Thursday, January 21, 2010

Why I believe in Hell

Do NOT expect a theological study with scripture references and philosophical justifications for a loving God creating a place of eternal torment.  That is not what this post is about.

Jesus talked about Hell, and I suppose as a follower of Jesus that ought to be enough to justify some kind of blind acceptance for a theologically difficult, and often incongruous belief as eternal judgment from the hands of a loving God.  I suppose in some way Jesus' words are enough for me, but something else has caused me to accept the belief in Hell more deeply in the last few months.

As I look to Jesus' words I find that perhaps his own justifications for the acceptance of a belief in Hell were bolstered by the same justification I have recently embraced.

Jesus appears to speak of Hell most frequently in the presence of the religious elite - the Pharisees, and Sadducees.  My favorite Bible verse on the subject is just such a context, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves." (Matthew 23:15)

The kind of people to whom Jesus is speaking are my most recent self-justification for believing in Hell.  It is NOT Adolf Hitler, although he is certainly high on the list of people who have become justifiable arguments for needing a place like Hell.  Other similar evil world leaders do NOT become my justification.

Like Jesus, my justification for believing in Hell is found in religious leaders.

I live in Boston.  Every day for a couple years, it seemed that the Boston Globe carried the ongoing story of the priest abuse scandal on the front page.  I am convinced there is a Hell.

The same story continues today in Ireland with an ongoing and yet connected Irish priest abuse scandal.  I am convinced there is a Hell.

When worldwide ministries appear to be robbing widows with false promises of healing, prosperity, and miraculous divine favor when in actuality they repeatedly.  These are a few of the things which convince me there is a Hell.

I wonder if these same kind of things convinced Jesus of the existence of Hell.  It works for me.  It is not this wicked world, which convinces that there is a place called Hell.  It is the wickedness found in those who deceive honestly religious people for selfish and sick purposes who convince me there is a place of torment designed by a loving God.


Mike said...

You know, that is quite a convincing argument you've got there. Of course, the nature of that 'hell' would be an interesting discussion. :)



Adam Gonnerman said...

I believe in hell too. Gehenna, the garbage dump outside Jerusalem where the bodies of animals and criminals were thrown, the resting place of many who ultimately rejected Jesus "third way" of non-violent resistance and were slaughtered by Roman armies, as he told them they would be, in 70AD.

There are still Gehenna in the world today. Places of idolatry and human misery, such that should serve as warning signs to the powers that be. As God worked in history toppling unjust kings and exploitative kingdoms, so he still acts today.

And, of course, there will ultimately be the resurrection, judgment and New Heavens/New Earth.

Whew! Got me started!

Pastor Phil said...

Hey Mike,

I thought you might like that one. Perhaps the mature of that Hell is that the fire burns on logs of self-righteous hypocrisy and oppression in the name of religion. :-)

Pastor Phil said...

Hey Adam,

I prefer flaming religious hypocrites to your version. :-O

jjinno said...

I believe in Hell, I think it's a place where we're left to be the god's we've set ourselves up to be... the flames are the destruction that happens as a result of our incapacity. This isn't the place of prostitutes and tax collectors, they know they aren't gods... but I can name a few religious leaders who think they're at least pretty close.

MadPriest said...

I don't think those of us who are rich and stand idly by as millions starve and die in our wars, have the right to question the existence of hell. We are not exactly qualified. The theology of damnation is best left to those who have the right to demand one and if hell is to be discarded then this should be in their gift not ours.

Pastor Phil said...

Nice provocative thoughts on Hell Josh.

Pastor Phil said...

Hey Mad Priest,

You've tapped into the heart of my point here I think. Thanks for a great response.

Mike said...

Thing is, I'd still opt for a concept of hell that was a) not eternal and b) was more about helping people who had got their thinking and behaviour twisted to get straight.... after which they might join everyone who had got things straight. If we're to embrace a concept of forgiveness and reconciliation (and I don't really care about the title on the spiritual path for the inclusion of that concept) then I'd hope that would be something that was consistent in some form of afterlife. People make mistakes and can be too blinded to recognise that they've made them unless they're shown something that removes the blinkers. Perhaps there aren't sufficient powers on the earthly plane for some sets of blinkers. But beyond that plane....

Pat Robertson for example..... He has made rather a lot of silly, self righteous, judgmental statements that have been very annoying and a tad offensive to some people. I don't think he understands that he might be in error, believing that it all falls under that heading that 'Christianity is offensive to those who stubbornly refuse to believe'. It would be good if, as a part of his afterlife experience, he were to be shown his errors in such a way (and by such a power) that he learned that they were errors and felt remorse for those errors. Once he'd done that I don't feel he'd need suffer.

Hitler.... now there's an emotive character! The gut feeling is to want him to suffer as he made millions suffer. That is very understandable. But to what end would that suffering be? If it is eternal suffering then there would BE no end. So wouldn't that just be revenge? Did Hitler really choose to suffer eternally?

I think it is very easy to pass judgment on someone who is in what we would commonly consider a 'sane' state of mind.... someone who is capable of 'rational' thought. But sanity, rationality.... they are relatively transitory states in everyone. Far too easy to make long term judgments on what might not be permanent states or perspectives. Perhaps, even for Hitler there might be something in an afterlife that could produce understanding, remorse, forgiveness and reconciliation. :)



Kieran Conroy said...

Blogger Kieran Conroy said...

Hell is a messy theological quandary, though you've sought to wrestle with it honestly and convincingly Phil. Thanks for your post.

Straight up "wishy washy" universalism has its problems in that it holds NO one accountable. But some sectors of Christianity's oft-2000 year obsession with an almost sadistic torture of the damned, and oft-easy pronouncement of who is going there (despite Jesus' clear warnings to Judge not, if you wish not to be judged) has done some serious damage of its own. It actually starts in the Apocraphal book of 2 Ezra, I believe, you can see the author arguing that Heaven will be better because people will get to enjoy watching others fry. I'm really glad that book didn't make it into the Bible.

There is so much hysteria around Universalism as a theological position that its hard to even discuss these things rationally. But some have argued convincingly there are nuanced ways to argue its possibility from scripture, or something close to it that don't reject notions of sin or even the existance of Hell.

I don't accept easy answers, in fact I tend to trust most of these things to the hands of God, not myself. The treatments of Hell I do seriously wrestle with are not an attempt to minimize sin, but my faith that the grace, and love of God is greater than sin. I am moved by Origin's hope that few, if any could truly reject the love of God if they understood it, with all things stripped away- (Gandalf's line about "the far shores," taken directly from Tolkein's own hand in the Return of the King movie comes closest to my view of what we glimpse dimly through a mirror now... all the pain and things between us and God fading into light and dim memory).

I think the hardest question this discussion should raise for us, honestly is whether the scandal of the Cross allows us to imagine God's forgiveness even being wide enough for the worst offenders in history we can imagine. I'm not convinced there are easy answers here-- but I do believe its important to consider things in humility. I do find a radical vision of God's love is more likely to draw people than self-serving visions of vengeance that scare or scar people's possibility of encountering God's love.

Phil's nuance on the harm of religious abuses is well put, however. Jesus' harshest warnings did seem reserved for those who led people astray through abusive use of sacred teachings they'd been entrusted with, and of people. It echoes some conversations I've had with some native friends, that "abusing the medicine," in the sense of using spiritual gifts to make a quick buck or harm people is seen has having VERY dangerous spiritual consequences. I pray for those who do as well... and for myself, that God will keep me humble and forgive my own failure to use the gifts I've been given as I should.

It is interesting that while he warned much of Hell, Jesus never definitively told any specific person they would be there-- though seemed to have no problem warning of the roads and behaviors that lead there. The only definitive statement he made on any one person was on Heaven, and promising paradise, unexpected to a thief in the last moments of both their lives.

Pastor Phil said...


Your thoughts on an eternal reconciliation are certainly a viable challenge to the concept of an eternal judgment. Not popular in evangelical circles which would often automatically place it into a category of Jesus rejecting heresy.

Yet somehow we are forced to come to a reconciliation of theological concepts: that of Hell and judgment counter-posed against everlasting lovingkindness.

This challenge has remained a theologian's bane for millennia now.

Pastor Phil said...


I am with you on leaving the judgment to God, and in fact leaving even some of my convictions about what I believe is the truth in His hands as well. Somehow there must be the possibility of holding tightly on to God while loosely gripping my own understanding of His universe and workings.

James said...


Interestingly, I had a professor who maintained the claim that all sin was an activity in being your own god. In lieu of accepting the plan God had for you, you chose to do your own thing, therefore being your own god.


While a temporary rehabilitory hell does sound like a nice idea, I don't think it has much of a basis in most religions. I'm not quite sure why that would be, but the consensus on hell seems to be that it is permanent. Does anyone else have any thoughts on that?

More importantly, I would ask, if hell lacked permanence, what would be the purpose of Jesus sacrifice (if you believe that he made one?) What would jesus have been saving mankind from and why would his sacrifice been necessary unless hell was a permanent state?

Mary said...

I've always despised the idea of Hell, especially how it's used to scare people into accepting Christ. I've also always been of the philosophy that what matters now is THIS life, and the quality of it, not the (hypothetical) next one that we know nothing of.

When I became a Christian, I still considered ideas of heaven and hell irrelevant. I'd formed an idea (hugely influenced by the portrait of the "just" man in Plato's Republic) that a moral life was in fact the better and happier life here and now, regardless of any future consequences. I refused to think of heaven and hell as afterlife places. Instead, I thought of them only as metaphors for spiritual states that one can experience here and now in life. It was a long time, really, before I was willing to add a literal heaven to my beliefs, and I still struggle with the notion of a literal hell.

For a while I've been drawn to an idea called Annihilationism. This idea views descriptions of hell found in the Bible as descriptions of a lived spiritual state in this life. At judgement, souls either receive eternal life with God, or eternal death-- they are annihilated. It's eternal because once you cease to be, you don't exist for the rest of forever. The work of Jesus is still hugely necessary, because without his saving sacrifice, we'd all be annihilated.

It's an attractive idea, except for the fact that not all passages can be read this way. Right now I'm thinking of the story of the beggar Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31), a tale told by Jesus. It's difficult to dance around this story and say that Jesus was not speaking of a literal hell. Obviously the moral point is one about greed and indifference to the suffering of others. Righteous endurance of earthly suffering and self-centered greed will be rewarded as each deserves. Even so, it's hard to read this story and still maintain that Jesus wasn't talking about a literal hell.

That's my two cents. Any thoughts?

Pastor Phil said...

Hey James,

Great input. The sacrifice of Christ juxtaposed against temporary Hell is a challenging philosophical hurdle indeed. I agree that it is a bit much to get over.

Pastor Phil said...

Hi Mary,

The annihilation theory has been a popular (or at least well trodden) path in terms of coming to grips with the eternal love versus eternal judgment dilemma. Yet, you are correct tat there are scriptures which make it difficult to read annihilation into.

God never said theology would be simple or even fully conclusive before we stood before Him.

jjinno said...

-"I think the hardest question this discussion should raise for us, honestly is whether the scandal of the Cross allows us to imagine God's forgiveness even being wide enough for the worst offenders in history we can imagine."-

Kieran, on this point, I've always been struck how Jude verse 9 seems to leave open the possibility of redemption for ALL, Even Satan is not beyond the reach of God's grace.

Stephen said...

One must always be on one's guard against those, who for their want of self importance, power and control will attempt imposition their own contrived notions of hell, guilt and shame upon others; often so-called Christians actually doing the "devil's work". The breadth of Gods forgiveness (and we are called to be His instruments) potentially (if not actually) includes the "worst offenders in history", as all have fallen short of the Grace of God (Romans 3:23); so why make the distinction? We surely have no more claim to righteousness over and above anyone else - and further it is not for the likes of any of us to sit in judgement of another assuming the position of a GOD. Given the concluding comment of the last writer, I am reassured that not even he is beyond redemption.