Christ, God’s wrath still remains on people, which means that God must justly allow for their spiritual death in the end, for they cannot adequately or successfully atone for their sins.
The Bible plainly tells us that hell means spiritual death. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). And so, if universalism were true, if there was really a possibility for postmortem salvation, God would not be just, and their would be no need for the death of Christ to justify anyone in this life. It’s all fine and well to say that God’s core nature is love, but to dismiss His just wrath for those who reject His costly grace here and now is to turn God into a divine enabler of sin and evil.
Hell is spiritual death. It is God’s postmortem justice towards those who willingly reject His costly grace. Stackhouse calls this “terminal punishment.” Terminal punishment, says Stackhouse, is the “view that hell is the situation in which those who do not avail themselves of the atonement made by Jesus in his suffering and death must make their own atonement by suffering and then death, separated from the sustaining life of God and thus disappearing from the cosmos.”
The view that hell is eternal conscious torment turns God into heartless divine dictator. It also doesn’t align with God’s eschatological mission and what the Bible says about the coming cosmic renewal where there will be no more pain, evil or suffering.
The view that hell does not exist, in that there will be universal salvation for everyone in the end, does not align with scripture’s insistence that sin requires the just consequence of spiritual death. It too does not align with what the Bible says about God eschatological mission of cosmic renewal. The new creation depicted in Revelation requires spiritual death—it requires God to cleanse the cosmos from both evil satanic powers and those humans who didn’t avail themselves to Christ’s atonement.
So there we go. Hell in a nutshell from my perspective. You may agree or disagree. And I would love to hear from you either way.
To wrestle with the issues yourself, I would encourage you to grab the book 4 Views of Hell.