If you’re a Christian who regularly peruses the Web, it’s impossible to have missed the recent brouhaha over a book that talks about hell. The author of the book says he wrote it to address the questions of people regarding hell and the afterlife. Most every review of the book mentions that the book raises more questions than it answers and that its few answers aren’t all that great.
And the battle rages…
A lot of Christians don’t want to talk about their questions about the Bible and their faith. To have the standard theology handed to us and to be left with questions afterward makes Christians uncomfortable. It makes people doubt their faith or question their church or denomination. So people clam up and bury their questions.
I’ve been a Christian for nearly 35 years. In that time, I’ve read countless books on various topics within the Christian faith. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that discussed the issue of hell in a way that didn’t leave me with more questions than answers. I don’t believe I’m alone.
That said, I do hew to the standard of belief that hell is a real place. People will go to hell, which is the worst place imaginable and reflects separation from God. Hell is meant for beings who rebel against God. Jesus Christ is the answer to the question of hell. He is the path that leads away from hell. His death and resurrection made it possible that people who are found in Him will not go to hell.
That may sound simplistic. If it does, I apologize in advance. But I think that when we look at the whole of Christian theology since the passing of the apostles, that brief paragraph adequately covers the majority of what scholars have gleaned from the Bible about hell. On many of the nuances, especially concerning what was left out of that paragraph, you will find considerable questions or disagreements.
One of the struggles I have with understanding hell is that that the two major streams of thought on salvation from hell have some articulation issues that only lead to further questions.
Most Christians believe that God created mankind for His own pleasure. Most believe that mankind sinned by rebelling against God. Questions of justice and love now lead us to ask what happens to the rebels.
Some Christians believe that God sends His Spirit to some people He has selected and that these people will become believers in Jesus and thus avoid hell. They have been chosen by God.
But there is the question of what to do with those God didn’t select. They didn’t ask to be born. They didn’t ask to be in the group that didn’t get chosen. They ended up there by default with no opportunity of getting out of that group. If you’ve ever been passed over by the “team captain” when sides are chosen in a sport, you know what it’s like to be left out because of your deficiencies. Only being left off the team destined for heaven is far, far worse.
Some Christians believe that God sends His Spirit to all people and that people choose to believe in Jesus and thus avoid hell. They choose God.
But there is the question of what kind of choice this is. If I am given the choice of an all-expenses paid trip to Hawaii for eternity or being doused with gasoline and set on fire (even for just a couple minutes), can it be said that I am making a real choice? And is it possible that a person can choose heaven just because it sounds like a great place but at the same time be indifferent to God?
Both positions leave open many, many questions. What about the person who lived in the jungles of South America in AD 500? What about the good person who acknowledges there is one God but doesn’t know about Jesus? Is the only opportunity to come to Jesus available in this life ? Jesus says a lot about people who call Him Lord but who do not do what He asks of them. What about those people?
Those who spend a great deal of time studying the Bible and are wise in interpreting it always caution us to be careful when we try to build entire theologies from a couple verses. Some of the questions in the previous paragraph are briefly addressed in the Bible, but those questions of the “good pagan” and “the spirits in prison” that Paul and Peter discuss respectively have been debated for generations.
I’ve been a Christian for a long time. I still have questions about these issues.
Some people would point to these questions and try to say something negative about the Bible and the Christian faith. That’s a foolish thing to do.
My question is this: What are you and I doing with the indisputable facts about Jesus, the rebellion of sin, and heaven and hell?
Anyone who has been a soldier in a war will tell you that the commands that come down from HQ will tell you all you need to know for the fight. Not every detail will be covered, and at times you’ll need another guide when events play out in battle in ways unanticipated or unique to the fight. Between the commands and the guide, the war is winnable.
Our faith works the same way.
The Bible tells us that hell is a real place. We know that sin exists. We know that Jesus is the answer to questions of both sin and hell.
Now what are we doing about those truths?